Closing the Achievement Gap for African-American Males: An Economic Imperative
by Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder and CEO, PolicyLink
In the United States, a black public school student is suspended every four seconds, while every 27 seconds a black high school student drops out of school. Black students are also 3.5 times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. Within this group, black male students fare the worst.
At PolicyLink, our mission is to achieve equity by “Lifting Up What Works.” We find innovations and strategies that expand opportunity and, working with local partners, get what’s working into policy so that effective innovations are more widely disseminated. We are particularly inspired by the strategies being employed by the Oakland Unified School District, where in 2008-09 only 49 percent of black males graduated, compared with 72 percent of white males and 61 percent district-wide, and where 18 percent of African-American males were expelled at least once, compared with 3 percent of white male students and 8 percent of students district-wide.
In response to those disturbing numbers, OUSD opened an Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) in 2010. With funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, the California Endowment, and Kaiser Permanente, AAMA is working to change educational outcomes for young men of color — and in the district as a whole — in innovative ways. For instance, many Oakland high schools and middle schools now offer Manhood Development Classes, in which African-American men from the community teach skills designed to help students navigate the conflicting value systems they experience in different areas of their lives. Family and parent summits at each school include “data walks” where parents and kids are provided with charts detailing educational outcomes at the school as well as where the gaps in access and learning occur. And those efforts are bearing fruit: in 2012 the U.S. Department of Education announced a voluntary resolution of the compliance review initiated against OUSD regarding the disproportionate harshness and frequency of disciplinary measures meted out to African-American students. The district has even been cited as a model for other districts across the country due to its intense efforts to improve in this area.
Why is an initiative in one California city important? For starters, the country is undergoing a profound demographic transformation. In 2012, for the first time, more than half of all babies born in the United States were born to people of color. As that trend continues, the very racial and ethnic groups that traditionally have been left behind will account for an ever larger share of the population, so that by 2042 the U.S. will be a “majority minority” nation. On the way to that milestone, demographers expect a majority of U.S. youth to be of color by 2018, and a majority of the young workforce to be of color by 2030.
How will that changing workforce fare in the global economy? Forty-five percent of all U.S. jobs in 2018 are projected to require at least an associate’s degree, yet among today’s workers only 27 percent of African Americans have achieved that level of education. Closing the wide and persistent racial gap in educational attainment is not only the right thing to do; it is an economic imperative and the key to building the kind of workforce the American economy needs to thrive in the twenty-first century.
Turning today’s youth into tomorrow’s skilled workers and innovators is critical to restoring America’s growth and competitiveness. Given the demographic trends, political, education, business, and community leaders, together with philanthropists, must address the gaping racial disparities in educational outcomes, income, health, and employment that serve as a drag on the economy and diminish its potential. Oakland is unique in that it has acknowledged and is addressing the systemic inequities in its school system, implementing programs that directly target students most at risk.
OUSD has focused on changing the culture of its schools, training teachers to be more aware of their biases and revamping a disciplinary system that in the past has responded to behavioral issues by removing students from the classroom — and thus from the opportunity to learn. By improving educational outcomes for young men of color, we are better positioned to leverage everyone’s talents and creativity to build a twenty-first century economy that works for all.
Oakland has the right idea. It takes a sustained and collaborative effort on the part of government, business, funders, parents, and other members of the community to provide young people with a clear path to a prosperous future. Yet we too often fail to target our resources to those who need them most. Young boys and men of color can and must be co-creators of our collective economic future. We at PolicyLink believe it is imperative that funders and leaders around the country come together now to support similar efforts to address systemic inequities and close the educational attainment gap. Nothing less than our future is at stake.
This commentary originally appeared in Philanthropy News Digest.