Losing a Generation: The Tragedy of Society Failing Young Males of Color

(Originally posted a year ago – and just relevant today)

Over the last few weeks the cyber airwaves have been clogged with commentary over the lack of diversity in the Oscars. There were no nominees of color among the major categories. At the awards ceremony, Chris Rock, the host (selected as host many months ago) directed his monologue at the lack of the diversity issue as did many of the winners. Vice President Biden, to a standing ovation, called for the end to on-campus sexual assaults; there were shout-outs to the LGBT community.  While these are all worthy causes, for me, the issue that continues to hang over us is the loss of generations of young men of color.

The numbers are both staggering and depressing.

* Only 52% of Afro-American males graduate high school in four years compared to 78% of white males.

* From 1978 to 2009 black males of color teen employment rate dropped from 58.1% to 14%

* In 2010 black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in prison or jails

* Black males are have staggeringly high rates of school suspension compared with all other students

(Boosting the Life Chances of Young Men of Color, MRDC, June 2014)

The list can go on and one – entering school in pre-k already far behind in vocabulary and basic literacy and numeracy skills, continuing to fall behind, discipline problems mount, chronic absenteeism, the lure of the streets wins the battle.

Two years ago President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper with the release of a major report, “Economic Costs of Youth Disadvantage, and High-Return Opportunities for Change.”

new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers explores the barriers that disadvantaged youth face, particularly young men of color, and quantifies the enormous costs this poses to the U.S. economy. In particular, this report focuses on the significant disparities in education, exposure to the criminal justice system, and employment that persist between young men of color and other Americans.

The New York City Young Men’s Initiative (YMI) is a multi-faceted program to engage young men of color across of wide spectrum: from mentoring at all levels,  the Department of Education Expanded Success Initiative  targeted to specific schools to mentoring at the college level.

The Board of Regents, under the leadership of Regent Young has established a Work Group to Improve Outcomes for Young Men of Color. Two large meetings, one on Brooklyn and one in Rochester, a glittering roster of attendees leading to specific requests for funding in the state budget as well as targeted recommendations to school districts (Click here for a Power Point of the Report)

UPDATE: Read the actual grants funded by the legislature and the detailed report co-authored by Professor Edward Fergus from tne Metro Center at NYU here.

Unfortunately schools and teachers have taken the blame for the alienation of black males. The “school to prison” pipeline, defined as harsh school discipline policies leading to a continuing diminution of academic success, and eventually troubles with the law and arrests is commonplace. There is no question that punitive discipline practices are counterproductive; instead of ridding the students of negative behaviors these policies, for example zero tolerance and frequent out of school suspension, exacerbate alienation. The recent video of a Success Academy teacher verbally assaulting a third grader, headlined “A Momentary Lapse or Abusive Teaching,” may be the norm in the Eva Moskowitz network and students who react negatively are pushed out. It is not the norm in public schools. There are no zero tolerance public schools in New York City, no out-of-school suspensions and suspensions across the city are sharply down.

At the February Regent Meeting the leader of the NYS Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children harshly condemned school discipline and suspense procedures and called for restorative justice and positive behavior approaches.(See Power Point). While there is nothing inherently wrong with these practices they are time-consuming and expensive, and, they occur after the action that precipitated the intervention.

The secret sauce is teachers, schools leaders and governmental policies that address the source of the alienation.

Students who live in high poverty neighborhoods commonly are victims of trauma.

A traumatic event is a sudden and unexpected occurrence that causes intense fear and may involve a threat of physical harm or actual physical harm. A traumatic experience may have a profound effect on the physical health, mental health, and development of the student.

The death of a parent or close relative, frequent housing dislocation, the illness of a parent or close relative, watching or being the victim of violent acts, situations that  are all too commonplace.

* Preschool students may lose recently acquired developmental milestones and may increase behaviors such as bedwetting, thumbsucking, and regress to simpler speech.

*  Elementary students may show signs of distress through somatic complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, and pains. These students may have a change in behavior, such as increase irritability, aggression, and anger. Their behaviors may be inconsistent. These students may show a change in school performance and have impaired attention and concentration and more school absences. Late elementary students may excessively talk and ask persistent questions about the event.

* Middle and high school students exposed to a traumatic event feel self-conscious about their emotional responses to the event. They often experience feelings of shame and guilt about the traumatic event and may express fantasies about revenge and retribution. A traumatic event for adolescents may foster a radical shift in the way these students think about the world. Some of these adolescents may begin to engage in self-destructive or accident-prone behaviors, and reckless behaviors. There may be a shift in their interpersonal relationships with family members, teachers, and classmates. These students may show a change in their school performance, attendance, and behavior.

Schools alone cannot be expected to deal with children to whom trauma is a natural occurrence. Currently city social service agencies function in silos: housing, health, social services, police, etc., rarely interact in a coordinated fashion to assist families, and, schools are at the bottom of the chain. Community schools may be a sensible approach and the governor has announced $100 million in the state budget for community schools.

