Schools Find Achievement Gap Tough To Close

Despite ongoing research and theorizing, the educational achievement of black boys and young black men continues to lag behind their white peers, nationwide. James Earl Davis of Temple University's College of Education and Pedro Noguera, author of The Trouble With Black Boys discuss.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

It's a story many parents and educators know all too well. The educational achievement of black boys and young black men continues to lag behind their white peers nationwide.

The latest report comes from the Council of the Great City Schools, and it reveals grim statistics. Twelve percent of black male fourth-graders' reading skills qualify as proficient, compared with almost 40 percent of their white peers. Young black men are almost twice as likely to drop out of high school as young white men.

And those numbers might be more shocking except that they're nothing new. The problem's long since been identified and discussed. We know the price when so many young men face much more difficult futures. Any number of experts say we know how some schools do much better.

So why does the gap persist? Teachers, educators, give us a call. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the senior Taliban official at recent peace talks turns out to have been an imposter who walked away with a lot of money. The New York Times' Dexter Filkins will join us. But first, the education of African-American boys.

Pedro Noguera is professor of teaching and learning at New York University and author of "The Trouble with Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education," and he joins us by phone from his office. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (New York University): Great to be here.

CONAN: Also with us, James Earl Davis, interim dean of Temple University's College of Education in Philadelphia and a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies there. He's at a studio in Philadelphia. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. JAMES EARL DAVIS (Interim Dean, College of Education, Temple University): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And James Earl Davis, let's start from you, with you. This new report from the Council of Great City Schools has to reflect maybe the most persistent and sobering story of your academic career. Why are we still here?

Mr. DAVIS: We're here for several reasons. I'm often(ph) reminded when I hear new reports, it's a cyclical kind of process. And I'm reminded of the tension between kind of individual concerns and institutional-level responsibility.

So I think we haven't made the progress because we've been more likely to focus on kind of individual responsibility of black boys and young men, or school-based responsibility. But I find that kind of the way to alleviate the problem is probably at the intersection of both of these, where we would focus on both, where we hold black boys and young men accountable for their actions in schools, but we're also sensitive to issues of respect and respectability, and we recognize the assets and strengths that they bring to school.

But at the same time, schools and programs should offer well-trained and committed professionals and provide opportunities to learn for these black boys and young men to be successful academically.

CONAN: So the problem persists in part because the pendulum swings between a Cosby-like focus on individual responsibility and then systemic doubts about how well the schools themselves are performing.

Mr. DAVIS: Well, that's one explanation, the pendulum, because our attention span is often limited, right. I remember seeing a huge report in New York Times Magazine in 1995 with a black man on the cover, and it created lots of interest, and now we see kind of a resurgence there, lots of activities around the country.

Philanthropic groups are putting money toward the issue of disparities of black boys and young men in schools, and I often get frustrated because our attention wanes after a while.

I think these efforts are critically important, but this has to be a sustained effort to alleviate these disparities.

CONAN: Pedro Noguera, let me bring you in. Frustration must be a word that accompanies analysis of this problem no matter what your point of view.

Prof. NOGUERA: Yeah, it is frustrating. It's frustrating on many different counts because, you know, the problem is a long-standing one. It's not a new one. We just get reminded every once in a while, as James pointed out.

But we also know so much about what can be done, what works to address this problem. And we also know the cost of not addressing it. The cost is substantial, and it should be pointed out it's not just for black males who end up either unemployed or incarcerated and just unproductive members of society. It's also the cost to our whole country.

When you have this segment of the such a large segment of the population that is marginalized and not fully integrated in a productive way, it weighs down the entire country. And I think part of the problem has been that we've seen this as a black male problem rather than as an American problem.

And to the degree that we continue to treat it that way, we're not going to make more progress.

CONAN: And is this a problem maybe most acute with African-American boys and young men but acute among men in particular?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, that's a very good point, an important point; that is that we have really a male problem in this country. In every state now across the country there are now more women than men in college, and that's a fairly recent development.

And it's a sign that something is clearly wrong, and it's not simply an educational issue, though it shows up in education with boys of all kinds being more likely to be disciplined, more likely to be placed in special education and more likely to drop out of school, but it also then is showing up in the labor market.

