Black Boys in Peril: A Literary Review of Authors Analyzing Issues For Young Black Males in K-8 Education

black boys in school


In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King used an evocative rhetoric and extensive vocabulary to exclaim a message of equality and freedom.  Quoting the declaration of Independence, he spoke of his hope that America would develop into a nation, working on grounds that “all men are created equal”.  He then spoke about his own children, dreaming that, one day, they would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Since this speech, racial issues in America have seen positive changes.  Black boys are now legally free to attend school and sit at a desk with someone of a different race.  The racial overcasts of prejudice have not dwarfed the ability for those of darker complexion to hold a seat in the senate, govern a state, or run for president, and win.

But the Black male in America is still often criticized in as being lazy, uneducated, aggressive, violent, and disruptive.  These stereotypes have plagued the Black community for decades and today’s generation is still struggling to overcome these obstacles. In past years, few statistics have showed much hope for the Black male in this country, reporting high prison rates, high dropout rates, low income rates, and low employment rates.  But before these Black men get to the age where these alarming statistics become possible, they begin as little Black boys, enrolled in K-8 schooling like every other child.  It is somewhere between the K-8 levels that Black boys get lost, left in the cold, and grow up to fill the statistical charts.

This literature review will look at some of the different areas that lead to the achievement gap in today’s youth.  The selected articles, studies, and books help give information about issues that Black boys face in the K-8 levels, some offering solutions to the problem.  Most of these works are from the past five years, while relevant others, expand into the past decade.  Black boys are in desperate need of attention and this literature review will shine some much needed light on their struggles.

Literature Review

Karen Edwards writes a review of the issues that young Black males face in our country in her article, “Report Urges Feds Focus on Failing Black Male Achievement”.  In this article, Edwards explains the achievement gap between Black and White boys in the school system by referring to a groundbreaking study report, “A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools”.  This referred study, rather than simply dealing with the achievement gap statistics, dealt with some of the issues leading to the achievement gap.

This study was conducted by The Council of the Great City Schools in 2010. This committee consists of board members and superintendents of schools across the United States.  Executive officers of this council include Dilafruz Williams of Portland Public Schools, Beverly Hall of Atlanta Public Schools, Candy Olsen of the Hillsborough County School District, and Carol Johnson of Boston Public Schools.

This study points out some important issues regarding the achievement gap that have very little to do with skill or capability.  Issues of wealth and poverty proved to be a contributing factor to the success of students. This report showed that one out of every three black children lived in poverty compared with one out of every ten white children in 2007.  Black or poor students attending public school were more likely to be held back during their K-8 school career than their classmates.  In 2007, at least 23 percent of students who repeated a grade were poor, and 16 percent were black, compared with 5 percent of non-poor and 8 percent of white students.

This report also expressed the lack of attention and commitment being received by the federal level to fix the achievement issues of Black male youth.  This data seen in middle schools and the lack of federal support inevitably translates into the high school education system as K-8th graders get passed along.  Black males were nearly twice as likely to drop out of high school as white males in 2008.

This article, along with the statistical information from the study, examined the issues outside of the classroom that help lead to an achievement gap. It argues that poverty, more than race, is the leading cause of the achievement gap. But it is important to note that, in the United States, both race and poverty levels are inextricably intertwined.

These students, being led into high school, are much more likely to drop out or fail because of their conditions and lack of support rather than their race or ethnicity. This article points the finger at societal differences rather than racial inadequacies.

The report points out the lack of federal attention put on the black-white achievement gap. Among several recommendations involving federal involvement, the Council calls for a White House conference to create a plan of action.

One important issue not discussed in the previous article dealing with Black boys’ achievement gap is the fact that they are often in school less than their white peers.  In an article, “Black Boys Suspended from School 3 times more than White Boys” by Karen Edwards, Edwards examines the rate of suspensions for minority students.  Referring to a study published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis“, this article helps lead to an argument that is not usually discussed amongst teachers and legislators.

