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National Crisis: Black Boys Failing

The crisis pointed to by the Council of Great City Schools has a reverberating impact upon the future of Black America and our ability to be productive and competitive in the Age of Innovation.
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"Black males continue to perform lower than their peers throughout the country on almost every indicator," concludes a new report released by the Council of the Great City Schools titled, "A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools."

The Council declares the report's revelations a "national catastrophe" and calls for coordinated national attention.

"The issues that emerge from the data are both moral and economic, calling into question the nation's ability to harness all of its talent to maintain a leadership footing in the world," Council Executive Director Michael Casserly said. "How can you narrow or close the country's black-white achievement gap when African-American males are not getting the attention and support they need to succeed?"

Egregious Findings

The study found:

In readiness to learn, black children were twice as likely to live in a household where no parent had full-time or year-round employment in 2008. And in 2007, one out of every three black children lived in poverty compared with one out of every 10 white children.

In black male achievement at the national level, first-time analysis of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that on the 2009 fourth grade reading assessment only 12 percent of black male students nationally and 11 percent of those living in large central cities performed at or above proficient levels, compared with 38 percent of white males nationwide. In eighth grade, only nine 9 of black males across the country and 8 percent living in large cities performed at or above the proficient level in reading, compared with 33 percent of white males nationwide. Math results were similar in both grades.

In black male achievement in selected big city school districts, 50 percent of fourth- and eighth-grade black males in most urban districts and nationwide scored below basic levels.

In college and career preparedness, black males were nearly twice as likely to drop out of high school as white males. In 2008, 9 percent of black males dropped out of high school compared with 5 percent of white males.

In addition, black male students nationally scored an average 104 points lower than white males on the SAT college entrance examination in reading. And black students generally were about one-third as likely to meet ACT college readiness benchmarks as white students.

New York Times

The New York Times weighed in on the issue in a Nov. 9 article by Trip Gabriel titled, "Proficiency of Black Students is Found to be Far Lower than Expected." According to the article:

"There's accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten," said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. "They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have."

Those include "conversations about early childhood parenting practices," Dr. Ferguson said. "The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy."

Generations of Failure

Dr. Ferguson hit the nail on the head.

The Council of the Great City Schools report is raising an age-old issue that, as it proclaims, should be considered a national crisis deserving of a coordinated national effort. But while the Council calls for the White House to take the lead on this issue, Dr. Ferguson indirectly raises a point that resonates with me: Why does the White House need to take the lead?

This issue isn't new. Black boys failing academically didn't just recently become a crisis.

We adults have failed our black youth primarily because we refuse to come together as black leaders (fathers and mothers) to establish our own plan of action. We have failed to create collaborations on a national scale to effectively overcome the challenges necessary to resolve this problem of widespread academic failure.

Facebook to the Rescue

Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to help the failing schools of Newark, New Jersey. I don't know of any consortium of wealthy black folk adding to that number. That surprises me.

Can we call a meeting? Can we get a few hundred wealthy black folk together without putting together an awards show or inaugurating a black president?

Maybe we need to start small. Can I get a few dozen concerned black people to volunteer? How about a handful? Just send me an email.

Black Boys Failing Is Symptomatic

Despite the tragic circumstances that cripple so many of our potentially productive youth, the academic failures of millions of our black boys isn't the core problem. The core problem is the failure of the adult black population to effectively address underlying issues that have led to an overwhelming crisis situation. Dr. Ferguson alludes to it when he says we need to have conversations we don't want to have. And without actively engaging in those conversations, we watch millions of black children arrive on their first day at the gates of public schools ill-prepared for a system of education, which they experience as foreign to the environment in which they are raised.

Were it not for the insightful wisdom of my mother, I, too, would've been added to the statistical data that have continued to tell the story of a national tragedy long ignored.

