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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/22/2010

How to help African-American males in school: Treat them like gifted students

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Yvette Jackson, chief executive officer of the National Urban Alliance and former executive director of instruction and professional development for the New York City public schools.

By Yvette Jackson
I wanted to cry when I read about the recent widely publicized report from the Council of Great City Schools about the underachievement of African-American males in our schools. Its findings bear repeating: African-American boys drop out at nearly twice the rate of white boys; their SAT scores are on average 104 points lower; and black men represented just 5 percent of college students in 2008.

When I was the executive director of instruction and professional development for the New York City Public Schools, I grew keenly aware of the challenges schools face in educating African-American males. For many reasons, far too many boys don’t get the support at home or in the community they need to thrive as adults. Instead, that job falls almost completely on their schools. And that means it comes down to their teachers.

Driven by the intense focus on accountability, schools and teachers used standardized test scores to help identify and address student weaknesses. Over time, these deficits began to define far too many students so that all we saw were their deficits – particularly for African-American males. As a result, we began losing sight of these young boys’ gifts and, as a consequence, stifled their talents.

As the report notes, it would be great to create national urgency around this issue and find more mentors for African-American males. But we have an army of educators in schools now who can help black males by doing for them what works for gifted students.

Teachers and schools can create activities that identify, affirm and build on student strengths. This can be done through student surveys, honest conversations and teacher professional development. We need to shift from remediation focused on weaknesses to mediation that develops strengths.

Damaging and pervasive chasms grow between teachers and students when teachers feel unprepared to meet the needs of students of color or economically disadvantaged students. Making cultural connections and strengthening teacher-student relationships are critical to making learning meaningful and relevant to students.

Finally, students must be enabled to be more active in their own education. Schools should give students opportunities to participate in teachers’ professional development aimed at enriching curriculum, improving teaching and expanding the range of materials students create.

In this way, student strengths will be illuminated. Teachers will get meaningful feedback on their instruction. Numerous ideas for creative classroom activities will be generated, and new bonds between teachers and students will develop. We must embrace a new approach to African-American males that focuses less on what they aren’t doing and builds on what they can and want to do as the path to improving their academic performance.

This is what a 6th-grade African-American boy from Newark, N.J., said recently when asked how it felt to lead his class in a lesson: “I got a lot of compliments from teachers saying that they think when I grow up I am going to be a very good teacher. I felt proud because it felt like I was doing very good. It was one of the best feelings that I had in life.”

Our schools and our teachers need to help more students grow up capable and confident. Students who don’t believe in themselves or who accept adults’ low expectations are one step closer to dropping out – or worse. Growing up to become a very good teacher is a destiny we can all support.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 22, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Achievement gap, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  SAT scores, achievement gap, african-american males, black males, council of great city schools, national urban alliance, schools  
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Indeed educators with whom I worked have known this; it's one of the primary reasons I became an educator. Yet since public schools must work to meet the needs of all students, the specific needs of a group are rarely met fully. If regular public schools specialized, as charters can, they could meet the needs of the demographic upon which they focused. The Frederick Douglass Academy in Detroit is the model for educating African-American males(, last year sending 95% of it's high school graduates to college.
As always, are adults willing to make the effort to meet the needs of our young people?

Posted by: pdexiii | November 22, 2010 6:57 AM | Report abuse

The politically incorrect question is how does our culture discourage unwed, teenage girls from perpetuating the generational disaster of becoming totally unprepared mothers?

Beyond that, what can society do more of to aid these young males than what we're already doing? Lord knows, these young girls have proven quite convincingly they're not ready for this most important job on the planet - parenting.

Posted by: phoss1 | November 22, 2010 7:24 AM | Report abuse

Typical, progressive, liberal dribble. Gloss over the weaknesses and pump them full of sunshine and self-esteem, then blame the teachers. Just what strengths are we to highlite with someone who is behind in reading and math? Kids know when they've been given a pass. They know when not much is expected of them. Bush was right (one of the few times) when he referenced the "soft bigotry of low expectations". And now she wants to ask the kids, "what are you good at? what would you like to study? How does that make you feel? What do you want your teacher to teach?"


