The American public education system has largely failed to foster environments where the innate greatness of Black boys is even acknowledged, much less fully expressed or realized. They are often viewed as problems to be contained, which is evident in the criminalization of their behavior. Black boys are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. They are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in challenging course work like Advanced Placement (AP) classes, a disparity owed to implicit biases carried by educators and others who assume Black boys aren’t ‘college material.’
That’s why the work happening in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is so exciting. OUSD knew it was failing Black boys, so it turned to Chris Chatmon, who had nearly ten years of experience successfully removing barriers to success and closing opportunity gaps that prevent Black boys from reaching their full potential, and the district’s Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) was born.
What AAMA is doing – leveraging targeted strategies to advance equity in education – is increasingly a key focus of educators, advocates and policymakers nationwide, but identifying best practices and understanding how to implement and scale effective, culturally-responsive and affirming approaches to learning is a step many experts are still trying to figure out how to undertake.
A recent study, released by Stanford University with support from the Raikes Foundation, Ballmer Group and Mindset Scholars Network, shines light on the African American Male Achievement program and demonstrates how culturally responsive pedagogy, student-affirming learning practices and investing in the development of classrooms where all young people feel they belong and can succeed can help improve student outcomes.
The cornerstone of AAMA is the “Manhood Development Program,” taught by black male instructors with an emphasis on social-emotional learning, African and African American history and mentoring. The classes meet daily and include units such as “The Emotional Character of Manhood,” “The Struggle for Liberation and Dignity” and “The Black Male Image in American Media.” In addition to school and district-level shifts, the program prioritizes culturally relevant teaching methods to counter negative stereotypes and create a stronger sense of belonging for students.
After examining nine Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) high schools over the course of 12 years, Stanford University found AAMA significantly reduced the number of black males who dropped out of high school, and contributed to a 3.2 percentage point increase in graduation rates among young men who participated in the program. Further, when AAMA became available to young men in 9th and 10th grades, the number of black males from those grades who returned to school the following year increased by 3.6 percentage points.
Stanford University’s findings underscore the effectiveness of culturally responsive pedagogy in improving students’ outcomes. They also emphasize the efficacy of targeted universalism, a concept which calls for targeted strategies to advance universal goals.
While AAMA was explicitly designed to serve African American males at OUSD schools, the program had a “spillover” effect for black female students who saw a 1.8 percentage point increase in their one-year school-persistence rate during the same timeframe. When AAMA was implemented for the black males in their grade, the number of black females from that grade who returned to school the following year increased significantly – proving targeted universalism – or investing in a particular group of students to contribute to the greater good, is a promising strategy for advancing equity in America’s public schools.
“This report will give policy folk, superintendents, and school boards the kind of framing and quantitative data … to begin to adopt programs like African American Male Achievement,” said Chris Chatmon, who leads the AAMA program, in an interview with Chalkbeat. Today, Chris is leveraging the strategies developed in Oakland to support districts across the country to initiate their own transformation through the newly formed nonprofit Kingmakers of Oakland (KOO). Chris and the AAMA team, are leading the field of education in understanding how to most effectively transform systems, structures, culture, and conditions to support African American male students to achieve their full potential. KOO’s district programs and services are rooted in a two-pronged framework that focuses on transforming adults within the education ecosystem, while also ensuring African American male students are supported directly and individually through culturally relevant curriculum and mentoring. They work to “heal the fish, while also treating the toxic ecosystem.”
Improving the American education system requires more than focusing just on what children learn. We have to understand how they learn to create learning environments that can unlock each and every student’s potential. The science of learning and development, including the latest findings from the Stanford study, show that affirming students’ identities, surrounding them with supportive relationships, and making stronger connections between school and life experiences prepare young people in a way academic rigor alone cannot.
By prioritizing culturally responsive practices that are scientifically proven to improve students’ outcomes, we can advance equity in education and transform American education as we know it.