Language Barrier: Overcoming Incredible Odds

I was raised by a divorced mother, along with my four siblings, in the south during the 60s and 70s. When my father left to chase his personal lusts, my mother eked out a living for her five kids. We lived in Houston, Texas, and I attended a high school that hasn't changed much since I graduated in 1980.

My mother enforced reading, writing, grammar and proper oratory skills in her home. And thus, I learned two "languages:" English and street lingo.

I was ridiculed for the manner in which I spoke, so I had to adjust. The taunts of, "You talk like a white boy," at times resulted in physical battles.

When I enrolled at the University of Houston, it was my English and math skills that helped me achieve the required SAT score to be accepted. But much of what I learned in high school was acquired during two summer-long sessions at a tuition-based white school on the opposite side of town. I qualified for free summer sessions at the school's math and science institute program after passing a test given to disadvantaged youth. In the time it took to ride the tiny yellow bus across town, my world changed from a comfortable old environment where I was considered a bright student, to a strange beautifully manicured land where I was a dim bulb.

Recruiting Knowledge

When I joined the Navy, it was my English and math skills on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) that opened the door for specific high-level engineering schools that would lead to a $20K bonus for re-enlisting after serving half of my 12 years in the military.

As a Navy recruiter during the Gulf War, I served in east rural Texas where no black recruiter had ever served before. It was my ability to speak the language well that eventually opened closed doors, which led into the homes of white families where I spent countless hours discussing military options with skeptical parents. I received virtually every award the Navy offered in recruiting, including meritorious advancement in rank.

When I started my media career after the military, it was in talk radio prior to moving to print. Obviously, both require substantial time reading and analyzing of issues, as well as conducting research and publicly expressing informed opinions on topics.

Foundational Challenges

The report issued by the Council of Great City Schools calls for a government solution. Meanwhile, the problem of education failure is identified as early as the entry level into public schools. The Council is correct in requesting the government to invest in a solution. But how can the government address the lack of education (English and math skills) with which children first enter into the school system?

Obviously, there is a need for a major discussion in Black America to take place and for "us" to take the lead on this issue. After all, these are "our" children.

In our communities, millions of black boys do not seek to master the English language. Math is anathema. They do not hear grammatically correct English spoken routinely. Few black boys read books well or often. Millions of black children do not witness daily reading, do not engage in daily exercises that improve their mental capacity, and all too often are enrolled in the public school system merely as a compliance with law. For some black parents, the public schools serve as a relatively safe "baby sitter."

These revelations will undoubtedly draw harsh criticisms. Still, they are undoubtedly true.

Ignoring the Problem

Most black parents are already aware of how deplorable many of the public schools serving low income communities are. Educators and administrators know it too. Politicians are just as informed. Yet, the failure of the schools has continued over decades. And the extraordinarily high numbers of ill-prepared incoming children continues to remain an open secret.

MY Mother Knew Best

Green kids: Mike Green (standing right) with two brothers and two sisters. (I believe the year was 1968).

My mother did not rely upon the schools to ensure we received a good education. She was well aware the schools we attended were academically sub-par. She ensured her children were well ahead of most of our peers.

Sometimes we were latch-key kids. All the time we were poor. We had just one parent. But somehow my mother ensured we didn't want for much. We got into trouble at times. We lived in communities with gang violence and drugs. And we encountered some of what goes with that in our lives too.

But we had hedges built around us that offered protection to some degree. Those hedges came in the form of our own internal perspectives of the silliness we witnessed, coupled with our religious upbringing and the array of female adults (mom, grandmother, aunts, parental friends, etc) who helped watch over us.

'You talk like a White boy!'

When I spoke to black high school students as a recruiter, from 1989 to 1993, they often rejected me due to my speech.

I was told many times, "You don't know what's up!" That message always presumed my experience must have been different, privileged... simply based upon my ability to articulate well my thoughts, ideas and opinions.

Cultural Rejection of Education?

The observations I noticed during my four years recruiting for the Navy changed my life. With 25 high schools and more than 4,000 square miles of territory to cover, I was able to see what many parents, teachers and administrators could not.

