Middle School Matters: Improving the Life Course of Black Boys


Sessions Descriptions

Opening Session: Why Middle School Matters

The opening session explored the connections between the achievement gap and later life outcomes for Black boys and young men in the United States. It also focused on the critical middle school years for Black boys between the ages of 9–13. Teachers, school administrators, community members and policymakers all must play active roles in addressing the achievement gap. The panelists provided a holistic understanding of why middle school years are so important in the educational and life trajectories of young Black boys, as well as laid a foundation for the symposium's subsequent discussions.

Session 1: Challenges Facing Middle School Black Boys in the United States

The middle school years can be a turbulent developmental time for young people. Between the ages of 9–13, pre-adolescent children experience an explosion of development across physical, cognitive, social and emotional domains. The pre-adolescent years mark the stage of development when young people develop their self-identity and begin to assert their independence. They may start to take on greater responsibility or to care about their appearance. Academically, the middle school years can either be filled with pitfalls or opportunities to reach academic success.

For many Black boys, however, these normal developmental changes occur within a broader racial and cultural context in which other people begin to view them as "Black men," with all that label implies. Academically, Black boys find themselves significantly behind their White peers: persistent achievement gaps in reading and math have been documented in both fourth and eighth grades.

This session explored the physical and emotional development of young Black boys and the challenges they must navigate on the road to educational success.

Session 2: Reading Their Way to Life Long Success

The famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." Despite the incredible strides our country has made since Frederick Douglass fought to end slavery, he would likely be profoundly troubled to see the gaps in the reading performance of Black children compared to their White counterparts. The NAEP 2011 Reading assessment shows that just 13 percent of Black boys in fourth grade are proficient in reading compared to 40 percent of their White peers. In eighth grade, just 11 percent of Black male students are proficient in reading, compared to 37 percent of their White peers.

This is the age when young people move from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading is essential for students to function in school, in society and in the professional world. What tools and strategies can be used to enable young men to want to be readers and to be stronger readers? Whether the inspiration is the Declaration of Independence or Harry Potter, how do we — teachers, educators and parents — improve the ability of Black boys to read, while making reading exciting?

This panel presentation offered an overview of current research associated with reading. Panelists explored the implications of this research on young Black male academic achievement and described initiatives that are using research to guide effective programming.

Session 3: Delivering a Culturally Competent Education for Middle School Black Boys

Research suggests that having a great teacher may be the single most important in-school factor affecting whether students succeed. In fact, recent findings indicate that an effective teacher can increase the lifetime earnings of a classroom by $250,000. But the social and academic needs of Black boys in middle school are unique. At a time when children are experiencing major physical and emotional changes, many Black boys are often faced with additional challenges, such as poverty, family instability, community violence and cultural misconceptions about their ability to succeed in school. Given these extra hurdles, how can teachers most effectively connect with middle school Black boys to ensure academic success, and what can educators do to provide a culturally competent school experience for this vulnerable population?

This session examined these questions and related issues pertinent to the needs of Black boys in middle school, including academic expectations, classroom management, school climate and the need for a diverse teaching workforce that includes more Black male teachers.

Session 4: School Leaders Who Steer the Course for Success for Young Black Males

U.S. President John Quincy Adams once said, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." Across the country, there are thousands of school districts with leaders at multiple levels — from the principal at the local school up to the superintendent. Principals are the local leaders. With the dawn of each new school day, they set the tone for how students, teachers, staff, parents and citizens engage with their school community. Superintendents, on the other hand, have a range of responsibilities — from business to operational to educational. They are tasked with developing a vision for the district and promoting it to the citizenry of their district.

All of these leaders face tough questions: What school strategies will best ensure that all students — regardless of race, ethnicity, English-language ability or disability status — are learning in my school? How can we provide an excellent education to the most vulnerable students, including middle school Black boys? What decisions do principals and superintendents grapple with concerning school staffing and professional development activities, and how do these decisions affect children?

This panel session highlighted the work of principals and superintendents from several school districts who are actively engaged in the multitude of issues affecting the educational experience of Black boys, including school discipline, teacher recruitment, curriculum development, parent engagement and more.

View agenda.