How the Education System is Failing Boys of Color

Our Unequal Schools

All of the available evidence suggests that US schools are becoming more ethnically diverse. According to the NCES (2019), which gathers and reports on statistics relating to race in schools annually, between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of school children who were White fell from 62% to 51%; over the same time period, the proportion of Hispanic children increased from 16 to 25% and the proportion of children from two or more races doubled from 2 to 4% (the proportion of Black children remained broadly stable at 14-15%). With educational attainment constituting one of the primary sources of life chances, it is crucial that schools, their curricula and their environments are designed in such a way as to promote equality of opportunity for pupils from all racial backgrounds. However, comparison of the academic achievement of student cohorts by race and gender reveals one cohort to consistently underperform compared to all other groups: African-American and Latino boys (Dickerson & Agosto, 2015).  The key metrics used to measure success and performance at schools – such as educational attainment, school performance, presenteeism and rates of graduation – all show that African-American and Latino boys cluster towards the bottom. Furthermore, these patterns seem to be consistent regardless of the setting, whether in schools based in urban, suburban, and rural districts across the United States (Moon & Singh, 2015).  

Examination of the causes of these disparities reveals an alarming and complex story with academic underachievement for boys of color being driven by their socioeconomic background, the type of school they attend, the type of education that they are being exposed to, and self-fulfilling, socially-driven beliefs and expectations about their potential. This article explores some of these issues in depth and identifies strategies which have the potential to narrow the achievement gap so that boys of color have access to the opportunities that are currently being denied to them.

 A Closer Look

First: a closer look at the extent of the problem. The clearest indicator of a race- and gender-based academic achievement gap is found when comparing average levels of proficiency on core subjects across various grades. In general, black students score below White students on standardized tests in reading, writing, science and math (NCES, 2019). For example, the White-Black gap in reading scores is currently 25 percentage points – about the same as it was in 1992. Similarly, while the mean score of the math section of the SAT is 511 (out of a maximum of 800), the corresponding score for White students is 534, for blacks, 428 and for Latinos 457 (Reeves & Halikias, 2017). However, the differences are much more pronounced when comparing cohorts by age and gender. Black and Hispanic girls fare better than their male counterparts in virtually every core subject all the way through the K-12 system, but the achievement gap between boys of color and other cohorts widens substantially after eighth grade (New York City Independent Budget Office, 2017; McFarland et al, 2018).

Yet, the problem extends far beyond academic achievement. African-American and Latino boys are significantly more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than any other groups, and they are less likely to enroll in college following high school graduation (Zilanawala et al, 2017).  In many urban cities, the dropout rates for this group of students exceeds 50 per cent. Furthermore, this cohort is less likely to be found in programs for talented and gifted students, and more likely to be found in remedial academic programs (Zilanawala et al, 2017).  

Hispanic and black boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and to be placed into special educational programs (Quigley & Mitchell, 2018).  Finally, of all groups, black male students have the highest rates of suspensions, expulsions and detentions (Gregory et al, 2010).

Why are Boys of Color Underperforming?

Readers looking for a quick answer will be disappointed. Examination of the family backgrounds of students, the areas that they live in and the types of schools they attend reveals a complex story. The media is quick to attribute the underperformance of black boys to poverty alone. For example, citing the now infamous National Bureau of Research (NBER)[1] study into race and intergenerational mobility involving 20 million Americans, the Economist (2018, online) reports that “black boys are the least likely of any group to escape poverty”, noting that the median household income for black Americans, at $39,500 is just over half of that for non-Hispanic White Americans.

A deeper look into the poverty statistics does reveal a disturbing pattern. Decades of research reveals that living in poverty during early childhood reduces academic achievement over the life course – beginning at kindergarten and persisting to higher education (Mulligan et al., 2012; Ross et al., 2012). Child poverty rates vary considerably according to race. While 10% of White and Asian children live under the poverty line (based on the official poverty measure), the respective rates for Black children and Hispanic children are 31% and 26% respectively – figures that have barely changed since 2010 (NCES, 2019).

Relatedly, African American and Hispanic children are more likely to attend schools officially designated as high poverty (those where more than 75% of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches). In 2016, 45% of both Black and Hispanic students attended a high poverty school – only 8% of White students attended such schools (McFarland et al, 2018). The disparity is important because academic achievement rates at high poverty schools are far lower than the national average – a fact largely attributed to the poor resources of such schools, as well as their concentration in urban areas with high levels of violence and crime that create risk for students (Hirn et al., 2018). High poverty schools tend to be staffed by teachers with lower levels of teaching experience and teachers with non-regular licenses, as well as teachers who quit more quickly. This suggests that the students that attend these schools are subjected to lower quality teaching experiences than students who attend other schools.

