Examining Teachers’ Beliefs About African American Male Students in a Low-Performing High School in an African American School District

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Teachers College Record

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The study examines teachers' and administrators' perspectives on the persistent academic failure of African American male high school students. The study took place between 2003 and 2005 in a low-performing high school in Summerfield County, a Black suburban county in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States with a poverty rate below 8%, according to the 2000 United States census. At the time of the study, there were a number of initiatives across the state designed to address what was being referred to as "the minority achievement gap." The researchers--most of whom were African American faculty and graduate students at the University of Maryland--were interested in understanding what teachers and other school personnel such as counselors and administrators would have to say about why African American students, particularly males, tended to persistently underperform on standardized measures of achievement, had higher rates of suspension and expulsion from school, were overrepresented in special education, and had significantly higher dropout rates than all other subgroups in this mostly Black and middle-class suburban school district. Purpose and Research Questions: In the present article, we build on the work of scholars of critical race studies in education and scholars concerned about teachers' impact on student achievement to explore teachers' beliefs about African American students, and we discuss the possible implications for African American males in troubled schools. We used critical race ethnographic methods to collect data on the following research questions: (1) How does a low-performing high school in a low-performing school district cope with the persistent problem of African American male underachievement? (2) In particular, how do teachers and administrators understand the problem? (3) How might this impact their ability to work successfully with African American male students?

Setting: The study took place in Summerfield County, a majority-Black suburban county in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The county is known as the wealthiest Black county in the nation. With over 100,000 students, its school district is one of the largest and lowest performing in the state. At the time of the study, the district was ranked 23rd out of 24 districts in the state in measures of standardized achievement. The research took place in a midsized all-Black high school in a section of the county that is contiguous with one of the poorer sections of a nearby city. The high school, with a 99% Black population of slightly fewer than 1,000 students, was one of the lowest performing high schools in the district.

Participants: The main participants in the study consisted of two groups: (1) a sample of 50 teachers, administrators, and counselors, and (2) a subsample of 6 teachers in art, music, technology, social studies, and math who participated in ongoing individual interviews, a focus group, and classroom observations.

Research Design: This study involved a series of focus groups, formal and informal interviews with teachers, counselors, and administrators, and 18 months of ethnographic observations in the school.

Conclusions: Researchers found that school personnel overwhelmingly blamed students, their families, and their communities for the minority achievement gap. In short, the school was pervaded by a culture of defeat and hopelessness. Ongoing conversations with a smaller group of teachers committed to the success of African American male students revealed that the school was not a safe space for caring teachers who wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students.


Copyright (2010) Teachers College, Columbia University.


*At the time of publication, Marvin Lynn was affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago

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