Black History Month: 5 Facts About African Americans and Educational Opportunity

Young African American woman pondering next to text

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions that African Americans have made to our country. It’s also a time to reflect on our continued struggle for racial equity.

Throughout February, the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO) has been highlighting the work of our three centers, with a focus on data points that encapsulate the African-American experience. Previously we looked at criminal justice and economic mobility. As we wrap up the month, the Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University shares five facts about African Americans and educational opportunity including learning loss, increased poverty, the overcriminalization of Black students, homeschooling, and eduprenneurs.

1. COVID-19 School Closings Has Led to Learning Loss and Widened the Educational Achievement Gap

African American girl student looking at laptop computer screen Learning loss is likely to be greatest among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students.

“The US education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says a McKinsey report. “Teachers, administrators, and parents have worked hard to keep learning alive; nevertheless, these efforts are not likely to provide the quality of education that’s delivered in the classroom.”

The report points out the persistent achievement disparities across income levels and between White students and students of Black and Hispanic heritage.

“School shutdowns could not only cause disproportionate learning losses for these students —compounding existing gaps — but also lead more of them to drop out.” The report suggests that this could have lasting effects on these children’s long-term economic well-being and on the US economy as a whole.

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2. Over Two Million More Black Americans Have Been Thrust Into Poverty

The end of 2020 brought the sharpest rise in the U.S. poverty rate since the 1960s – and poverty decreases a child’s readiness for school.

Economists at the University of Notre Dame, as noted in this Bloomberg article, found that the poverty rate increased by 2.4 percentage points during the latter half of 2020 as the U.S. continued to suffer the economic impacts from Covid-19.

“That percentage-point rise is nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since the 1960s. This means an additional 8 million people nationwide are now considered poor.” According to the article, “The poverty rate for Black Americans is estimated to have jumped by 5.4 percentage points, or by 2.4 million individuals.”

Black Americans were more than twice as likely to be poor as their White counterparts in December 2020, the article explains. This is an improvement from the summer months when they were nearly three times more apt to live in poverty — but an increase from before the pandemic, when the differential was under 2.

It is well documented that poverty decreases a child’s readiness for school through aspects of health, home life, schooling and neighborhoods.

According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), students living in poverty often have fewer resources at home to complete homework, study, or engage in activities that help equip them for success during the school day. Many impoverished families lack access to computers, high-speed Internet, and other materials that can aid a student outside of school.

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3. There’s an Overcriminalization of Black K-12 Students in Education

African American students are disproportionately being disciplined via suspensions and expulsions.

“The en masse switch to distance learning was unprecedented. But the outsized discipline measures against Black students, sadly, were not,” reports Learning for Justice. “Zoom suspensions followed similar patterns to in-person classroom management tactics that feed Black students into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

ProPublica data shows that Black students, nationally, are 3.9 times more likely to face suspension than White students, with even higher numbers in states like Wisconsin (7.5 times), Minnesota (6.2 times) and Connecticut (6 times). And according to a 2018 analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Black students were overrepresented in every punishment measure evaluated, regardless of poverty level or school type.

“The numbers’ severity and longevity underscore a systemic and seismic pushout of Black students, whose disproportionate contact with law enforcement leads to disproportionate rates of dropouts, disengagement and incarceration,” the Learning for Justice article continues. “Disrupting that cycle of punishment will be necessary to end the school-to-prison pipeline and protect the students most disproportionately harmed by such policies — namely Black, Indigenous and Latinx youth.”

One recent example was the Michigan teenager who was incarcerated last May during the coronavirus pandemic after a judge ruled that the teen violated her probation by not completing her online coursework when her school switched to remote learning.

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4. The Rise of Homeschooling Among Black Families

Black Mother Helping Daughter With Homework Black parents are becoming more favorable toward homeschooling compared to White and Hispanic parents.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for families, who were already skeptical of the traditional school system — and are now thinking about leaving it for good. Leading this trend are African American families.

According to Education Next, “More than half of black parents (53%) said they have a more favorable opinion of homeschooling as a result of the pandemic.”

But this trend was happening even before the pandemic. In a 2017 interview with The 74, Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who studies Black homeschoolers said homeschooling is becoming more acceptable among African-American families.

Dr. Fields-Smith says that resegregation is one reason why African American families wanted to homeschool. “A lot of these families that I interviewed,” she said, “lived in communities where schools had become predominantly black. Their question was, how does my child get a diverse perspective on the world if everything is black?”

Other reasons she found included schools focusing too much on testing and not enough learning through play. Some felt that they should be their child’s first teacher.

Other families had safety concerns. A recent Ed Choice survey confirms this: “Black parents (57%) were more likely than Hispanics (41%) to cite the desire to find a safe learning environment as the reason for homeschooling, but safety remained the top factor regardless of racial background.”

Dr. Fields-Smith continues in the interview, that Black parents are drawn to homeschooling because of “a sense of wanting to protect their children from being labeled a troublemaker, or suggestions that they should be in special ed, or even [schools not] acknowledging the intellect of their child because they are so focused on the behavior.”

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5. Black Edupreneurs Are Using Their Skills in the K-12 Education Marketplace to Transform Learning

Black edupreneurs — entrepreneurs who works within in the education sector — are enhancing the education industry. These innovative leaders range from startup CEOs to angel investors all focused on educational innovation.

“We are in a unique moment when the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our education systems, and there is a growing national movement in support of Black lives,” says Natalie Wilson in a NewSchools Venture Fund article. “How might we use this as an opportunity to challenge the status quo rather than seeking a return to normalcy, knowing that our ‘normal’ is failing Black children?”

Wilson points to one program, the Urban Ed Academy’s Man the Bay Initiative that is supporting edupreneurs and reimagining public education. [Full disclosure: CEO was awarded a grant from this organization.] Man the Bay is a four-year fellowship program that recruits Black and Brown male recent college graduates to teach in elementary schools where there are underrepresented students. The program provides training, housing, and mentorship and helps to address the current teacher shortage crisis and provide a more diverse teacher pipeline to help narrow the achievement gap.

Here are a few other innovative eduprenneurs highlighted by LearnLaunch Institute:

* Kimberly Bryant, the Founder and CEO of Black Girls Code, an organization whose mission is to teach girls of color computer coding and programming languages.

* Chris Bennett, the Co-Founder and CEO of Wonderschool, an online childcare search platform that helps connect parents with childcare education programs.

* Christopher Gray, who after winning $1.3 million in scholarships himself, founded Scholly, a mobile and web app that helps students find scholarships for college.

Read more about Black Leaders in Education Innovation >