And in a number of categories now, women are surpassing men. And now that's not you know, there's nothing wrong with women doing well, and I want to be very careful that this is not about trying to slow down women, the progress of women, and I think there's a lot we should learn about the ways in which women have made progress in the last few years. In fact, some people argue that the new economy favors the kind of soft skills that women are more likely to posses.

But there's good reason to be concerned about the ways in which men of all kinds, and boys as well, are beginning to fall behind, because it's not simply in education, it is also in employment, and it's in other sectors as well.

CONAN: Well, if it is a male problem and not necessarily a black male problem, shouldn't reforms intended to improve education across the board catch everybody up, or do we need to focus specifically on African-Americans?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, I think we have to look at the ways in which race, class and gender come together, because it is poor black, and in some cases Hispanic or Native American men, who are most at risk. But to just focus on that population is to miss the larger point that there's a gender dynamic at play that we also need to address.

And so what we have to acknowledge is that just doing what we've been doing is not working. It's only making the problem more severe. And so we do need to target. And some of the ways we know we need to target is we need to help young men develop better communication skills, better problem-solving skills, better collaboration skills, what we call social and emotional intelligence, because these are the kinds of skills that actually not only make you more successful academically but make you more successful in life.

And I think that there's a lot of what we have expected of boys, for the development of boys, or is required of boys, has not been deliberately cultivated in schools, and consequently boys of all kinds are not doing as well.

CONAN: James Earl Davis, you've pointed out that young African-American boys and men do have a lot of skills and show a lot of intelligence, just not applied to problems that are necessarily taught in school.

Mr. DAVIS: You're absolutely right. Pedro raises the issue: There's been this ambivalence to focus on boys and black boys in general because some fear that would distract attention from the focus on girls and gains that we've made in girls.

But when but there is a gender problem with boys, and we have to be we have to acknowledge that. And then when it's coupled with issues of race and class, the problems become amplified.

But I think we haven't learned many of the lessons from previous work, from the research base about what it will take to address these disparities. And I agree with Pedro. We know what works often. We may not have the political will or the financial resources available to address these issues. But black boys in particular, when they come to school, they come with many strengths and assets. And we need, as organized education we need to recognize and respect those skill sets that they bring that are not often recognized as what's valued in school and what's needed to progress academically.

CONAN: I want to get callers in. We want to hear from teachers, educators today. Why does this problem persist? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can begin with Elka(ph), and Elka is with us from Stockton, California.

ELKA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

ELKA: Hi. Yes, I just wanted to speak to my experience as a teacher. I'm basically a new teacher. I've taught for three years now. And I've taught third grade, first grade and kindergarten. And my experience has been that the African-American students, in particular boys, are very low-performing academically, whereas my Caucasian and Asian students are the higher performing, more, you know, higher performing academically.

And it seems to me that my experience has shown that the reason for that has been parent involvement.

CONAN: Parent involvement, that the parents of Asian and white students are more involved with their children's education than African-Americans.

ELKA: That has been my experience, and I know that there have been I did have one student, one African-American boy that was very studious, very bright, and then I listened to your show earlier about the young man who was, you know, promoted from kindergarten to, you know, skip the first grade, and then when he got to fifth grade, it wasn't cool anymore.

And I've seen this happen also that some of the students, when they get older, they just, you know, it's like that's not cool to be smart. You're accused of being white.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Pedro Noguera has spoken about this. Last year, in fact, he told NPR stereotypes can undermine the performance of even middle-class African-American students. Most middle-class whites don't know poor white kids, you said, but most middle-class black kids know many kids like that who are poor.

Prof. NOGUERA: Right. So I would say that we have to be careful. It's never one thing. Parental influences are very important. So are video games and television and peer groups and teacher expectations.

And what the research shows is it's all of these factors together that either contribute to success or the lack thereof, and when you look at schools, and I can there's a school right here in New York, Brooklyn, New York, called Excellence Academy, that 100 percent of the students are black male, and all of the students are achieving at and above grade level, what you find is: Why is parental involvement not a problem at that school?

Well, it's because that school works hard to build partnerships with parents, many of whom come from very poor families, but it also creates a very nurturing environment for boys that deliberately counters the stereotypes.

