By Oscar A. Barbarin
National studies and surveys echo state assessments and confirm what school administrators and teachers have long suspected: The achievement test scores of African Americans consistently fall below those of their white peers.
Across all socio-economic status levels, African Americans score lower than whites on vocabulary, reading, math, scholastic aptitude and intelligence tests.
The gap in achievement scores, relatively constant across grade levels, contributes to a predictable set of outcomes.
Low achievement early in school is self-reinforcing and ultimately makes acceptance at selective undergraduate institutions impossible, in turn foreclosing admission to top graduate and professional training programs.
Evidence shows that an achievement gap can be detected as early as kindergarten.
Moreover, on every test of early skills in reading and math, African-American males scored lower than African-American females and white children.
A compounding effect of the “triple risk” of socio-economic status, ethnicity and gender may explain the male achievement gap.
Although low socio-economic status alone is a risk factor for poor school performance, the achievement gap cannot be explained entirely by low socio-economic status because it occurs among African Americans at every income level.
This raises the possibility that race-related factors such as racial stereotyping leading to lowered expectations are fueling the achievement gap.
Furthermore, the triple risk impacts social development not only in the classroom, but also within households and communities.
All males are bedeviled with delays in social maturation and self-regulation, and these predispositions probably expose African-American males to more harsh and punitive responses and lower expectations.
Contending simultaneously with gender-related delays and the heavy burdens of racism and economic adversity, African-American males face imposing challenges to academic achievement and social adjustment.
Reasonably effective responses include clear goals, and firm and even-handed controls, combined with interpersonal warmth.
However, the early school experiences of African-American males likely run counter to this formula.
Instead of being enveloped by an affirming relationship, the child may experience an emotionally distancing and punitive environment.
The situation is not hopeless.
Home-based and preschool programs can do much to improve the academic status of African Americans in general and males in particular.
As a start, preschool programs should enact firm but fair control regimes, ensure positive emotional interaction with males, and focus on language and social skills as the foundation for later learning.
Parent development and preschool programs that foster communication skills, enjoyment of reading, and social development hold promise as effective remedies for the achievement gap of young African-American males.
Oscar A. Barbarin is L.Richardson and Emily Preyer Bicentennial Distinguished Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.