For years, most in education circles have been acutely aware of a “boy crisis” in education — though around the world, girls are less likely to enter school, boys are significantly more likely to be held back, suspended, fail or drop out than their female counterparts and are more likely to be labeled as special needs — a truth that has remained for decades. When the conversation is disaggregated by race, the outcomes are even more disparate for black and Latino young males.
Lora A. Adams-King, superintendent of the Farrell Area School District in Farrell, PA, said the issue “is not that they dislike school or don’t have the ability to learn. The issue is that they [don’t] feel like school [is] relevant to them. They [don’t] feel like their teachers connected with them” or like they were connected to the school environment overall.
The problem doesn’t end in high school. The early disenfranchisement of boys, in their K-12 experience leads to lower levels of college enrollment and even lower levels of college completion for males, an issue President Barack Obama sought to address with his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and one that numerous scholars from around the globe convene to address at the annual International Colloquium on Black Males in Education.
Closing the achievement gap is more than just a social justice issue; there is an economic imperative to solve the persistent problem. As the demographics in this country continue to evolve towards a majority-minority composition, it is critical to the future of the U.S. workforce that educators find a way to solve the problem.
During a break from this year’s colloquium in Southampton, Bermuda, Adams-King said lack of identification with the school and academic motivation are the biggest factors contributing to the persistent achievement gap.
Not only that, said Erik Hines, an assistant professor in the University of Connecticut's Department of Educational Psychology and a trained school counselor, but students are harmed by differing treatment by school professionals, based on a bias the teacher brings into the classroom. Though the data on overrepresentation on disciplinary lists and suspension rosters and is well-documented, sometimes these biases result in lowered expectations and coddling these students — which is often even more detrimental to their ability to achieve at high academic levels.
Construct intentional learning environments.
This was the advice shared by Dr. Frank Tuitt, an associate professor in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.
This means creating “interactive and dynamic high-impact pedagogical practices,” and “personalizing the subject matter with lived experiences,” he said. It also means “utilizing diverse, interdisciplinary content” and “creating affirming, socially just learning environments.”
But not only that, said Hines, educators must “promote rigorous coursework to young males and provide support while students take those courses.”
“Work with them as early as fourth grade to develop an academic plan,” he said.
Utilize school counselors
“School counselors are really trained to encourage student success,” Hines said, emphasizing the value of “counseling sessions around career development and tying it into broader narratives” that are relevant to the students as a tool to help build connectedness to the curriculum.
Beyond just the academic guidance, counselors can also help fill in some of the more personal social-emotional gaps as well.
“We can whine about the lack of parental involvement all day and half the night; it’s not going to change,” Adams-King said. “The children cannot be penalized for the parents not being there.”
Consider the needs of the whole child
Hines encouraged educators to consider: “Are we using assurance-based framework to make sure the experiences our students come with can translate into academic success?”
Garita Coddington, principal of Francis Patton Primary School in Hamilton Bermuda, strongly believes empowering all students, but particularly male students of color, through leadership is the best way to counter any narrative around a “boy problem.”
“They have to have responsibilities,” she said. “If you have one that’s hyper or wants to bully, they need to be the teacher’s assistant.”
Hines concurred, referencing Maslow's hierarchy of needs as it relates to all people and its particular relevance to students: “Responsibility, ownership, belonging, all of these things that make us as human beings able to fulfill our purpose.”
Participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities can often provide that sense of belonging for students. Key, said Hines, is figuring out “How do we make sure their coaches are holding them accountable."
Build relevant personal connections to the curriculum
Crucial to the success of any child is considering each child’s talents, gifts, strengths and interests and ways to make the material relatable to each individual child, said Hines.
Young men, particularly young men of color, said Adams-King, “are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.”
Extrinsic motivations, she said, include money and success, but intrinsic motivations are ideas like “doing well so that others can see them doing well,” and success modeling for their families and communities.
Hines challenged educators to think about things like “how do we get students to understand how math relates to their community [and consider] how can you use math as a way to monetize what you’re doing?”
Invest in teacher training
Hines challenged school leaders to consider ways the entire school community can “adapt our [learning spaces] to our students, as opposed to them adapting to our teaching styles” or environmental structures.
“I know we throw this around a lot,” said Adams-King, “but teaching matters.” Pointing to a recent study of teachers of all races asked whether they believed African-American male students could be successful in which a majority replied no, she asked “how are they teaching them if they don’t think they can succeed? Why are they teaching them if they don’t think they can succeed?”
This is where the lowered expectations and deficit narratives come into play, and where previously held biases — even, in some cases about children who look like them — lead to a failure to implement a growth mindset, which many agree is critical to success.
“It’s a buy-in: believing they can do it and going above and beyond” to ensure they do, said Adams-King. She and Hines both highlighted the importance of professional development for teachers.
“Teachers already have the cultural capital,” Hines said, suggesting the importance of seeking out other individuals in the community and inviting them to the classroom to share and participate in success modeling for young men in the classroom.
“I tell my teachers, if the children are bored, it’s because of them,” Coddington said, mentioning both Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and Steven and Sean Covey’s 7 Habits as critical principles she requires her staff to embrace.
So far, those principles — centered around the idea that every student can achieve on a high level and should be held to a high standard — are working. The boys at Francis Patton are significantly represented in leadership positions, both at the classroom level and school-wide. And in the school’s one remedial classroom, girls outnumber the boys 7-3.
A top-down approach
“I have to have ongoing conversations with some of my colleagues” about the importance of cultural awareness, even before cultural sensitivity, said Adams-King. Before a change can take place in a district, she said, the district leaders must be fully informed of the problem, solutions and global impact of allowing it remain unaddressed.
“While this is an educational issue, every stakeholder still has a vested interest in solving this problem, because if we don’t get it right educationally, it will continue to be a societal problem,” said Adams-King, pointing to headlines about crime and social unrest around the globe.
“It starts with district leadership,” she said. “It starts with the superintendent, it starts with the Boards of Education, so they can vote on budgets and programs” that prioritize the needs of these students.