When the Status Quo Is Not Good Enough

Ivory A. Toldson Ph.D., Journal of Negro Education
Getty Images/The Washington Post

(The Root) — When it comes to educating black children in the U.S., business as usual is not good enough. Earlier this year, the Department of Education released the Civil Rights Data Collection (pdf) report. The study suggests that opportunity gaps that exist between black and white children across the country center around three key areas: 1. Schools routinely offer black children a less rigorous curriculum that omits classes required for college admission; 2. Schools discipline black children more harshly by suspending them for behaviors (e.g. tardiness) that rarely result in suspensions among white children; and 3. Black students are the most likely to have the lowest paid teachers with the fewest years of classroom experience, and who become teachers through alternative teacher certification programs.

Unfortunately, these inequities represent the status quo in our nation's schools, a status quo that has as many challengers as defenders. The latter often blame parents, and argue that most predominantly black schools are limited in what they can achieve because their students are academically unprepared and socially unruly. While legitimate issues among black children and their families exist, disputing that there are countless (and sometimes faceless) examples of negligent parents and miscreant children does little to resolve generations-old struggles to achieve parity in schools.


To challenge the status quo, we must concede to the following: In the current educational environment, even our most gifted students with the most dedicated parents can leave high school underprepared. In addition, we have yet to create an educational environment in the U.S. that is completely free of institutional racism and systemic biases. Therefore, no one can declare with certainty that irresponsible and apathetic behavior among black people is the root cause of achievement gaps. Finally, with community mobilization and political will we can change the status quo.

Two weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Chance Lewis and I released Challenge the Status Quo: Academic Success for School-Age Black Males (CTSQ) to a group at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Our message to the nearly 250 participants was clear: The problem with black male achievement is institutionalized, and the solution will demand deliberate systematic strategies that involve full cooperation between concerned citizens, parents, activists, teachers, school leaders and policymakers. 


This installment of Show Me the Numbers reveals the statistics that separate good schools from deficient schools. Through policy advocacy and community activism, the goal is for the following figures to augment or replace current assessments of a school's Adequate Yearly Progress, which is currently based solely on standardized test performance.

Numbers That Count

Four and four units of math and science: For schools to prepare students for the most competitive colleges and universities, they need to offer four units of math and four units of science. Most colleges require three units of math, including Algebra I, Geometry and an advanced math such as Algebra II. Colleges requiring four units usually require a math class beyond Algebra II such as Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Algebra III or Probability & Statistics. Colleges requiring three or four units of science usually specify Biology, Chemistry and one or two of the following: Physics (most common), Integrated Science, Aerospace Science, Anatomy and Physiology, Earth Science, Environmental Science, Physical Science, Physics II, Physics of Technology, Biology II or Chemistry II. Most colleges also require a lab course.


As a minimum standard, in CTSQ we recommend PREPS (public reciprocity for education for postsecondary success). In other words, every high school should offer a curriculum that, at a minimum, meets the admissions requirements for the most competitive public university of the state.

The widespread practice of public schools omitting classes required for public college admissions should be a violation of federal law. Immediately, individual schools and their governing school districts should provide a disclosure statement to students' parents and guardians that specifies any courses required for admissions to the most competitive public universities of the state that are not available in their curriculum. The disclosure statement should also provide educational options for students to access the necessary courses within the school district.


3.0 collective GPA: The mean grade point average of all students, regardless of race and gender, is a 3.0, according to the High School Transcript Study. In my research for the report Breaking Barriers, I've found that a school's collective GPA is a good measure of a myriad of positive outcomes, including reduced violence and increased college enrollment. Many schools with the worst problems have a composite GPA that is closer to a 2.0, and the students in their 90th percentile barely have a 3.0.

Many school leaders do not regularly monitor their collective GPA because, unlike with standardized test scores, it is not required by law. Every school should publish their composite GPA and make 3.0 or better a benchmark of success. If the school has a composite GPA that is less than 3.0, that school should have specific strategies to raise standards.


One strategy could be the "lifting tides" approach, whereby a school gathers all students in the top quartile and challenges them to raise the bar. At the same time, schools could provide learning supports and curriculum enhancement to other students.

Twenty-five percent or more black students in honors classes: Nationwide, 25 percent of high school students are enrolled in honors classes, according to the High School Longitudinal Survey. Thirty-three percent of white females take those types of courses, while it's 27 percent for white males, 22 percent for black females and 15 percent for black males. For a school to make adequate progress toward educating black children, they should offer them access to honors classes that meet or exceed honors class enrollment for all students nationally.


Six percent or less black students in special education: Nationwide, 6 percent of high school students are in special education. Our research in CTSQ demonstrates that black males are the most likely to be placed in special education, even in the absence of a learning or behavioral disorder. We also demonstrate that, in the right academic environment, even black males with disabilities can end up in honors classes. Adequate strides toward educating black children require that schools eliminate the biases related to assigning black males to special education, and make a commitment to reducing the representation of black males in special education to be at or below the national average for all students.

10 percent or less of black students have ever been suspended: No school can make adequate progress unless they suspend students at a rate that is less than the national average for all students. In CTSQ we calculated the national suspension rate for all students at 10 percent, and 26 percent for black males, based on the High School Longitudinal Survey.


