Excerpt: Promises Kept

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap
We vowed to figure out how to help our son. We decided that we would start by talking to some psychiatrists about why so many black boys struggle during middle school. We also wanted advice on how to support Idris emotionally and academically: we wanted to help him get test scores that would reflect his level of effort, resist the very limiting and negative images of black males that the media was bombarding him with, and develop a healthy sense of himself that would allow him to navigate different environments and cultures.

Joe arranged a meeting with his mentor, the acclaimed black child development pioneer, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, who is also a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. We went with two goals in mind. First, we wanted to show Dr. Poussaint some of the footage we had gotten with Idris's behavior--for instance, his efforts to try to fit in as he moved between middle-class and low-income black communities and then again between those black communities and the wealthy whites at Dalton--in the hopes that he could give us some advice on how to handle it. We also wanted to film the conversation with Dr. Poussaint. Our documentary was morphing into something that we couldn't quite wrap our heads around, but we knew it would involve black boys. We had a feeling that Dr. Poussaint might end up being a part of it.

During the meeting, Dr. Poussaint described how stages of childhood development play out differently for black boys because of the unique challenges that they face. He made some parenting suggestions based on the footage--about fiting in, for instance. He suggested that obstacles we faced were temporary and commonplace. Dr. Poussaint supported us and encouraged us to persevere. He also directed us toward a network of leading authorities on black boys, black families, and multicultural education. Among the experts we would eventually connect with were urban sociologist Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University and an expert in education, black boys, and achievement gaps, the academic performance deficits that impact almost all black boys; Joshua Aronson, an NYU professor known for his research on stereotype threat, a type of performance anxiety that can cause black boys in particular to test very poorly; Jelani Mandara, a professor at Northwestern University and an expert in black families and parenting styles; Ron Ferguson, the economics professor who heads Harvard University's Achievement Gap Initiative, which focuses on narrowing these types of academic gaps; and Sonia Nieto, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and an expert on teacher training and multicultural education. We already knew Ivory Toldson, an author, a Howard University counseling psychology professor and a senior researcher for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Since we were making a film, Dr. Poussaint recommended that we also write a book to extend the conversation. He told us that nothing about black boys had been published for a long time. But a book was the last thing on our mind. We were just hell-bent on saving our son.


Between the time Idris was twelve and the time he turned seventeen, we picked the brains of some of our nation's top minds in a wide variety of disciplines that relate to black boys. Some were blown away that we had captured on videotape several of the developmental and racial dynamics they had been researching and writing about for years. They suggested that the video we had compiled would be priceless in advancing the conversation about black boys. In fact, most let us videotape them sharing their expertise about black boys, even though we were still figuring out what our film would become. They also introduced us to some longstanding advocates in education and black male development--from the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and the Center for Urban Families to the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC).

These experts helped us understand the magnitude of the problem. For example, they taught us that educational achievement gaps are not exclusive to race: they exist between rich and poor children, boys and girls, blacks and whites, whites and Asians, whites and Latinos, and American children and their international peers. In fact, the gap between low income and affluent children of all races is growing exponentially, as wealthier parents invest in their children in ways that other families cannot compete with. We were particularly interested in the black/white gap, which was most visible in the often inexplicably low GPAs and test scores that black children tend to earn compared to their white peers. The gaps affecting black boys are particularly disturbing. We were shocked to learn the following things:

