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Black Children Still Left Behind

Educators seek new strategies to address persistent achievement gaps and discrimination against African-American students.
A teacher helps a student at Hudson K-8 School in the Birmingham (Ala.) City Schools. The district works to ensure school is a priority for students.

It's a familiar refrain in American education: African-American children score lower on standardized tests, graduate high school at lower rates, and are considerably more likely to be suspended or expelled than the general population.

Two recent reports, one from the Council of the Great City Schools and one from the American Institutes for Research, reveal that the achievement gaps are still large between African-American and white students. But concerted efforts in certain states and districts have shown that the historical trend doesn't have to remain the same, and overall the picture may have brightened slightly over the past decade or two, according to statistics and anecdotal observations.

Still, some activist groups and educational researchers fear the systematic federal evaluations conducted under the No Child Left Behind law have given districts and states powerful incentives to move lower-achieving students out of their general populations to special education placements, alternative schools, or elsewhere—perhaps dovetailing with an urgency to create zero-tolerance discipline policies.

A report from the Washington-based Advancement Project, called "Test, Punish and Push Out," makes a stark accusation: "The practice of pushing struggling students out of school to boost test scores has become quite common." The report, released last January, focuses on graduation rates in the nation's 25 largest school districts with at least 80 percent black and Latino student enrollment, in the years immediately before and after No Child Left Behind was passed. From 1996 to 2002, 19 of these 25 districts saw graduation rates increase, 11 of them by more than 10 percent.

Standing at Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in the Baltimore City (Md.) Public Schools last fall, a student thinks ahead to the new school year.

But after the law passed, from 2002 to 2006, 19 of the 25 saw graduation rates decrease, eight by more than 10 percent. Those figures support the theory that the pressure to boost test scores after No Child Left Behind led students to be pushed out, although Jim Freeman, project director with Advancement Project's Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track project, acknowledges the numbers do not provide hard proof. "It's correlation evidence but not causation evidence," he says. "We're trying to get behind those numbers and figure out what's going on. Policies like exclusionary discipline,and high-stakes testing and tracking, have created a hostile and alienating environment, particularly for students of color."

Horace Hall, education professor at DePaul University and a former special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools, sees a different connection between achievement and discipline: black students, particularly boys, being erroneously shunted to special ed because they're behind in reading, then developing behavior disorders due to mislabeling. "If you're behind two or three years in reading because you weren't taught the basics by third grade, [and] you're supposed to be an independent reader— [then] you're labeled as learning disabled," he says. "You're told you're a dummy. You get angry about that. And then you've been labeled a behavior disorder."

Freeman cites as a model the Baltimore City Public Schools, which has a student body that's 88 percent African-American. A reworking and rethinking of the district's get-tough disciplinary policies focusing more on prevention and intervention techniques rather than punitive measures have led to a drop in out-of-school suspensions from 16,752 to 9,705 in the last three years, says Jonathan Brice, the district's executive director of student support.

And less punitive discipline can help catalyze academic growth in part because students are not out of school serving suspensions and they're not potentially getting messages that school is not the place for them. Dropout rates fell 34 percent between 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, district figures show, while standardized test scores rose across all grade levels.

"As our suspension numbers have gone down, we've seen achievement go up, and our attendance has improved as well," Brice says. "They're all interrelated. They're all interwoven. You can't look at one in isolation. What you realize is that our focus has to be on young people coming into an environment where they're able to learn. You've got to set the conditions that will allow that to occur."

Achievement Gap Narrows

Long-term data on the much-discussed achievement gap between white and black students shows uneven improvement over the past few decades. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results since 1980 show that gaps in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores have either narrowed or, at worst, stayed the same. But the most current data, from 2009, still show great gaps.

For example, only 12 percent of fourth-grade black male students performed at or above proficiency in reading on the 2009 National Assessment for Educational Progress, compared with 38 percent of white males. And in eighth grade, only 12 percent of black males across the country performed at or above proficiency in math, compared with 44 percent of white males.

And a new report by the Council of Great City Schools calls the statistics a "national catastrophe." Those achievement gaps will persist as long as there's an "opportunity gap" that prevents students in high-poverty areas from receiving an equal education, Freeman says, citing factors like "high-quality teachers" and "high-quality educational resources" that he says districts and schools in such places tend to lack.

When it comes to graduation rates, 2006 figures from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, the latest statistics available, show that out of 48.5 million students nationwide, 56 percent were white, 17 percent were African- American, and 20 percent were Hispanic. But of those who received a high school diploma in 2006: 67 percent were white, 13 percent were African-American, and 14 percent were Hispanic.