However, I recently spoke to Dr. Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies project, and Dr. Russ Skiba, the principal investigator of the Equity Project, and they recommended that the benchmark for schools should be no more than 3 percent of students suspended. They based this number on extensive analyses that revealed that racial disparities in suspensions were so pervasive that a fair benchmark should only consider the rate of suspensions among white students.

In CTSQ, we explain that disengaged learners who lack the social acuity to manage learning environments are the students most vulnerable to suspensions, not students who pose legitimate risks to the security of the school. A focus on disciplining students often competes with learning, altering teachers' perceptions of their responsibilities toward their students. Giving support tools to disengaged students, such as tutoring, mentoring and counseling, can reconnect them to the academic process and reduce the odds that they misbehave.


One hundred percent of students involved in extracurricular activities: Schools should work to have nearly 100 percent of their students involved in extracurricular activities. In my first Breaking Barriers report, I found that extracurricular activities promote skills and values that foster a sense of attachment, commitment and responsibility to the school. Implementing more extracurricular activities, particularly those that instill school pride, appreciation of art and culture and academic identity can increase school performance and reduce violence at the school.

Unfortunately, when I ask school leaders, "What percent of your students are involved in an extracurricular activity?" the typical response is, "I don't know." Every school should take a homeroom survey of their students' participation in extracurricular activities. In cases where the participation rate is low, the school should have targeted initiatives to increase involvement. Specific examples of school activities are sports teams, band, orchestra, performing arts, debate teams, honor societies, foreign language clubs, math clubs and computers and robotics clubs.


Beyond the Numbers

Eliminate biases, stereotypes and misinformation from school staff: Many will say that these benchmarks are unrealistic for urban schools in impoverished communities. Those who take this position have often accepted a notion that perennial failure is endemic in the black community. Sadly, many people who hold this view are working directly with black children. This includes assumptions about black males being disaffected or socially marginalized.


Schools should operate under the philosophy that all black students are capable of the highest levels of academic achievement. To that end, I recommend having school staff view the documentary Hoodwinked, read Black People Don't Read and follow "Show Me the Numbers."

Provide trainings and resources to teachers: Understand that black males are the most likely to have teachers that are of a different race and gender, receive less pay and have fewer years teaching. As we reveal in CTSQ, the nation's teaching force is 63 percent white female, 80 percent white and less than 2 percent black male.


The federal government should provide funding to supplement teacher salaries in poor communities. Many districts have a tax structure that makes it difficult to recruit experienced and qualified teachers to poorer areas. In many districts, public school teachers in affluent areas make more than $10,000 more per year. Finally, the federal government needs to make district funding to Teach for America contingent upon them expanding the diversity of the core.

Parents also have a role to play: For their part, parents should alert local school board members, superintendents and principals of unfair treatment of their children. Such inequities might include discrepancies between college admissions criteria and high school class offerings; unfair tests or testing conditions; unreasonably harsh or inappropriate punishment; inadequate advisement of postsecondary options; denial of access to honors or Advanced Placement classes; and/or having unqualified personnel, such as a teacher, suggesting that the child has a behavior disability, might need medication or should be placed in special education. According to NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Damon Hewitt, concerns should be expressed around the issue of fundamental fairness and opportunities to learn within school districts.


Overall, parents should have the vigilance described in The Warrior Method, a book that explores how to aid black boys in becoming self-sufficient men, in today's often hostile educational climate. In addition, parents should strive to be present at the school. A recent study I completed with one of my graduate students, Brianna Lemmon, found that parents of high-achieving students visit the school at least eight times for meetings or to participate in activities throughout each academic year. Our article will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Human Behavior and the Social Environment.

Policy Advocacy

Members of the Black Male Achievement Research Collaborative and I will continue our dialogue at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference, which takes place Sept. 19-23 in Washington, D.C. Our dialogue is designed to dial down the "crisis" mantra and amplify research-based benchmarks for success.


The ALC will also be an opportunity to connect with members of Congress who have been instrumental in advancing an agenda consistent with the benchmarks proposed in CTSQ. CBC members Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) are currently encouraging members of Congress to sign a resolution to improve school climate and student achievement, raise awareness of school "pushout" (suspension) and promote dignity in schools. At last year's ALC, I partnered with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) to release the report Breaking Barriers 3, which built a foundation for CTSQ.

This year, with the help of the Open Society Foundation, the Target Foundation and The Root as a media partner, we will present an educational series at the 2012 ALC. Breaking Barriers 3: Government, Leadership and Sustainability for Black Male Achievement will be held on Friday, Sept. 21.


School implementation of these statistical benchmarks, along with providing trainings and resources to teachers, parent involvement and policy advocacy, can bring us closer to systematically changing the outcomes for black males in education. Overall, through a strategic agenda we can offer real solutions for real challenges, which will become the new mantra of school activists, the new expectation of parents and ultimately codified into federal and state law. Through collective action we can and will not only challenge but permanently change the status quo.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor for The Root. He can be contacted at itoldson@howard.edu. Follow him on Twitter.


Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.

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