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It's Time to Take the Black Male Achievement Crisis Seriously

We know the statistics, but what will it take for us to fully commit to implementing the changes needed to solve the crisis?

Despite the dire statistics on how the education system fails black males—only 50 percent of them graduate from high school—the issue generally isn't addressed with a sense of urgency. So veteran broadcaster Tavis Smiley has committed to spending the next year asking tough questions and finding solutions to the problem. He kicked off the effort last night with "Too Important to Fail," an hour-long PBS special featuring interviews with education experts and black male students in Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Los Angeles.

School administrators and experts told Smiley that one of the biggest reasons for the achievement crisis is that schools have to teach academic content while simultaneously addressing a myriad of issues—poverty, health care, student homelessness, and neighborhood violence—all without adequate resources. Arlene Ackerman, former superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools, said Philadelphia's Promise Academies, which are funded by the Obama Administration's Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, have produced a "dramatic improvement" in achievement, in part because they have the money to make interventions happen.

With students who are growing up in poverty, don't have safe housing, or have seen siblings murdered, the interventions at the Promise Academies—extended school days, extracurricular activities, and extra counselors, nurses, and social workers—are essential. However, only $30 million in funding for four to six additional Promise Neighborhoods programs has been allocated. Draconian cuts to school district coffers have made replicating those kinds of interventions on a larger scale nearly impossible.

Nearly every expert featured on Smiley's program also emphasized early literacy interventions as a critical piece of ending the dropout crisis. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago-based education expert who focuses on closing the black achievement gap, believes black boys have to learn to read well before third grade, the year schools generally stop teaching the nuts and bolts of literacy. He told Smiley that if black boys "haven’t mastered reading by first grade, then they have less than a 20 percent chance of graduating" from high school. Kunjufu also noted that while black boys tend to be disproportionately placed in special education, 80 percent are there because of a reading deficiency.

Part of the problem with teaching boys to read, regardless of their racial background, is that schools don't adjust for the fact that research shows they don’t learn at the same pace as girls. Much of the literature found in schools also doesn't click with many boys because it doesn’t cover topics they’re interested in. And, Kunjufu told Smiley, "Black boys do not see themselves in assigned reading and too many history texts ignore the contributions of people of color," so they check out.

Kunjufu also pointed to the lack of black male representation in America's teaching force as a problem. With white women making up 83 percent of teachers nationwide, compared to only 1 percent black males, black boys don't have role models in schools that look like them. Tim King, CEO of Urban Prep, the all-black male charter school famous for sending 100 percent of its first class of graduates to college, told Smiley that he doesn’t "do race-based hiring," but black men want to work there because it has a reputation for being supportive. King said having so many black men on his staff is important because it allows students "to see different types of black men getting along," and serves as a counter to images of black men "in combat" on the streets and in the media.

Building relationships with black boys is another oft-overlooked component to solving the crisis. "The easiest thing is to run a young man out of your classroom instead of trying to figure out how to work with them," William Wade, principal of Philadelphia's Roberts Vaux Promise Academy, said on the program. Two high school students, Brandon Rose and Jamill Jackson, told Smiley how they'd been in trouble prior to coming to Wade's school, so Smiley asked them what allowed them to become good students. Jackson's answer reflects the relationships he has with the school staff: "They listen. I can talk. They can hear my side of the story."

Indeed, the implication throughout the special is that the education world needs to care more about black boys. Do we truly believe they're too important to fail? As Smiley concluded, educating black boys can only create a better America, so it's to everyone's benefit to demand some action around this crisis.

photo via (cc) Flickr user John Steven Fernandez

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