This study, “Suspended Education”, was conducted by Dr. Daniel Losen, Senior Education Law and Policy Associate and member of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and Dr. Russell Skiba, Director of The Equality Project and Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Figures in this study show that the rate of suspension has increased for all races, but the increase has been drastic for black boys from 6 to 15 percent, while minimal for whites from 3 to 5 percent. Figures also show that, in 2006, the numbers of national suspension rates fall heavily on the side of black boys. Asian boys are at 6 percent, whites are 10 percent, Hispanics and Native Americans at 16 percent and black males at 28 percent.

This study also offer geographical information on the highest and lowest percentages of races and genders suspended. It notes that, in Los Angeles, 32 percent of Black boys are suspended compare to 3 percent in white females. In Atlanta, the numbers is 36 percent to 2 percent white female. The biggest gap, however, was in Palm Beach where 53 percent of Black males were suspended, compared to only 6 percent of white female.

This study also reviewed racial disparities in school punishments.  It examined the types of offenses initiated in which students received suspensions. The study found that, “White students were referred to the office significantly more frequently for offenses that appear more capable of objective documentation (e.g., smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language). African-American students, however, were referred more often for disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering – behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent” (Losen 10).   In other words, it can be assumed that White students are more often excused for their disruptive behavior and language, while Black students are harshly punished for that same behavior.

This study is based on 18 urban school districts studied. Using more than 9,000 middle schools, this study found that the suspension rate of the overall student boys was at 11.2 percent. Black boys in particular had a suspension rate of 28.3 percent, almost three times higher than that of white boys.

Pedro A. Noguera, professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, wrote his own literature about the issues that Black boys face in the education system. In his work, “The Trouble with Black Boys: The Role and Influence of Environmental and Cultural Factors on the Academic Performance of African American Males”, he states that Black boys often do not feel that they have enough support.

In contrast to what many teachers are willing to say about their Black students, his study’s statistics show that 90 percent of Black students value education and would like to succeed and go to college.  In contrast, only 18 percent of students surveyed responded affirmatively to the question, “My teachers treat me fairly.”  Over time, this sense that they are not getting fair treatment or proper support can create a decrease in the original positive ideas of wanting to succeed.

Similar results were obtained from a survey of 537 seniors at an academic magnet high school. African American males were least likely to indicate that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “My teachers support me and care about my success in their class.”  This shows that the issues Black boys face early in their childhood can create a domino effect of achievement as they progress throughout their academic career.

Noguera also states that children in poverty with negative conditions increase the risk factor for falling behind in school by multiples.  Poor children generally receive inferior services from schools and agencies that are located in the inner-city, and poor children often have many unmet basic needs (Noguera).  He refers to psychological studies that confirm health care, adequate nutrition, and decent housing, exposition of drug abuse, and low income can contribute to low academic success far more than other factors. And it is these factors that many Black boys are faced with growing up.

But Noguera does not put the sole issues that Black boys face on the shoulders of environmental issues. He takes note that, “For African American males, …the message is clear: individuals of their race and gender may excel in sports, but not in math or history” (Noguera).  This is an important step to the realization the plight of Black boys in schools is not solely based on uncontrollable factors (from the child’s perspective), but rather on issues that the school system needs to take issue with.

The Black Male Community Empowerment Forum put together a long list of statistics regarding Black males. This forum, an Atlanta-based clearinghouse for the empowerment of African American men and boys, titled this list, “Facts and Sources: Current Plight of Black Men & Boys in America”.  In this list, there were a few facts that were necessary to understanding the issues that black boys face in K-8.

One statistic, pulled from the National Association of Educational Progress, explained that 69 percent of Black children in America cannot read at grade level in the 4th grade, compared with 29 percent among White children.  This statistic can be attached to the lack of support from teacher and inability to connect with them culturally.

The Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, reported a statistics about the expectancy of Black males in prison.  This Bureau found that, of Black males born in recent years, 29 percent can expect to spend some time behind bars. Also, statistics state that one in 14 Black men is incarcerated, compared with one in 155 White men. These statistics suggest that the education system is failing Black boys, not only in the classroom, but in civilization. This makes it extremely difficult for Black boys to grow up with Black male role models when many of them are in the prison system.

In 2007, Denise L. Collier presented a dissertation based on a study in 4th-5th grade classrooms in a Los Angeles school.  A graduate of CSULA with a Joint Ed.D. in Urban Educational Leadership, her dissertation presentation, “The Intersection of Perceptions and Practice: Examining the Discipline Outcomes of African-American Male Students”, studied the effects of racial stereotypes in schools. This study determined that African-American boys were subjected to harsher punishments than other students for the same infractions. She said to have learned this through interviews with teachers and students, observations in the classroom and data analysis.

In one observation, Collier explains that, Black boys are singled out as being the source of disruptive behavior, stating, “when a group of students was being rowdy and talking, the teacher singled out one black male to be quiet and sit down” (Collier).  She also noted that, when Black boys are perceived as argumentative and having an attitude.  This is because, based on her interviews with teachers, that Black boys are louder and yell their responses, while other races are quiet.

After interviewing the principal, Collier found that some teachers were selected based on their disciplinary skills, rather than their effectiveness at teaching skills to students. This means that, many teachers are unqualified to teach different styles of teaching to different types of students. But they are hired because they know how to keep a class quiet and in control. And when bringing in stereotypes of black boys as argumentative and disruptive, they tend to be sent to the office or suspend them more than others.  This keeps them out of the classroom, unable to learn, and creates the statistics of suspension rates found in other studies.

Though she does bring together the ideas that these teachers have about their students with stereotypical attributes of Black boys, Collier does not go in depth on the effects that this can have on student’s want to learn or feel included, which then becomes a driving force in the achievement gap.

Another issue that Black boys face in K-8 schooling is the quality of education, not only with school books and other supplies, but with teachers. An article by Jazelle Hunt, “No Black Boy Left Behind”, notes discussion from an academic forum and issues with inadequate teachers. The forum, “Breaking Barriers: The Obama Administration, the 111th Congress & the Future of School-age Black Males,” was co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Inc.

This forum determined that Black students are at a disadvantage because they are 70 percent more likely to be taught by a non-certified teacher. Hunt quotes Dr. Margaret Beale Spencer, a renowned developmental psychologist and researcher.  Dr. Spencer speaks on teachers needing an improvement in their training, “When teachers see little Black boys engaged in rough-and-tumble play, they then label it as aggression. You can’t embrace little Black boys if you are fundamentally in fear of them.”  With 83 percent of teachers being White females, the ability to understand, relate, and feel comfortable around Black boys is a cultural gap.

The study also recommended that policies aimed at supporting the academic and emotional growth of African-American males should focus on creating healthy, safe and supportive learning environments.  The Breaking Barriers research found that feelings of happiness about life was the strongest emotional predictor of academic success among school-age black boys; the boys who did well at school were almost twice as likely to report happiness than boys who did poorly (Hunt).

Tim King, founder and chief executive officer of Urban Prep Academies, a non-profit education organization that opened Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, wrote an article in 2006 about some of the issues that Black boys face in education.  Though his article does not consider the issues that Black boys face in K-8, he does examine how those issues affect them after.

Using a recent study by the Consortium for Chicago School Research, King indicated that fewer than 7 percent of freshman entering Chicago public schools will earn a college degree by their 25th birthday. Out of that 7 percent, only 2.5 percent will finish, translating to about one for every fifty black boys. This information implicates that something is going on in the school system in the K-8 levels that is crippling students’ ability to succeed for the rest of their lives.  For this selected group of youth in Chicago, they are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be out of school and out of work and the high school dropout rate is 70 percent.