A Baltimore City Public Schools? teacher helps a student with disabilities at George W. F. McMechen High School. The district strives to instill the message that black students belong in the system.

More alarming is a recent report from the Schott Foundation, titled "Yes We Can," which shows the graduation rate in 2008 for African-American males to be 47 percent, far below the 78 percent tallied by white males. The report's author, Michael Holzman, senior research manager at Schott, says that in addition to covering only males, his data differs from that of the Civil Rights Office because the latter does not capture the quality of certain schools. "Any individual can persist in their educational endeavors," he says. "But that [federal data] doesn't tell us much about the quality of the education that's being offered by the high school."

Holzman believes African-American student achievement hasn't changed much in 20 years, after progress in the 1970s and 1980s, and he sees the need for greater investment in schools with more minority and poor students. "We're hitting up against hard, systemic racism," he says. "When schools appear to be black, districts stop investing."

Holzman puts forth as a typical example the contrast between Chicago Public Schools, which spends $10,000 per student, and the wealthy and mostly white New Trier district in Chicago's northern suburbs, which spends $20,000. "Are we saying that white kids are worth twice as much as black kids?" he says. "When the per-student expenditure goes up, the black graduation rate skyrockets."

What Reauthorizing ESEA Means

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) hopes the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more than three years overdue, will address these issues on a broader scale. CDF believes the federal investments embodied in the original ESEA set in motion a couple decades of progress in narrowing the achievement gap and otherwise improving African-American student achievement.

But by the late 1980s, this progress slowed, says Gill Cook, senior policy associate at CDF. "The way our schools work, it's been almost a dual system keeping a lot of kids poor," Cook says. "We hope ESEA reauthorization will reach out to vulnerable children and give them a level playing field."

Among the steps CDF believes should be taken are greater parent and community engagement, formative assessments that measure student growth over time, and thoughtfully executed after-school and summer learning opportunities. Plus, Cook adds, "the best practices include having a really good teacher in every classroom."

The barriers to achieving that goal are a lack of funding and a need for union reforms. "Seniority has been an incredible barrier," she says. "We pay those teachers so much more. The incentive is to sit on that job. We need to get balance between great conditions and collegiality, but also rewarding real effort and effectiveness."

Dropout Factories

Bob Balfanz, professor at Johns Hopkins University, has researched what he terms "dropout factories": the 12 percent of high schools, almost all in areas of concentrated poverty, that produce half of the nation's dropouts and almost two-thirds of minority dropouts. He believes African- American achievement hit bottom about a decade ago, based on his research into graduation rates, and he has seen some evidence of higher graduation rates among African-American and Hispanic students since then.

Whereas before the graduation percentage was in the 50s, now it's in the low 60s, he says. "It's still horrible and a national crisis," Balfanz says. "It's at least going in the right direction, but not nearly fast enough. I think it's important because some people think there's no hope. Depending on where you focus, you can tell a very sober story, or you can tell one that at least has tinges of hope."

Balfanz sees poverty as the key correlate among schools in his "dropout factory" designation. Where people once tried to predict dropout likelihood based on demographics like race, gender or special education status, in recent years, Balfanz says, researchers and policymakers have begun to focus on students' behavior, attendance and failure in core subjects like math and English as early as sixth grade— which means that starting interventions in high school is not soon enough. "People are realizing that middle schools are a key part of the equation," he says. "Half of the potential dropouts are sort of waving their hands in sixth grade. In ninth grade, you can identify 75 percent of dropouts. The good news is, that's leading a lot of states and districts to develop early warning systems."

Students at Hudson K-8 School, which opened in 2009 in the Birmingham City Schools, benefit from the district's beefed-up curriculum rigor with a wider aray of Advanced Placement classes.

Balfanz adds that the data show that students in a high-poverty environment, don't grow out of skipping school. "Absent intervention, it gets worse," he says. "At least people are starting to pay attention."

The conclusions of his research emphasize innovative approaches for at-risk students, including integrated connections with social service and community supports, and college and workplaces for mentorship and world experiences, to disrupt the "cradle-to-prison" pipeline. Hardscrable Newark (N.J.) Public Schools, for example, had 75 percent of its black male students graduate last year. Holzman attributes Newark's success— which could multiply with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's recent $100 million donation to the district—to state Supreme Court-mandated reforms under the Abbott v. Burke case of the late 1990s. It required per-pupil funding in 31 poor urban communities to be similar to that of successful suburban districts, along with supplemental early literacy, health and social services.

Blacks Still Punished

Federal statistics on suspensions and expulsions lend credence to the claim that African-American students are punished disproportionately. Out of the 48.5 million total students in the 2006 DOE Office of Civil Rights report, 17 percent were African-American, but blacks were more than double the percentage of those impacted by corporal punishment (36 percent), out-of-school suspension (37 percent) and expulsions (38 percent).

