Police shootings of black boys and men — Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald and so many others — have garnered considerable attention though little in the way of redress.
Receiving far less attention is a travesty of epic proportions being perpetrated on our nation’s black boys every day in schools: low levels of academic literacy.
Fifty-four percent of black fourth grade boys in the U.S. cannot read at even a “basic” level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — more than twice the rate of their white peers. That leaves them four times more likely to drop out of school than their peers who read at a “proficient” level and, if they do drop out, at great risk of unemployment, incarceration, chronic health problems and even premature death.
Even black male students who stay in school and graduate often have inadequate academic literacy skills, leaving them unable to succeed in postsecondary education and secure jobs that pay a living wage.
Our education system’s persistent failure to prepare black boys to fulfill their tremendous potential stems from the same pervasive racism that underlies the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men.
A criminal justice system that subscribes to the deeply ingrained myth of racial hierarchy and black male dangerousness too often leads to the unnecessary use of deadly force.
An education system that subscribes to the deeply ingrained myth of racial hierarchy and black male dangerousness too often leads to the unnecessary undereducation of black boys. Schools with higher proportions of black children and youth are likely to have, among other things, fewer and older books in their schools and classrooms; more regressive curricula; very low percentages of black teachers; poor-quality or nonexistent instruction in phonics, writing, science and social studies; and fewer opportunities to engage in literary analysis or share perspectives, arguments or creations that involve critical thinking.
Individually, black children and youth are likely to experience lower teacher expectations and, particularly in the case of boys, disproportionate disciplinary action.
Achieving urgently needed improvements in black male literacy outcomes requires a wide range of actions, all backed by educational, social and/or psychological research:
- allocating school funding more equitably;
- taking decisive action to significantly increase the number of black educators overall and black male educators in particular;
- providing high-quality curricula and instructional materials that engage the interests and build on the strengths of black boys;
- investing in upgraded access to culturally diverse books in classrooms, schools and homes;
- using effective and efficient instructional practices to develop phonics knowledge, vocabulary and many other contributors to literacy;
- ensuring regular opportunities for higher-order classroom discussion;
- providing professional development and coaching in instructional practices shown to foster literacy development;
- dramatically expanding access to high-quality summer literacy programs;
- establishing intensive and ongoing anti-racist education to raise teacher expectations;
- and engaging families as trusted and respected partners in children’s upbringing and literacy learning.
Innovative programs such as the Early Literacy Impact Project from the University of Illinois at Chicago are helping advance the reading, writing, and intellectual development of black boys in the primary grades. Chicago Public Schools is doubling down on equity; it recognizes that continuing to be a national leader in academic gains depends on the success of each and every child, including their black male students.
We know what to do to help our nation’s black boys fulfill their potential for high levels of academic literacy and better educational and life outcomes.
No less than in policing, acting on this knowledge is a moral imperative.
Ernest Morrell is the Coyle Professor of Literacy Education and director of the Center for Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame. Nell K. Duke, Ed.D., is a professor in literacy, language and culture and the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. Mimi Rodman is executive director of Stand for Children Illinois.
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