How do US black students perform at school?

How do US black students perform at school?

  • 29 May 2015
  • From the section US & Canada

The gap between black and white pupils’ achievement is widening in the USA – so what are the causes and what barriers are preventing this problem being overcome?

How do black students perform at school?

Children at a summer school in Chicago

Children at a summer school in Chicago

The answer is complicated.

Increasing school resegregation – the renewal of segregation – and the continuing inequality of black students is resulting in lower achievement and graduation rates, signalling a reversal of civil rights gains.

Achievement disparities, referred to widely as the black-white achievement gap or test-score gap, frequently position black students at the low end of the scale and white (and Asian) students at the top.

This situation often engenders simplistic individual and group explanations for the gap, which frequently frame the lives and educational experiences of black children in ways that involve a deficit of some sort.

However, there are enormous variations in these students’ social, economic, historic, political and educational opportunities.

When gaps in achievement are addressed without a deliberate investigation of racial inequities, students, parents, teachers and neighbourhoods tend to be blamed for the poor educational outcomes of black students.

I contend that inquiries into how black students perform in school must include investigation of the harsh disciplinary sanctions in public schools for black students, the disinvestment in black neighbourhoods and why the least prepared teachers are those most likely to serve black students.

I would be remiss if I did not say that some schools and educational settings have made tremendous strides toward creating equitable spaces.

However, these advances are few and far between and, when present, reflect only incremental and slow growth when it comes to improving black students’ educational outcomes.

Are black students failing to live up to their potential?

Teenagers at an American school

If their failure in potential includes opposing those who would position them as failures, who defy low expectations, then the question we should be asking is: Are schools failing to live up to their potential for equitably educating black students?

If so, why?

Additionally, black students are experiencing intense levels of stress and challenge.

Many are exposed to a bevy of chronic stresses that include, but are not limited to, disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, violence and poor healthcare, which negatively impact their educational outcomes.

Recent research has challenged the educational community to better understand the long-term physical, mental, emotional and psychological effects of living in a white-dominated and privileged society, and its threats to the mental and physical health of black students.

Moreover, black students live within an additional state of fragility because of how their intellects and life chances are positioned in this society.

Despite this, many of them resist this unfair placement by striving for educational success, demonstrating that black students have the wherewithal and ability to develop robust academic identities that minimise but do not eliminate the impact of being marginalised.

Moreover, some black students develop and implement coping mechanisms to safeguard academic hardiness and provide a counter-defence against negative evaluations and low expectations in what are often toxic and discriminatory educational environments.

Racial biases often place undue burdens on black students who already experience multiple forms of discrimination and prejudice, while the educational and social institutions they learn in, perpetuate white privilege.

Are there particular subjects that give cause for concern?

Maths teacher showing equations

Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are a particular cause for concern because within them there are more pronounced stereotypes, extreme competitiveness and gender inequities regarding the abilities and competencies of black male and female students.

Additionally, many black students experience conflict between possible future Stem career choices and their growing commitments to issues of social justice, such as racial disparities, poverty, lack of culturally-grounded Stem technologies, the world health crisis and so on.

Thus, many mathematically talented black students are opting out of Stem fields and into more traditionally social-justice-oriented careers such as social work and humanitarian-related work.

These students have decided to forgo potential Stem college and career trajectories to address more fully the conditions of their neighbourhoods, society and the world.

Do promising students face particular problems?

Child uses laptop

The data confirms what many black high-achieving students have confessed to feeling that the experiences in their classrooms were marked by stereotypes that formed at the critical intersections of race and ability.

High-achieving black students are confronted with an increase of test anxiety and stress, which typically leads to a modest yet measureable decrease in test performance.

These students are also the most affected by race and ability stereotypes such as “Black students can’t do maths”, and fare the worst when the condition of being stereotyped is presented.

That is, students who are high-achievement oriented in terms of skill, motivation and confidence are the most impaired by stereotypes or even the threat of being stereotyped.

Their efforts and frequent attempts to disconfirm these negative stereotypes often causes academic stress leading to lowered cognitive performance.

However, many high-achieving black students use their experience of anxiety and stress as a spur to motivate them to achieve, challenge, and, ultimately, attempt to disprove negative stereotypes and to maintain and build upon their achievements.

Moreover, some black students defy traditional social norms with street wisdom and other cultural assets or resources to create a complex set of strategies for maintaining academic excellence.

Racial stereotypes are powerful, but they are not deterministic.

What can be done to address the issues?

Children on a school bus

Examining the cognitive or “intellectual” ability of black students in isolation distorts the socially constructed operations and views that foster and reinforce learning and assessment of inequities in education.

Addressing the complicated issues related to black student performance must include an examination of a status quo that stifles their chances of achieving academic success, addressing school resources, the availability of advanced curricular opportunities, and the presence of high-quality teachers.

An analysis of the National Center for Education Statistics data showed that while students of colour made up more than 45% of the pre-K through 12 population, black teachers made up only 6.7% of the educator workforce.

Also relevant is the importance of diversifying teacher education, which is currently 83.5% white and mostly female.

Addressing these inequities could create a greater connection and continuity between black students’ home and school cultures.

Academic fields like Stem require greater connections between black students’ sense of responsibility for the improvement of their home communities and larger world community with Stem curriculum and career materials.

Dr Ebony McGee is assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She runs the website blackengineeringphd.org and also writes for The Conversation.


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