The boys at that school believe they can be anything they want and that their race, their gender does not determine what they can become, and I think that's simply not the case at many schools throughout this country today.

CONAN: Elka, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

ELKA: You're welcome.

CONAN: We're talking about the achievement gap between black boys and their white peers. After so many years, studies, proposals, why does the gap persist? Teachers, educators, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

A recent report concludes the nation's young black males are in a state of crisis. Reading and math scores are lower among black boys than whites, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. Fewer black men enrolled in college.

None of this is new. We know the scope of the problem. We know the costs to individuals and to society. So why don't schools close the achievement gap? Teachers, educators, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Pedro Noguera, professor of teaching and learning at New York University, author of "The Trouble with Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." Also James Earl Davis, interim dean of the Temple University College of Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

And James Earl Davis, you said earlier, we know the answers and we heard Pedro Noguera talk about one particular school in Brooklyn. There are others around the country that can be pointed to and say: See, they have figured it out. You say we know the answers, we just lack the will. Is that all it is?

Mr. DAVIS: That's part of it. One of the answers, if you will, is that we hold high standards for these students, and we expect them to achieve. And we also provide the kind of environment that Pedro mentioned, that's nurturing, that gives space for boys to excel academically and creates space where they feel that they have options to perform to perform in ways that are not always reinforced in their spaces outside of school.

And also, we know the importance of having effective, competent and high-performing teachers in the lives of boys and young men in school. These are not new issues, and we know the power of curriculum that informs boys about their possibilities beyond their neighborhoods, and we also know the importance of working with the families and parents and communities of boys.

These issues are not new. But what has been a problem is we haven't had the political will and sort of the financial the political will to make available financial resources where these issues can be actualized and where our resources can be put in place, where black boys and young men would have the kinds of school-based experiences that would produce the kinds of academic outcomes that we want and outcomes that will narrow the achievement gap.

CONAN: Let me just focus on this. Is this a product of the current funding problems that so many cities and state governments and county governments have across the country, and the federal government as well, or is this a systemic problem that goes back decades?

Mr. DAVIS: Well, it's both. We could have a whole conversation about the problem with the funding of the schools, for sure. But a lot of the many of the strategies that will help address these disparities don't actually cost a lot of money, right. They're about how we think that these boys can perform.

CONAN: The expectations.

Mr. DAVIS: Yes, the expectations. And interestingly, that may sound like a simple solution, but if you would actually visit some classrooms in schools around the country and get just a glimpse of what's in place around expectations of boys and black boys and young men, I think you a general person, a person in the general populace would be really appalled in the kind of resources that are available to these students.

CONAN: Well, Pedro Noguera, surely there are incentives for all of these schools to improve exactly on that point, with something as simple and inexpensive as that - the kinds of evaluations that schools are getting in cities across the country would zoom if that was the case and if it was that simple and that inexpensive.

Prof. NOGUERA: I think, though, that in addition to funding, we're also having a we have a policy problem in that we have, as a country, under No Child Left Behind, pursued strategies aimed at holding schools and students, and now we want to hold teachers accountable.

But we've largely ignored conditions in schools that promote healthy child development and student achievement; that is that both we have to pursue both simultaneously, and in many schools, in the name of high test scores, we've actually adopted policies that have made schools less supportive of children, that have made them less willing to support children with greater needs, because those kids sometimes bring down test scores, and we've seen as a country we've actually been falling further behind, which is ironic given the slogan.

So what we're I think in many ways black males are just kind of the canary in the mine, the biggest casualty of a failed policy but not the only victims of a failed policy.

CONAN: Let's get some more callers in. This is Martin, Martin with us from Baltimore.

MARTIN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MARTIN: First of all, let me just commend you gentlemen. I think you're doing a great job of asking the right questions and coming at this from a multi-faceted approach.

I taught in Baltimore in various scenarios, and I also teach at night school for the students who have dropped out of day school and have a second shot at the six to 10 for getting some of their credits back.

Yeah, there's a lot of issues. I couldn't agree more with the No Child Left Behind focusing on some of the wrong aspects. I'd be curious to hear what your speakers have to say about the social stigmas that come with, you know, not only young black men but young men from, you know, different socioeconomic backgrounds where we dont validate the material.

