Breaking Barriers to Black Student Achievement

Three high-profile research studies released in 2010 documented the academic struggles of  Black youth. According to these reports, less than half of Black male students graduate from high school on time (although many eventually complete a GED) and are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers.

The studies, conducted by the Schott Foundation, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the 2025 Campaign for Black Men and Boys, stirred national debate on the academic prospects of Black males.

As grim as these reports are, public schools and teachers have the resources and tools to help Black males achieve in school, says Dr. Ivory Toldson.

Dr. Toldson is an associate professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. He is also the author of the Breaking Barriers, a two-part report detailing how educators can reach out and help Black males succeed in school.

Recently, Toldson spoke at the National Education Association and outlined his ideas and findings about Black student achievement. Toldson recounted how the media’s overly negative portrayal of Black males’ problems in school drives much of his research.

“One of the things I found a little unsettling from a lot of the reports,” Toldson explained, “was that they painted such a grim picture of Black males in that some of the stats they were using… I can see that they didn’t contextualize it in a way that made it seem like there was any hope of dealing with these challenges. One thing I saw that was constantly missing was any reflection from successful young Black males.”

“The problems facing Black males are well within our capacity to address,” he said.


Video: Dr. Ivory Toldson on Media Coverage of Black Male Student Achievement


Central to Toldson’s research is the importance of personal, emotional, social and school factors and how those factors impact academic success for black males.

Toldson says that educators, advocates and policymakers must do a better job of monitoring, correcting and clarifying social realities that dampen Black males’ perspective on, and motivation for, education. Equally important is a reduced reliance on the criminal justice system to address youth problems.

This is an approach already underway in many parts of the country. Several schools and school districts, notably in New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland, have implemented numerous strategies to improve the academic performance of Black male students.

These strategies include reducing chronic absenteeism and out-of-school-suspensions, organizing teacher teams, increasing instructional supports and professional development, providing wraparound social services, and enlisting community partners to increase the ratio of concerned adults to students in need.

“Most school systems are addressing this crisis as an academic problem, but these kids are in self-crisis,” explains Principal Baruti Kafele of Newark Tech High School.

“We can’t address a crisis of self-image, self-esteem, self-discipline, and self-respect as an academic problem, and if we keep trying to solve it in terms of math and reading models, we’ll be reading the same reports 25 years from now.”


For more information, read Race Against Time: Educating Black Boys. This publication by NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department summarizes the current research about Black male students and offers positive steps educators can take at the classroom, school, and district levels.