LEGL 4500/6500 - Employment Law

Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander, Esq.

Terry College of Business

University of Georgia

Are schools failing black boys?

Celeste Fremon & Stephaine Renfrow Hamilton

By fourth grade many African American boys are already falling behind in the classroom. Our report examines what’s happening, what can be done, and why it should matter to all of us.


Imagine for a moment that you live in a land where a number of the citizens have purple hair. Now suppose that most non-purple-haired people feel a little uneasy about the grape-haired folk, especially the males. And what if the vague prejudice extended even to little boys in school, who, because of the color of their hair, were apt to hear both these messages regularly: Purple-haired boys aren’t as smart as normal-haired boys; they also need stricter discipline-after all, look at all the purple-haired criminals on TV. Suppose teachers went so far as to relegate some of these kids into separate classrooms so that they didn’t interfere with the learning of others.

Now imagine that you have a purple-haired boy of your own-a terrific kid whose intelligence and potential shine clearly. But after a few years in grade school, the light of his enthusiasm for learning is beginning to dim. His teachers say it’s his fault-that he can’t do the work, won’t stay on task, has a learning disability, rotten attitude, bad habits, you name it. What would you do?

As implausible as it sounds, this parable is all too real for some African American families with boys in the nation’s public schools. Granted, not every black make student is in every learning environment suffers these biases, nor is every problem of the schools’ making: The more fortunate students receive enough love, encouragement, and support at school, at home, or in their communities to achieve in spite of the odds (see examples of such kids in "Voices of Hope" on the following pages).

But some black boys do not. Far too many confront a stifling kind of bias that destroys their interest in school, according to a growing chorus of educators and activists. This prejudice can have hurtful consequences: cultural insensitivity, lowered expectations, unduly harsh discipline, and the systematic shunting of African American boys into remedial or special education classes.

Although the hardships some black male students face are not insurmountable, these problems must first be understood before they can be solved.

The Downhill Slide

A 1990 study of more than 105,000 students in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, where African Americans made up about 65 percent of the enrollment, showed that black male pupils performed comparably to boys and girls of all races on first- and second-grade standardized math and reading test. But by fourth grade, African American boys experienced a sharp decline in their scores. More recent national studies have shown similar findings: In 1994, fourth-grade reading scores of African American boys lagged behind those of all other groups at the same grade level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

It’s sobering to think that any group of kids as young as eight or nine years old can lose interest in school. But a number of experts have been making this observation about black boys for more than two decades. (Although the performance of black girls also declines around the same age, the dip isn’t nearly as pronounced and is often recouped in later years, researchers say.)

"I first saw the drop-off syndrome when I started working in school development back in the late sixties," says Dr. James Comer, director of the Yale Child Studies Center and an educator who has been in the forefront of black child development and school reform for nearly 30 years. "It was especially noticeable among students from low-income families, boys in particular."

Why do boys flounder more? "Around third and fourth grade, there’s a shift in the way teachers instruct kids," says Harry Morgan, an early childhood development professor at the State University of West Georgia who has also spent over 29 years training teachers and conducting research on classroom behavior and learning styles. "In the earlier years, teachers encourage social interaction," he says, "but by the fourth grade, classrooms become more of a static, lecturing environment."

This change in teaching approach, from an informal, learning-by-doing style to the more structured, sit-down-and-listen setup, is toughest on male students, who tend to be more active than girls in the elementary grades. And for black boys, a teacher’s reactions to these high energy levels may be compounded by racism.

"There’s often an undercurrent of fear or tension between black male students and many white teachers, and even some black ones," says Morgan, who served as one of the early developers of Project Head Start in 1965. "This fear can be triggered over something as minor as a black boy walking around the room. On some subliminal level, the teacher is afraid to have even a very young black male defy the simplest rule. She’s afraid his defiance will escalate."

Since some teachers are likely to resent a student who doesn’t seem able to sit still and cooperate, a troubled relationship can easily develop; the child might be perceived as a troublemaker or a slow learner, for instance. By fourth grade, this child may have already given up on school, especially if he hasn’t yet learned to read, according to Spencer Holland, an educational psychologist in Washington, D.C.

