District of Columbia and area students who headed back to school this week are expected to achieve academic excellence regardless of race, gender or economic status, but research shows that African American males are the least likely to attain academic success. Why African American males are over-represented among students who face retention, suspension, expulsion and overall academic failure and what it will take to significantly improve their educational outcomes was the focus of a Summit on Educational Excellence and Opportunity for African American Males hosted by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of the Great City Schools on Monday in Washington, D.C.
Educators, researchers, policymakers, advocates, and students participated in the daylong conversation about creative ways some school districts and individual schools have addressed this conundrum. And, while more federal and private funding for educational resources and programs was mentioned during the panel discussions, reading, mentoring, peer support and consistent expressions of high expectations are factors that have made a significant difference in the academic lives of some African American male students.
U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who moderated the town hall discussions, asked participants what needed to be done "to make exponential gains as quickly as possible." That is the goal of an Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama in July which established the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The Obama administration acknowledges the educational gains of African Americans since the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision 60 years ago, but the executive order seeks strategies to address the "substantial obstacles to equal educational opportunity [that] still remain in America's educational system."
"African Americans lack equal access to highly effective teachers and principals, safe schools, and challenging college-preparatory classes, and they disproportionately experience school discipline and referrals to special education. African American student achievement not only lags behind that of their domestic peers by an average of two grade levels, but also behind students in almost every other developed nation. Over a third of African American students do not graduate from high school on time with a regular high school diploma, and only four percent of African American high school graduates interested in college are college-ready across a range of subjects. An even greater number of African American males do not graduate with a regular high school diploma, and African American males also experience disparate rates of incarceration."
Prince George's County Schools Superintendent William R. Hite, who is scheduled to leave next week to lead the Philadelphia Public School system, said educators are among those who have constructed barriers that exclude African American males. "In Prince George's County," Hite said, "80 percent of the students are Black, but their representation in honors or advance placement classes is about 15 percent. We [educators] created that structure and we created the barriers for that to take place."
For many of the participants, this present generation of Black male students have already been written off, that is unless they are enrolled in the primary grades. "There are currently 3.5 million African American boys under the age of 9 in the U.S., noted one participant. "I am convinced that if we do the right thing using the best metrics, best practices and best partners, we can make the future brighter for those boys than it is for their counterparts."
We believe the future should be bright for every child and that it is never too late for even our most hard to reach males to see the light. The summit concluded with the notion that everyone has a stake in making sure African American males achieve academically. But the notion that we need to see gains "as quickly as possible" seems to be a harder message to sell.