School districts across the United States, including Seattle’s, are looking for ways to help black male students succeed. But there’s been little evidence showing which efforts, if any, produce results.
New research from Stanford University is the first to hint at what might work. The study, which focuses on an Oakland education program targeted at African American boys and teenagers, suggests the program cuts dropout rates by 43%. The program is led by black male teachers and focuses on breaking down stereotypes, building community and helping students become leaders.
For decades, researchers and educators have shared anecdotal accounts of how similar programs promote academic success among black boys. But the new findings from Stanford provide the first solid proof that programs devoted to black males help them stay on track in school. The research is still preliminary, and has yet to undergo academic review.
This findings are good news for the hundreds of communities that have signed on to an initiative spearheaded by former President Barack Obama, called My Brother’s Keeper, which challenges cities to close education and workforce gaps for men of color.
The Oakland program, called the African American Male Achievement (AAMA) program, may serve as a blueprint for such communities.
“Our study shows there’s promise here,” said Tom Dee, who led the study and is a professor of education at Stanford. But, he added, it may be difficult to replicate elsewhere, as the program’s success could stem from its long-term operation and community support.
The Oakland program may hold lessons for Seattle Public Schools, where district administrators have pledged to close education gaps between black boys and their peers. Black students in Seattle test more than three grade levels behind their white peers, 2017 research suggests, and this trend has worsened over time.
In an effort to reverse the pattern, school district officials approved a five-year plan this year that emphasizes black males’ academic success. The district has also created a new department dedicated to African American male achievement.
The AAMA started almost 10 years ago in three Oakland Unified School District high schools. It has grown to 14 schools, including four elementary and four middle schools.
During the school day, boys enrolled in the program attend classes exclusively for them. Classes include units on topics such as how black males are portrayed in media, the study says. The program also focuses on mentorship and helps participants become leaders in their schools. On average, the researchers say, 15% to 30% of black males participate in the program where it’s offered.
Some classroom environments or lesson plans may feel alienating to black boys and teens, Dee said. The AAMA program offers classes that ensure these students “feel affirmed and their minds are critically engaged,” he said. “It’s what you teach, it’s how you teach, it’s how you manage classroom discipline,” he said.
Dee and his colleagues combed through 12 years of enrollment data from California’s Department of Education data, including years before the AAMA program was created. The researchers looked at how annual enrollment among black males changed over time at schools that eventually adopted the program. They then compared changes in dropout rates at these schools to those that don’t offer the program.
On average, schools with AAMA retained a greater proportion of their black male students. This was particularly true among ninth graders, the researchers found. When the researchers looked at individual schools and grades that offered the AAMA program, the program was associated with reducing dropout rates from 5.2 students to 3 students from one year to the next.
Some schools that offer AAMA may also provide programs devoted to retaining black males, which could confound the study’s results. To account for this, Dee and his colleagues looked at dropout rates for African American female students, who don’t participate in AAMA. Although dropout rates fell among black girls at AAMA schools, they didn’t drop to the same extent as those of their male peers.
It’s possible that these schools offer extra supports to all students. But, Dee said, it could also hint that the AAMA program has a spillover effect: African American girls may do better in class if they are surrounded by male peers receiving extra support.