"Most fourth-grade teachers approach their curriculum based on the assumption that their class is full of readers," he says. "So if a child isn’t literate by then, the new teacher isn’t going to go back and teach him how to read, because she’s hamstrung by her own curriculum."

Nothing Expected, Nothing Granted

In one of the largest studies of black male students ever conducted, New Orleans public schools found that while eight out of ten black parents believed their sons expected to go to college, only four out of ten teachers believed their black male students would receive a higher education.

As a rule, children tend to live up-or down-to adult expectations, and it doesn’t take very long for students to detect how much or how little is expected of them. In the New Orleans study, for instance, 58 percent of the 5,423 black boys who responded said they believed that their teachers should push them harder, and 34 percent said their teachers didn’t set high enough goals for them. More than half of these boys were only in grades four through six.

When it comes to expectations of black boys, some African American parents believe that stereotypes creep into many teachers’ perceptions. Last year, Keith Jenkins was a newcomer at a public elementary school in an Atlanta suburb. For the first few weeks, Keith, a large ten-year-old with a baby face and a disarming smile, would stay late to help his math teacher. "I want to be an engineer or a podiatrist," Keith would tell him. The instructor always seemed to reply obliquely before changing the subject: "Why don’t you go out for sports?" he’d ask.

"Keith kept complaining to me that the teacher only wanted to talk about football," says his mother, Debra. Over time, the teacher’s continued dismissal of Keith’s real interests upset the boy. "It’s like he doesn’t want me to be smart or something," he would tell his mother unhappily. "Like I should be playing sports because I am black." [Fearing reprisal, Debra wouldn’t reveal the name of Keith’s teacher, who may have been unaware of the effect his remarks had on Keith.]

Soon Keith no longer stayed after school, and in a few months, the normally sunny-natured child began telling his mom that he had to lose 30 pounds. "I’m too big," Keith would tell his mom. "If I’m skinny, they won’t pressure me to play. I can just be myself."

A lot of teachers, his mother believes, hold fast to certain assumptions about how black male students are supposed to behave. "If they have a kid who doesn’t fit into their stereotype, they put that kid down," she says.

And even when teachers do convey their expectations about academic potential, many African American parents and experts say, the message is equally discouraging: “It’s as if teachers already know that society has decided these boys aren’t going to make it," says Morris Jeff, former president of National Association of Black Social Workers, "so they don’t put forth the same kind of effort for black boys as they do for other students."

Dawn Holmes, the mother of two boys in a large New Jersey town, found herself taking exception to this defeatist approach. For two years in a row, Holmes scheduled conferences with her son’s math teachers because he has received C’s on his eighth- and ninth-grade report cards. "Both times the teachers told me that C’s were just fine for Timothy," says Holmes. "I told each of them that in our house, C’s were not fine." Holmes eventually enrolled Timothy in a tutoring program, and by the end of the ninth grade, her son was earning A’s and B’s again. "I hate to say it, but I can’t help but think the teachers’ attitudes were race-related."

Asked to recall this parent conference, Timothy’s ninth-grade math instructor wasn’t able to speak to specifics. "I can’t comment on the incident because I don’t remember it," she says, "but if a student is doing his absolute best and this grade is a C, then that grade is satisfactory regardless of his color."

The New Segregation

Eight percent of the children in America’s public school are black boys, yet their representation in the nation’s special education classes is nearly twice that: 15 percent. African American males are also three times likely as white males to be enrolled in special education programs for "mildly to moderately mentally retarded," according to a 1992 report released by the Office of Civil Rights.

"When the schools were integrated, we thought many of our problems would be solved," says Michele March, the mother of two and a community organizer who helped conduct a city-funded study on institutional racism in Teaneck, New Jersey, three years ago. "We trusted the system. Now we know we were wrong. I see case after case of black boys being tracked automatically into lower level classes or put into the special education department where they don’t belong. Just because African American boys are in the same school as white kids doesn’t mean that they’re getting the same education."

Marcia James, a resource specialist teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, also believes that black boys are too often misdiagnosed as learning impaired. "In most cases, these are kids who the teachers consider behavior problems," says James. "Putting them in special ed is just a way to get rid of them."