  • On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress test (also called the Nation's Report Card), only 10 percent of black 8th grade males were reading on an 8th grade level, as compared to 16 percent of Latino males and 35 percent of white males.2 (Notice that even white boys are performing poorly.)
  • In a study of more than 7,100 students attending 95 high performing suburban high schools, 50 percent of whites and Asians had an A or A-grade point average, whereas only 15 percent of blacks and 21 percent of Hispanics did; 35 percent of black and 26 percent of Hispanic students had a C+ to C-average, but only 12 percent of whites and Asians did.3
  • Black children are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers--causing them to miss valuable classroom learning time, depressing their academic performance and increasing the risk that they'll repeat a grade and eventually drop out of school. They are often suspended or expelled for minor or discretionary offenses like being tardy or using their cell phones.4 Black kids represent 18 percent of all students, but 35 percent of students suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended multiple times, and 39 percent of all students expelled.5 Black boys comprise 9 percent of students but 24 percent of students who received out-of-school suspensions and 26 percent of students who were expelled, pushing them into what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.6 Not only do black students tend to get punished more often for the same offenses that white children commit, but when they do get punished they also tend to be punished more harshly.7
  • Even though giftedness is evenly distributed through the population, black boys are 2.5 times less likely to be enrolled in G & T programs, even if their prior achievement demonstrates their ability to succeed. Once students are "locked out" of these programs and tracked into lower level coursework in elementary school, they tend to remain there for the duration of their academic years. A strong correlation exists that links race, gender, class, and academic track placement.8
  • Black boys are no more likely than other children to be diagnosed with a learning disability, but are almost 40 percent more likely to be placed in special education. Many black boys in special education don't have a disability.
  • Black boys are 2.5 times more likely to be classified as mentally retarded. Black male students comprise 9 percent of the student population but 20 percent of all students classified as mentally retarded.9
  • Only 52 percent of black male students graduate high school within four years, as compared to 58 percent of Latino males, and 78 percent of white males. This, however, reflects an increase of ten percentage points over the 42 percent four-year graduation rate in 2002.10 Eighty percent of black males have completed high school or have gone on to obtain a GED.11 Eleven percent of black males drop out, leaving more than two million black men in America without a high school education.12
  • Black males disproportionately lack the resources and support to complete college. In 2008, 4.6 million black males attended college, but only half actually graduated. Nationally, only 11 percent of black males complete a bachelor's degree.13 However, both the number and percentage of black males with college degrees are increasing.

We know that people often blame the victim when they see this kind of information and that some will wrongly interpret these facts as "proof" of black male inferiority. But institutional racism, entrenched institutional practices that create a concrete ceiling on opportunity for students of color, and structural and systemic obstacles--primarily poverty and underfunded schools--make it impossible for many black boys to get the education that will allow them to fulfill their potential. As the Schott Foundation for Public Education stated in its 2012 report: "[We] firmly believe these data are not indicative of a character flaw in black men, but rather they are evidence of an unconscionable level of willful neglect and disparate resource allocation by federal, state, and local entities and a level of indifference by too many community leaders." Amen. These statistics reflect gaps in outcomes, but underneath them lie the many structural, systemic, cultural, and personal gaps--and failures--that our society seems not to want to discuss. There are gaps in wealth and income, gaps in the enforcement of drug laws and administration of criminal justice, gaps in employment, gaps in health, gaps in nutrition, gaps in school and neighborhood segregation, gaps in funding (particularly of urban schools in neighborhoods of color), gaps in teacher quality and experience level, gaps in the rigor of course offerings in certain schools, and gaps in media portrayals. There are gaps in the number of parents in homes; gaps in parents' education levels; gaps in social and cultural capital; gaps in the number of books in homes; gaps in the hours of television watched; gaps in the expectations black parents have of their sons as opposed to their daughters; and gaps in levels of school involvement. And beyond that, there are gaps in educators knowledge of the lives of black and brown children; gaps in know-how about how to teach black boys effectively; gaps in educators' expectations of black, brown, and poor children; gaps in society's understanding of black children's strengths and how to leverage them; and gaps in knowledge of how to parent or co-parent a black boy in a society that vilifies him. Uncomfortable, unconscionable gaps that we are all a part of and that compound over the course of children's lives.
It's Bigger Than Us
Since poverty contributes to some of these shortfalls, we assumed that neither the traditional achievement gaps nor the gaps behind the gaps affected middle-and higher-income black boys. Boy, were we wrong. Ron Ferguson, the head of Harvard University's Achievement Gap Initiative, hipped us to the fact black middle-class and upper-income boys generally don't achieve to their academic ability either.