I saw the students in their classrooms. I saw their grades. I saw them at lunch, after school, at home and on the basketball courts with friends. I had an overview of their lifestyle at school and at home, while teachers, parents and school administrators saw one aspect of the student.

And I saw black boys in both wealthy schools and poor schools.

I saw their routines, their academics, scores on the ASVAB and their friends. I saw the failure rates.

I watched black boys fail while the students sitting right next to them in the same classes achieved academic success. That trend remained consistent across the landscape of poor and wealthy high schools.

I also saw the same trends at home. Most all of the black boys I knew left their homework and prioritized play. They prided themselves on their athleticism while academics took a back seat. The data I had access to reflected the priorities.

Academic Failure a Symptom of Cultural Problems?

That's not to say the experience I had, and the observations I made, are applicable across the board. I do not think that. But I can state unequivocally that what I observed changed the course of my life and re-directed me from the field of engineering to media. I wanted to have a voice. I wanted to make a change.

I believe we have a cultural problem in Black America that no amount of government intervention can correct.

I believe our black children have, by and large, rejected the English language -- its proper methods, grammatical nuances and accepted pronunciations. They have done so with our tacit permission, if not daily examples. I think our children have rejected mathematical computations as irrelevant to daily life. I believe we are raising many of our black boys without a vision of being productive and competitive in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), which fuel the explosive growth in the Age of Innovation.

I believe our children have rejected the norms of English and math because we adults have done so, and they want to emulate us. Elevated forms of English language communication isn't prevalent in most of our communities nor most of our families. Millions of black children are immersed within a micro society that values ideals the larger society rejects.

Stepping in it, DEEP!

I believe millions of our black children do not understand how this society works, nor how they can create a positive impact upon it. They can't understand this society because we have confused them with our own biases, misunderstandings and misrepresentations. I believe most of our black children do not understand the difference between entrepreneurship and training for a vocation.

And I believe we are relegating our children to the front seat of the bus: the driver's seat.

New (Tragic) Paradigm

In the Age of Innovation, in which we are witnessing a transitioning of America's economy and a loss of millions of jobs that will not return, black boys are, by and large, unable to compete because they lack the communicative and analytical skills that are part and parcel of the English and math lessons they have eschewed. And this crisis grows worse as the Age of Innovation spawns technologies that fuel explosive growth companies, for which our children are ill-equipped to work within, much less compete against.

The time for acclimating black boys to a new American paradigm is short, if they are to have any chance of engaging in a revolutionary productive and competitive workforce as young adults. Currently, our children, who will enter the workforce over the next decade, are ill-equipped to compete in the Age of Innovation. Thus, we are raising a generation of workers who are best-suited for menial labor. And many of those jobs are being replaced by automation, created by technological advances.

Explosive Age of Innovation

The Age of Innovation is exploding. Industries such as health care, biotech, energy, telecommunications and the Internet are experiencing rapid evolution. Internet companies, like Skype, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter are virtually ubiquitous, yet all were created within the past eight years. And there are many, many more. Most all were created by young adults (not black).

Each year, more than $350 billion is invested into research and development in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Blacks are woefully under-represented in those fields. We are equally under-represented in the entrepreneurial endeavors typically fueled by those fields. And our numbers also disappear in the arena of investors who are helping to create new job opportunities through investment in high-growth innovative startups.

20th Century March in a 21st Century Race

The Age of Innovation isn't waiting for blacks to catch up. It isn't concerned with ensuring startup companies have racially diverse decision-makers and workers. And no startup can be held responsible for actively recruiting blacks, nor accountable for the lack thereof.

The risks endured by innovative entrepreneurs and investors create explosive growth companies that produce the vast majority of new jobs in our economy and economies around the globe. Where is the productivity of numerous black entrepreneurs in that dynamic? Blacks are most assuredly engaged in the realm of entrepreneurship. Yet, the overwhelming amount of entrepreneurial endeavors we initiate are under-funded and lack the high-growth potential indicative of most tech-related startups.