In many instances, a black boy referred to special education simply has a different learning style, says James. "He may be more of an auditory or a tactile learner," she explains. "Or he may have some problems at home that are hampering him." Such a child might also be cognitively above average, she adds, "but because his needs aren’t being addressed in class, he isn’t learning. So he acts out because he’d rather be considered bad than dumb. At least if you’re bad, you have some power."

But what often passes for racism is in reality frustration, other teachers maintain. "If 4 or 5 kids are always causing problems in your class, it’s not fair to the remaining 20 students," says Patricia Thurman, a white sixth-grade teacher in Minneapolis. So the troublemakers are frequently referred to special ed. "What else are you going to do?" she says. "You can either be their teacher or their therapist. You can’t be both."

Regardless of the reason for such referrals, the fact that African American children, particularly boys, are consigned to special education classes far out of proportion to their numbers has disturbing implications, according to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  In a 1992 report, OCR researchers found that the high proportion of minority student referrals to special education classes may amount to a kind of "within-school segregation." And although special ed programs do provide some children with an appropriate education, the report goes on to say that misclassifying students may effectively strip them of their civil rights by denying them access to a core curriculum. In short, a student who is unnecessarily placed in special education is not likely to get his needs met. Such a child may soon feel discouraged and trapped and is likely to act out, or perhaps even drop out, later on.

The Flap Over Discipline

African American males in primary and secondary schools were suspended more than twice as often as white males in 1992, according to the Office of Civil Rights.

If national statistics paint a bleak picture of suspensions for African American boys, some district-level figures are even more revealing: In the Minneapolis school system, for instance, enrollment of black and white males is nearly the same, but 43 percent of all students suspended during the 1995-96 school year were black males-as opposed to 14 percent who were white males. And more black boys were suspended in this city for lack of cooperation and disrespect than for various categories of fighting, profanity, and verbal abuse put together.

"I think a lot of these suspensions have as much to do with class, cultural, and even linguistic differences as they do with race," says Luis Ortega, the principal of Folwell Middle School, a mixed inner-city campus in Minneapolis. "I don’t think many teachers understand the language of poverty, the ways these kids communicate, so they tend to take it as disrespect. Disrespect is something you don’t want to tolerate, but we adults have a lot of work to do in the area of listening to young people."

Derrick Hall is a curly-haired 11-year-old with dark brown eyes and a budding interest in racquetball and golf. When Derrick was in the third grade at an upper-middle-class suburban school in southeastern Texas, a handful of white classmates began taking his backpack and hiding it. Derrick told his parents, who advised him to report the incidents to his teacher. Derrick dutifully told the teacher, but she failed to step in, his father says.

One day, Derrick reached the end of his patience: he hid the backpacks of four of the boys who’d been picking on him. After the white kids found out, they complained to the teacher, who in turn sent Derrick to the principal’s office. When Derrick came home with a discipline slip his parents were outraged. Derrick was, after all, an honor student who they say had never been a behavior problem in school. "We were concerned that the school was going to start a whole discipline file on our son based on this minor incident," says Derrick’s father. Eventually the Halls convinced the school to not write Derrick up.

The school principal said she vaguely remembers the incident but refused to comment on the particulars or on any broader issue of discipline. "Our school does not have a significantly high black population," she says, "so I don’t think that we’re representative of the rest of the nation."

In Minneapolis, an African American mother of an eight-year-old recounts how she got a phone call at work from her son’s second grade teacher last fall. "The teacher had my son in the office with her, and she was hysterical," the mom recalls. Apparently, her son had been talking to a fellow student while class was in progress and had been asked repeatedly to quiet down. When that didn’t work, the teacher put him on time-out and admonished him once again to settle down. The students laughed at her, hence the phone call.

"I think it was a nervous laugh because the teacher had probably embarrassed him in front of the class, but once he saw the power his laughter gave him, he used it for all it was worth and told her it was a free country," the mother says. "In no sense does my son’s imagination justify his actions, but I think the teacher was upset far out of proportion to the incident."

After the phone call, the boy’s mother made it a point to write the teacher a note every week in order to develop a rapport with her; doing so, she says, helped her son see that she and the teacher could work together to improve his behaviors: "I didn’t want my son to be put in a corner, in that category black boys get put into-bad, aggressive, and dumb," she says.