"One of the patterns in the data that people find most surprising is that the gaps in test scores tend to be largest among the children of the most educated parents," Dr. Ferguson told us. "In the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), if we compare the test scores of the children of whites whose parents are college-educated with blacks whose parents are college-educated, there's a bigger gap than if you compare the test scores of children whose parents have less education."

You could have picked us up off the floor. But the truth is we knew that even with Idris's relatively privileged background, he was struggling compared to his white peers and so were his friends. It was something of a relief to know the challenges we were experiencing were bigger than us. It was also distressing. Professor Aronson talked to us about how to help our son perform better on tests but he also told us not to be surprised if Idris still scored 100 points lower than his peers on each of the three portions of the SAT. We protested, but Dr. Aronson turned out to be right. Idris's scored well, especially compared to the national average of 1500.14 But he didn't reach 2200--the average Dalton score. The distance between those two scores is enough to keep a child from attending the college of his dreams. The question we still had to answer was why?

We learned more about the special social and emotional stresses faced by black boys in predominately white settings that are, at best, ambivalent about their presence. These stressors include feeling insecure, developing self-esteem issues related to whether they belong or are accepted, having to code-switch, experiencing implicit and explicit bias from their peers and teachers, and suffering from stereotype threat (don't worry if you're not familiar with all of these terms, we'll break them down later in the book). Both Idris and Seun were having these types of troubles. In fact, one of our most heartbreaking moments as parents was listening to Idris talk about being invited to bar mitzvahs at the time when many of his Jewish classmates were having them. He told us that he enjoyed them--except for the part when you have to dance with a girl. His female classmates wouldn't dance with him. This confused and hurt him deeply--he suspected that his race was the problem, which made him wonder aloud to us whether he would be better off if he had been born white.
Canaries in the Mine
But black boys' academic and emotional struggles don't occur in isolation. Education in the United States is in crisis--for all students. Students in Australia, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Shanghai (China), Singapore, and other countries have far surpassed American kids, who now earn only average scores in reading and science and below-average scores in math on tests of student achievement internationally. 15 And the problems are especially acute among boys. Beginning in early elementary school and continuing through their college years, girls are earning higher scores than boys and surpass their male classmates in graduating high school and college.16

There's an African American folk adage: "When white folks sneeze, black folks catch a cold." At a 2010 conference about black males convened by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Oscar Barbarin, Ph.D., the head of Tulane University's psychology department, characterized black males as being like a "finely tuned barometer," a "canary in the mines," or an "early warning signal that things are not right" in American society. We were surprised to discover that conversations both about achievement gaps and about reducing the prejudice directed at black boys are taking place not only at Harvard and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) but also at major foundations, in educational nonprofits, in schools, and across other diverse sectors of American society, public and private. Our leaders know that the nation's future depends increasingly upon children of color, that achievement gaps are undermining our competitiveness, and that creating an environment in which all children can excel is vital to our nation's success in a global economy. But while a lot of people have been talking about black boys, we think that more conversations should take place with black parents as well as educators. We didn't know about these gaps, or the gaps within gaps, or how to close them, and we were betting that many other parents--and a lot of our son's teachers--didn't know either.

As we began to talk to various educational experts, we began to think that our film--which had evolved into an educational coming-of-age story called American Promise that would chronicle Idris's and Seun's educational journeys--could help spark a greater conversation about the barriers that all of our sons face and how to remove them. We envisioned viewers leaving the theater with concrete takeaways to implement in their homes, extended families, schools, churches, and communities. If a lot of people were willing to make one small change, we imagined, maybe the collective impact would transform the environment surrounding our sons.

That's when we remembered Dr. Poussaint's suggestion to write a book. It would be criminal to hoard the information that so many experts had generously shared or to pretend that we had navigated our tough times on our own. Other black parents deserve to have the same information that we did. Imagine the possibilities! As one African proverb states: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

From Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard, © 2014 by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard. Reprinted with permission from the author and Spiegel & Grau. www.randomhouse.com