The challenges facing young black men in the educational system have been a topic of conversation in K-12 Schools and Schools of Education for decades.
The current situation is a “tale of two realities,” says Tyrone Howard, professor, author and well-known expert on the topic.
“A lot of colleges and universities are seeing surges in black male populations on their campuses, and I think that has lulled us into a sense of complacency. A lot of high schools report record numbers of high school graduation among black males, but while that is happening, you still have a large of segment of black males who are still woefully behind, who are not graduating from high school, not going to college, being suspended and expelled in ways that are disproportionate.”
Howard, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, was the keynote speaker at the UW System Institute for Urban Education’s fourth annual professional development conference Aug. 10.
The Institute for Urban Education is a UW System initiative to provide classroom experience in Milwaukee Public Schools to future teachers in colleges and universities within the system. It is housed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The IUE also provides professional development opportunities for practicing teachers in urban classrooms and collaborates with scholars from the UW System institutions to support research in urban education.
Howard, whose research and writing examine culture, race, teaching and learning, is also associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA.
In 2016, Education Week named him one of the most influential scholars in the nation informing education policy, practice and reform.
In discussing the successes and challenges involving young black males in school, “I think we have to be careful about how we craft the narrative,” he says. “There are those who say we have arrived because they see the good numbers; others will say we’re going to hell in a handbasket because they see the bad numbers. We have to find a more nuanced way to talk about both of these stories. There’s still a need to make sure we’re keeping a spotlight on this problem.”
At the conference, he talked to the teachers about what they and school counselors could do to encourage these young men.
“I think so much of it is helping them believe in their potential. So much of what I hear young men say is that they don’t feel like they have teachers who believe in their ability to be successful in anything. I think we tend not to understand the power of people’s expectations.”
In addition, those expectations have to be coupled with direct and explicit discussions of what the students need to do to overcome circumstances and adversity and reach their goals.
While the majority of teachers in the schools and in teacher preparation programs are still white and female, the challenge is encouraging young black men to go into education. “When I talk to young men about teaching, they look at me like I have four eyes.”
Many of them, he adds, found school a hostile place where they succeeded not because of school, but in spite of it.
“They said that to me, but I said that’s the very reason you need to go back. We need people like you who will help them see something different. I always say you want to know one of the most noble professions, the most honored profession in giving back is teaching.”
His own path to teaching was not a direct one. “I didn’t ever think I would choose teaching. Teaching chose me.” After majoring in economics as an undergraduate, he had a job working as defense contractor, making money, but “bored out of my mind.” When a friend invited him to career day at her school, a light bulb went off, he says. He ended up staying all day and eventually started teaching fourth grade in the Compton Unified School District in California.
The decision to move into higher education came after some of his students came back to tell him they weren’t receiving the same kind of support and encouragement from other teachers as they moved on through school.
“I had a professor I was working with at the time who said, you should consider going into teacher education, instead of teaching 30 students as a fifth grad e teacher, you can teach 30 teachers who then go in turn and teach their 30 students. So your sphere of influence can widen.”
Since then, his influence has grown through conferences like the IUE and through books like his most recent, “Why Race & Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms.”
And, his son “who swore up and down he’d never be a teacher,” is now teaching first grade in Houston. In chatting with his son on the phone and offering advice, Howard is already thinking about a new book – aimed at first-year teachers.
Conferences like the IUE are vital, too, because they help prepare the many white female teachers who still are the majority, even in minority schools, for urban schools.
“They are the overwhelming majority of our teachers so we can’t NOT talk to them. We have to support them and help them understand what their blind spots are when it comes to race. They need a toolkit, the knowledge, the skills and the resources.”
NOTE: A video of Howard’s keynote and other presentations at the conference will be posted later this semester. We will make an announcement when it’s ready.
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