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Examining Teachers’ Beliefs About African American Male Students in a Low-Performing High School in an African American School District

by Marvin Lynn, Jennifer Nicole Bacon, Tommy L. Totten, Thurman L. Bridges, III & Michael E. Jennings - 2010

Background/Context: The study examines teachers’ and administrators’ perspectives on the persistent academic failure of African American male high school students. The study took place between 2003 and 2005 in a low-performing high school in Summerfield County, a Black suburban county in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States with a poverty rate below 8%, according to the 2000 United States census. At the time of the study, there were a number of initiatives across the state designed to address what was being referred to as “the minority achievement gap.” The researchers—most of whom were African American faculty and graduate students at the University of Maryland—were interested in understanding what teachers and other school personnel such as counselors and administrators would have to say about why African American students, particularly males, tended to persistently underperform on standardized measures of achievement, had higher rates of suspension and expulsion from school, were overrepresented in special education, and had significantly higher dropout rates than all other subgroups in this mostly Black and middle-class suburban school district.

Purpose and Research Questions: In the present article, we build on the work of scholars of critical race studies in education and scholars concerned about teachers’ impact on student achievement to explore teachers’ beliefs about African American students, and we discuss the possible implications for African American males in troubled schools. We used critical race ethnographic methods to collect data on the following research questions: (1) How does a low-performing high school in a low-performing school district cope with the persistent problem of African American male underachievement? (2) In particular, how do teachers and administrators understand the problem? (3) How might this impact their ability to work successfully with African American male students?

Setting: The study took place in Summerfield County, a majority-Black suburban county in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The county is known as the wealthiest Black county in the nation. With over 100,000 students, its school district is one of the largest and lowest performing in the state. At the time of the study, the district was ranked 23rd out of 24 districts in the state in measures of standardized achievement. The research took place in a midsized all-Black high school in a section of the county that is contiguous with one of the poorer sections of a nearby city. The high school, with a 99% Black population of slightly fewer than 1,000 students , was one of the lowest performing high schools in the district.

Participants: The main participants in the study consisted of two groups: (1) a sample of 50 teachers, administrators, and counselors, and (2) a subsample of 6 teachers in art, music, technology, social studies, and math who participated in ongoing individual interviews, a focus group, and classroom observations.

Research Design: This study involved a series of focus groups, formal and informal interviews with teachers, counselors, and administrators, and 18 months of ethnographic observations in the school.

Conclusions: Researchers found that school personnel overwhelmingly blamed students, their families, and their communities for the minority achievement gap. In short, the school was pervaded by a culture of defeat and hopelessness. Ongoing conversations with a smaller group of teachers committed to the success of African American male students revealed that the school was not a safe space for caring teachers who wanted to make a difference in the lives of their students.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 1, 2010, p. 289-330
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15835, Date Accessed: 4/18/2021 1:25:36 AM

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About the Author
  • Marvin Lynn
    University of Illinois
    E-mail Author
    MARVIN LYNN is associate professor of curriculum and instruction, and director of elementary teacher education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He conducts research on the work and lives of African American teachers in public schools. He also writes in the area of critical race studies in education. Two recent publications are “Education for the Community: Exploring the Culturally Relevant Practices of Black Male Teachers,” published in Teachers College Record in 2006, and “Critical Race Studies in Education and the ‘Endarkened’ Wisdom of Carter G. Woodson” with Thurman Bridges in The SAGE Handbook of African American Education, edited by Linda Tillman.
  • Jennifer Bacon
    University of Maryland, College Park
    JENNIFER NICOLE BACON is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland in minority and urban education. She is currently a special education coordinator/department chairperson in Maryland and has served as a classroom teacher/instructor on the secondary and postsecondary level, as an educational consultant, and as a teacher trainer and supervisor. Ms. Bacon’s research focus is on the lived experience of African American adolescent girl poets. She serves as a facilitator for culturally responsive poetry groups for adolescents and women with a focus on self-identity, gender, race, and culture. Ms. Bacon has presented at several conferences, including the American Educational Research Association, and has had poems published in such literary magazines as Phatitude and Returning Woman.
  • Tommy Totten
    University of Maryland, College Park
    TOMMY L. TOTTEN is a doctoral candidate in the Minority and Urban Education program, with a cognate in mathematics education. He is currently the department’s graduate student association president. His research interests include preparing teachers for diversity, transformative pedagogy, situated cognition, and culturally relevant mathematics teaching and learning for African American students in urban contexts. His current research explores African American secondary mathematics teachers’ thinking about how to create mathematical tasks centered on students' lived experiences and interests.
  • Thurman Bridges, III
    University of Maryland, College Park
    THURMAN L. BRIDGES III is a third-year doctoral candidate and research assistant at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the Minority and Urban Education program. His research interests include the social context of urban education, critical race theory/praxis, African American student achievement, African American male teachers, social justice curriculum, and hip hop pedagogy. His current research explores participants’ historical and contemporary experiences as African American males and as teachers within U.S. public schools. Mr. Bridges’s publications include a book chapter (with Brown and Clark) entitled “Youth Teaching Teachers: Bridging Racial and Cultural Divides Between Teachers and Students,” to be published in an upcoming book (Hampton Press). He has also cowritten a chapter (with Marvin Lynn) entitled “Critical Race Studies in Education and the ‘Endarkened’ wisdom of Carter G. Woodson,” to be published in The SAGE Handbook of African American Education.
  • Michael Jennings
    University of Texas, San Antonio
    MICHAEL JENNINGS is associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio. His research focuses on race and education and the experiences of Black faculty in higher education. He has recently published an article with Marvin Lynn entitled “The House That Race Built: Toward a Critical Race Analysis of Critical Pedagogy” in The Journal of Educational Foundations, and an upcoming article (with Bonner et. al.) entitled “Capitalizing on Leadership Capacity: Gifted African American Males in High School” to be published in an upcoming issue of the Roeper Review.
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