Black boys show ‘genius every single day but schools suck the life out of them’ says leading Black education expert

A recent panel, hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative, defined what a ‘culture of care’ in education would look like for Black boys. #successforblackboys

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Two of the nation’s Black leading experts in Black male achievement discussed “Defining a culture of care for Black boys” during a recent panel moderated by Camille Busette, senior fellow at Brookings Institution Metro, Economic Studies and Governance Studies. Busette is also director of the organization’s Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative.

The experts included Julius Davis, University System of Maryland Wilson H. Elkins professor of mathematics education in the department of teaching, learning and professional development at Bowie State University, and Tyrone Howard, is a professor of education in the school of education & information studies at UCLA and director of the UCLA Black Male Institute.

The panel shared powerful insights about the challenges Black boys and their parents and caregivers face in trying to better Black children’s educational outcomes. Howard, who researches issues tied to race, culture, access and educational opportunity for minoritized student populations, said during the panel Black boys have been among the most “scrutinized, analyzed and criticized subjects in research for centuries.” Black boys are “adultified” and are often presumed to be bigger, older and more aggressive than they are, he said.

Black boys make up 8% of preschoolers but one third of all “babies” who are suspended from preschool, said Howard, who is the author of several best-selling books, including “Why Race & Culture Matters in Schools” and “All Students Must Thrive.”

“Black boys show all kinds of [subability] and genius every single day, but schools suck the life out of them. Suck the creativity out of them,” Howard said.

Black boys need high quality preschools and high quality teachers, to master reading by the 3rd grade and school discipline reforms, Howard said.

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Davis is the founding director of the Center for Research and Mentoring of Black Male Students and Teachers and is the author of over 40 scholarly publications and two books. The lead editor of “Critical Race Theory in Mathematics Education” and co-author of “Black Males Matter: A Blueprint for Creating School and Classroom Environments to Support their Academic and Social Development” said he always looks for Black boys’ gifts and talents.

Examples of a culture of care for Black boys would include schools that uplift Black boys with “positive, affirming words,” educators inside who look like them and teaching Black boys about their culture and history, he said. Many Black boys have never heard a “good compliment, received an award or been celebrated for anything in a school setting before,” he said.

“And I think that that should not be the case,” he said, during the panel.

Race & Poverty

Howard: “I was able to witness firsthand growing up in a Black community so many of the challenges and obstacles that Black boys face on a day-in-day-out basis. And what I also recognize is I thought many, many of those issues were tied to the fact that we grew up poor and I thought that poverty was really the real factor that explained why Black boys face what we face. . . So this is an obvious issue, no matter what your socioeconomic status is. And we have to be clear and careful to not allow poverty to be the proxy for us not to discuss race and racism.”

Creating a ‘movement’ for Black boys

Howard: “Despite all of the data that continues to come out that paints Black boys as being problematic, pathologized, underperforming, I think it’s time for us to be intentional in saying: What does it look like to create a specific type of intervention, a specific movement that’s specifically targeted for Black boys?’”

Defining a culture of care for Black Boys.

Black boys & STEM

Davis: “There’s this misnomer that Black boys are not successful in STEM education, when in fact, they are, and actually in some of the research that I have done around the country, Black boys are excelling at such high levels in programs, that folks are having a hard time providing them with more challenging material . . . Unfortunately, most of these experiences are happening outside of school. They’re not happening in their classroom context.”

Davis: “We don’t think that Black boys can handle the challenge, but the problem is they haven’t gotten the challenge and they haven’t been shown or believed in – that they can achieve in these areas. Once we give them the opportunity, they perform well for us.”

What does a ‘culture of care’ look like?

Howard said one of his sons is a graduate of Morehouse College, which has high expectations.

Howard: “There’s a set of beliefs. There was a system, an ecosystem that says: You will succeed. That says: You are great . . . I think you can take a model at Morehouse College and begin to say: What does that look like in K-12 schools?”