Dire reactions to small infractions are not unusual for black boys in the public schools, says Claude Steele, a social psychologist at Stanford University. "The same kind of behavior that might be dismissed as a one-time setback in a white kid," says Steele, "will be taken as more serious and chronic in the case of a black male."

This uneven treatment, says Steele, can easily set off a downward spiral of events. "A black student acts out once and is disciplined over and above what the act would reasonably require. In response to how he’s treated, the kid acts out again," he says. "Now the teacher sees the acting out as a justification for her original assumption. Then, once he’s started to behave badly, he may begin to hang around with other students who also behave badly."

Clearly, though, many teachers don’t buy notions that black students are treated differently when they misbehave. If the discipline of black male students is disproportionate to their numbers, says Minneapolis teacher Thurman, it’s because the boys’ behavior warrants it: "Parents tend to see what they want to see," she says, "but I see a lot of aggressive, off-task behavior. Obviously these children are bringing to school what they have learned at home."

Fifth-grade mentor-teacher Susan Glass of Lakeland, Florida, adopts a similar no-nonsense approach to disciplining students, no matter what their color. "I’ve had parents march into my classroom with an NAACP lawyer to tell me I am racist," she says. "I tell them I’m only prejudiced against bad behavior. I expect a child to come in prepared to learn, and if he doesn’t, I have no qualms about hurting his feeling."

Other educators contend that some of the problem between teachers and black male students stem more from ignorance than malice. "For many teachers, the classroom represents the first time they’ve ever had close interaction with black boys," says Jawanza Kunjufu, a national educational consultant in Chicago and the author of a series of books on childrearing and education. "So sometimes they may have problems with the way a seven-year-old might walk or wear his pants, and they make assumptions that this child will be difficult."

From Problem to Solution

What does the future hold for African American boys who are struggling in our nation’s classrooms? Without help from caring adults at home, in the community, and in the schools, those black boys may never be able to rediscover their sense of wonder about learning-indeed, their sense of hope. When that happens, the entire nation loses: "School failure can lead to life failure-including dependency and crime and all the things we don’t want to have to pay for as a society," says James Comer of the Yale Child Studies Center.

Concerned educators, activists, and parents suggest a range of solutions:

PARENT INVOLVEMENT: "The quality of any school rests a great deal on how much parents support it," says Harry Morgan. "Parents and teachers need to be partners."

Yet, even though participation is critical it’s not always practical: Many African American families have only one parent, and some of them are working two jobs to earn a decent living. What’s more, many black mother who try to participate in school activities report feeling unwelcome, unheard, and at times intimidated in their efforts.

Forming small, informal support groups may help: "Black parents don’t compare notes about what’s going on in the schools enough," says Michele March. "It’s as if we think asking questions is like getting in each other’s business. But we really need to network more."

SCHOOL OUTREACH: "Often public school administrators don’t expect the same level of active involvement from poor black and Hispanic inner-city parents that they would from middle-class suburban parents," says Gretchen Booth, a resource specialist in the Los Angeles school district. But when they require input from all parents-single or married, working or not-the effect can be powerful, she adds. "At the Vaughn Learning Center in Los Angeles, the principal reached out fiercely and refused to let any of the parents off the hook," she says, "And, lo and behold, the moms were delighted to be thought of as valuable members of the community."

TEACHER TRAINING: To improve the quality of education for all students-including black males-instructors will need continuous staff training around cultural, class, gender, and language issues.

Black teachers can also benefit from such in-service training: In the New Orleans study that reported less than half the teachers expected their black male students to go to college, for instance, 65 percent of these respondents were African American. In response to such findings, Antione Garibaldi, provost of Howard University and author of the study, recommends that teachers training courses include a component that examines how African American professionals internalize racism.

MALE MENTORS AND INSTRUCTORS: The earlier black boys are exposed to black men in academic settings, the better, educators agree. The sight of male teachers in the early elementary grades will help boys appreciate how important school is. "We’ve got to get to these boys while they’re still young-five to eight years old," days Spencer Holland, who also directs a mentoring and academic support program called Project 2000 in Washington, D.C. "Otherwise, they may look at classroom learning as a “feminine thing” that they want no part of."