King goes on to describe possible options for diminishing these problematic inequalities, suggesting four different steps. He mentions first, the improvement of quality and rigor in public schools. Second, he suggests that we increase the number of schools that work. Charter school graduates were said to have a higher college attendance rate than those who graduate from public schooling. Third, King suggests that the education system base their achievements on the shoulders of Black boys. His reasoning is that, if Black boys are constantly the lowest performers, schools cannot be rated on their White students, but on their Black students. Finally, he suggests that Black boys need more role models. Role models that go to college, graduate from college, and encourage other to do so.

An online article written for the Black Youth Project makes a point in looking at issues Black boys face in school in order to understand the issues that Black men continue to have.  Referencing Jawanza Kunjufi’s book, Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, author Tamara writes, “Black Boys and 4th Grade Failure Syndrome”. She references Kunjufi’s study of 80 Black boys to help determine where the trouble begins.

In Kunjufi’s study, boys of the same grade and in the same school are given tests about their feelings toward school. In it is found that Black boys have extremely positive feelings toward school and school. But these feelings turn progressively worse through grades 2nd-5th.  Kunjufu treasons these changes as correlating with a shift in performance.  He calls the drop in enthusiasm the Fourth Grade Failure Syndrome in which the transition from primary to intermediate studies losing Black males students.

He classifies this loss as being due to having very few teachers that know how to connect with their Black students, tending to follow the stereotypes of the media by pushing them toward athletics rather than academics.

When considering stereotypes, it is noted that many students see academic achievement as “acting white”, while being a superb athlete is more in tune with their cultural recognition. Black boys will become confused with what true success is and, with the pus h from their ill-prepared teachers, fall into the trap of looking toward sports for inclusion.

The strongest sentence that this author writes is that, “The fact that Black boys enter the school system on par with their peers shows that there are no at risk kids, just at risk situations” (Tamara).  This statement captures the true ideology that this country was founded on; that all men are created equal.  But this article argues that, somewhere between our creation and our survival, there is a gap in development at the hands of the media and the teachers.

Laura Varlas, a member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, writes an article about extensive research that shows a need for proper support and Black male role models.  In her article, “Bridging the Widest Gap: Raising the Achievement of Black Boys”, Varlas makes an effort to key in on the specific reasons for Black boys’ inability to achieve at the same levels by giving examples of those who have proven that it is possible.

Varlas refers to Adam Behar, director of public relations for the Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) program.  Behar’s program has shown that Black boys are highly capable of completing college-prep curriculum when they are given the proper tools and support. A study of AVID’s 2004 African American high school senior reported that 100 percent graduated from high school and 81 percent were accepted to a four-year college (Varlas). This information can translate into the K-8 education system, proving that Black boys are not less inclined to pay attention or comprehend, but less likely to be given the proper tools and support.

Varlas also explains that, “one of the principal factors contributing to the under-representation of minority men in college and their underperformance in primary and secondary schools is the absence of minority male teachers as role models” (Varlas).  This is a notion held by Jawanza Kunjufu, as well as many others about the need for a Black male role model in the life of young Black boys. Varlas adds that less than one percent of all elementary school teachers in the United States are African American men.  When Black males make up 8.6 percent of public school enrollment, this means that only 10 percent of Black boys come in contact with a Black male teacher. On the other hand, White males see 83 percent White teachers and can relate and are understood very easily.

The point that Varlas makes in this article is that Black boys need the same thing that White boys need, support and familiarity.  If a Black boy could be taught with the proper tools and support, instead of being treated as hostile and unlikely to succeed, Black boys would have a fighting chance at closing the achievement gap.

David Banks, an educator in the New York area, writes an article particular to the failing public education system in New York, as well as ways that help with progression. His article, “How to save young black men: Authority figures must teach the difference between right and wrong”, actually seems wrongfully titled because he discusses ways to help students in the classroom, rather than ways for students to learn the difference between right and wrong. Nonetheless, his eventual argument is compelling as he stated three helpful ways to help drive the achievement gap closer.

