What works

The achieve­ment gap for Amer­ica’s black male stu­dents is alarm­ing, but fix­ing it isn’t a pie-in-the-sky propo­si­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - Op-Ed - David L. Kirp

The first weeks of the school year in­vari­ably bring fresh ev­i­dence of the achieve­ment gap that sep­a­rates black and Latino stu­dents from their white class­mates. Worst off, by far, are African Amer­i­can males.

A new study from the Schott Foun­da­tion for Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion sets out the sorry statis­tics. Across the coun­try, fewer than half of all black males grad­u­ate from high school, com­pared with 78% of white males. In Los An­ge­les, the sit­u­a­tion is sim­i­larly grim: Just 41% of black males grad­u­ate, com­pared with 58% of white males.

Scores on the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress, the nation’s “re­port card,” tell the same tale. By eighth grade, a third of white males, com­pared with just 8% of black males, are “pro­fi­cient” in read­ing. In Los An­ge­les, just 10% of black male eighth-graders are “pro­fi­cient” and fewer than 1% are “ad­vanced” read­ers.

On mea­sure af­ter mea­sure, black males are strug­gling. Na­tion­wide, they are twice as likely to be left back or as­signed to dead-end spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion and three times as likely to be kicked out of school as white males. All too of­ten they’re on what ed­u­ca­tors pri­vately dub the “prison track.” And while girls of all races do bet­ter than boys, the gen­der gap among African Amer­i­cans when it comes to high school grad­u­a­tion — 13% — is wider than among white young­sters.

These dis­par­i­ties aren’t new — the Schott re­port could have been pub­lished a gen­er­a­tion ago. What is new and note­wor­thy is solid ev­i­dence that this gap can be bridged, with well-tested ap­proaches that don’t re­quire mas­sive changes in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and don’t de­pend on su­per­hero teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Be­cause African Amer­i­can boys are aca­dem­i­cally be­hind even be­fore they start kinder­garten, their ed­u­ca­tion needs to be­gin ear­lier, at age 3 or 4. Decades­long stud­ies that have mon­i­tored young­sters who at­tended high­qual­ity preschools, al­most all of them African Amer­i­can chil­dren from poor fam­i­lies, show that they were sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to suc­ceed in school than their peers who lacked that op­por­tu­nity. They were also health­ier, less likely to get in trou­ble with the law and able to earn more money. A large-scale study in Chicago found that 74% of the boys who at­tended preschool grad­u­ated from high school, com­pared with 57% of those who didn’t.

Preschool makes a good be­gin­ning, but it’s no magic bul­let. An anal­y­sis of the ef­fects of Head Start, the biggest early-ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, con­cludes that the pro­gram had no long-term im­pact on chil­dren who went to un­der­funded pub­lic schools. The out­come was en­tirely dif­fer­ent for Head Start alums who at­tended well-funded schools: They were sub­stan­tially more likely to grad­u­ate from high school, to earn more and to be health­ier. The mes­sage is plain: Ef­fec­tive ed­u­ca­tion can’t be ac­com­plished on the cheap.

From kinder­garten on, for most black males, the achieve­ment gap keeps widen­ing. Re­form­ers from the “no ex­cuses” camp be­lieve that the an­swer is to fire teach­ers whose stu­dents are fail­ing and ex­po­nen­tially ex­pand char­ter schools, but there’s no em­pir­i­cal ba­sis for such claims.

What does work? Re­duc­ing class size to 14 or 15 stu­dents, a large-scale Ten­nessee ex­per­i­ment demon­strated, can gen­er­ate big aca­demic gains in the long run. Fo­cus­ing on read­ing is also smart prac­tice. More than a mil­lion stu­dents, more than half of them African Amer­i­can, have par­tic­i­pated in Suc­cess for All, a model that re­lent­lessly em­pha­sizes read­ing skills, delivers sup­port for teach­ers and tu­tor­ing for stu­dents, and con­scripts par­ents as ed­u­ca­tors. That ini­tia­tive boosts read­ing scores by an av­er­age of nearly half a school year.

Keep­ing schools open from dawn to dusk, six days a week — of­fer­ing young­sters a raft of med­i­cal, so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­ports, aca­demic help, sports and ac­tiv­i­ties — also has a demon­stra­ble ef­fect on aca­demics. For starters, “com­mu­nity schools” keep kids off the streets af­ter school — that’s crit­i­cal, be­cause the amount of time young peo­ple hang out on street cor­ners with their friends is a bet­ter pre­dic­tor of fail­ure in school than fam­ily in­come.

Care­fully scru­ti­nized men­tor­ing pro­grams like Big Broth­ers or Friends of the Chil­dren, which keeps men­tors in­volved in the lives of the hard­est-to-reach young­sters from kinder­garten through high school, have been proven to re­write life-scripts for such chil­dren, in­clud­ing African Amer­i­can males.

Other well-tested re­forms em­pha­size rewrit­ing stu­dents’ mental scripts. Psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ments have found that if young­sters be­lieve that in­tel­li­gence is a given — some­thing they can’t con­trol — they are prone to give up. Mi­nor­ity youth are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to “stereo­type threat,” but the good news is that this de­struc­tive dy­namic can be re­versed. In one study, col­lege stu­dents ex­posed to stud­ies of brain devel­op­ment demon­strat­ing the plas­tic­ity of in­tel­li­gence saw their grades shoot up. The same holds true for mid­dle school stu­dents. When they’re taught how learn­ing al­ters the brain, they set higher goals, be­come more mo­ti­vated to suc­ceed — and get bet­ter math grades.

Chang­ing stu­dents’ at­ti­tudes about the value of hard work also makes a dif­fer­ence. A study of black eighth-graders found that stu­dents’ self-dis­ci­pline was twice as good a pre­dic­tor of grades as IQ. Char­ter schools, like those run by Green Dot and KIPP (Knowl­edge Is Power Pro­gram), that em­pha­size char­ac­ter-build­ing have nar­rowed the achieve­ment gap for ado­les­cent black males. At one Green Dot school in L.A., 68% of African Amer­i­can male stu­dents grad­u­ated in four years, while at a nearby pub­lic high school, just 3% grad­u­ated on time. Even at L.A.’s Locke High, one of the tough­est in the nation, Green Dot is mak­ing slow but steady progress.

Good preschools, smaller ele­men­tary school classes, a fo­cus on read­ing, al­ter­ing at­ti­tudes about in­tel­li­gence, link­ing schools to their com­mu­ni­ties and pay­ing at­ten­tion to char­ac­ter-build­ing — there’s noth­ing pie-in-the-sky in this agenda. If these crib-to-col­lege re­forms shift the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion away from “you can’t ed­u­cate these kids” fa­tal­ism and to­ward in­vest­ing in what’s been shown to work, the biggest achieve­ment gap may fi­nally start to shrink.

David Kirp is a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at UC Berkeley. Alonger ver­sion of this piece ap­pears in the Oc­to­ber is­sue of Na­tional Af­fairs and a chap­ter in the forth­com­ing book, “Build­ing Healthy Com­mu­ni­ties: A Fo­cus on Boys and Young Men of Color.”

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