Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a brilliant Black Ohio State University professor, recently opened the Educational Testing Service and Children’s Defense Fund co-sponsored symposium on Advancing Success for Black Men in College by sharing a question his 14 year-old son asked him: why did he get in trouble for speaking out of turn when he jumped in to answer his teacher’s question, but when his White friend did the same thing she was praised for being excited about learning? Dr. Strayhorn noted that many parents and grandparents and educators and policy experts are concerned about the same question: “There are lots of Black and Brown boys who are often penalized for committing the same exact act that non-Black and non-Brown, usually White kids, commit in school—and some students are praised for certain behaviors that other kids are penalized for. It sends a very mixed message, because my son is confused: ‘So what should I do? Not be excited about learning? What if you just can’t wait for the question? How do I signal to the teacher I’m not a rule-breaker?” Dr. Strayhorn said these questions are something we’ve got to think about.
Dr. Strayhorn highlighted a number of other roadblocks we must all be sensitive to and overcome to get all our children on a path of healthy development, confidence, and success. The disparate treatment of Black children in the classroom from the earliest years, especially Black boys, often discourages and knocks many off the path to high school graduation and college. The cumulative and convergent toll of subtle but discouraging adult actions in schools and other child serving systems they come into contact with too often impedes the success of children of color, especially those who are poor, and burdens them with an emotional toll they don’t deserve.
I used to sing loudly with my children and Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” I can only imagine the number of Black children and adults who sing inside daily “It’s Not Easy Being Black.” I’m sure that Black youths seeing what happened to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and others who lost their lives for walking while Black and those who are stopped and frisked and arrested and victimized by excessive police force carry these burdens inside every day. Even the youngest Black boys, ages 4 and 5, who are put out of school and even preschool for nonviolent disciplinary charges for which White children would never be suspended or expelled must be confused and feel this way too.
Dr. Strayhorn spelled out another way Black children are harmed: through disparate resources in the classroom, including textbooks, that hold Black, Brown, and poor students back. He described an experience he had while a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville working with a Knoxville high school that was 97 percent Black. “I found that in this high school these students were learning from textbooks that were at least 10 years old… What exactly are the implications of learning from a textbook that’s 10 years old? Well, I’ll tell you this: that if you don’t catch up too quickly, especially in terms of science, there are certain technological revolutions that have happened at such a fast pace that they’re not even mentioned in the books from which they’ll learn—but will certainly be part of the test that they’ll take to demonstrate competency to go on to college. So it means a whole school of children and youths are set behind, not because they’re saying ‘Don’t take me into the future’ or ‘I don’t want to learn’ or ‘I don’t want to be successful,’ but in fact because they’re studying hard from textbooks that were set up to set them behind. That’s inequitable and that’s unfair.”
As he covered what does work in building a pathway to success, Dr. Strayhorn emphasized the need for positive interventions based on proven designs, because in his program evaluation experience he’s seen far too many well-intentioned efforts that lacked a measurable impact because good ideas weren’t well implemented. He said as an example mentoring programs are especially popular, but many don’t provide adequate training: “If I ask everyone at this table, “Will you be a mentor?,” and you all say yes, and I say, “Now, go out and mentor,” but never tell you what a mentor is supposed to do, I never tell you how important it is to get to know your mentee, I don’t build conditions and environments where you can engage your mentee in meaningful ways, I don’t give you resources to do the most important thing that a mentor has to do, and that is expose the protégé to experiences and opportunities that they might not experience otherwise… Mentoring, for me, is problematic because we pick it up very quickly and we move on with it because it sounds like it ought to work, but we don’t do the work it requires for it to be effective.”
Dr. Strayhorn also discussed how important it is to provide role models for young people who look like them and who are culturally sensitive—and how this is especially true for Black boys. He was clear that not all mentors and role models have to “match.” As a young Black graduate student his own most influential mentor was his older White doctoral advisor. However, having some successful role models who do look like you and who have had shared experiences can make a huge difference, and these role models are out there for Black boys trying to imagine their paths through college: “There are models for success… I’ve met tons of young Black men all across the country who are hard working, they are conscientious, they’re industrious, they have high aspirations, and every intention of achieving their dreams. They were raised by moms, dads, guardians, foster parents, sometimes they have met the juvenile justice system, but they are still committed to achieving their goals.”
Everybody in the classroom and teaching children today—when for the first time White students will no longer be the majority in our nation’s public schools—needs to be culturally sensitive and culturally trained. This is true for all child-serving institutions. We need to watch out for the subtle as well as the overt ways in which we treat non-White and White children and those who are poor differently. And we need much more diversity in children’s literature so that White, Black, Latino, Native American, Asian American, and all children can be exposed to the rich mosaic of America’s melting pot to help them see themselves and what they can be. As the new school year begins it’s crucial to hold up examples of success and inclusive education—and focus on steps that work to make that success possible for all children. And it is important to hold up examples where all children are excited about learning and feel empowered and encouraged to ask as many questions as they can.