Posted by: peonteacher | November 22, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Excellent point. You get much further by building on strengths than continually harping on weaknesses. So if the young child is good at music, teach him math through music like they do in Trinidad. If s/he is good at games and sports, teach reading through games as Rosseau did centuries ago. If the teenager likes being on teams, steer him/her into team taught cross-disciplinary courses that ultimately will replace the factory model, teacher-centric stand-and-deliver model that has been boring so many high schooler over the last 2-3 decades. This is not progressive "dribble" as suggested by the previous comment. The child still needs honest, accurate feedback on strengths and weaknesses. But any teacher worth his salt knows that one size does not fit all, and building on strengths is what any good leader does.

Posted by: bsels | November 22, 2010 8:25 AM | Report abuse

This article just confirms that students learn different ways... by sight,sound or touch. Studies confirm that males learn better by seeing and doing in the early years. In the classroom isn't it the responsibility of the teacher to find out the learning method of their students? If we do not have kids fully engaged by 6th grade, then we know they are lot and become apathetic to school going forward.

Teaching has changed in the classroom over the past 30 years...teachers could actually teach and help mold minds to they teach children to take all these god forsaken standard tests.....

Posted by: wepage4 | November 22, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

African-American males are only about 6.5% of the U.S. population, so actually, if they make up 5% of the college population, that's not outrageous underrepresentation. Not to minimize the seriousness of the overall educational situation for African-American males, but let's not be even more alarmist than warranted. Also, people in education should be giving educated scrutiny to statistics before using them.

Posted by: CarolineSF | November 22, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree with this author's views and feel that they apply to all classroom students no matter what background or race. I think everyone deep down wants to feel good at something and to feel capable of making contributions. A good teacher builds those bridges. I recently was asked to take on a "student assistant" by one of those "good teachers". The student excels at art but has a lot of difficulty in the classroom. He was not allowed to participate in recess for an entire week because of his behavior. This teacher asked if this student could become my teaching assistant in art for the week and I happily agreed. I introduced him as a talented artist who would circulate around the room and offer suggestions for students wanting help. He did a fantastic job. I expressed concern to his classroom teacher about having his help in one class as this class would be with his grade level peers. Fortunately the teacher said to try it out. Well, he was so incredibly helpful and the students looked up to him. How motivating is that to have peers looking up to you! A week later, his teacher sent me a photograph of him holding up a rather complex thank you card with visuals. Clearly he was now doing his homework! Everyone needs to feel that others believe in them and that they are capable of being helpful and doing a good job. Yet if a student is "beaten down" enough, he/she loses sight of this. Students love to share with others (what they are good at) - as a teacher I see this time and time again. This builds esteem and often motivates a student - just what they need to succeed. I applaud this classroom teacher who had the foresight to see that this student would benefit by assisting me in art class!

Posted by: teachermd | November 22, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

What a bimbo. Does anyone think that treating a student as "gifted" students will raise their SAT scores?

If non-gifted students can produce scores greater than black students what does becoming "gifted" do?

How did Yvette Jackson get that job?

Posted by: DoYouTrustThisGuy | November 22, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Why are these statistics compared with white and black students? What about Asian or Latino students?

Yvette Jackson either admits that White students excel or that Black students can't compete and "need a leg up" again.

Posted by: DoYouTrustThisGuy | November 22, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

another wapo hack spewing out more PC BS.yes there are gifted children of any race. there are also gifted thugs,do we cater to them also? excuses are acceptable for those that understand how to play the system.

Posted by: pofinpa | November 23, 2010 5:34 AM | Report abuse

I am sorry, but the teachers of today are too busy administering required tests all semester long. Measuring, quantifying. Funny, there is NO TIME for the human element, or DEVIATING from the lesson plan. Everything must be measured. Oh well, kids drop out. Too bad. At least the test makers are making money. The politicians are happy. The parents are happy.

Posted by: kschur1 | November 23, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

Parents in the AA community must begin teaching the importance of education to their young from birth by reading to them, explaining mathematics, and respect for self and others. In this way, students are better prepared to deal with the various methods of teaching that is offered upon entering schools, sans the defeatist mindset.

Posted by: michelangelocooper | November 23, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

treating them as gifted without having earned it is the beginning of other problems...
treat everyone the same and in most cases harder so that they can excell...

Posted by: DwightCollins | November 23, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

It is not the responsibility of my son's teacher to affirm him. I would NEVER EVER trust them with a task so crucial! That is my responsibility and I take it very seriously--more serious than the job I get paid to do.

Posted by: forgetthis | November 23, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

sounds like give them a pass...
no matter how ignorant they are...

