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Closing the Achievement Gap for African-American Males: An Economic Imperative

February 26, 2013

(Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, an Oakland-based national research and action institute working to advance economic and social equity. She currently serves on the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and is a co-author, with Stewart Kwoh and Manuel Pastor, of Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future.)

Headshot_angela-glover-blackwellIn the United States, a black public school student is suspended every four seconds, while every 27 seconds a black high school student drops out of school. Black students are also 3.5 times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. Within this group, black male students fare the worst.

At PolicyLink, our mission is to achieve equity by "Lifting Up What Works." We find innovations and strategies that expand opportunity and, working with local partners, get what's working into policy so that effective innovations are more widely disseminated. We are particularly inspired by the strategies being employed by the Oakland Unified School District, where in 2008-09 only 49 percent of black males graduated, compared with 72 percent of white males and 61 percent district-wide, and where 18 percent of African-American males were expelled at least once, compared with 3 percent of white male students and 8 percent of students district-wide.

In response to those disturbing numbers, OUSD opened an Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) in 2010. With funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, the California Endowment, and Kaiser Permanente, AAMA is working to change educational outcomes for young men of color -- and in the district as a whole -- in innovative ways. For instance, many Oakland high schools and middle schools now offer Manhood Development Classes, in which African-American men from the community teach skills designed to help students navigate the conflicting value systems they experience in different areas of their lives. Family and parent summits at each school include "data walks" where parents and kids are provided with charts detailing educational outcomes at the school as well as where the gaps in access and learning occur. And those efforts are bearing fruit: in 2012 the U.S. Department of Education announced a voluntary resolution of the compliance review initiated against OUSD regarding the disproportionate harshness and frequency of disciplinary measures meted out to African-American students. The district has even been cited as a model for other districts across the country due to its intense efforts to improve in this area.

Why is an initiative in one California city important? For starters, the country is undergoing a profound demographic transformation. In 2012, for the first time, more than half of all babies born in the United States were born to people of color. As that trend continues, the very racial and ethnic groups that traditionally have been left behind will account for an ever larger share of the population, so that by 2042 the U.S. will be a "majority minority" nation. On the way to that milestone, demographers expect a majority of U.S. youth to be of color by 2018, and a majority of the young workforce to be of color by 2030.

How will that changing workforce fare in the global economy? Forty-five percent of all U.S. jobs in 2018 are projected to require at least an associate's degree, yet among today's workers only 27 percent of African Americans have achieved that level of education. Closing the wide and persistent racial gap in educational attainment is not only the right thing to do; it is an economic imperative and the key to building the kind of workforce the American economy needs to thrive in the twenty-first century.

Turning today's youth into tomorrow's skilled workers and innovators is critical to restoring America's growth and competitiveness. Given the demographic trends, political, education, business, and community leaders, together with philanthropists, must address the gaping racial disparities in educational outcomes, income, health, and employment that serve as a drag on the economy and diminish its potential. Oakland is unique in that it has acknowledged and is addressing the systemic inequities in its school system, implementing programs that directly target students most at risk.

OUSD has focused on changing the culture of its schools, training teachers to be more aware of their biases and revamping a disciplinary system that in the past has responded to behavioral issues by removing students from the classroom -- and thus from the opportunity to learn. By improving educational outcomes for young men of color, we are better positioned to leverage everyone's talents and creativity to build a twenty-first century economy that works for all.

Oakland has the right idea. It takes a sustained and collaborative effort on the part of government, business, funders, parents, and other members of the community to provide young people with a clear path to a prosperous future. Yet we too often fail to target our resources to those who need them most. Young boys and men of color can and must be co-creators of our collective economic future. We at PolicyLink believe it is imperative that funders and leaders around the country come together now to support similar efforts to address systemic inequities and close the educational attainment gap. Nothing less than our future is at stake.

-- Angela Glover Blackwell

Comments

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Thanks Angela. While the problems are large, the solutions start locally. Thank you for highlighting another great facet of Oakland and its work with boys and men of color.

Great article Angela, unfortunately thousands of poor and minority children in our urban school districts, under the guise of school reform, are being forced into market-model charter schools. These charter schools have been dismal failures across the country (New Orleans, Chicago, New York). Additionally the market model reforms have resurrected many of the access and equity issues for special needs students, ESL students as well as children not academically talented (usually poor African-American students). Improving academic achievement in African-American communities is not rocket science as proven by AAMA. Unfortunately the market model education reforms will widen the achievement gap in many urban school districts across the country.

Mrs. Glover-Blackwell, your piece was eloquently stated as always; thank you. From my interaction with Brother Chris Chatmon, Jason Seals, Matin and all the Brothers who keep the African-American Male Achievement/Manhood Development engine running. Coming from Miami where initiatives such as this have yet to blossom, I am inspired by the innovation and the audacity to be vocal about the issue and those most affected. The sustainability of this movement is predicated upon our communal willingness to wrap our political, intellectual, and physical arms around it to keep it protected and alive as structural politics and bureaucracy threaten its very survival as we sing its praises. We know it works, we know it's the solution; we have to focus our efforts and power towards keeping it fully and effectively functional in Oakland and replicating it elsewhere.

Different is not deficient except in most of our urban schools where too many teachers come of age in classrooms where they didn't witness the range of behaviors that must now "control" daily. A negative facial expression is viewed as insubordination. A swaggering body language is viewed as lewd. A certain tone of voice is viewed as menacing. We need a model for recruiting teachers into urban schools that emphasizes not only their scholarship and content knowledge but self-efficacy and resilience. http://tinyurl.com/aqe92ux - Scent of a Teacher

When do we journey from an achievement/deficit gap model of education to a talent analysis model? What parent wants to hear negative comments about their children at every PTA meeting? What can the child DO? What are his/her talents and gifts?

When do we invent a system that promotes the assets of each individual student? Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University in his groundbreaking book: Frames of Mind - The Theory of Multiple Intelligences defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems and/or to provide a product(s) valued by a community or culture. A definition of intelligence that is more INCLUSIVE instead of the deficit one that EXCLUDES.

America is supposed to be an inclusive country. When do we build an educational civilization that includes ALL of her children?
Lorraine Richardson

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