Helping African American males succeed in urban schools can seem like an intractable problem, but applying some basic principles that empower teachers and students is a key part of the answer, finds Vanderbilt University education researcher H. Richard Milner. In a new article in the journal Theory Into Practice, he argues that teachers and school leaders must move beyond making excuses to turn around failing schools.
“Many black males have been what I call kidnapped into believing that they are inferior and unable to succeed in school,” Milner said. “Teachers have these same misconceptions, and it spills over into their teaching. Both teachers and students need to develop positive images of these students’ abilities to realize how bright their futures can be.”
Milner outlines five key principles that he has found through his research and personal experience as a teacher and a student that teachers can use, regardless of the situation the student is facing outside of the classroom, to “teach and empower” students and to help them succeed. Under Milner’s principles, teachers and students:
- Envision life beyond their present situations;
- Come to know themselves in relation to others;
- Speak possibility and not destruction;
- Care and demonstrate that care; and
- Change their thinking to change their actions.
“All of these principles rely on what I call ‘next-level thinking.’ We have a choice – to dwell on the statistics and the enormous challenges these students face outside of the classroom, or to focus on what we as educators can do during those hours we have them with us to provide space where students can explore, create and develop knowledge and skills they will need to succeed academically and personally,” Milner said. “These principles are what helped me succeed, and I have observed and studied them in classrooms and schools that work. We must move the discussion to this ‘next level’ to create lasting change for an entire generation of young people. Clearly, these principles are not only specific to black male students; they are transferable to other students as well.”
Milner cites disturbing statistics driving his work to create a new approach for educating African American males – they continue to be grossly underrepresented in gifted education and overrepresented in special education; a 2001-2002 study found 59 percent of African American males did not receive a diploma with their classmates, with that number climbing to 70 percent in New York and Chicago; and differential treatment and punishment continues to exist for black and white students who have been involved in the same sort of trouble, with black students receiving harsher consequences. Milner argues that while recognizing these problems is critical, it is time for teachers and schools to change how they talk about and address them.
“As an educational researcher, I often find myself amazed and a bit disappointed by the enormous list of excuses available for why black male students are not succeeding in school,” Milner wrote. “Black male students can and are succeeding in all types of schools – urban included – and the time has come for those of us in education to teach and empower black males to reach their full capacity in urban schools across the nation.”
Milner points to research by Emory University researcher Emilie V. Siddle-Walker that found teachers who taught African American students while schools were segregated worked overtime to prepare students not for a segregated, but an integrated, world as an example of teachers and students elevating their thinking to the “next level.”
“This article is not written as a fairy tale – one that is simply a vision or dream of what can be,” Milner wrote. “Rather, this article is written from a ‘what could and should be’ perspective.
Milner is Betts Assistant Professor of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.
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