Back to school with a wake-up call

  • Article by: KATE SATTLER and D.A. BULLOCK
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 6:24 PM

Teacher biases, not student shortcomings, cause racial achievement gaps.

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There’s nothing wrong with black boys (“Schools attend to black males,” Aug. 26). It’s the classroom that needs to change. That’s the truth Minneapolis students, families, teachers, staff and residents need to hear.

Last week, the Minneapolis public schools launched an Office of Black Male Student Achievement, designed to tackle the district’s disparately poor educational outcomes for African-American boys. Black boys in district schools in Minneapolis — and across Minnesota — are much less likely than their white peers to be proficient in math and reading and to graduate high school. Conservatives and liberals alike cite socioeconomic factors like poor parenting and housing instability as culprits for this gap (although they tend to use different vernaculars in doing so).

The truth is, black students fare worse than white students not just at high-poverty schools but also in affluent communities such as southwest Minneapolis and Edina. And while research shows that parental involvement in education is generally consistent across races, ethnicities and incomes, black students are more likely than white students to do homework outside of school, to have a place set aside for studying and to have an adult always check the homework. An adult is also more likely to always check homework in “poor” vs. “nonpoor” homes, in cities vs. suburbs and in homes where the parents have a high school diploma vs. a graduate degree.

What does vary is how black and white students are perceived by the people most directly responsible for their classroom learning — their teachers. Research shows that on average teachers perceive black students as exerting less effort and having more behavioral problems than white students (with other factors held constant). The impact? Teacher perceptions of student classroom effort and behavior account for 42 percent of the black-white gap in realizing academic potential. That’s compared with the approximately 16 percent accounted for by differences in household income, family structure and parents’ education combined. In other words, on average teachers expect less from black students, and those low expectations are a significant barrier to black students’ academic growth.

So rather than explore ways to adjust black male students’ behavior, the district would be wise to look in the mirror and adjust its own. Rather than design new out-of-school supports, it must first ensure its black students feel welcomed, supported and challenged in its classrooms. The district must see to it that every Minneapolis public schoolteacher has the mind-set and skills needed to ensure that black students (and indeed all students) gain at least a year’s worth of learning each year.

We can’t deny the truth any longer. We now have a growing control group: Thousands of African-American boys from low-income families attend charter and parochial schools, with teachers who expect great things from them and who hold themselves accountable for their students’ academic success. Black boys in those schools are leading the state in educational achievement. Not surprisingly, black families are increasingly choosing those schools for their children.

The district would be smart to engage with those families, in addition to the thousands of black students and families currently enrolled in the district. Their concerns must be heard and addressed. Fortunately, community outreach will be a major focus of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

But it’s even more urgent that the district assess its own staff and teachers for bias and low expectations. If any district teachers do not believe black students are capable of learning in their classrooms, we should believe them and relieve them. Research shows children live up to or down to teachers’ expectations. Our children are too precious for anything less than success.

 

Kate Sattler and D.A. Bullock are communications professionals and Minneapolis residents.

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