Posted by: DwightCollins | November 23, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I'm a AA male taught in the Detroit Public School system.

I wouldn't say that treating them like gifted students is the correct solution but they should be taught to focus on their strengths while understanding their weaknesses.

After all once we become adults we really only need to be good at a few things to live happy productive lives.

Take these examples, a lawyer doesn't need to know algebra. A mechanic doesn't need to know american history. A software developer doesn't need to be good at english.

Society loves to beat folks up about what their short comings instead of embracing an individuals gifts that can help them succeed.

Sure we'd all like to be well round people and do everything well but that's not realistic or necessary in todays world.

I realized 8 years ago that I was good with computers and I've gone from making $7.50 at Walmart to making more than $100k per year without a college degree or any formal training. It's really that simple. I just needed embrace my natural talent. Now that I make $100k and I realize I'm not an expert at Math I don't beat myself up about it. I hired an accountant so he can make a living doing what he's good at and I expect he would in turn hire me to develop accounting software.

I blog about my experiences, to show others that i'm not the exception. Anyone can define their own goals and reach those goals if they embrace this natural gifts.

This goes for anyone not just AA males.

Posted by: manshandbookdotcom | November 23, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

To those with complaints about this article: What's wrong with being proactive about education? We all readily acknowledge that these children need assistance, yet no one wants to be the one to step in. I, too, am an overworked and underpaid educator. However, I understand what happens when no one steps in to take action. Did you birth these kids? NO! Are they your problem? ... They may possibly be in the future. What happens when they are constantly shown they are not good enough by society's standard? Some will prove you wrong, but others will prove you right! Those are the ones who concern me. Those are the ones with potential to be populating prisons and welfare systems. Then they are still our "problems", because our tax money funds those things. I'm not only referring to Black kids; they are not the only people on welfare and in prison. Yes we all know it's their parents jobs, but we also know that not all parents do their jobs. So we can step in and help them now with our time, or we can support them later with our tax money. YOU CHOOSE!

Posted by: syb0726 | November 23, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Being that I was classified as gifted and I am african american(female), I totally understand why she correlated the need for AA males to be taught with some of the same approach or tactics as Gifted children. She did not say that they need to be taught the same curriculum. There is a difference.

Everyone learns differently, therefore they should be taught differently. If you are not an educator or student in the given scenario,you neither benefit from, nor fully understand the nature of her argument. We cannot continue to use "cookie cutter" mentality when it comes to providing education to youth who have diffent cultural,and
socioeconomic backgrounds. American children in general are trailing behind on the list, as far as education goes. We should be more focused on the needs of students,and not the need to pass a standardized test. Furthermore,how can you give a "Standard" test to students who arent going to "standard' school,with "standard",teachers books,council,programs,curriculum ect.

Lastly,we shouldn't make this arguement/article too much of a political issue that would be ill fated. Education, in my opinion,is comprised of Politics,Students(citizens),Community and Economy. Politics,is probably half the problem in Education,not the whole. So to call this "Typical, progressive, Liberal dribble" is ignorant. Political views should not intefere. Everyone deserves the best education they can possibly get.

Posted by: ChicGeek | November 23, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

"Help"? Waddyah mean "help"? WHAT HELP. Don't wanna learn? DON'T. Wanna stick to ebonics, kwanza, and bling-bling? Couldn't care less. Just don't expect victimhood/slavery entitlements.

Posted by: craigslsst | November 23, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

As a young black male i have disagree with this i feel you have to look at it like this to say black male are to blame for a part of it cause it does come down to the person and what chose he make but to say the the numbers are that low that would mean i'm not not adesideing factor but i good agist this cause grew in a famliy with a mother and farther

Posted by: tayquine | November 23, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse men represented just 5 percent of college students in 2008.


Black males make up only 6% of the general population.

5% doesn't sound that bad.

Posted by: kenk33 | November 23, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

13.8 percent of the 18-24 male age group in the U.S. is black - while the percentage in college is 5%. Need the correct statistics - though I fear for too many readers evidence won't much matter. Source:

The point has often been made that non-'gifted' kids too often get rote, boring, unengaging instruction, while gifted get far more engaging instruction (tho some just get more intense versions of the rote) -- when all students need the sort of engaging and yes challenging (while supportive) educational opportunities most often identified with G&T.

