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Experts: ‘Opportunity Gap’ Key Impediment to Black Male Academic Achievement

Dr. Bryant Marks, associate professor of psychology and executive director of the Morehouse Research Institute, said the opportunity gap is “not a kid problem; that’s an adult problem.”Dr. Bryant Marks, associate professor of psychology and executive director of the Morehouse Research Institute, said the opportunity gap is “not a kid problem; that’s an adult problem.”

What if the academic achievement problems with young Black males were not actually a problem with the students themselves, but a problem with those charged with educating them?

That is a question debated by scholars and policymakers at the 3rd Annual International Colloquium on Black Males in Education held last week on the campus of Morehouse College.

“We don’t tend to have an achievement gap when it comes to Black males; we have an opportunity gap,” said Dr. Bryant Marks, associate professor of psychology and executive director of the Morehouse Research Institute. “And that’s not a kid problem; that’s an adult problem.”

Marks defined opportunity gap as a failure to provide the resources and exposure students need to be successful. Disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, social promotion and high rates of special education labeling contribute to an inability to draw the knowledge Black male students need to thrive academically, as do disparities in advanced level course offerings.

Another issue, said Dr. Derrick Brooms, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, is an oppositional culture, or the idea that Black males just don’t care about education. When those responsible for educating students are predisposed to believe an entire subset doesn’t care about education, they are less likely to expend the effort to ensure the success of that group. However, the idea is flawed.

“In my experience, I just haven’t met too many Black males who don’t care about education,” said Brooms, who has worked with young men from middle school, high school and college.

A group of Ohio researchers examined local policy and its impact on Black males’ educational attainment. Because higher education is treated as a discretionary budget item, as opposed to a mandatory program, spending on higher education is often inadequate, said Dr. Debra Thompson, an assistant professor at Ohio University.

“The policies in higher ed aren’t just color blind; they’re color void,” Thompson said.

Despite the fact that policymakers acknowledge that Black male students are at a significant disadvantage, they are unable to account for why specific policies to combat the disadvantage and help boost African-American males’ success outcomes have not been implemented. Looking ahead to new policies on the books that will weight the individual performance and graduation rates of students heavier, Thompson wondered if, in the absence of proactive policies that seek to correct some of the historical disparities, Black male students will be left behind.

“It’s important to think about the incentives that policies create. If you’re incentivizing performance, if you’re incentivizing graduation rates, then we have to ask questions around whether institutions are going to be willing to accept, admit, enroll populations that historically have not graduated,” Thompson said.

Policymakers can’t be absolved of responsibility for the inequities of degree attainment among African-American males, she argued. This includes policy around access and affordability. Another well-documented issue is lack of financial resources needed to secure an education. Brooms said that, of the young Black males he has studied, a large majority are from multi-sibling households with less than $19,000 annual income. On top of the persistent economic gap, the cost of education has “skyrocketed,” Thompson said, making access to education more difficult today than it was in 1970.

“Student funding—grants and student aid—really hasn’t kept pace with these skyrocketing tuition fees. In fact, in terms of the grant aid from the state that actually goes directly to the students is really low—nationally, we’re talking about an average of $670” per semester, she said.

In a report published by seven research centers studying the educational experience of boys and men of color, the authors suggested that institutions better disaggregate and classify data to focus on the experiences of students by race and gender and then mandate the creation of equity plans to improve success of Black male students, specifically.

They argued that institutions should not only identify areas for early intervention based on the problem areas presented, but also “identify goals for student access, retention and completion” broken out by race and gender. The plans should address action items to promote better academic outcomes as well as to secure resources to further the programs.

The group—made up of researchers from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative out of San Diego State University, the Morehouse Research Institute, the University of Texas’ Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, the Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male at Ohio State University, the Black Male Institute at UCLA and Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—also urged increased alignment and collaboration throughout the educational pipeline.

For example, to mitigate the problems associated with high school course offerings not adequately preparing students for college and the incongruence of community college syllabi with those of the transferring institutions (which in turn requires students to have to repeat courses or take additional courses), K-12 school districts, community colleges and four-year institutions should be required to collaborate on curriculum development.

Citing the overwhelming drive and resiliency of Black male students whom he has encountered, Brooms said we have an opportunity to raise the level of expectations for Black males, which will help hold them accountable to caring adults around them and encourage them to press toward success, in spite of various obstacles.

The key, however, is to find new solutions to these longstanding problems. The colloquium, chaired by Dr. Jerlando Jackson, director of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion labs, and Dr. James Moore III, who heads Ohio State’s Bell Resource Center, aims to bring together policymakers, educators and scholars to discuss what works (and what doesn’t) for the success of African-American male students.

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