A voice at the table: Positioning African-American youth at the center of education reform

A student from Gary Comer College Prep school poses for a portrait after Pastor John Hannah of New Life Covenant Church lead a march and pray for our lives against gun violence in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 19, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Lott     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC13502217F0

Over the past few years, we have seen a proliferation of violence in schools across the country. However, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida generated a student movement where youth voices were at the center of school safety and gun reform discussions. Over 1 million people marched for gun control just a few months ago in a movement driven by students. Student voices matter. They have firsthand knowledge of what occurs in schools and classrooms across the country. In fact, student voice research contends that “young people have unique perspectives on learning, teaching and schooling; that their insights warrant not only the attention, but also the responses of adults.” However, youth voices—and, in particular, African-American voices—are often underutilized and marginalized when it comes to education reform decisions.

African-American youth deserve not only a seat at the table, but a voice at that table.

UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute sought to amplify voices that are often marginalized in these education discussions. To that end, we released our latest report, “A Seat at the Table: African American Youth’s Perceptions of K-12 Education” at the Annual UNCF Education Summit a few weeks ago. “A Seat at the Table” is the final installment in a three-part series on African-American perspectives on education. The Perceptions Research series uplifts the voices of African-American parents, community leaders, and youth because African-American voices have and always will matter in education policy, practice, and research. In totality, the findings in the series challenge assumptions about apathy and engagement among the African American community on important issues like education.

The study

UNCF collaborated with MEE, Inc. to provide questions for The Inner City Truth 3 (ICT3) survey, which is the third iteration of a national survey of 1,700 low-income African-American and Latino youth, ages 16-20. Participants were surveyed in the following cities in 2013: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Richmond (Calif.), Philadelphia, Chicago, and Atlanta. For this report, the sample was limited to African-Americans. A total of 797 participants were included for analysis and descriptive statistics were used to identify salient themes. We were interested in three general areas: (1) Priorities and aspirations, (2) Barriers to achievement, and (3) Perceptions of the learning environment. I describe the findings on each of these topics below.

Education priorities and aspirations  

Despite some narratives that suggest that African-American students are apathetic toward education, the study shows that nearly 70 percent of African-American youth indicated that doing well in school was the priority most important to them among other competing factors. Additionally, Figure 1 shows that nearly 90 percent agreed that it was important to receive an education beyond high school. These findings suggest the need to create and support more initiatives in communities and schools that promote a college-going culture, like former First Lady Michelle Obama’s annual College Signing Day.

Discipline and safety

Similar to recent national-level findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, we found African-American youth experienced multiple forms of exclusionary discipline in high school. Thirty-six percent of youth received an out-of-school suspension, 16 percent had been arrested by the police and 8 percent were expelled at some point during high school. Additionally, only 43 percent of respondents felt their school campus was safe, which coalesces with current sentiments on school safety.

Learning environment and barriers to achievement

While nearly two-thirds of youth felt adequately prepared for college, they also noted challenges in the educational environment. Thirty-five percent of African-American youth indicated that engaging teachers would help improve their schools, followed by smaller classes or more one-on-one attention (24 percent) and better technology (22 percent). These findings are consistent with research showing the inequitable distribution of effective teachers for underserved students. Additionally, Figure 2 shows that the number one reported barrier to college enrollment or completion was the high cost of postsecondary education. In fact, several other obstacles noted in Figure 2 are seemingly related to financial barriers (such as “don’t know how to pay for it” and “don’t understand the FAFSA process”). This signifies the need to provide more robust financial aid support and literacy for students. Organizations like Junior Achievement offer free financial literacy programs for youth that can be implemented in schools across the country.

Note: Percentages do not total to 100% because respondents were allowed to check multiple responses. The top 10 out of 16 responses are listed.

Moreover, slightly over a third indicated that their race may limit opportunities in life. This finding may be indicative of student experiences, deficit-based narratives in the media and even discriminatory experiences or institutionalized racism within schools themselves. Over the past several years, polls have shown a decreased satisfaction in perceptions of the state of race relations in the country. In fact, race relations had risen to one of the top issues in Gallup’s most important problems list in recent years and African-Americans consistently report higher levels of discrimination than whites. Several recent instances of racism and discrimination from Starbucks to Yale have sparked increased dialogue on racism and bias. Given this current racial climate and the findings in our study, schools should include issues of race, diversity, and social justice in their curricula and implement cultural competency training for school-based staff to foster an inclusive environment.

Call to action

The findings of the study create the impetus for action. We recommend the following steps:

  1. Challenge the deficit narrative about the educational aspirations of low-income African-American youth as the results clearly indicated that they have a robust desire to achieve their educational and career goals.
  2. Reduce information barriers about college affordability and the admissions process by (1) increasing access to guidance counselors who provide valuable information about college admissions, (2) cultivating partnerships with non-profit organizations who provide financial literacy and (3) simplifying the FAFSA as the complexity can decrease applications. Schools should also create more awareness about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as viable options that offer a rigorous academic experience for students at an average lower cost than other colleges. In fact, UNCF-member HBCUs cost 26 percent less than comparable institutions.
  3. Address widespread student discipline issues in schools through transparent data systems, restorative justice, & cultural competency training. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University found that restorative justice efforts in several states like Maryland, Colorado, and California show promise as an alternative to exclusionary discipline and help empower students to be more socially responsible. The Obama administration issued discipline guidance addressing these issues as well, however, the U.S. Department of Education is threatening to rescind these guidelines which may undermine progress in this area and protections for students of color.

We also urge the higher education community to take heed of these important findings and invest in summer bridge programs, reform remedial education in ways that better support students and faculty and engage in robust university-school partnerships. Such interventions may help bridge the gap for students given their concern about math performance and the lack of support services and information about the college process. And, because the youth surveyed for this report represent the very type of students that typically enroll in HBCUs—low-income African-American students—it is imperative that these institutions consider the findings. Given youth’s perspectives on race, HBCUs should underscore their deep history of affirming students’ race and culture during student outreach. They should also invest in sustained follow-up efforts with admitted students to ensure they enroll and provide programmatic support to students early in their college experience that address issues like financial literacy, including financial aid, time management, and career readiness.

A seat and voice at the table

As the country grapples with issues of race, school safety, HEA reauthorization, and the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), student voices—including those of African-American youth—must be at the center, not in the margins. The stakes are too high to maintain the status quo, which often marginalizes these salient voices. African-American youth deserve not only a seat at the table, but a voice at that table.