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  Transforming the education of black males

—by Joshua Parker M’10

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. —Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird 

Bursting into my room, before my eyes are even open, comes my son, all 44 inches of him. He climbs on me and begins an elaborate set of gestures and sounds to engage me. As I wake, these sounds and gestures morph into a torrent of words, phrases, hops and jumps.

Transforming the education of black malesThis is him, all the time: a bright and energetic boy who is eager to engage, to play and to please. He is not unlike many black boys who enter our schools, eager to learn and with dreams of who they might become.

Sadly, those dreams often start to dissipate with each advancing year. A recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found a significant gap in the achievement of African-American males compared to their White and Latino counterparts in reading, math and vocabulary. Educational achievement gaps contribute to significant life gaps.

A young black man fresh out of high school is more likely to go to prison, more likely to have a low-paying job and more likely to die a victim of homicide than a man of any other ethnicity.

Since I received my Master of Arts in Leadership in Teaching at Notre Dame in 2010, the school’s motto has stuck with me: Veritatem Prosequimur. Pursue Truth. This phrase always pulls me toward the plight of black boys in American classrooms. We have known the truth. For decades. (I recently uncovered an article about this topic written in the 1960s.) It has not gotten appreciably better.

What are the consequences if this trend continues for another 50 years?  What are the costs to individuals and society as our brothers and sons continue to underachieve? Above all, one question stands out for me as an educator:

What can we do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Colleges and universities need to renew their focus on scholarship related to effective strategies and programs that result in high achievement, holistically, for black boys. 
  • Active, early recruitment of more African-American males to the teaching profession must be a top priority. 
  • Educators should work to develop empathy for black male students, endeavoring to understand the root causes of the energy, enthusiasm and even aggression that many black boys display. Culturally responsive instruction depends upon a foundation of understanding.

One late night not too long ago, while in a grocery store checkout line, I encountered a young man I had taught in high school. I was so happy to see him. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, and as we parted, I wished him the best, hoping to myself that he had been able to overcome the struggles he’d faced as a teenager. As I loaded my car in the parking lot, I found myself transfixed on him as he drifted towards the sidewalk, seemingly without a destination, into the night.

I flashed back to my own son’s energetic morning wake-up calls. My former student was once that same boy. He once flashed that same smile. He once ran through bedroom and schoolroom seeking warmth, knowledge and approval. At that moment, it was difficult for me to decide what was worse: watching that young man walk away alone in the dark or envisioning what he had to look forward to in his life.

Let’s not let any more of our young boys turn into victims. Let’s accept the challenge to change how we educate black males and refuse to give up on them. Let’s educate them as leaders and transform lives.

Joshua Parker M’10 was a teacher at Baltimore County’s Windsor Mill Middle School when he was named Maryland’s 2012 Teacher of the Year. He is now a Title I compliance specialist.

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