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The Role and Influence of
Environmental and Cultural Factors
on the Academic Performance
of African American Males

by Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.

Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.


All of the most important quality of life indicators suggest that African American males are in deep trouble. They lead the nation in homicides, both as victims and perpetrators (Currie, 1993), and in what observers regard as an alarming trend, they now have the fasting growing rate for suicide (National Research Council 1989; Poussaint and Alexander 2000). For the last several years Black males have been contracting HIV and AIDS at a faster rate than any other segment of the population (Kaplan, 1987), and their incarceration, conviction and arrest rates have been at the top of the charts in most states for some time (Roper 1991). Even as babies, Black males have the highest probability of dying in the first year of life (cite), and as they grow older they face the unfortunate reality of being the only group in the US population experiencing a decline in life expectancy (Spivak, 1988). In the labor market they are the least likely to be hired, and in many cities, the most likely to be unemployed (Wilson 1988; Massey and Denton 1993; Hacker 1992; Feagin and Sikes 1994).

Beset with such an ominous array of social and economic hardships, it is hardly surprising that the experience of Black males in education - with respect to attainment and most indicators of academic performance, also show signs of trouble and distress. In many school districts throughout the United States Black males are more likely than any other group to be suspended and expelled from school (Meier, Stewart, England 1989). From 1973 to 1977 there was a steady increase in African American enrollment in college, however, since 1977 there has been a sharp and continuous decline, especially among males (National Research Council 1989). Black males are more likely to be classified as mentally retarded or suffering from a learning disability and placed in special education (Milofsky, 1974), and more likely to be absent from advanced placement and honors courses (Oakes 1985). Even class privilege and the material benefits that accompany it fails to inoculate Black males from low academic performance. When compared to their white peers, middle class African American males lag significantly behind in grade point average (gpa), and on standardized tests, including the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) (Jencks and Phillips 1998).

It is not surprising that there is a connection between the educational performance of African American males and the hardships they endure within the larger society. In fact, it would be much more surprising if Black males were doing well academically in spite of the broad array of difficulties that confront them. It is commonly understood that environmental and cultural factors have a profound influence upon human behavior, including academic performance (Brookover and Erickson 1969; Morrow and Torres 1995). What is less understood is how environmental and cultural forces influence the way in which Black males come to perceive schooling and how those perceptions influence their behavior and performance in school. There is considerable evidence that the ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds of students has bearing upon how students are perceived and treated by the adults who work with them within schools (Brookover and Erickson 1969). However, we know less about the nature of the perceptions and expectations that are held toward Black males in particular, and how these may in turn affect their performance within schools. More to point, there is considerable confusion regarding what it is about being Black and male that causes this segment of the population to stand out in the most negative and alarming ways, both in school and the larger society.

This paper is rooted in the notion that it is possible to educate all children, including Black males, at high levels. This idea is not an articulation of faith but rather a conclusion drawn from a vast body of research on human development, and from research on the learning styles of Black children (Lee 2000). Hence, it should be possible for schools to take actions that can reverse the patterns of low achievement among African American males. The fact that some schools and programs manage to do so already (Edmonds 1979) is further evidence that the possibility of altering trends is attainable. Moreover, to the degree that we accept the notion that human beings have the capacity to resist submission to cultural patterns, demographic trends, environmental pressures and constraints (Friere 1972), bringing greater clarity to the actions that can be taken by schools and community organizations to support the academic achievement of African American males could be the key to changing academic outcomes and altering the direction of negative trends for this segment of the population.

This paper explores the possibility that the academic performance of African American males can be improved by devising strategies that counter the effects of harmful environmental and cultural forces. Drawing on research from a variety of disciplines, the paper begins with an analysis of the factors that place certain individuals (i.e. African American males) at greater risk than others. This is followed by an analysis of the ways in which environmental and cultural forces interact and influence academic outcomes, and how these in turn shape the relationship between identity, particularly related to race and gender, and school performance. Finally, strategies for countering harmful environmental and cultural influences, both the diffuse and the direct, are explored with particular attention paid to recommendations for educators, parents and youth service providers who seek to support young African American males.

The Nature of the "Risk"

The good news is that not all Black males are at risk. I was reminded of this obvious fact on my way to work one morning. Before driving to San Francisco with a colleague, another Black male academic, we stopped to pick up a commuter so that we could make the trip across the Bay Bridge in the faster car pool lane during the middle of the rush hour. As it turned out, the first car pooler to approach our car was another Black male. As we rode across the bridge we made small talk, going from Basketball, to the merits of living in the Bay Area, till finally we approached the subject of our work. The rider informed us that he was a manager at a highly profitable telecommunications firm, and that if his plans progressed as he hoped, he would be retiring on a very lucrative pension in Hawaii before the age of 50. Contemplating his financial good fortune and that of my colleague and myself (the two of us had no plans for early retirement however), I posed the question - "What explained why we were doing so well so many brothers like us were not?"