A recent study from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which draws upon four decades of federal data on 9,220 of the country's 16,000 public middle schools, reveals that black boys were three times as likely to be suspended as white boys, and black girls were four times as likely to be suspended as white girls.

The study, "Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis," showed increases in suspension rates overall and for black students. Between 1973 and 2006, the figure climbed from 4 percent to 7 percent of all students, and from 6 percent to 15 percent of all black students. "The suspensions and expulsions are out of control in a lot of our high schools," Cook says. "It's pushing a lot of kids into juvenile justice, directly, or pushing them out into the streets. When children are suspended for 35 and 45 days, you can't make up that year of school—ever. It's creating dropouts. And it's often for very arbitrary reasons—three strikes and you're out—or just being late to school."

Freeman agrees that strict zero-tolerance discipline often leads to many students falling below grade-level testing targets, which is also prevalent in dropout factories. "These places that have very high suspension and expulsion rates, and excessive reliance on law enforcement— those are the students who are creating the achievement gap," he says. "We're talking about two weeks or a month out of class."

Baltimore's Ambassadors

Advancement Project has been working closely with Baltimore City Public Schools, where Freeman says CEO Andres Alonso has "taken school discipline issues very seriously. They've been focusing more on prevention and intervention techniques rather than punitive measures," he says.

Students at the Promise Academy 1 charter school in the Harlem Children's Zone in New York have longer school days compared to students in most public schools.

Brice says the district three years ago overhauled its code of conduct, saving out-of-school suspensions for the most egregious offenses while attempting to return kids to the straight-and-narrow through a "comprehensive and robust level of support for students" that includes an IEP-like team of psychologists, social workers and administrators that's deployed whenever a student's behavior and/or academic record raises red flags.

"It's the code of conduct. It's the support for kids, so kids aren't acting up. It's the early identification," Brice says. "When you put all those things in place, kids respond, parents respond. You change the culture from one in which it's about putting kids out on the street, to one in which it's about helping young people be successful."

Chief Academic Officer Sonja Santelises adds that the district has worked to identify students who have leadership potential but seem in danger of using those skills to the wrong ends, such as on behalf of street gangs, and has encouraged them to join a leadership development program called "youth ambassadors." These ambassadors become a sounding board for other students and a "student cabinet" of sorts that speaks with the principal about concerns.

Although such initiatives don't specifically target African-Americans, Santelises says they might be the most beneficial. "It is important for young African-American students to know they can lead ? because they live in a culture where, our current president notwithstanding, they don't get that message," she says.

The district tries to instill a message about the importance of achievement. "How do we support kids to build the skills for resilience when many of them live in environments where it is a major feat to get up and come to school in the morning?" she asks.

Birmingham Redeemed

Freeman also favorably cites Birmingham (Ala.) City Schools as a district that's created a partnership with the local court system to ensure that while schools are kept safe, students whose disciplinary infractions are first-time and nonviolent receive a lesser consequence, such as community service, so they can stay in school and, when possible, avoid a criminal record.

Superintendent Craig Witherspoon says his district is coupling that with beefed-up curriculum rigor—from a wider array of Advanced Placement classes, to a middle-school program called "Laying the Foundation" that prepares students for such classes—and more professional development and formative assessments. "We know that African-American students, whether in poverty or nonpoverty, can achieve at a higher level," says Witherspoon, whose district is more than 98 percent black and has seen graduation rates fluctuate between 80 percent and 86 percent over the past six years.

The graduation rate is often affected by issues in elementary and middle school. "We're attempting to identify students a lot earlier and look at what structures we have in place to support them," he says.

Witherspoon says that for children from troubled backgrounds, that can mean partnering with social service agencies. "If their home life is such that school is not a priority, ... you have to make sure those supports are in place," he says.

Charter School Charm

Among the organizations often cited by educational experts as displaying best practices in lifting up poor and minority children is the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, which runs two charter schools and after-school programming that provides the kind of wraparound services that Witherspoon mentions.


The charter schools, which feature longer days and school years than most public schools, are too new to have NAEP data to prove their success, says Marty Lipp, spokesman for Harlem Children's Zone. But among those participating in the after-school programs, where they receive homework help, tutoring, health care and social work interventions as needed, 90 percent have not only graduated high school but have gone to college.

Suspension and expulsion rates are "negligible," Lipp says, adding that most students in the charter schools and after-school programs are black and Latino. "We do whatever it takes," Lipp says. "Whatever the barrier is to learning, we try to erase. ... It's a broader definition of education, [and] in a sense [it's] going into youth development."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Illinois.