Two poverty-related characteristics have been found to be of particular prominence in understanding the lower achievement rates of black and Hispanic boys – the socioeconomic backgrounds of their families and the degree to which these boys are involved in juvenile delinquency (Gregory et al., 2010). Male students of color are more likely to be classified as at-risk and more likely to grow up in single-parent households (NCES, 2019; Hirn et al, 2018).  However, the causal relationship between these aspects remains far from explained: poor academic achievement contributes to poor socioeconomic outcomes in a kind of cyclical relationship and delinquency may be a strategy for these boys to express their frustration with the schooling system, rather than a cause of poor academic achievement, per se. Furthermore, there are multiple examples of schools in high poverty areas that produce high rates of achievement in their students – St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey is one prominent example (Ruize-Grossman, 2016; Wright & Counsell, 2018).

So, if poverty cannot tell the whole story, what can? Males of color are more likely than other students to be classified as “disruptive” or “intellectually inferior” (Smith et al, 2018) and this school-imposed labelling is certainly part of the problem. Labelling theory was first developed within the discipline of criminology, where it was used to better understand the links between crime and delinquency (Moncrieffe & Eyben, 2007). Over the past three decades, greater attention has been paid to labelling in the context of educational achievement, with labelling now understood to be one of the key factors that predict attainment or foreshadow failure and destruction (Marsh & Noguera, 2018). Labelling refers to a practice whereby a school or teacher assigns a descriptive ‘label’ to a child in order to categorize them, and in order to help explain and address the difficulties that they may be having in school.

Research shows that school-imposed labelling can have profound negative effects on children, both in the short-term and in the long-term (Marsh & Noguera, 2018). Importantly, it can change children’s behaviours in such a way that they act in accordance with the label that has been assigned to them. Labelling can change children’s self-expectations, which serves to erect impediments to them and any life goals that they may have. Children become predisposed to deviant behaviour through a process whereby attaching a label to an individual stigmatises them, and thus produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a classic study, a sample of elementary school teachers were provided with false IQ scores for each of their students. In an analysis of the teachers’ response to those scores, teachers developed positive expectations of pupils with higher IQ scores, and lower expectations for pupils with lower scores. Furthermore, children that had been issued with higher IQ scores received warmer and more supportive responses when they asked questions in class, they received more focused attention and feedback, and they were provided with greater opportunities to ask questions in class (Rosenthal & Jackson, 1966). More recently, a study into the achievement gap undertaken from the perspective of Black male students reported that students perceived “that the ever-present media representation of them as being less intelligent due to being African American young men was, at times, detrimental to their academic performance” (Moon & Singh, 2015, p. 19). Studies such as these suggest that schools themselves may be contributing to inequalities between male students of color and other cohorts.

Culturally Responsive Education

It has also been argued that the social, cultural and political foundations of school curricula have been designed by, and for, the White majority, and does not take into account the specific needs of boys of color (Dickerson & Agosto, 2015). As a consequence, such curricula lack meaning for students from minority, poor and marginalized backgrounds, serves to alienate them from the schooling process, and thereby acts as a barrier to their potential to achieve success at school (Quigley & Mitchell, 2018). One of the main challenges is that American elementary and secondary classrooms are heavily standards-based. This imposes barriers to curriculum planners and teachers who wish to attempt to make curricula more meaningful for all types of student. However, even within the context of the standards-based classroom, there are still strategies that can be used to deliver teaching in a culturally sensitive way while still meeting state-set standards, capitalizing upon the knowledge that students bring to school, and designing curricula to include as many multicultural and culturally relevant examples as possible.

Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) refers to curricula that is designed with the specific cultural backgrounds of marginalized students in mind. Specifically, such curricula build upon, and exploits the knowledge that students themselves already bring to the classroom, which in turn stems from their family, home life and community experiences. Culturally responsive education is increasingly recognized as having the power to raise the achievement levels of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds (Brown, 2017).  Brown (2017) carried out a meta-analysis of previous work on culturally responsive science education in K‐12 settings, in order to identify commonalities of practice that have the potential to raise academic achievement levels among at-risk students. Her review of dozens of studies in the area suggested that these students are switched off by science education that does not speak to their real lives. However, where students are granted the opportunity to draw upon their own cultural perspectives and family-based experiences to explore and explain scientific content, their opportunities for learning are significantly enhanced. In addition, Brown (2017) finds that students who are given the opportunity to interrogate scientific concepts and content in ways that promote sociopolitical consciousness raising better connect their learning with real life. This is the kind of learning that is necessary both for academic achievement, as well as for post-school employability. For instance, instead of curricula that explores in the abstract the harmful effects of pollution, students should be given the opportunity to explore how pollution is linked to asthmas in specific urban areas of relevance to them. Rooting teaching and learning in real –life experiences of relevance to these students has the power to engage them, and engagement is highly associated with knowledge transfer and achievement.

If a curriculum is to be designed in such a way as to bolster the achievement of marginalized students, it is impossible to divorce the curriculum from the context in which it is delivered (Lynch, Burton, Behrend, House, Ford, Spillane & Means, 2018).  It is also crucil to look beyond the subject matter when designing and culturally responsive and inclusive curriculum with the power to drastically raise achievement levels. With specific reference to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, subjects in which poor marginalized students especially underachieve, Lynch et al. (2018) argue that ‘achievement’ means not just grasping the content, but also acquiring the networks, dispositions and social capital to facilitate success in the discipline. Inclusive curricula should therefore offer not only subject knowledge, but also the opportunity structures for STEM students to develop those supplementary skills necessary for success and achievement.