It is more than reasonable to apply this to black males, seeking to find that which connects them. It has nothing to do with coddling, so-called racial preferences, or any of those sorts of attacks levied by some commenters on this blog.

Posted by: montyneill | November 23, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Excuse me while I get a fresh box of tissue to clear away my tears. Oh my, poor little black males cant's get right in education, what do we do? Well, considering black males just in country a few years ago American education does not have an exhaustive track record. Oh no, that's African males who kick much behind in the classroom.

Let's stop kidding ourselves nobody give a hoot about black males and education. As a Black man, let me say that that black males are met with pure antipathy in the classroom. However, on the football field and basketball courts it is a different song for our young black bucks where the expectations are worldclass.

I am sorry. I digressed. What do we do? Over, 150 years ago when the slaves were emancipated commentators of the day ask the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass what do we do for the freedmen since two and a half centuries of bondage has left him ill-equipped to survive in 1860's American. I say "Answer Sheet" to American education what Mr. Douglass said: Do nothing!!! Please if you care about black boys leave them alone and let them fall and rise on their own merit. The problem is that over the last 50 years corrupt American education has implemented special education programs, ghetto mentor programs, social promotion, low standards for high school graduation known to exist worldwide, rouge behavior, etc.

Posted by: Concerned3 | November 23, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

To peon teacher: the word is "drivel". It is not "dribble". Also, read montyneill's post. As a former teacher, I've seen the way students are tracked and the lack of enthusiasm and creativity with which the lower-achieving students are taught. That's what this article is about -- opportunities that will motivate kids to learn, create self-confidence that they CAN learn, and value the skills they already have. This is not fluff -- these things all contribute to student performance. Take a class in human development!

Posted by: adle0007 | November 24, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Also worth noting -- African American males make up 13-14% of young males and African Americans make up 12-13% of the general population. Where are some of these people getting their stats? These figures have been pretty constant for 30 years.

Posted by: adle0007 | November 24, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

This is interesting. Black children already have very high self esteem, according to sociologists. They have been told since the sixties that most of their personal problems are all just a legacy of slavery and lingering white bigotry. They are also subjected to smiley face positivity by all their liberal white teachers. So, I just don't see how after spending hundreds of billions of dollars on programs like NCLB anything is going to close the academic achievement gap, which is largely the result of nature, not nurture. However, Stauss gets it half right. Teach black (and Hispanic) children the skills they most readily master; teach them the importance of honesty and hard work. Prepare them for a life in the trades or in manufacturing. Then repatriate our blue collar jobs from China and close the Mexican border which floods us low skill people who drive down the wages of manual labor.

Posted by: greg3 | November 24, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

You're right and this works. If you care for your students, challenge them and have high expectations, you can work miracles. I only wish that the entire urban environment supported this - it's hard to do this work anew every day, but it can be done. Longer school days, a lot of planning, and a great deal of differentiation is needed, but it can be done. In fact, every student should have a differentiation plan (much like an IEP) and a mentor teacher who stays with them for their entire school career so they can watch them grow. I don't know why there is such a disconnect in education.

Posted by: michele1970 | November 24, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

Treat them like gifted students? Does that mean making them wait until third grade to start an appropriate education. Does that mean giving them a gifted pullout session once a week despite being gifted all the time. Does that mean keeping them with their age peers despite their academic abilities? Does that mean not letting them move ahead as appropriate? Does that mean letting a music teacher teach them accelerated math? Does that mean not letting them go to an adjoining campus for higher level academics? Does that mean telling them they can't take an AP class because they are not in the right grade level. Does that mean not giving them high school credit for a high school class taken in a high school because they are "enrolled" in middle school. Does that mean rejecting their admission into a private school because they are grade accelerated and that runs counter to the school's philosophy?

It's not always a land of milk and honey for the gifted. It's been well documented in "A Nation Deceived" and "Genius Denied." Many states do not have a mandate or funding for gifted education. Most teachers and administrators have little professional training, experience, or understanding of gifted students needs. The more gifted students are, the more most schools fail them. Many highly gifted students are home schooled because of that failure.

Everyone should be encouraged and challenged to learn at their appropriate level and pace. That's pretty much what parents of gifted children want but many do not receive.

But remember this, there is no Lake Wobegon and not all children are above average and few are gifted.

Parents of gifted children are waiting for Superman too.

Posted by: sjtkach | November 25, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

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