What Can Schools Do NOW to Improve the Success of Black Males and Other Students of Color?


I’m convinced that there’s no “secret sauce” when it comes to fostering academic success. And yet, only 10% of approximately 350,000 Black males who start high school each year earn a college degree in 10 years according to the UNCF Frederick Patterson Research Institute. We know what needs to be done to improve these outcomes; we just have to have the collective will to execute.

One important step was made on February 27, 2014, when President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, a new public-private partnership that aims to tackle the systematic problems facing boys and young men of color.

The President’s new high profile effort was rooted in a series of White House conversations in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting two years ago about which I’ve written. The new initiative will bring together non-profits, government agencies, and private businesses to endorse and test new programs that are proven to help young men of color get prepared for college, avoid engagement with the criminal justice system, and train for and get good jobs.

Already, foundations and private business have pledged $350M to test, prove and most importantly, to scale what works. Though this amount sounds like a lot, it’ll barely scratch the surface of what’s needed.

That’s why the nation should also focus on “quick wins” to realize almost immediate results. (Do you know that nearly two-thirdsof African American male freshmen fail to earn a degree in six years?) If we hold colleges accountable to what works, I’m convinced that we can begin to turn the tide for a whole sector of the American population.

Dr. Bryant Marks, the Executive Director of the Morehouse Research Institute has been studying Black male initiatives at historically black colleges and universities for the past two years. I’ve worked with Dr. Marks to conduct surveys and campus visits to surface the successful strategies for improving outcomes of Black males on campus. In a recent report, he identified 10 campus initiatives that are certain to effect change. I call these “The Base 10!”

  1.  Living and Learning Communities. Bridge programs, facilitated study groups, freshmen seminars, and common living spaces fosters peer cohesion and accountability, academic readiness, and better relationships with faculty and administrators all of which ease the critical high school-to-college transition.
  2. Mentoring Programs. Formal adult and peer mentoring programs have been shown to increase success and build confidence as students make the transition. These programs should include peer accountability groups to ensure that students set goals and values and hold each other accountable to achieve and uphold them, respectively.
  3. College Success Workshops and Seminars. These classes should assume nothing but rather train students to exercise the “Habits of Mind” necessary to be successful. More than simple time management lessons, these skills- and attitude-based workshops should show students how to work smarter, not just harder in college.
  4. Early Alert Systems. An integrated system where advisors, residential counselors, professors and even roommates are alerted when a student chronically misses class or falls short of expectations on an assignment or exam is essential. When an alert goes out, the targeted student should know without a doubt that people care about his well-being and his education.
  5. High Expectations. There should be a prevailing belief on campus that every student can learn—and learn at a high level—regardless of where they come from, their level of preparation, or their race, gender or national origin. One school with which I was affiliated had “Non-negotiables” posted everywhere, the first of which stated, “We will never give up on you…even if you give up on yourself.” This non-negotiable sent a powerful message of high expectations to every student…and teacher alike.
  6. Developing Institutional Engagement. Students who are engaged on campus stay on campus. Colleges that help students get involved in campus activities such as governance committees and student activities, and progressively develop them as leaders will see more success by students of color.
  7. Learning Style Assessment. Helping students (and faculty) understand the challenges and opportunities associated with their preferred learning style makes for a more informed learner and teacher.
  8. Assessment of Career Skills/Interests. Successful colleges do early career assessments, such as Strong’s Interest Inventory, which match student interests with thousands of professionals who have similar profiles and who thoroughly enjoy their work. Having an ever-emerging outlook on their career future makes for a more purposeful student.
  9. Faculty Development Workshops. Ongoing training for faculty about best pedagogical practices, understanding the impact of unconscious biases on their teaching and grading practices, and learning about racial and ethnic identity creation should be essential components of faculty development that shift the focus from teaching to learning.
  10. Fostering High Academic Self-Efficacy. Successful students are confident that they will flourish in a context (school, math class, humanities courses) or a task (asking a question in class, going to office hours, giving a speech). They make better choices, are more resilient and persistent, and are less susceptible to test and other anxieties. Strong colleges know this and are intentional about by building student self-efficacy through mastery experiences, and introducing role models and mentors.

These research-based practices—the Base 10—are not easy to implement consistently and holistically, but borrowing a translated proverb by Lao-tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” President Obama has issued his call—the first small step. Let’s hold colleges and schools accountable to respond.

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