Black representation in the fields of high-tech startups and the realm of angel and venture capital investors is conspicuously low. And with black boys failing academically in massive numbers, how does that impact Black America's productivity and global competitiveness in the next decade?

National Crisis

The crisis pointed to by the Council of Great City Schools has a reverberating impact upon the future of Black America and our ability to be productive and competitive in the Age of Innovation. And given the fast-paced evolution of this digital age, we can expect technological advances to increase exponentially while we remain flat-footed searching for a methodology upon which we can all agree.

The speed of technology will have created several new paradigms before we can convene a single meeting, which could take months. The Internet alone is changing so fast that most folks reading this article haven't yet been introduced to the concept of interactive audience participation online town halls. With such innovation, we don't need to wait until everyone can get into the same room in the same hotel. All it takes today is to set a date and time and we can all access the town hall online.

Time is Running Out

The crisis is so enormous and the time so short, that the subtle solution of appealing to the federal government to appropriate more monies toward old business models and education plans seems almost futile to me.

We are entering an era that requires drastic measures. I agree with the Council that a coalition of black leaders across a broad spectrum must be convened. A plan of action that will also require marketing campaigns, collaborations between societal influencers and heavy investment by both public and private sources must be instituted quickly.

We must raise the alarm.

Heretofore, we have held symposiums, conferences, summits and academic conventions that have resulted in the multiple crises we face today. We cannot afford more of the same. We need something altogether different. But that requires us to come together and discuss this issue honestly. It requires that we work together. And if we cannot, we must clearly identify the divergence in thoughts, ideals and paths.

Working on a Solution

I am currently involved in discussions with individuals who seek to change the dynamic that continues to produce reports of failure and crisis. We are working upon a framework that we hope to introduce at a gathering of societal influencers. In short, we are preparing a business plan to launch an effort to propel Black America from a 20th century mindset into a 21st century innovation and competitive mindset.

There is no time to placate those who cling to false notions of a valued cultural mentality that devalues the core mental tools necessary to be competitive in America today. We must gather those who are like-minded and quickly secure the investments needed to implement a plan that will radically transform Black America into a 21st century engine of ingenuity, innovation and productivity.

Yes, we have problems. And I realize that. But none of our problems are so enormous that we must stagnate or stifle our productivity.

Communication is Key

I believe the first point of contention that must be addressed is the subject of English language communications and mathematics: the ability to effectively communicate and effectively analyze and logically deduce. I think it is past time we applied a concerted focus toward overcoming the numerous challenges our children face due to our rejection of these two basic tools: English and math.

Although the report presents dismal data on the achievement of African-American males in general, it also profiles black males who are succeeding in urban public schools and are on the path to success in their chosen careers. I do not want to create the perception that positive strides aren't being made. Certainly progress is also evident. But, the stench of massive failure, which undermines the future of our children, cannot be ignored.

The Council of the Great City Schools plans to continue its research focusing on the social and educational disparities among African-American males as it launches a new initiative to address the comprehensive challenges facing them.

Plan of Action

In a plan of action at the conclusion of the report, the Council called for a White House conference on the issues to help lay out a comprehensive plan of action that leaders at all levels can pursue. The organization also aims to marshal the help of school district, state, national and university leaders, as well as civic and faith-based leaders and governmental officials to address black male issues.

"We plan to convene a panel of esteemed leaders, which would provide advice and guidance to the Council on the formation of strategies for improvement," Casserly said.

I hope to receive an invitation to that meeting. I hope to bring with me concerned black men, with whom I am involved in planning, who understand the enormity of the issue and the significant need for us to develop a framework upon which collaborative ideas and efforts can be built. The plan we're designing is for exponential impact.

There is no time, nor tolerance, for slothful politicized mechanisms that run out of money and energy quickly. After all, this is a crisis!

What are we waiting for, Christmas?