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Volume 30, Number 3
May/June 2014

Educating Boys of Color

An interview with Pedro Noguera


President Barack Obama recently announced a new initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to identify and expand efforts that work to improve the outcomes of young men of color. A new book by Edward Fergus, Pedro Noguera, and Margary Martin, Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys (Harvard Education Press, 2014), examines one intervention in particular that educators have increasingly turned to: the single-sex school. Between 1999 and 2011, the number of single-sex public schools increased from 4 to 506, fueled by the growing interest in all-male schools for boys of color, according to the authors. Noguera, an education professor at New York University and a leading expert on urban school reform, spoke to Harvard Education Letter editor Nancy Walser about the findings and implications of this trend for educators.

In your new book, you say there is still a lack of clarity about how the factors of race and gender relate to the underlying causes of the academic and social problems that black and Latino males face. What do you mean by that? 

We know that there are many issues specifically related to boys that affect males in all racial groups. Right now there are more women than men in college in every state in the nation. This is a fairly recent development. We also know that for all races, boys are more likely to be placed in special education, more likely to be disciplined, more likely to be in remedial classes, more likely to commit acts of violence and to be victims of violence. These gender disparities cut across race. But what we also know is that boys of color—black and Latino boys especially—experience these trends in a more accentuated form. This is particularly true with respect to school discipline and school failure. So disentangling what’s a gender issue and how race influences the issue is what I mean by “lack of clarity.” We don’t know exactly why. What is there about being black or Latino and male in America that results in so many of these young men being at risk? We do know that what’s happening to the kids mirrors what happens with adults. The patterns you are seeing in school contribute to higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of incarceration, and generally more marginalization. 

You also write about the continuing debate between those who attribute the disparities to cultural issues and those who point to structural causes. 

The media tends to emphasize cultural issues. We tend to focus on attitude and on norms and values and whether or not kids think it’s cool to be smart, or are their pants sagging. And it’s not to say that these issues are not relevant, but I would say—and this is what concerns me about the president’s recent initiative—if we are only concerned with those kinds of things, then we are going to miss out on the structural issues, which are: Do these young men have access to good schools? Do they have access to jobs and health care? Those are things that are less relevant to attitude and all about structure of opportunity in society. 

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.