“We urge educators, school leaders, community leaders and members … to take action to advance the success of African American girls, complementing the important ongoing work to improve educational outcomes for boys and men of color.”
This message is put forth in “Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity," a report co-written by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center. “Unlocking Opportunity” brings much-needed attention to the experiences of African-American girls, a group of students who are often not the focal point in conversations about educational equity.
Based on the amount of troubling news the report contains, this needs to change. Take a look at some of the facts:
- African-American girls fall behind their white counterparts in nearly every academic area, including standardized test scores, grades, completion of AP courses and exams, and college enrollment.
- Twelve percent of African-American pre-K-12 female students were suspended during the 2011-12 school year. This is six times the rate at which white girls are suspended.
- Historically, the graduation rates for African-American girls have been lower than the national average.
- Overall, African-American students disproportionally attend high-poverty schools and 39 percent of African Americans under the age of 18 live in poverty.
“Unlocking Opportunity” situates these facts alongside a thorough discussion of the systemic racial and economic inequities that restrict and limit high-quality educational opportunities for many African-American girls. The report documents multiple structural and institutional barriers, including racial and gender biases and stereotyping in the classroom and in punitive discipline measures. It also suggests measures that can be taken by a number of stakeholders to address disparities and support equal educational opportunities: policymakers, schools, districts, parents, caregivers, community advocates and juvenile justice systems.
Of particular relevance to educators, the report shows that African-American girls experience both race and gender discrimination before they even enroll in school, and that pervasive stereotypes affect how some teachers perceive and treat their African-American female students. Such discrimination and stereotyping often lead to low self-esteem, and research shows that girls with low levels of self-esteem and self-perception are at greater risk for poor classroom performance, lower standardized test scores and punitive discipline measures.
“Unlocking Opportunity” also points out the relationship between negative stereotypes and biases and punitive discipline. “Negative perceptions of African-American female behavior, informed by stereotypes, lead teachers to assume African-American girls require greater social correction and thus lead to increased disciplinary referrals.” As a result, African-American girls are disproportionally disciplined and pushed out of school—another major barrier to academic success.
As the report suggests, educators need to see the achievement gap for African-American girls through the lens of civil rights and educational equity. This lens helps guide practical steps that target the crux of the matter and support anti-bias education. Ultimately, the report equips stakeholders with practical steps to ensure that all African-American girls are afforded equitable school experiences. Here are some of those recommendations:
- Provide school staff with gender- and racial-bias training, as well as the skills to recognize signs of trauma.
- Look for alternatives to punitive discipline practices and provide supportive interventions, such as mentoring programs.
- Audit disciplinary practices with a focus on equity.
- Adopt practices that reduce suspension and expulsion, and reduce the disproportionate impact of punitive measures on children of color.
- Involve parents, caregivers and community advocates in the development of school policies and discipline rules.
- Encourage African-American girls to participate in extracurricular activities where they have been historically under-represented.
Minor is an education writer and consultant in literacy curriculum and instruction.
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