One of the first issues that Banks raises is the proposition of an all boys’ school. He argues that the Black boys’ needs are being neglected in a co-ed environment and suggest that it will increase the focus. Referencing the all boys school he works at, Banks writes, “While less than 40% of boys of color in New York City graduate, 80% of ours do – with more than 80% of those going on to college.”

Banks also proposed that all boys’ schools be located in the neighborhoods that need the most support. Also, that the boys accepted into the program be those who need the most support. His argument suggests that the school should not take B or A average students so that the school can have high test scores, but rather take those who are failing and help lift them up, without having to feel like they have to leave their neighborhood to do so.

Finally, Banks suggest that their needs to be an “all hands on deck” approach when considering the education of Black boys. He states that there needs to be a strong link between teachers, principals, after school programs, mentoring, and high level community involvement.  The message of a strong link resembles the African proverb that “It takes a village to raise a child”. This truth becomes self evident when examples of success are seen at all boys schools that are predominately Black.

Works Cited

Banks, By David. “How to save Young Black Men: Authority Figures Must Teach the Difference between Right and Wrong.” New York News, Traffic, Sports, Weather, Photos, Entertainment, and Gossip – NY Daily News. 28 Dec. 2009. Web. <>.

“CSU/UCI Joint Ed.D. Program.” UC Irvine Department of Education. Web. 09 May 2011. <>.

Dillon, Sam. “Racial Disparity in School Suspensions.” New York Times, 13 Sept. 2010. Web. <>.

Edwards, Karen. “Black Boys Suspended from School 3 Times More than White Boys, Says New Study | Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange | News for People Who Care About Children and the Law. 23 Sept. 2010. Web. <>.

Edwards, Karen. “Report Urges Feds to Focus on Why Black Teenage Boys Are Failing in School | Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange | News for People Who Care About Children and the Law. 18 Nov. 2010. Web. <>.

“Facts and Sources: Current Plight of Black Men and Boys in America.” Black Male Community Empowerment Forum, Mar. 2006. Web. .

Hunt, Jazelle. “No Black Boy Left Behind.” Higher Education News and Jobs. 27 Apr. 2009. Web. <>.

Igafo-Te’o, Jackie D. “Bridging the Widest Gap: Raising the Achievement of Black Boys.” Bridges4Kids – Helping Parents and Professionals with Michigan’s Most Comprehensive Source of Information on Education News and Resources for Special Needs and At-risk Children from Birth to Transition to Adult Life. 7 Mar. 2011. Web. <>.

King, Tim. “Learning Curve for Black Men and Black Boys | Chicago Tribune.” Consortium on Chicago School Research. 2 May 2006. Web. <>.

Kunjufu, Jawanza. Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys Series. Chicago, IL: African American Images, 2005. Print.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.

Losen, Daniel, and Russell Skiba. “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis.” 2006. Web. <>.

Noguera, Pedro A. “The Trouble with Black Boys.” In Motion Magazine® – A Multicultural, Online Publication about Democracy. 2002. Web. <>.

RAMMOHAN, YASMIN T. “Study Examines How Black Boys Are Treated in School.” Austin Weekly News. 9 May 2007. Web. <>.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education. The Schott Foundation – 50 State Black Boys Report. Web. 09 May 2011. <>.

Tamara. “Black Boys and 4th Grade Failure Syndrome.” Black Youth Project. 11 Aug. 2010. Web. <>.

Thompson, Gail L. What African American Parents Want Educators to Know. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Print.

Watkins, William H., James H. Lewis, and Victoria Chou. Race and Education: the Roles of History and Society in Educating African American Students. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. Print.

Williams, Dilafruz. “A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools.” 2010. Web. <>.

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