The answer was not obvious. All three of us were raised in working class families, had grown up in tough neighborhoods, had close friends and family members who had been killed while they were young, and others who were serving time in prison. What made our lives with our promising careers and growing families, so fortunate and so different? As it turned out all three of us were raised by both of our parents, but further exploration revealed that none of us had regular contact with our fathers. We had all attended public schools, but each of us felt that we had succeeded in spite and not because of the schools we attended. With time running out as we approached our riders' stop, we threw out the possibility that the only thing that had spared us the fate of so many of our brethren was luck - not getting caught for past indiscretions, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When viewed in the context of the negative social patterns cited previously the explanation for our apparent exceptionalism does not seem so mysterious. While it is true that many Black males are confronted with a vast array of risks, obstacles and social pressures, the majority manage to navigate these with some degree of success. The good news is that most Black males are not in prison, do not commit suicide and have not contracted HIV/AIDS. This fact does not negate the significance of the problems that confront Black males, but it does help to keep the problems in perspective. Moreover, understanding how and why many Black males are able to avoid the pitfalls and hardships that beset others may help us to devise ways to protect and provide support for more of them.

The effects of growing up in poverty, particularly for children raised in socially isolated economically depressed urban areas, does however, warrant greater concern, particularly given that one out of every three Black children is raised in poor households (Carnoy 1997). Here the evidence is clear that the risks faced by children, particularly African American males, in terms of health, welfare and education, are substantially greater (Taylor-Gibbs 1988). A recent longitudinal study on the development of children whose mothers used drugs (particularly crack cocaine) during pregnancy, found that when compared to children residing in similar neighborhoods from similar socio-economic backgrounds, the children in the sample showed no greater evidence of long term negative effects. This is not because the incidence of physical and cognitive problems among the sample was not high, but because it was equally high for the control group. The stunned researchers, who fully expected to observe noticeable differences the two groups, were compelled to conclude that the harmful effects of living within an impoverished inner-city environment outweighed the damage inflicted by early exposure to drugs (cite).

All of the research shows that impoverished conditions greatly increase the multiplier effect on risk variables (Garbarino 1999). This is both because poor children generally receive inferior services from schools and agencies that are located in the inner-city, and because poor children often have so many un-met needs that it is nearly impossible to disentangle one need from another. For example, research has shown that a disproportionate number of poor children suffer from various sight disorders (cite). Because poor children often lack access to preventative health care, their untreated vision problems frequently are diagnosed as reading problems, and as a consequence, large numbers are placed in remedial and special education programs (cite). Throughout the country Black children are over represented in special education programs, and consistently, those most likely to be placed are overwhelmingly Black, male and poor. (cite)

The situation in special education mirrors a larger trend in education for African Americans generally, and males in particular. Rather than serving as a source of hope and opportunity, more often than not, schools are sites where Black males are marginalized and subject to various forms of stigma (Meier, 1989) . Consistently, the schools that serve Black males fail to nurture, support or protect them. They label them as behavior problems and less intelligent even while they are still very young (Hilliard 1976); they punish them with severity and often without regard for their welfare even for minor offenses (Sandler 2000), and they exclude them from rigorous classes and educational opportunities that might support and encourage them (Oakes 1985). However, bringing about change in education is made more difficult because Black males often behave in ways that make them complicit in their own failure. It is not just that they are more likely to be punished or placed in remedial classes, it is also that they are more likely than others to act out in the classroom and to avoid challenging themselves academically.

The fact that Black males may participate in their own failure suggests that efforts to help them must take into account the likelihood that help may not be readily accepted. Changing policies, creating new programs and opening up new opportunities, may accomplish little if such efforts are not accompanied by strategies to actively engage Black males and their families in improving their fate. In education this may require institutional changes and programmatic interventions aimed at buffering and off-setting the various risks to which Black males are particularly vulnerable. To be effective, this work must also involve efforts to counter and transform cultural patterns that undermine the importance of education; a goal that can only be achieved if it is possible to provide alternative influences that offer a credible, realistic and attractive sources of hope and optimism.

As I will show in the pages ahead, one of the best ways to learn how this can be done is to study those schools and programs that have proven most successful at accomplishing this goal. Additionally, it is important for such work to be anchored in a theoretical understanding of how the pressures exerted upon Black males in American society can be contested. Without such an intellectual underpinning it is unlikely that new interventions and initiatives will succeed at countering the hazardous direction of trends for African American males.

  • Part 2: Structural vs. Cultural Explanations
  • Part 3: Learning From Students and the Schools that Serve Them Well

Published in In Motion Magazine February 11, 2001