(Read more on the impact of trauma on children here)

A core question; are teachers and school leaders properly prepared to work with students who attend schools with the disability of poverty?

David Kirkland, in his widely acclaimed book,  “A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men,”  New York: Teachers College Press, 2013, is critical of traditional definitions of literacy,

There is a fatal assumption made when literacy is regarded as a possession, usually owned by schools and the dominant group. In making such assumptions, we disregard the linkages between language and discourse, between discrimination and racism… The mechanisms of society, including schooling, become ways of enforcing the perspectives of the privileged.

Kirkland argues that we must reach students where they are and not require them to meet us, to accept a broader, a much broader definition of literacy. (Watch an 80-minute lecture by Kirkland here – riveting!)

We have not done a good job of recruiting prospective teachers, training them and most importantly supporting them on the job. The new national Commission on the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) standards will substantially raise the bar for entrance into teacher education programs. Unfortunately at the state level the four new exam requirements (edTPA, EAS, ALST and Content) may actually discourage rather than assure better prepared teachers. College programs should be clinically-based, as much time in school classrooms as possible, with residency programs preferable, and, in-service teachers need constant support on the job.

The support on the job, what we call professional development, is, to be polite, inadequate. To their credit the Department of Education require principals to include common planning time in teacher schedules, and, there is general agreement that teachers can benefit from working in teams; however, common planning time meetings commonly mean developing lesson plans or term calendars or curriculum maps with little actual student-centered discussion and no understanding of the power and shortcomings of teams.

A fascinating New York Times essay,  ‘What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” explores the strengths and weaknesses of teams.

New research reveals surprising truths about why some groups thrive and others falter.

Too often professional development means sitting in an auditorium listening to a sage spout words of wisdom as the Power Point twirls across the screen. Common planning time means bearing a colleague who dominates the discussion with complaints instead of an exchange of ideas. The Google article is lengthy and valuable.

If a lesson is not going well speaking slower and louder is not going to make the students learn more, or, to use the Success Academy paradigm, shaming students rarely leads to better outcomes. Failing to understand that, you, the teachers, have to change your lesson if you expect different outcomes, is distressing.

A kid sat right by my desk, he was small for his age, acned, and constantly the butt of “inappropriate” comments, today we would call it bullying.  One day he apologized for not doing his homework, which was usually barely adequate. “I was practicing.”  I asked him what he was practicing; he played in a garage band, heavy metal music, which to me sounds like loud, unpleasant noises.  I asked him if he had a cassette of the music: his usual dour eyes glowed, “Really? He asked.”  I passed the cassette on to a friend who told me the kids had some talent and suggested some open mike clubs. I passed on the info, the kid who was really excited.

He came to class every day, always with his homework and was much more engaged.

For the next couple of years I received Christmas Cards with very nice complements and an occasional notice about an upcoming performance in a club.

I didn’t love his music, I didn’t even like his music; however, it was his music. I showed an interest in him when everyone else bullied or ignored him. I was doing what, hopefully, we all do … I was showing an interest in a student and he reached out and engaged in class.

The governmental leaders must do their job fighting the corrosive impact of poverty and we have to constantly hone our teaching skills.


3 responses to “Losing a Generation: The Tragedy of Society Failing Young Males of Color

  1. Regent Beverly L. Ouderkirk

    Great example! Thanks for sharing. Please know I also serve on Regent Youngs’ work group as referenced above. Respectfully, Regent Ouderkirk


  2. Convicts become criminals before going to jail.
    Unwed mothers become pregnant before going to the maternity ward.
    Children become unsuccessful students before entering kindergarten.


  3. Ken Karcinell

    I’ll agree with the premise of the school system failing young men and should also be included young women of color. It has for done so for all of my 50 years of association with The NYC Bd. Of Ed. I do however reject the notion that because school suspensions are down, that things are better. That faulty evidence is simply owed to a MAyoral mandate via The Chancellor that suspensions must be tuned down. SO what you have are suspendable offenses being quashed. As for Obama, he could have done so much more and he just didn’t. Why pick Arne Duncan when there are so many national highly qualified men and women of color that he could have chosen from to be the Sec of Education? I have always believed that African and American families as well as Latino ones, have as high a regard for education as white middle class ones. But I have always believed that many of the youth from these families have had to learn how to trust and respect white teachers , whereas when confronted with non white teachers that trust and by extension willingness to learn was immediately given. Lastly, for too many years the deliverance of corporal punishment at the hands of black teachers and Deans were acceptable to too many families of color. Joe Clark was no hero to me.
    Finally, if you are trying to reach out to Black men in our school system, you dont do that with a female Chancellor. No I’m not a male chauvinist. Thats just the way I see it.


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