Moving Beyond Small Upticks in Achievement

Published sep. 06, 2012

As a participant in this year’s Black Male Summit at the U.S. Department of Education, I was impressed by the wide range of perspectives offered to structure and protect equitable academic and social pathways for African-American males in the United States. I was also impressed by the tone of the conversation. The focus on African-American males moved beyond the ongoing crisis narrative to solutions.

The young males who participated in the conference brought truth-to-power as they reflected on their educational experiences and the voicelessness and invisibility they experience in schools and other academic settings. They were calling for peer and adult advocates to help protect their rights in this nation as they move forward in what they perceive as indifferent or hostile environments.

The overall rallying cry of the summit was a call for a broader frame of in-school and out-of-school solutions that honor the full humanity of African-American males across the academic spectrum—both high academic performers and low academic performers. Part of this cry related to advancing the reading and writing achievement of young African-American males and resisting some authorized instructional practices that only yield small upticks in reading achievement.

There was a growing consensus that reading difficulties are at the epicenter of many of the academic and social outcomes for African-American males that are in need of reversal. Additionally, it was acknowledged that poverty is real in America, but that poverty does not gives us permission to fail these boys at disproportionate rates. At one point I raised the question: How much money do parents need to have in order to teach African-American males the alphabet, or teach them how to read complex text fluently, or teach them how to write, or teach them how to fall in love with texts? This is more a question of competence and commitment among educators than one of economics.

We must continue to have the tough and honest conversations in unapologetic ways as we move toward solutions. We must also be intentional to ensure we are structuring and protecting equitable pathways for these young males from the cradle to college. And, we must ensure that reading and writing are not barriers to their potential success. This is the primary message, among others, that I took away from the summit that aligns with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Alfred W. Tatum authored "Literacy Practices for African-American Male Adolescents" as part of Students at the Center: Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core, a JFF initiative funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Students at the Center synthesizes existing research on key components of student-centered approaches to learning.