For as long as I can remember, there have been studies, reports, books and shows decrying the “plight of Black men and boys.” Whether framed as a concern of the Black community or as a threat to the country as a whole, these descriptions of the problem all end begging the same disturbing question – how can we ensure success not just for a handful of Black boys and men but for the millions that are falling short of their full potential?
Government answers are not adequate for many aspects of this question. Yet, as President Barack Obama said:
“If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works.”
The challenges facing Black men are more diverse and no less complex than those facing our highest-need communities; therefore, government, at all levels, can and must play a leading role in providing comprehensive solutions and doing so at scale. If for no other reason, this is true because education, while a partial solution, has always provided the clearest path out of poverty and to opportunity, self sufficiency and empowerment (even when the playing field was (is) not level). Therefore, the success of any plan to win the war for Black men and boys rests on ensuring each of us has access to quality education and training from the cradle through college and career.
Ensuring True Access
Ensuring access means more than having options available, especially for those impacted by unemployment, poverty or exclusion – a trifecta disproportionately impacting Black men and boys. Ensuring true access means addressing the systemic barriers to successful participation and ensuring the options available are of sufficient quality to lead to meaningful rewards and opportunities. In education, this means creating an education system with the public and private supports and incentives required to ensure each student gets all of what he needs and much of what he wants (ideally in healthy, safe communities with the assets required for sustainability and growth). Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Promise Neighborhoods Program is an important example of an intensive, localized version of this systemic approach; however, the last two years have also produced unprecedented examples of what it means to create true access at scale and from cradle to career. For example:
- Used existing and new health care programs to substantially increase coverage and address the substantial achievement and health gaps that exist as children enter kindergarten – ensuring our most vulnerable children have access to pre-natal care, home visitation programs and other evidence-based approaches to improving outcomes
- Required states competing for federal funds to guarantee equitable distribution of high-performing teachers to high-need students and schools. This policy and the revised Civil Rights Data Collection also addressed a long-overlooked practice of allocating the most effective teachers to higher income, less Black and Latino schools.
- Targeted $4 billion to the transformation of the 2,000 high schools, which account for 75% of Black male dropouts and the bottom 5% of all elementary and middle schools.
- Reallocated over $40 billion in bank subsidies to Pell grants contributing to increased retention and record college enrollments by Black males.
These Obama Administration initiatives and those yet to come, while incomplete and likely insufficient to fully address the “Black male challenge,” create an infrastructure that can be leveraged to build a movement. Yet, I fear that those best positioned to do so will miss the moment and instead focus on what is not rather than what is, or worse yet, continue to ponder “why are things the way they are” instead of “how do we make real and lasting progress.”
James H. Shelton III is the Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, managing a portfolio that includes most of the Department’s competitive teacher quality, school choice and learning technology programs.