It is crucial that the curriculum is delivered by supportive teaching staff and this is another area in which our schools are currently failing boys of color. Where both curricula and teachers are culturally sensitive, and where cultural differences are valued and celebrated, the opportunities for high levels of academic achievement among excluded and marginalized students is heightened (Kumar, Zusho & Bondie, 2018).  However, if the curriculum is to have its intended effect, the classroom must be a supportive one and the curriculum should also seek to emphasize student motivation. Student motivation can be driven by weaving four interrelated concepts into the curriculum – meaningfulness, relatedness competence, and autonomy (Kumar et al., 2018). Meaningfulness and relatedness are achieved by relating concepts and contents to the real-life experiences of students (Brown, 2017). Competence both seeks to instill competencies in the students, as well as to emphasize that high skill levels are necessary for success in the specific subject.  Autonomy means incorporating activities that give students independence and grant them power over their own learning experiences.

Writing in the American Educational Research Journal Dee & Penner (2017) report upon the results of a pilot scheme conducted at five high schools in San Francisco that involved the delivery of an Ethnic Studies (ES) course designed specifically to be culturally responsive. The ES course was delivered to a highly diverse (60 per cent Asian, 23 per cent Hispanic, and 6 per cent Black) cohort of ninth grade students who had recorded an eight-grade Grade Point Average (GPA) of below 2.0. The authors gathered data on attendance, GPA and earned credits among participants in the ES course before they undertook the course, and after it was delivered. The results of the longitudinal analysis were very positive. Participating in the Ethnic Studies course increased students’ attendance by 21 percentage points, their GPA by 1.4 grade points over eighth grade and their earned credits by 21 points over the previous year.  Overall, and based on these results, Dee & Penner (2017) concluded that inclusion of a culturally relevant curriculum or course can increase achievement among at-risk students.  

Dickerson & Agosto (2015) argue the language and practices used in developing curriculum must not undermine the goals of the new curriculum itself. In order to substantiate this argument, the authors point out that many mentoring schemes that have been designed used to either supplement or support an inclusive curriculum actually fail to improve the achievement of young black men. Such failure is attributed to the prevalence of what the authors describe as a ‘deficiency framework’ common in mentoring schemes. The deficiency framework implicitly or explicitly describes young black men as deficient compared to their peers through the use of terms such as ‘at-risk’, ‘low achievers’ or ‘under-achievers’ (Dickerson & Agosto, 2015). The use of the deficiency framework actually leads to self-fulfilling prophecies that promote underachievement. For instance, when young black men are classified as ‘at risk’, they believe themselves to be at risk, which in turn leads them to underachieve. For these reasons, Dickerson & Agosto (2015) argue that a mentoring-driven curriculum can only be successful at promoting the achievement of young black men, insofar as it emphasizes agency, culture, and understanding of the broader socio-political context (e.g. the so-called preschool to prison pipeline) in which the curriculum is delivered. Farenga, Ness & Sawyer (2015) make a similar argument when they say that classifying students as average and designing curricula specifically for average students is counterproductive in efforts to raise achievement levels.

Final Thoughts

The academic achievement gap between Latino and African American male students and other cohorts is both pervasive and persistent. Efforts to address it, from attempting to involve parents and the broader community in school life to the provision of basic resources (e.g. clothing and food) for the families of impoverished students have had only negligible levels of success. Despite such interventions, however, African American and Hispanic boys continue to be especially susceptible to inferior levels of academic achievement compared to other cohorts, and they are located in schools that are under-resourced. Addressing this crisis is now a matter of urgency. In their audit of demographic changes in the US over the course of the twentieth century, Fischer & Hout (2006, p. 247) observed that “the division between the less- and more-educated grew and emerged as a powerful determinant of life chances and lifestyles”. According to one report “of the 57% of Black males in their early thirties who dropped out of high school, 52% had a prison record” (Mundy, 2014, p. 1). If over half of Black male dropouts end up in prison, and children in single-headed households are more likely to be impoverished, the self-replicating cycle of poverty and educational underperformance across the generations becomes clear.

Given the role that education and knowledge plays in shaping socioeconomic outcomes and social mobility, it is crucial that educators take steps to attempt to address, close and eradicate the achievement gap. Curriculum design and delivery, and the sensitivity of teaching staff to the particular needs of black male students has the power to make a substantial contribution to narrowing such academic achievement gaps.


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[1] Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Jones, M. R., & Porter, S. R. (2018). Race and economic opportunity in the United States: An intergenerational perspective (No. w24441). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Natalie Sappleton

Dr. Natalie Sappleton obtained her M.A. (Hons.) in Economics and Politics from the University of Glasgow and her PhD from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research interests are in intersectional inequalities in institutional contexts, and her PhD thesis investigates the role of gender stereotyping in the entrepreneurship. Research programmes she has been involved in include Women Audio Visual Engineers (WAVE), Women in North West Engineering and numerous investigations into sex discrimination at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Natalie has a PGCert in Academic Practice and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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