Carpe Librum: The Trouble with Black Boys

Occasionally, I will be posting my thoughts about different pieces of literature I have read. These posts will cover a wide variety of texts, from children’s books to highly academic content. Below is a comprehensive analysis of a text I read for a class about diverse learners. I’m sharing it now because it is a good summary of my own personal teaching philosophy.

Pedro Noguera’s The Trouble with Black Boys and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education (2008) is a comprehensive analysis of the interconnectedness of race and equity in public education. In an empowering essay, Noguera offers an honest yet optimistic examination of the urban school system. He stresses the importance of a focus on public education, as it is the “only social entitlement available to all children in the United States regardless of race, class, or national origin” (p. 216) and is, therefore, the “only institution that is positioned to play a role in addressing the effects of poverty and social marginalization and furthering the goal of equity” (p. xxvii). In contrast, schools often exacerbate preexisting differences in ability by providing poor children with an inferior education. Refusing to make light of the difficulty in addressing the needs of troubled students, Noguera takes the position that schools should not be expected to solve these problems themselves. He explains that, in order to combat the multiplier effect, “any serious policy for improving urban public schools must address the educational issues in concert with other issues, such as poverty, joblessness, and the lack of public services” (p. 230). Noguera insists on collaboration as a means of achieving these goals through partnerships with private corporations and parent empowerment. His call to action insists that good intentions are not enough and that nothing ought to be left to chance.

While offering incredible insight into urban education, Noguera focuses on one of the most disadvantaged populations of all: black males and other minorities. Noguera begins his analysis by explaining the historical significance of race as a social construct, a political category created to justify exploitation and oppression. In a society that historically used race as a means of distinguishing groups and individuals, young people are often forced to develop racial identities. However, much research has shown that labeling and sorting students into groups based on academic ability or behavior (and one may infer race) often fails to ameliorate the behaviors that were targeted in the first place. Noguera cites lowered expectations as a result of these tracking practices (p. xx). In fact, he even states that “Schools are often sites where black males are marginalized and stigmatized rather than serving as a source of hope and opportunity” (p. 22). Even more frightening is the fourth-grade syndrome: the tendency for academic performance of Black males to “take a decisive downward turn at the age of nine or ten” (p. 42). Now, Noguera acknowledges that Black males are not helpless victims, but it is his contention that “the only way we will begin to break the cycle of failure is if Black males are empowered and engaged in addressing these issues themselves” (p. xxiii). These efforts to improve African American males’ academic performance must begin by understanding the attitudes that influence how they perceive schooling and academic pursuits because of the strong link between identity and academic achievement. Noguera explains an Attitude-achievement paradox, in which Black males articulate a desire to do well in school, but states that it’s often merely an abstract articulation of a belief. This is shown by the fact that, “Despite their privilege, middle-class Black students typically lag behind White and Asian students of similar and even lower socioeconomic status” (p. 131). Not only must we respond to inequities in funding, but we must respond to the racial achievment gap by “engaging Black men and boys in debates about personal responsibility,” (p. xxv). Spoiler alert: Noguera states that “The trouble with Black boys is that too often they are placed in schools where their needs for nurturing, support, and loving discipline are not met” (p. xxi). Noguera pushes even further, though: “Changing policies, creating new programs, and opening new opportunities will accomplish little if such efforts are not accompanied by strategies to actively engage Black males and their families in taking responsibility to improve their circumstances” (p. 22). Noguera calls for educators to be advocates of children in order to revive urban education.

Noguera’s analysis has impacted by awareness on the issues of race and equity in public education by reinforcing and elaborating on my own philosophy on discipline, providing insight on denying racism and embracing culture, and delivering strategies to improve collaborative efforts.

