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A Stanford University study finds that dropout rates were lower in Oakland, California, high schools that offered a special class for black students called the Manhood Development Program. A 10th grader, above, answers a question in one of those classes, which offers black history and culture along with social-emotional lessons and academic and college advice. Credit: Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Since former President Barack Obama launched his My Brother’s Keeper initiative in 2014 to support black and Latino boys and young men, nearly 250 communities across 50 states have launched programs under its umbrella. But although these programs have increased in popularity and spent an estimated $1.6 billion in donations and loans, little is known about how well these support programs accomplish their objectives of raising academic achievement, keeping boys of color in school and helping more go to college.

The first rigorous evaluation of one of the larger programs came out in October 2019 and found some promising results. Stanford University researchers studied a special class expressly for black teenage boys in Oakland, California, called the Manhood Development Program. They found that black boys were less likely to drop out of high school if the class was offered at their school compared to black boys at schools where it wasn’t offered. In a high school with 60 black boys in ninth grade, only three students dropped out, on average, instead of five students in schools that didn’t offer the course.

Most of students in the class were ninth and 10th graders. For black boys who were offered the class in both grades, those annual improvements in dropout rates translate into a 3 percentage point increase in their high school graduation rate, according to Thomas Dee, the lead researcher and a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.

“This is one of the few evaluations,” said Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education and an educational theorist who originally developed the ideas for “culturally relevant” instruction that guide these black-only programs. “It shows that it works.”

“These programs are telling these young men, ‘We actually see you. You’re not invisible. We’re paying attention to you and your specific concerns,’ which they don’t often get,” Ladson-Billings said. “Particularly in high school, there’s a fear of these kids.”

Oakland created a daily class for black boys as part of the regular day at traditional public high schools and initially financed it through private foundation grants. All the classes are taught by black male teachers who teach units on black history and culture, such as “The African American Holocaust,” “The Struggle for Liberation and Dignity” and “The Black Male Image in American Media.”

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Ladson-Billings emphasized the importance of the social-emotional component of the course, which also included units on “The Emotional Character of Manhood” and “How Do I See Myself/Life’s Hard Questions.” Advising and college counseling were part of the course, too.

In the Stanford study, researchers were unable to discern whether the black history and culture curriculum, the social-emotional component or simply the support of a fraternal black peer group made the difference for these black male students. But they were able to see that the class was having an effect because the six schools that offered the class had lower dropout rates than the three schools that didn’t offer it.

It’s important to note that graduation rates were soaring at all nine of Oakland’s high schools. Throughout the city, the black male graduation rate jumped from 46 percent in 2010 to 69 percent in 2018. Still, black dropout rates were improving more rapidly in the six schools that offered the course than in the three schools that didn’t — evidence that the program was making a difference and contributing to the improvement in black educational attainment.

Complicating the analysis is that researchers weren’t able to specifically track the performance of students who took the class versus those who didn’t. Only 15 to 30 percent of black male students elected to take the class in the schools where it was offered. Nonetheless, the dropouts declined for all black boys who had access to the course. What that means is that either the benefits were really large for the few students who took it or there were strong peer effects from the students who participated that spilled over to students who didn’t. Dee speculates that peer effects played a role because even black girls had lower dropout rates in the schools that offered the class.

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What does this mean for policy makers? We now have a model that has shown results. Both Dee and Ladson-Billings said it would be worth replicating to see if a separate class for black boys will also improve black male educational attainment in other cities. On the other hand, this one study doesn’t amount to overwhelming evidence that these programs are very effective. And it will be tough to find other school districts where there are enough black male teachers, as there were in Oakland, to lead the classes.

I talked with Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California Los Angeles and an expert in the education of black students in the United States. Noguera agreed that the Oakland class is a promising model because of the extra instruction and support that the students received, not because black male students were learning separately from the rest of the student body.* He worried that the quality might slip as it is copied in other communities and warned that “not every black male student needs this sort of class.” Noguera is currently studying successful black male students to learn more about what they’re doing to succeed in school. Other approaches could be better.

Targeting race is politically tricky. As a society, we’re more comfortable targeting programs to students who come from poor families or to students who fall behind in school — regardless of race or gender. There’s also a fine line between giving support to a particular racial or ethnic group and veering into segregation. But educational researchers are starting to marshal the evidence that one aspect to attacking the achievement gap in a diverse society is a race-specific and race-conscious approach.

“This challenges the way we think about diversity,” said Dee.

*Clarification: This story was changed from its original, adding a sentence to make it clear which parts of the Oakland program Pedro Noguera finds promising.  

This story about black male students was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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