You know, we focus so much on, again, increasing test scores. I've had my students look directly at me and want to know why the test matters. And I found the greatest success with this group, especially with the most troubled students, is that when you focus on what they may benefit from in life or give them information that they can aptly use, that turns them on, as opposed to simply sitting in class and learning something from a rubric that will get a random score.

CONAN: James Earl Davis, is that a useful question?

Mr. DAVIS: That's a very useful question. I think we know that we need to make curriculum and materials more relevant. I've been working for the last several years with an alternative high school in Philadelphia, the YouthBuild Charter School. And it's part of the YouthBuild USA movement. It's a second-chance high school.

And one of the most promising aspects of this high school, it's the connection of the curriculum to vocational learning, where students can actually build with their hands and see the products of their effort. This is combined with an academic component as well.

But black boys and young men continue to ask that question: Why is school relevant for me and for my future? If they can see actual products of their effort and then connect it to the workforce and a livelihood, that's an incentive that's important. And I think the caller reflects on that important aspect.

We have to be deliberate about making the connection between what happens in school and how that affects the sort of financial not only financial liability but the ability of these boys and young men to see themselves as wage earners in the future, because we are na�ve to believe that money is not important.

It is important. But we shouldn't be vulgar about it, but we should be cognizant that there's a connection between what I do in school and how it would position me to be in the workplace and provide for me and my family.

CONAN: Martin, thanks very much for the call.

MARTIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here are some emails. Ed in Minneapolis writes: I've taught math for 10 years at a Twin Cities high school. A couple of years ago, the principal allowed me to bring back to bring together 100 black students who had failed a math class the previous year.

We began with them writing about a couple of survey questions. One was: Why do you think you failed your math class? Without them having the chance to talk about it beforehand, 90 percent of them answered something that was akin to: I'm not doing well because my teacher does not think I can learn. The dearth of teachers of color and the institutional racism is something we are not talking about.

Pedro Noguera, is Ed on to a point?

Prof. NOGUERA: That's again, one of the points we do have to address is the issue of low expectations. That is, unfortunately, I think, a pervasive problem in many schools.

But equally important is the need to get young people, black males especially, to take their education seriously, to be more invested in learning, to put as much time and energy into learning math and science as they do in basketball or music.

I mean, there is an issue here about the choices young people make, and when you go to the schools where you see success, you see schools that have developed a strategy to get young people engaged early, to make learning compelling, and to counter some of the more the distractions that are out there and particularly the more harmful influences.

But you also see strong teacher-student relationships, and you see teachers who have great confidence in their students, who convey that confidence to their students, and students respond accordingly.

So I want to avoid focusing in on just one issue. I think we always have to keep in mind there's a complex array of factors that are influencing this outcome, because too often in education policy we say, well, let's just fix the teacher, or let's just fix the curriculum. And then we end up missing out on the parents, we miss out on the peer groups, and we miss out on the other important pieces.

CONAN: And I don't mean to get back to this. And my frustration is perhaps short lived. I've only been talking about this for half an hour. You guys have been living this your whole lives. But if we know what the problem is and we know what the solutions are and some of them are not necessarily tied to resources, why are they not tried?

Prof. NOGUERA: You know, I can say that we don't learn from success in education. We have lots of models of success. In many schools, there will be one brilliant teacher right next door to another mediocre teacher. And what we're not good at is enabling - the teacher is not as good to be - to learn from the one who's more successful. And we don't do that across schools either.

So this is, to some degree, a problem of just the way we approach education. We don't have that problem in other fields. In other fields, whether it be sports or health, we're constantly learning from what's worked elsewhere trying to replicate it. In education, we don't do that in a systematic way, and consequently, we find successful schools working in isolation and not able to influence the practice of others.

CONAN: I put the same question to you, James Earl Davis.

Mr. DAVIS: Yes. And as long as we're looking for that one best thing.

CONAN: The silver bullet, yes.

Mr. DAVIS: Yes. And we won't find it. I agree with Pedro that this is a multidimensional - we need to address this in multidimensional kinds of ways. One of those silver bullets that keeps raising up, and I've been frustrated with, is this idea that - and as an interim dean of a college of education where our most important task is to develop teachers. The idea that we get black male teachers in front of black boys and young men, it will alleviate all the achievement disparities. While I think it's important to have sort of educational models for black boys and young men, this is not necessarily a panacea.

