Indispensable Books for Equity #2: We Dare Say Love

Indispensable Books for Equity #2: We Dare Say Love

The second book in our equity pedagogy series is We Dare Say Love: Supporting Achievement in the Educational Life of Black Boys, Edited by Na’ilah Suad Nasir, Jarvis R. Givens, and Christopher P. Chatmon.  This book chronicles the program begun in the Oakland Unified Schools to address their most at-risk and underserved population: Black male students.

The program sought to ameliorate a range of obstacles faced by Black boys (both in Oakland and in the U.S. as a whole). These included:

  • Adultification of Black boys, where even the youngest boys are presumed to be smaller versions of the “terrifying, criminal, pathological adults they are expected to become.” This leads to teachers interpreting the behavior of Black boys as criminal and malicious and robs Black boys of the freedom to be children, make mistakes, explore and learn as other children do. This is closely tied to….
  • A lack of empathy in the school system when dealing with Black boys.  They don’t get the benefit of the doubt, or second/third/fourth chances. There is no growth mindset among teachers and administrators with Black boys.  Instead, there are zero-tolerance discipline policies disproportionately applied to Black male students.
  • Unhealthy identity development that results from the messages communicated by early adultification and stereotypes about Black men.  Students see their own failure as inevitable or perceive their inability to succeed within the educational system as pre-ordained.
  • A culture of failure, reinforced by the idea that all Black male students are underachieving and/or at-risk.  Statistics don’t bear out this belief, but the tendency is to lump all Black boys together under a single (flawed) characterization.
  • A severe lack of Black educators — particularly Black, male educators — within the school system.  This lack undermines the connection and support Black boys experience at school and it undermines the likelihood that they’ll be identified for gifted education or given access to  AP coursework or directed toward higher education programs post-high school.  It also undermines any vision of academic success students might have.
  • No culture of Black male excellence and success and restricted access to academic culture and coursework.  This manifests in a tendency to channel Black males toward “the basics” and towards vo-tech programs rather than toward the coursework that would prepare them for college.
  • Material (curriculum) not tied to lived experiences.  At CMSi, we call this Real World contexts: curriculum tied to the students’ real lives or to their culture is more relevant and better retained.  Students can connect the learning to what they already know and immediately apply it in their lives.  Not being able to do this usually results in memorizing content until the assessment is complete, or checking out of it entirely.  The long-term result is the decision that it’s just not worth it to go to school because nothing there is relevant in the student’s life.

What’s interesting about the program (the African American Male Achievement Initiative – AAMA) is what the creators deemed foundational to its success: relationships.  The three-pronged approach to this was 1)  the Manhood Development class to provide a safe space for Black student voices and to offer the social-emotional support lacking within the system while also advancing their academic skills; and 2) Black, male instructors that would provide the support and encouragement and modeling of what it means to be a successful African American man.  What’s even more interesting — and convicting — is that they elected not to seek out certified teachers for these positions.  Instead, they hired Black men with a demonstrated ability to form successful  relationships with kids. These instructors came from youth programs, church programs, and other arenas where they had worked with teens in capacities that required relationship building.  The last part of the initiative was 3) a curriculum focused on character development, history, and identity called the Khepera Curriculum.

Image via The Education Trust

Several things stood out for me from this book:

  1. The stated goal of the program was to create the systems, culture, structure, and conditions to guarantee success for Black male students in OUSD.  This vision drove the design of the program. For me, this highlights the critical importance of clarifying what we want our end result to be and then working toward that goal.  This was the vision of the program, but not necessarily of the district, which created the next stand-out issue:
  2. The program was funded by the district and operated district wide, but was received with varying degrees of welcome by teachers and administrators — some principals were supportive, others were openly antagonistic. The same was true of teachers.   Because the vision of the program and the vision of the district weren’t completely aligned, there was no district-level policy to mandate the various protocols and no district-level monitoring to ensure compliance with program goals.  This resulted in significant differences in student experiences depending on the school building. While the program is addressing issues, it would appear that the district is not, or at least, not doing so effectively (see data below).
  3. The same though-lines I mentioned in the first post on books for equity are present here as well:  identity formation, culture, agency, content connection, and critical thinking.  And one more, which appears here and in the subsequent books: Relationships.  Students who completed the program successfully cited those real world connections to the content and the relationships with the instructors as critical factors in their achievement. Research cited in the book specifically mentions the sense of personal agency a student feels as a key factor in their success later in life.

Out of curiosity, I looked into OUSD’s achievement for their Black students and was surprised to find that academically, there hadn’t been a lot of improvement since the program was instituted.  There are a couple things to keep in mind: the data available were only for performance on high stakes tests in California, not on AP, ACT, SAT, etc. Also not visible to the casual searcher is the percentage of students going on to 2- and 4-year degrees.  Academics are only one measure and programs such as this one have positive impact long-term in a number of other areas such as stable relationships, high quality jobs, college attendance, housing, and health.  Whether the district is tracking these outcomes is unknown.  The lack of academic improvement in the short term may have more to do with the district’s general curriculum and how well it prepares students for high-stakes tests (coupled with the other factors cited above which have not been effectively addressed)  than with the AAMA program itself.  Some other data I found: As of 2017, Discipline remains unevenly applied throughout the district with Black students suspended at 11 times the rate of Whites. Black students still lag an average of 4 grade levels behind White students and still do not have the same representation in more challenging courses such as AP.   As of 2019, the proportion of Black teachers relative to the population of Black students is better, but still lagging somewhat (19% Black teachers, 24% Black students).  These are all district-level (and to some extent school-level) issues that won’t be fixed by a classroom program like AAMA. They require revision of district policy and extensive monitoring and accountability.

Image via New York Times

What I think is valuable from this book is how the program identified local, cultural, systemic obstacles,  formulated a very clear and specific vision for African American boys in the OUSD, and then enacted that vision.  Ten years later, that vision has expanded now to encompass African American girls and Asian and Hispanic students, centering the voices and experiences of these students and offering them the same social-emotional and academic support and curricular electives that appeal to their cultural backgrounds.  The program has a goal and everything in the program, from curriculum to staffing to resource allocation, is aligned to that goal.  This type of goal, this vision, is often lacking in schools trying to promote better equity practices; they are great at identifying deficits but have trouble building the vision for what an equity-focused district would look like, especially from the student’s perspective.  I think, too, that the emphasis on relationship and the decision not to use teachers in the mentor positions should give us pause and perhaps prompt some reevaluation of hiring and professional development processes for certified staff.  What does it say about a teacher if s/he can’t form relationships with students or can only form relationships with students of his/her own race or SES?  Lastly, the book highlights one of equity’s most important principles: the need to focus more resources toward areas of greatest need.  OUSD recognized that Black boys were struggling and directed more resources to address their struggle.

All change is incremental and usually slower than we want.  The tragedy here is the number of students who will fall through the cracks while we’re waiting for change to occur. This book offers a guide to formulating and enacting a vision for positive change that offers hope for kids.  Imagine what success it could achieve if the full economic and political power of the district were behind it?

Indispensable Books for Equity #1: What if All the Kids Are White?

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