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Why black boys struggle with reading and what we can do about it




In this Feb. 12, 2015 photo, Marquez Allen, age 12, reads test questions on a laptop computer during in a trial run of a new state assessment test at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Md. The new test, which is scheduled to go into use March 2, 2015, is linked to the Common Core standards, which Maryland adopted in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and serves as criteria for students in math and reading. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
In this Feb. 12, 2015 photo, Marquez Allen, age 12, reads test questions on a laptop computer during in a trial run of a new state assessment test at Annapolis Middle School in Annapolis, Md. The new test, which is scheduled to go into use March 2, 2015, is linked to the Common Core standards, which Maryland adopted in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and serves as criteria for students in math and reading. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/AP

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In California's public schools, boys perform lower than girls in almost every subject. That much has been known for some time. But here's another troubling trend: broken down by race, black boys struggle the most, especially in the area of reading.

Data crunched by Cal Matters from the Department of Education revealed that 75 percent failed to meet state reading standards — 17 percent below average for boys.

So why is that? And what can be done to help close the gap? 

Take Two put that question to Tyrone Howard, director of UCLA's Black Male Institute. (Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Why are black boys performing so low in reading?

It's a perplexing issue, and there's really not one single explanation to explain it. I think it's layered on multiple levels. It comes down to an intersection of two or perhaps three real core issues: racial gaps that exist, economic gaps that exist and gender gaps that exist.

What are some of the factors that could limit them in reading?

We know that black boys are more likely to be suspended and/or expelled than any other group of students in school. That's lost instructional time. You start to talk about less instructional time in the primary grades; you're talking about missing out on key areas of the academic development, of which reading is a big part.

A second factor is that there are all kinds of research that show teachers often have lower expectations for black boys. Not just white teachers, but black teachers, Asian teachers, Latino teachers. And so we have to figure out — what is it that leads to teachers in general to have this set of lower expectations? 

We know that young black boys are not given the same opportunities to participate, often are assumed to know less, often are assumed to be more troublesome and disruptive. Until we begin to unpack [implicit] bias and unconscious bias and how people don't understand how they may respond to students based on a racialized lens, I think you're going to continue to see these kinds of challenges in schools.

How do we begin to close that gap? And whose job is it?

This is where we need all hands on deck. I'm not one who subscribes to pointing the finger at this person, that entity. I think we start at home. I think first we've got to get parents and caregivers onboard, with helping them to understand the role that they can play and need to play as it pertains to early literacy. Things that can be happening in the home: exposure to reading, exposure to letters, and different kinds of print-rich environments that parents and caregivers can take to have their young sons and grandsons and nephews come to school already prepared to learn. 

We also have to realize that schools play a role. So we have to have teachers who are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge not to let low expectations of black boys drive the way they look at them.

We also have to have school leaders who are willing to have courageous conversations. To dig deeper into this data and say, "We have to be better."

We have to find partnership, collaboration, and really put aside the blame game where you have teachers blaming parents, parents blaming teachers — that's a counterproductive argument where children don't win at all. 

How do you develop a program for boys and not exclude girls? 

I think we expose boys to the full range of different experiences. We know when boys see themselves reflected in a curriculum — if they see the experiences that the characters have been in line with theirs, when they see boys with similar family arrangements to theirs, when they see boys with different kinds of interests as theirs in their reading — it's going to pique their interest.

I think cultural, social and personal relevance are all important here if we want to help these young boys.

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.