Being Black Is Not a Risk Factor

I participated in the National Black Child Development Institute’s State of the Black Child report forum and release on Oct. 11. The report, “Being Black is Not a Risk Factor: Statistics and Strengths-Based Solutions from the State of Michigan,” responds to disquieting numbers in ways the title suggests. Black people aren’t broken; systems and policies are the risky propositions. We still hear the insidious misnomers “endangered species,” “at-risk youth,” “disconnected youth,” and other euphemisms that policymakers use with the best of intentions.

Let’s be clear. Black folk don’t need labels that reinforce bad policy.

For instance, the term disconnected youth is meant to convey the number of people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working or in school. However, the catch phrase also places the problem needing to be solved on the youths’ shoulders. The term opportunity youth paints a glossier picture. But neither label makes plain that schools, businesses and prisons systemically disconnect youth from their communities. Consequently, a focus on job training, GED preparation and expunging miss the institutions that disconnect people. Expulsion, no-tolerance policies (in and out of school) and job discrimination are things that need labels.

Related: Community engagement is a euphemism for “how to deal with black folk”

I’ve always believed that faddish labels reveal assumptions of the people who view the data more than the people behind the statistics. Data sets are like Rorschach tests. This is why researchers are supposed to make their biases explicit. However, no one would say ‘I don’t think people who achieve a certain test score aren’t capable of teaching or leading a school.’ However, assumptions usually come out in the wash. This is point is evident in debates on what admissions criteria teacher prep programs should use.

Students in Reginald Forte’s fifth-grade class at Em Boyd Elementary in Greenville present projects on iPads. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Students in a fifth-grade class present projects on iPads. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

For example, the State of the Black Child report found that between 2009 and 2013 the percentage of black and white students in Michigan meeting the ACT assessment’s composite benchmark has been below the national average. In 2013, 3 percent of black students and 26 percent of white students met the ACT composite, compared to 5 percent of black student and 33 percent of white students nationally.

Related: Hidden successes, public shortfalls and a make-or-break year for one Newark school

Standardized tests project a snapshot of reality (scores do convey many social, educational and economic certainties), but deficit thinking will narrow their meaning to the viewer’s biases. Deficit thinking is the practice of making decisions based on negative assumptions about sociopolitical, economic and ethnic groups.

I find biases surface from the solutions we employ. In the case of teacher preparation reform, policymakers and teacher preparation leaders have increased the qualifications to enroll into a program to become a teacher. These efforts are supposed to improve teacher quality, which in turn improves student achievement.

Related: Why education colleges need to move out of the ivory tower and into urban schools

Last year, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation changed their accreditation standards for collegiate programs. They now require cohorts of entering classes to have at least a 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale. Other groups have lobbied for a hard cutoff score on the ACT or certification exams. In Michigan, the remedy of a more rigorous teacher examination has led to only 1 in 4 teachers to pass the revised teacher certification test. Students can use ACT scores as proxies (Math 22; Reading 22; English + Writing 24).

A student with a 19 on ACT may need more time and resources to become a teacher than someone with a 22. However, people who score less than a 22 on the ACT can still learn (It’s a shame I have to say that). Consequently, teacher prep programs should use scores to provide the time and resources as opposed to limiting people into the profession. We should never create cut-off scores to abdicate our responsibilities to create a diverse teaching pool.

An achievement score should never be a professional death sentence.

Related: Why we should be skeptical about standardized test scores

As an aside, achievement scores say much about a person’s socioeconomic status. There is a significant positive correlation between income and test scores. I also shouldn’t have to say that teacher prep programs shouldn’t create a profession for rich people (but our actions may warrant a reminder). Ask college of education deans; the drive for accountability and rigor is stifling our efforts to diversify.

Data is supposed to help people understand conditions. The beauty of American higher education is that we have too many examples of people who have been positively transformed by a college or university that used data to equitably invest in their futures. Teacher prep advocates should be more adamant about ensuring students get the additional time and/or courses to develop the skills required to be an effective teacher than about a cutoff score. Cutting people off is so much easier than developing them. Teacher prep programs must do the hard work to develop talent.

Solutions that flower from the stem of negative assumptions emit a foul odor. Systems, not people, need to be fixed. If we viewed our disparities as policy in action, then the negative assumptions would be properly placed. Consequently, being black is not a risk factor.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).