When it comes to the public education of African-American youth, some would say too many of them aren’t in class enough to learn.
They are busy being suspended or even expelled at an alarming rate, which is enough to cause an outrage — but that outrage can only intensify when considering the disparity between administrative discipline meted out to non-minority students.
In a damning report released earlier this month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that African-American male students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers. The Civil Rights Data Collection report showed that African-American students made up 18 percent of its sample study, but of those 18 percent, 35 percent were suspended at least once, while another 39 percent were expelled. In the Philadelphia School District, the report found that African-American students make up 62 percent of the student population, but represented 78 percent of the students who were suspended; conversely, Caucasians make up 13 percent of the student population, and represent a relatively paltry seven percent of those suspended.
“African-American boys and girls have higher suspension rates than any of their peers,” the report concluded. “One in five African-American boys, and more than one in ten African-American girls received an out-of-school suspension.”
What is the cause of this disparity? One could take the numbers at face value and proclaim Black youth as unreachable, but veteran educators and officials see a much deeper cause.
“We continue to look at students of color in a pathological manner, by buying into a racial narrative born in white supremacy — that Black youth are angry and aggressive,” said Chad Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn, Inc., a social work think tank that confronts the issues and policies that effect the African-American community. “Then we treat them punitively with the zero-tolerance policies; it’s more along the line of criminalization, not education.”
Representatives of the School District of Philadelphia haven’t returned repeated requests for comment.
The report includes nationwide school data for the 2009–2010 year, the last year that has a complete data set.
“The power of the data is not only in the numbers themselves, but in the impact it can have when married to courage and the will to change,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise. It is our collective duty to change that.”
But how? Lassiter believes a change can only happen when the teaching methods are changed as well.
“I think the curriculum is not oftentimes culturally relevant, nor oftentimes culturally affirmative,” Lassiter said. “The teachers may be limiting students with the way they teach. We have to provide more cultural service assistance to these children.”
The report also found that only 29 percent of schools with a high-minority enrollment offered calculus, compared to 55 percent of the schools with the lowest minority attendance. It also found that teachers working in predominantly minority schools earn $2,251 less annually than teachers working in low-minority schools.
“We have the greatest salary disparity among high school teachers in the country, and these numbers are alarming and show discrimination between African-American, Latino and white students,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Chairperson of City Council’s Education Committee. “From slavery until now, African Americans have been discriminated against, and it’s very sad that in 2012 children do not have equal access to education.”
Blackwell argued there were several mitigating circumstances that possibly skewer the numbers, echoing Lassiter’s assertion that teachers do not really engage the youth. Blackwell taught long before she came to City Council, and recalled that her instructor ordered her not to call on three African-American students in particular, because “they had Es already,” and that she was harassed and harangued for trying to reach them.
“We don’t have, unfortunately, the kind of commitment to education we need, despite all that’s been said,” Blackwell stated, noting that she will hold a meeting soon to discuss this very topic and other school-related matters. “Education is so controversial, because people without kids in school see all the negative behavior, but they’re not mimicking some other behavior; they are going by what they see.”