What we need in front of them are highly competent and effective teachers regardless of gender, race or class. And as long as we keep sort of looking for this magic bullet, we won't - I think we'll be ineffective. Well, one thing we do know about the role of black men in the educational lives of boys, is the tremendous effect around social outcomes, how boys see themselves as learners and see the possibility of education in their lives.

CONAN: We're talking about the persistent gap between the achievement of young black males and their counterparts with James Earl Davis, interim dean of the Temple University College of Education, and Pedro Noguera, professor of teaching and learning at New York University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Abigail(ph). Abigail with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

ABIGAIL (Caller): Yes, indeed.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ABIGAIL: First of all, I burst in laughter when you said we don't learn from success. It is absolutely true. I taught boys for many, many years in boys' schools. And now, I teach teachers how to teach boys. And when my students, the teachers who I work with, say to me why don't more people learn about how to teach boys, and I said I don't know. They won't let me do it in education schools. The problem - and you're right about the boys - black boys being the canary in the mine, that they are simply the ones who lose the most because of the whole group of problems that surround them, including a feeling among black boys that they need - boys need to be with groups.

And when the group is not academically oriented, it's oriented in another area and nobody steps in and says, hey, guys, really, you need to be doing something else, then that's - we're not doing that with boys. And this is - one of their problems with teachers is that teachers are good students, and they don't see the way boys approach the learning process as helpful. They don't see it as - they have a hard time with the fact that boys need a more active approach. And so what they say to a fourth-grade boy is be quiet, sit down. Well, he does that, and then he phases out.

CONAN: It's interesting. Abigail, I just want to read this email we have from Nancy(ph) in Portland on exactly this point. I teach eighth grade. My perspective is our model of come in, sit down, be quiet, doesn't work for everyone, particularly boys. We lack hands-on classes and physical activities to break up the academic day.

ABIGAIL: Absolutely. The boys' schools that I work with, and I work with both schools that are primarily for boys of color and boys that are schooled for other kinds of boys around the globe. I have been in and out of boys' schools all over the world. And what I find, when the schools are very successful is, that things are hands-on, things are active. And as these boys get older, then the schools begin to help them learn to learn in what is probably a more academic approach.

But if you say to a fourth-grade boy, be quiet, sit down, pay attention, you're going to get nowhere with this child, because he simply can't do it. But if you say to him, here, have something to play with, let your hands move, there's research all over the place, research from (unintelligible) Florida State a couple of years ago, saying that if boys have something to move with their hands, to squeeze, their memory improves. Something as simple as that can really help. The teachers just really have a hard time with it. They think that because the boy is moving, he's not paying attention, in fact, he is paying attention.

CONAN: Pedro Noguera - and Abigail, thank you so much for the phone call. We appreciate it. And good luck to you. You may want to reply to Temple. But, Pedro Noguera, as you listened to this and we're just trying to come to some conclusion, when are we going to start to learn from some success, do you think?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, I think Abigail has it right, that a lot of what works is already known, it's just that it's in isolation. And so what I give you credit, Neal, for drawing the light to this issue, and hopefully the more people become aware of what works out there, what works in terms of curriculum, in terms of teaching strategies and in terms of reaching out to parents, the more we can hope that those practices and approaches will be applied in other settings.

Because the problem is getting more - is just getting more severe. We have over two million people behind bars and over 50 percent of them are black males. This is a huge problem for our entire country. And, unfortunately, I don't see many of our elected officials providing the leadership needed to provide solutions to this problem.

CONAN: Pedro Noguera, professor of teaching and learning at New York University, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. NOGUERA: Thank you.

CONAN: He's the author of "The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education." Our thanks as well, to James Earl Davis, interim dean of the Temple University College of Education, professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies there, and he joined us from a studio in Philadelphia. Thanks very much.

Mr. DAVIS: Thanks, Neal. My pleasure.

CONAN: Up next, the Taliban imposter who conned NATO and Afghan leaders into peace talks and walked away with lots of cash. We'll talk with Dexter Filkins of The New York Times. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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