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Q&A: The Mis-Education Of African-American Girls


We've known for a long ti me that inequality and systemic educational barriers are holding back many young African-Americans. President Obama has led an initiative to help close the opportunity gap for young black men.

But what about the girls?

For young women of color, progress has been painfully slow, says a new report from the and the . The report argues that gender and racial stereotypes — combined with unequal distribution of school resources and overly punitive disciplinary practices, among other factors — have created a climate where African-American girls are more likely than any other group of girls to be suspended, expelled or held back entirely.

The report shows that African-American girls are doing worse than the national average for girls on almost every measure of academic achievement. Globally, the United Nations has warned that gender inequality in education wastes vital human capital and stifles economic growth. As one of its Millennium Development Goals, the U.N. set an ambitious objective of eliminating the gender gap in education at all levels by 2015.

One big challenge: a real lack of fresh research and data that look closely at African-American girls and disaggregate the numbers by race, says Janel George, education policy counsel at LDF and one of the report's lead authors. Below, George answers questions about the report.

What is this report based on? Is it mostly a review of previously published material, or have you done your own primary research?

The report does draw upon existing research that has been uncovered. However, this report is not a repetition of that research. For instance, we know that there are serious high school completion shortages and disparities for African-American girls. But rather than just reiterating some of this known research, the report really does an examination of what the root causes are for a lot of the disparities that we're seeing with African-American girls in education.

You cover a lot of issues: resource problems, punitive disciplinary policies, pregnancy rates and other barriers. What problems stand out as more important in terms of hindering the educational outcomes of African-American girls?

All of the issues have a serious impact on educational outcomes. But if we start the early stages with resource inequities — so, schools that African-American girls disproportionately attend also tend to be underresourced — that leads to a lack of rigorous course offerings that prepare students to be college- and career-ready. For instance, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — course offering.

African-American girls start out not having those foundational courses that lead to college- and career-readiness and competitiveness in a global environment. They start out with these disparities that disadvantage them upon entering college, if they are able to do that. Because, again, the lack of course offerings makes it harder to get into that stage of college and university. And, for those who do not go on to college, it's even harder to compete in a global economy with a high school diploma and lack of exposure to those rigorous course offerings.

African-American girls are disproportionately suspended. Tell me about that and the impact of punitive discipline on educational outcomes.

African-American girls have suspension rates that are almost six times the rate of their white counterparts and more than most boys of color as well. So what happens when we see discipline disparities, whether in the form of suspension or expulsions? What we have is lost instruction time, lost classroom time, disengagement from the school environment, feelings of alienation, and a lot of times we see increased referrals to the juvenile justice system for often minor offenses.

One story we recount in our report is a quote from a young lady who says, "They have different rules for us, whereas other students can commit the same infractions, we will be disciplined harsher." And that's really salient because, when we think about that, we know that the research says that African-American students are not misbehaving more frequently or more seriously than their peers, but they are punished more harshly. So that really gets to the root of what racial and gender stereotypes are fueling some of the disparities that we're seeing. For instance, are African-American girls being punished for not fitting into normative ideas about female behavior? That's a real concern.

The report often talks about African-American students disproportionately enrolling in schools that lack quality resources, including rigorous course offerings, extracurricular activities and credentialed teachers. The report says African-American students. But does the research show that African-American girls are disproportionately hurt by this?

This is an issue we ran into a lot in the report. A lot of the existing research is not disaggregated by race as well as gender, so some of the research we have points to African-American students in general — both boys and girls. So we know that the outcomes of African-American girls and boys are significantly impacted by the resource inequity, such as the lack of rigorous course offerings like STEM courses.

We know that, for girls, they are uniquely impacted, because not only do they have lack of access, but they are also — because of the combination of gender stereotypes — steered away from taking science or related STEM courses by their educators. So they are getting the double impact of lack of access and attitudes from educators that are rooted in harmful racial and gender stereotypes.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund report offers a dozen recommendations, including investing in early childhood education and eliminating overly punitive disciplinary practices. What do you see as the top three priorities on that list?

I would definitely begin with the lack of research that is disaggregated by race and gender. We need more research specific to the challenges facing African-American girls as well as African-American boys. When we have that data disaggregated by race and gender, we'll have a much better picture of the unique way that African-American girls and boys are impacted. So I would say the first key is a call for more data.

Secondly, a call for more investment — whether that's from the philanthropic community or from the government — in more research, more policies, more services and support to address the needs of African-American girls. For instance, to develop strategies to reform harmful, overly punitive discipline practices — such as using restorative justice. We already know that that's something that works, so we need more investment in that. And we need to have frank discussions about race and gender and start to implement cultural competency training for educators and administrators so we can address the underlying implicit bias that is resulting in so many disparities for African-American girls.

Increase opportunity and access: It really begins with opportunity and access, and I think those are really the keys that will ignite a lot of the reforms that we're asking for and looking for in the report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.