Davis: “I think an intentional focus on Black boys is necessary because they have a unique set of experiences . . . The thing that we continually see across the research span is that Black boys are marginalized in all these contexts. And there’s something about Black boys that raises these things where we don’t want to question racism. We want to blame them and their family.”

Davis: “And so I think that in the policy space, if we’re going to create a culture of care, when we actually produce these (task force) documents, we have to actually execute them.”

How do educators’ beliefs about Black boys affect their education?

Howard: “We have to ask a very difficult question: What is it that the adults who teach Black boys truly think about them? Do you see their promise or potential, or do you only see them as problems? Do you see their genius and intellect, or do you see them as someone who has to constantly be surveilled and watched? Do you see their full humanity?”

Howard: “A culture of care is one that says you know what? We’re not going to demonize you or criminalize you or pathologize you because your family structure may not look the way that mine, as the teacher, looks. We’re going to create a culture of care that says: A. We believe in you. We’re going to hold you accountable . . . I also think that culture of care has to be rooted in a deep sense of cultural competence.”

Black Boys’ Families

Howard: “There’s been study after study that show not only are Black fathers as involved with their children, but they’re more involved than any other ethnic group in terms of reading to their kids and children, playing with their children, monitoring their school activities.”

“Black boys come from a variety of different household settings, but at the end of the day, we have to see those caregivers as committed, caring and who deeply love their children and want nothing but the best for them.”

Davis: “Parents of Black boys also need to be celebrated. One of the things that I often do with the programs that we have for Black boys is to give honor and thanks to their caregivers, grandmas. And, then I also make it a point to connect with them every time I see them. And I don’t see our relationship is transactional. I see our relationship as both being committed to producing excellence for our sons, and I call them most oftentimes my sons because I do believe that. And I am willing to do whatever is necessary to advocate for our sons.”

Davis: “Schools don’t really want to see Black families involved as much as they say they do. But one of the things that they’re very comfortable doing is blaming them when they don’t see them in a school building, but then also complaining about them when they’re too much in a school building. So I don’t know that we really want to see Black families really involved in the lives of Black boys and Black children. I just think that’s an excuse to justify the certain treatment of Black boys and Black families.”

Expanding the definition of what it means to excel

Howard: “I think test scores and grades matter, but they shouldn’t be the end all, be all. If you allow that to be the only metric or the primary metrics by which we define success, Black boys are always going to fall short. I just think there’s far too many other areas that Black boys are excelling in so many ways, oratory skills, critical thinking, the ability to persuade folks to do things they want them to do. Why don’t we tap into that genius that they manifest and broaden our notions on how they define success?”

Black parents must be insistent, persistent

Howard: “We have to ask questions about who is doing the recommending for gifted and talented, why aren’t there more Black counselors, why there aren’t more Black teachers.”

Davis: “That’s what Black families have been doing continuously. They continuously push to get their kids access to the spaces that they need for their future. They consistently stay on top of teachers to ensure that they’re serving their children well.”

How do we engage with racism inside the school and outside of it?

Howard: “We need to listen to Black boys as one way to begin to address and unpack racism. But not just listen to Black boys – believe Black boys when they give us these accounts of what they’re going through.”

“We have to ensure that we’re not engaging in what Luke Wood and Frank Harris III called racelighting – meaning that when people talk about their experiences with racism, we try to explain it away, we try to tell them that it didn’t really happen, we try to say that they’re overacting.”

Davis: “Most of them never had a course or any preparation in their school leadership preparation programs, nor do they have any real professional development as a school administrator to identify the unique gifts and talents that Black boys bring to gifted spaces. And so, when we’re talking about them being underrepresented, not only are their teachers inadequate, but also their school leaders are inadequate in terms of identifying their gifts and talents, the assets and strengths that they bring to gifted spaces that should be recognized in those spaces.”

Watch the panel discussion in its entirety.

Photos and top banner: Getty Images

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