If there are no black male role models in the schools, mentoring programs, available in larger cities around the country, can help. But volunteers in these organizations don’t have to be black to influence African American boys, says Holland: "White men are just as effective in these mentoring programs as black men. Young black boys won’t see color, they’ll see a nice, caring man."

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES: Schools can’t solve all the problems that many black boys face as they grow. Community groups and after-school programs that offer boys social, physical, and emotional outlets for their energy-track clubs, martial arts, music programs, leadership training, and the like-can ultimately help children come to school better prepared to learn.

SCHOOL REFORM: At the district level, administrators can stop the inappropriate use of ability (or tracking) in the classrooms, task forces can set up ways to make the curriculum more relevant to all children in the classrooms, and resource specialists can reexamine the guidelines for referring students to special education classes. In the end, such reforms could eventually help all students experience excellence.

Unquestionably, there are plenty of effective, creative teachers who give the very best to all of their students regardless of race or gender. Likewise, many principals and administrators are doing all they can to help all children enjoy the best that schools have to offer.

However, too many educators have failed to join their ranks an, in doing so, they have failed African American boys in their charge. For this to change, every parent and every educator must make it their business to see that every child is given the tools he needs to succeed. Perhaps it also takes a village to educate a child.

"We’ve lost out tribal sense of community, and we need to regain it, big time," says Gretchen Booth of Los Angeles school district. "But as society becomes healed of its biases-especially those that say this child matters more than that child-no child’s needs will go unnoticed, and no child will be allowed to slip through the cracks.

Why White Parents Should Care

Meredith Maran

Bridging the racial divide is everyone’s responsibility, says a mother who practices what she preaches


One day when my sons, Jesse and Peter, were four and five years old, I looked around at our safe, middle-class, all-white California suburb-at the picture-perfect, mostly white neighborhood elementary school, at my sons’ white friends-and I decided to write a new page in our family history.

I didn’t want my sons to grow up in the same state of isolation and ignorance that I did. I didn’t want to plant in my own children the seeds of bigotry and fear. And I didn’t want to leave this world the way I’d found it by raising another generation in segregation. So in 1984 I moved to a mostly black, working-class neighborhood in Oakland, California, and enrolled my sons in mostly black public schools.

Thirteen years later, our house is often filled with teenage boys. Jesse’s friends are all African American and all athletes; they’ve got Nike swooshes carved into their haircuts and basketballs in their book bags. Peter’s friends are Chilean and Mexican and African American; they wear dreadlocks and Bob Marley T-shirts. On Sunday mornings, these boys rummage through our fridge-looking for milk to pour on their Captain Crunch or soy-milk for their granola-and my heart swells with joy. This is just what I had in mind.

But sometimes in the midst of these warm moments, I’m chilled by sobering thoughts: In California, nearly 40 percent of African American males in their twenties are either in jail, or on parole, or on probation. And nationwide, homicide claims the lives of 46 percent of black males between the ages of 5 and 19.

I look around my house at these young men whom I’ve loved since they were 5 or 10 or 15 years old, these boys who live in my heart, and I wonder: Which four out of ten won’t make it?

I know that it benefits no one for a white parent like me to care about the fate of black males in an abstract, patronizing fashion. But what moves me to go to school board meetings and argue for smaller, more relevant classes, more counselors, better school lunches; what moves me to stop and make my presence know when I see police confronting African American boys; what moves me to work to put the local crack dealer out of business is that I have invested my own children in the outcome.

Because my sons are white, they have only been grazed, not wounded, by stray bullets of racism that are aimed at their friends. But Jesse and Peter have grown up surrounded by people of color. And so they’re motivated as I am, by love and by self-interest-a powerful combination-to raise the level of the river beneath the boat we’re all in together.

Whenever and however caring parents live, there’s plenty we can do to combat segregation and prejudice. We can teach tolerance at the dinner table and at bedtime. We can campaign for multicultural school boards, faculty, and curriculum. We can urge our PTAs to cosponsor events with inner-city PTAs and take our kids to racially mixed after-school programs and religious services.

By recognizing these possibilities, we’re also acknowledging the responsibility we share to bridge the racial gulf that divides our country. No doubt our children are smart enough, resilient enough, and openhearted enough to meet the challenge. The question is, are we?

Parenting Magazine, April 1997

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Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander