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Anti-education mind-set hurts black boys, study says

May 18, 2007 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

( Cleveland – The achievement gap separating black boys from just about everyone else springs from a powerful, anti-education culture rising in the black community, a local black think tank argues in a new report.

Parents who undervalue education, and a mass media that peppers youth with the quick, shallow rewards of hip-hop lifestyle, are steering alarming numbers of boys down a dead-end path, PolicyBridge contends.

The report calls for public recognition of a phenomenon crippling the black community and the civic will to fight it. It’s to be released Wednesday via mailings to civic leaders and on the group’s Web site,

“In our community, family culture has changed, and street culture has changed,” said Randell McShepard, 42, an executive at RPM International and the secretary of PolicyBridge. “But the headline now is, ‘Those changes are dragging down the education system.’ ”

McShepard, Timothy Goler and Mark Batson, all local black professionals who attended Cleveland and East Cleveland public schools, founded the nonprofit research center in 2004 to explore issues critical to the black community.

They wrote the report with guidance from university researchers and public policy makers, as well as from teachers, principals and Cleveland school students, who are liberally quoted.

Some education experts are skeptical about the report’s broad conclusions, but they said the topic is timely and critical to Cleveland.

The Rap on Culture: How Anti-Education Messages in Media, at Home, and on the Streets Hold Back African American Youth,” starts from a well-known premise. Black youths, and black boys in particular, perform more poorly in school and on standardized tests than white and Asian youths, regardless of income.

Almost half black children attending Cleveland public schools fail to graduate, and only a fraction will ever finish college.

What’s new is the identification of a leading culprit. The report argues that no amount of money or strategy will close the gap as long as black children are raised in an environment that devalues education.

School is life, and that is the message our kids are not getting, and a lot of this is culture,” said Goler, 41, a former schoolteacher who is PolicyBridge’s executive director. “We have to reverse this anti-education mindset that our kids have.”

The authors trace underachievement to the breakdown of the black family, a trend Daniel Patrick Moynihan publicized in 1965, when he reported that 25 percent of black children were born to single mothers. Moynihan was called racist and his report was largely ignored, Goler said. Today, more than 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers.

Absent fathers, and with families weakened, corrupting influences gained power and prestige, the report argues. Rap music, poverty and pop-culture celebrities combine to create an alluring “cool-pose culture of self-destructive behaviors.”

The report cites research by a social psychologist who found that black youths enjoy the highest self esteem of any ethnic group, regardless of their grades.

It quotes a Cleveland boy who said he ceased to be taunted at school when he let his grades fall. And it includes the observations of a youth mentor, who said he has been told by children he is the only adult in their lives excited to see their report cards.

This is sort of a silent killer,” McShepard said. “Every day, our community is being chipped away at. And because there’s no one big horrible event, no one pays a lot of attention.”

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the leader of Cleveland schools from 1998 to 2006, said she has not yet read the report but that its conclusions sound a bit extreme.

The black achievement gap results from “a number of variables,” she said. “I’m not sure I would classify it in such strong language as anti-education culture.”

Many black parents simply do not understand the importance of education or their role in the process, Byrd-Bennett said.

Former Ohio Senate Minority Leader C.J. Prentiss, who is the governor’s special representative for closing the achievement gap, also worries the report is too critical of black parents.

That’s a piece of it,” she said. “How about the role of the churches, the business community, the teachers?”

The report indeed calls for multifaceted action.

It recommends that the federal No Child Left Behind Act be amended to treat black boys as a distinct category deserving of special attention, including a longer school year.

It calls upon black parents and civic leaders to raise their expectations of black pupils. And it urges black men to “step up” as role models for fatherless youths.

We’ve reached crisis proportions,” McShepard said. “We need to do something different.”

By Robert L. Smith

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