On discipline: In many schools today, discipline measures mimic the strategies used to punish adults in society—exclusion and ostracism. However, these practices often create a self-fulfilling prophecy—students internalizing labels, resulting in a “cycle of antisocial behavior that can be very difficult to break” (p. 116) because these disciplinary practices are often enacted on students who do not know the rewards of education and, therefore, have no incentive to comply with school rules. In fact, schools in which suspension rates are high, suspending “bad” students does not even result in a better education for those students that remain. We must not locate discipline problems exclusively in students, but consider the context in which the discipline occurs, which runs us the risk of overlooking some of the most important problems that give rise to the behavior (p. 124), such as antagonistic relationships with adults. Sadly, many “failing” schools have been force to enact measure that undermine the education and social well-being of students. Noguera proclaims that “These schools need help, not humiliation” (p. 182). Is this prison-like system in many schools a conspiracy fueled by power or is an unconscious orchestration of these patterns? Noguera says the latter option is far worse. In fact, this “fixation on control in many schools is antithetical to many of the ideals held by teachers” (p. 119) who believe that education should serve a higher moral purpose. So, how do we provide youth with an incentive to take advantage of their education? Noguera supplies us with hope by informing that “Teachers who experience little behavioral problems in class demonstrate an ability to keep their students focused on learning and intellectually engaged” (p. 123). He says educators have a decision to make: do you want to be a warden or a prison guard? Or do you want to be an advocate of children? He is confident about the future of education if the following measures on embracing culture and collaboration are acted upon.

Embracing culture: Not only are Black males at risk in our education system, but Latino students are also trapped in the worst schools and are more likely to attend segregated schools (p. 53). Unlike in the past when assimilation served as the pathway into mainstream American culture and middle-class status for European immigrants, evidence actually suggests that this socialization process often results in the lowering of academic achievement and performance of Latino students (p. 81). When educating Latino students as well as African-American students, we must consider the process of identity formation and we must not be afraid to confront racism and embrace culture. There are a few things we must consider: 1) the context from which your students or their ancestors arrived in this country: oppression or seeking liberation? and 2) whether or not a reciprocal learning is taking place between the mainstream culture and the minority culture. We can certainly embrace culture while still providing students with the tools to social mobility. For example, Noguera suggests that, “Ideally, schools should serve as mediating institutions where individuals can be taught to cod-switch—master Standard English and learn where and when its use is required—while still affirming the culture and aspirations of its students” (p. 225). This kind of revolution of thinking must also be embraced when bettering the education system through collaboration.

Collaboration: Noguera warns us that “Where connections between school and community are weak, urban public schools are more likely to operate as social negative capital” (p. 224). This statement emphasizes the importance and impact of public education on communities. Noguera suggests four methods of combating this imminent problem. The first is through strategic partnerships with outside organizations in order to provide schools with “technical support, material resources, and personnel to assist schools in meeting students’ needs” (p. 186). The second he suggests, when speaking of “failing” schools, as per the standards set by No Child Left Behind, is the use of intervention teams to train educators, administrators, and other school personnel in research-based strategies for student achievement. The third is through parental involvement. Noguera cites the use of formal contract between parents and schools in successful urban education institutions, saying that parental involvement has a positive impact in raising levels of academic achievement. Finally, but certainly not least, is to include young people in the process of formulation solutions to the problem. He warns not to select young leaders, but students who can also attest to these issues first-handedly. Noguera also urges that these interaction must occur regularly and adults must respond respectfully and genuinely to student input. This investment in social capital and community control will yield great benefits for public education now and in the future.

Noguera’s analysis and suggestions are critical to the future of public education and the classroom community. Historically, education was regarded as the “great equalizer of opportunity,” a phrase coined by 19th Century education reformist Horace Mann, and was the pinnacle of the American Dream. In contrast, Noguera states that “There is perhaps no other sector that reflects the fractured nature of civil society in the United States more than public education” (p. 189). However, he believes in the significance of public education and calls for a “revival of ideals,” saying “The future of our society will ultimately be determined by the quality of our public schools…Finding ways to fulfill the great promise and potential of American education is the task before us” (p. 188).

I highly recommend this read to all other educators, politicians, parents, business owners, community members, and the like. Although the text is heavy with academic content, portions of it would be beneficial to use in my future classroom, in practice if not in any other way. Shine on, teachers!

“The fact remains that through education, we have the potential and power to open minds, tap the imagination, cultivate skills, and inspire the innate ability in all human beings to dream and create. This is what makes education such a special endeavor, and this is why public schools remain our most valuable resource.” (p. xxvii)


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