Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

'You can't educate these kids' fatalism and well-tested reforms that work

By David 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. Decades-long studies that have monitored youngsters who attended high-quality 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 such "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.

Cross-posted from the October issue of National Affairs, where a longer version appears.   A version of this essay will appear in Building Healthy Communities: A Focus on Boys and Young Men of Color (Christopher Edley and Jorge Velasco-Ruiz, eds.), forthcoming this fall from the University of California Press.