Recent studies show that little white boys who go to school hungry still perform better on achievement tests than black boys who come from privileged homes.
If that's truly the case, then black parents who wonder why there's such a wide gap in grades and test results between the races have only themselves to blame.
According to a deflating assessment of black boys' scholastic status nationwide, a stable home is no guarantee of success. This comes as troubling news to households like mine — where Mommy and Daddy have overextended themselves to make sure their first-grader attains every educational advantage available in an inner-city setting.
Of course schools must be held more accountable when there's proof that black boys rank far below whites in basic assessments. But the new data — and experts' opinions on how to counteract the problem — highlight more than ever that black parents aren't emphasizing schoolwork enough.
The Council of the Great City Schools' recent report about discrepancies between black and white boys' scores on math and reading tests paints a dire picture of what the future holds. Culled from disturbing data accumulated by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the report suggests that even the few Fresh Princes among us are likely to perform worse in school than their Slim Shady peers. More forebodingly, the council's "Call for Action" report cites congressional intervention as a prime solution to the educational crisis.
Just how likely are the Tea Partiers taking hold in Congress to address the plight of black boys in the coming years? And if President Barack Obama dared to pick up the mantle on behalf of a generation of boys whose educational prospects appear dimmer now than they did during the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka era, how would stingy conservatives react?
The findings — which the council calls "jaw-dropping" — spark debate among academics, social-policy experts and bloggers over what's actually causing the drastic achievement gap, and whether there's a viable solution.
While it's treated as a given that the preponderance of black boys being raised by (overwhelmed and underaged) single mothers can negatively influence scholastic achievement rates, the NAEP test results from boys in the fourth through eighth grades show that economic status doesn't matter. According to the data, white boys from families receiving public assistance perform just as well as, or better than, black boys from families that don't.
The data show that while 38 percent of white boys in the fourth grade are proficient readers, only 12 percent of black boys are. Forty-four percent of whites are proficient at math, compared with only 14 percent of blacks. Data regarding high school dropout rates and college matriculation contribute further to a dismal picture.
What's going on? Dr. Robin Saunders, president of the Multicultural Education Consultants group, told me that the gap won't narrow until teachers are retrained to respond to the racial sensitivities that black boys carry to the classroom. "If they bring a 'white cloud' card home from school because they had a good day, and a 'black cloud' goes home because they had a bad day, what does that say to the child?" Dr. Saunders pondered.
Perhaps, but teacher-parent collaboration at critical junctures in a boy's education is key to closing the gap, according to Kennesaw State University psychology professor Dr. Kim Grimes. "It's at those points where the curriculums change the most — kindergarten, third grade, middle school and from high school to college — where holistic intervention is needed most," Dr. Grimes says. "Of course, we need better teaching. But it starts at home. And there's more funding needed to support after-school and weekend programs."
Dr. Kamau Bobb, a professor at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, goes a step further and lays the responsibility at the doors of the children themselves. He offers a bleak prognosis for black boys unless they challenge themselves to perform better throughout their school years. "While there is no doubt that institutional obstacles disproportionately oppose black youth," Bobb says, "a lot of them suffer from a crippling laziness and a mere average sense of ambition." He laments the fact that the volunteer tutoring service his staff offers goes mostly ignored by black male collegians who "set appointments, then find excuses not to come."
In a moment of candid reflection, Bobb divulges that he was "glad" that his only child — who, like him is black — is a girl. "Their odds of succeeding are better," says. "They're more focused."
(Full disclosure: Bobb's daughter and my only son have been schoolmates since before they could crawl, and currently attend the same neighborhood charter school, where parental participation is mandatory.)
It's tempting to scan a classroom like my son's and predict which of the boys — regardless of race, household status or physical ability — stand the best chance of succeeding as scholars. One (white) boy in my son's class is missing a limb, but I see nothing else about him that could thwart his ambitions for a stellar career in business or politics down the road.
There's a Latino kid in the class who comports himself as if he's been drilled to understand that the weight of his family's future rests on his scrawny shoulders. And there are, indeed, a few black boys in the class who are doing well and whose reading and math skills surpass my son's, despite his mom's rigorous instruction at home every night.
Still, it's obvious in classrooms nationwide that too many black boys seem destined to get left behind.
Why? Because they lack the kind of nurturing at home that would instill in them the self-discipline, self-esteem and self-assertion it takes to succeed in school.
Back in 1984, when I was struggling through my first year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville (where minorities made up less than 5 percent of the student body), the Rev. Jesse Jackson stated, "There is no such thing as a parental aide to a teacher. The teacher is an aide to the parents. It's the parents who rear the children."
Those words couldn't ring truer today.
Unless more of us step up to guide black boys to the chalkboard, the future of a generation risks being erased.
A. Scott Walton is a reporter based in Atlanta.