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SCHOOL MATTERS: How African-American Males Can Succeed in School

New America Media, News Report, Cynthia E. Griffin Posted: Nov 08, 2009

In spite of challenging familial, environmental and school situations, young African-American men can be high achievers in schools if education policy focuses on promoting their strengths instead of emphasizing their problems, according to a recent study by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF).

Breaking Barriers, Plotting the Path to Academic Success for School-age African-American Males, by Ivory A. Toldson, a senior research analyst with CBCF, offers important clues to improving academic success for a group with persistent low achievement rates.

Toldson compared the academic achievement of all black males to that of the highest achieving African-American school-age boys, as well as to their white and Latino counterparts. He used data collected in four surveys: Health Behavior in School-age Children; National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement; National Survey of Americas Families, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Toldson does not think that other studies have taken this same distinctive approach.

A lot of times high-achieving African-American males are left out of the equation. Instead, they lump all African-American males into the same group and tend to look at them collectively in a way that is prone for them to be at the bottom, without looking at qualifying indicators, Toldson noted.

And while the majority fall in between the high- and low-achieving black males, Toldson noted that most policy is aimed at that small percentage of males at the bottom.

Some factors affecting success or failure, which Toldson identified include:

Quality of life, particularly whether or not the young men are happy with their lives, can predict success or lack of it. Simply put, the happier African-American males are with their lives, the better they did academically.
African-American students eat far more junk food than other students, and this combined with the finding that black youngsters more often come to school tired, may explain why young men come to campus angry and irritable.
The school environment and how it differed across the races was another unique factor Toldson identified as contributing to black male success or failure. The researcher noted that African-American pupils are 500 percent more likely to pass through metal detectors and other screening devices, entering school. Yet black males feel the least secure in their campus environments.

Toldson said that schools that the majority of black students attend look more like correctional environments, and this has implications for how teachers may interact with youngsters. If the focus is more on correcting behavior, Toldson said teachers may be colder or more rigid. And this again has a direct connection with several other findings in the study: African-American males did better in school when their teachers were interested in them personally, treated them fairly, encouraged them to express their views, and gave extra help when needed. Additionally, the more they liked school, the less likely they were to be bored and, consequently, they enjoyed better educational outcomes.

Among the solutions Toldson identified are ensuring that school-age African-American males are encouraged, and that a positive self-image is promoted. They must also be given challenging and relevant opportunities inside and outside the classroom.

It is also key to encourage parents to adopt healthy habits, such as positively encouraging black males. Programs and legislation that promote maximum involvement by fathers must be created; and to overcome the natural social disadvantages students from low-income backgrounds might face, officials must supplement campuses in these areas with resources to implement and maintain school-based activities.

Toldson said there is also a critical need to examine and adjust juvenile justice policies to reduce the frequency and burden of jail and detention center involvement among black males.

In a school setting, because those Black males who like schools and are not bored by them are more likely to do well, efforts must be taken to ensure that more young men like school, and a vital part of doing this is examining the way Black males learn. That includes project-based learning, inquiry-based science, student-centered learning, and anti-oppressive education.

Cynthia E. Griffin was awarded a 2009 NAM education fellowship. She is currently a staff reporter for the Los Angles-based Our Weekly.

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