The Pathway to Success: From Cradle to Career

By James H. Shelton III

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.

  • Randall Coleman

    At the age of 36 I am re-educating my self. What I mean by that is that I have entered college to pursue some degree’s. I want to help where I can here in Davenport, Iowa. Any Ideas that you may have for me on how to get started would be welcomed.

  • Rachel Shelden

    Although government intervention is a sweet gesture, government cannot fix the problems facing young black men. The source of the problem is not the schools, teachers, or the availability of either of those. The problem is the unstable families the boys belong to. If any child does not have the support and love of a family to come home to each day after school, no amount of money can buy them a better chance at success.
    Society is made up of three basic parts: family, community, and government, in that order. If the government sees community as the base of society, of course it’s going to initiate programs to provide better schools and health care. Of course it’s going to pour money into the effort to create better communities. But families are the building blocks of society. If the government really wants to help young black men and children everywhere (which I’m sure it does), then it should build pro-family plans. One way it can do this is to encourage parents to get married and stay together. Marriage creates an environment of faithfulness. If kids see their parents sticking together, they’ll want to be faithful with their actions too. For example, doing homework, building relationships with friends and employers, following rules, plus they’ll want to be in their own homes more often and not on the streets, trying to escape from chaos at home. Supporting marriage is just one thing the government can do the create stable families, and in turn strong communities. But still, it’s the family’s job to take care of itself. A family where each person seeks to build up, educate, and love every other family member, will prepare those people to be examples in their community. Strong families will bring us the parents, teachers, and presidents of tomorrow. Young black men can make it, but it’s going to take a family effort.

  • mona Lawrence

    HomeS.. Two parent homes with Dads that care and Moms that are not so overworked trying to support them they loose focus on what their proprity is. When you look at other cultures you see 2parent homes that care about knowledge, not just seeing the kids show up for school , but that they are prepared to learn. No culture or race is more intelligent than another. Black history in America is why this happens. THE MONEY GRUBBING PREACHER instead of preaching hell fire and damnation should be preaching family unity and EDUCATION.

  • Michele Pierce Burns

    What a GREAT piece! Makes me think about mental health: depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. A Psychiatrist at Harvard coined the term “Micro-Aggressions” which refers to the mini-assaults that Black men in particular en…dure throughout any given day (grabbing of handbags, crossing of streets, being overlooked by cab drivers etc). This can be debilitating to the psyche over time. Interestingly, this same Professor de-segregated the Harvard football team in 1947 and spent decades teaching at Harvard Ed School, Med School, and School of Public Policy–and he never once attended a faculty meeting (probably too many microaggressions:)!

  • mizzmax

    I am married and have a 7 year old son who is in the Magnet program at our local Public School. My husband and I do everything in our power to ensure that he knows he is loved, he sees his parents hug and kiss and we ensure that we provide extra curricular activities for him. He is such an extravert, has big confidence and is highly intelligent. But my husband and I have to stay on track to ensure our son stays on path. We live in the inner city and my prayer is that he makes it through life without having to cross paths with those young men who were not as fortunate. Parents need to put aside their own issues and focus on the kids, it’s better for all in the long run.

  • Kevin Sorenson

    As a teacher at a rural, mostly black school I constantly hear excuses for why students of every race cannot achieve. It frankly pisses me off. I choose to ignore and simply push and expect my students to achieve. Funny thing happens when you stop looking for reasons for your students to fail, they succeed My students know what I expect from them, and that anything less will not be accepted. When sit and make execuse we make our kIds begin to think it is ok and that they are supposed to fail. As educators we are supposed to challenge and inspire, not tell them why the cannot be sucessful. I can see how in this era of test scores driving everything, but regardless of what a test says I am hear to help these kids be whatever they dream that they can be, and make sure they know education is the key to open those doors.

  • Kevin Sorenson

    Wow typing on an iphone is tough. Please excuse the mistakes

  • khalif

    great points about family being the staging ground for mature and smart consumer

    hoped author could explains ways gov can support family in steps

  • Donald L. Hense

    A couple years ago, I was in Kansas City visiting the Kauffman Foundation. It was mention that the foundation was looking tinto establishing a charter school. The school is now open at Carl Schramm made an interesting observation. To paraphrase, he said…”People who write books are usually professors or observers, or they have axes to grind. If we are going to be in the business of educating children, the most effective way is to run a school. You can’t run it reading books…”.

    Far too many of us have traded our plows for punditry, we have traded the hard work of helping black men succeed, for fireside chats and panels describing the problem. We have seen some real dollars put to education since Obama has been into office. We need to make sure that those funds ar going to the areas of greatest need. There is no accidental public policy.

  • Jim Spann

    I disagree the disease is poverty. The disease is broken homes.

    When it comes to faiiling schools, the cure – at least based on the evidence put forward in Episode 5 — seems to include the provision of all-male and all-black schools that are led by adults African-American males. It seems to me that this is the place government funds will be most effective; however, the social consequences of a return to segregation (both by gender and race) must be examined.

  • Doreen Lewis

    Thank you Kevin Sorenson,you have given me hope,there are still some wise and good teachers out there.I will repeat and stress what you stated”Funny thing happenswhen you stop looking for reasons for your students to fail.they succeed.” Can I borrow that quote from you?I will credit you for it.And this is another quote I would like to borrow “As educators we are supposed to challenge and inspire,not tell them why they cannot be successful.”I am presently putting together a blog which will lead to a book on my experiences in the New York City public school system .If anyone had told me about this system before I left my West Indian school to teach in New York City I would have doubted them.

  • Karen E. Dabney

    Self-sufficiency and empowerment when the playing field is not level is key. How that youth takes care of himself can be negatively or positively done. We must be there to support him in his becoming a solution rather than a symptom.

  • Gracie

    Sista’s this is why your son’s, brother’s, and lover’s want you…. to be an encouragement.

Last modified: March 26, 2014 at 3:29 pm
Home | About | Schedule | Pledge | PBS Privacy Policy | Shop