Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males. – book reviews

Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American
Males by Freeman Hrabowski III, Kenneth Matson, and Geoffrey L. Grieb
Oxford University Press, 1998 New York 242 pages Hardcover: $26

Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American
Males relates wonderful stories of parents striving successfully to
raise academically high-achieving African American boys who are then
encouraged to excel in college and subsequently go on to elite graduate
and professional schools in medicine, mathematics, science, and

The book is filled with the actual words. gathered through
extensive interviews, of mothers and fathers saying how they monitored
their sons, homework (even when they didn’t understand it). set limits
on their after school activities, and had high expectations for their
academic achievement. There is a “strong commitment to education”
running through these families and a “supportive learning environment”
in the home. The emphasis on the importance of education was present
whether there was a two-parent family or a single-parent family,
whether the family was middle class or working class.

Yet many obstacles hinder their achievement. For example, unlike
their White counterparts. African American boys are often ridiculed by
their peers for showing that they are “smart” in school. As a result,
there is a tendency by African American boys not to speak out or excel
in school. Additionally, there is the temptation to not choose a
college major in the sciences or math. even though the boys may have
good grades in these subjects, without encouragement or support from
teachers and counselors.

Hence, the need for this book — whose major purpose “is to
identify strategies that parents [and] educators … may wish to
consider as they work with … young African American males.” The book
is, more particularly, the story of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program,
operating since 1989 at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County
(UMBC) “for talented African American males interested in research
careers in science and engineering.”

Although a strong case was made for focusing on males, women were
admitted in 1990 and now make up half the students. The program was
racially integrated in 1995, ostensibly as a result of the Podberesky
ruling in 1994 by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Appellate Court, which found
race specific scholarships to be illegal, and now the program is 80
percent African American. However, none of these major modifications is
discussed in the book.

Meyerhoff has graduated more than one hundred students from UMBC
who have gone on to great success in graduate schools of medicine and
science. The program has achieved its success through “strong academic
advising and personal counseling, emphasis on group study and peer
support, appropriate tutoring and mentoring, [and] involvement with
faculty in research and access to role models in science.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal that I am a
member of the advisory committee for the Meyerhoff program. Obviously,
I think it is a fine program. So the comments I make about the book
should not be taken as criticism of the program.

There may be diplomatic reasons for doing so, but the book avoids
making comparisons between the SAT scores of other students and those
of Black students in the program. Indeed. for a research report, there
is a conspicuous lack of charts and other statistical data in the
study. What comparative data there are suggest that the parents of
Meyerhoff students are atypical of the African American community. For
example, one reference states that “over half [of the parents are]
college educated”; and another notes, “our sample of mothers … is
more economically advantaged than most.”

There is obviously nothing wrong with these attributes. But in
suggesting things that parents can do to enhance learning, many of the
activities — “have books on tape available,” “take children to the zoo
[and to] different cities,” “involve them in swimming, karate,” and
“buy them Legos” — are out of reach of low-income parents.

It is important to realize that this is to a large extent a class
phenomenon, a sensitive subject that is hardly touched in the book. In
the state of Maryland, the average amount spent by schools for each
pupil is $5,887. In Baltimore, Maryland, however, that total is $4,101.
In the state of Michigan, 19 percent of the children live in poverty.
But in Detroit, Michigan, 41 percent live in poverty — and nearly all
of them are Black.

And the gap between the well-off and the poor is increasing. In the
midst of a “booming economy,” the overwhelming majority of the Black
poor are situated in increasing immiserization, are impacted in
deteriorating and racially isolated schools, and are facing an
increasingly disdainful majority population.

Let me be very clear. I think the Meyerhoff program is very good.
It takes high-achieving males and females and provides financial and
moral support that assures that they will succeed in college in math
and science programs. But it is the view of this reviewer that to make
a significant difference in the magnitude of the scientist population
in the Black community will require much more than that.

In light of the diminution of these programs due to the adverse
rulings on affirmative action (the MESA program in California and tile
Meyerhoff and Banneker programs in Maryland have all become
integrated), some additional strategies will have to be adopted.

Strategies such as Yale University psychologist James Comer’s
School Development Process (which achieved astonishing success with
low-income African American elementary school children) and the
national initiative by the High Scope Educational Research Foundation
(which achieved similar success with talented disadvantaged high school
youth) have great promise with larger numbers of lower-class children.

The Meyerhoff program does what it does very well — within its
range. But it cannot embrace more than it can deliver. The desperate
needs of the African American community require a much more radical
approach. But it can certainly embrace all those efforts, however
modest, which are attempting to increase the number of African American
scientists and engineers. This book does an exemplary job of describing
one such effort.

Dr. Reginald Wilson is a visiting professor at the University of
Texas-Austin and is a recently retired senior scholar for the American
Council on Education.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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