Educational barriers persist for African American Girls

Educational barriers persist for African American Girls

(D.C.) At the intersection of gender and racial disparities, a group of American students still struggles to reach equal access to educational opportunity:  African American girls, large numbers of whom fail to graduate from high school and go on to live in poverty, according to the latest statistics.

A report released last month by the National Women's Law Center and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund highlights the continuing educational disparities for African American girls some 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

“Although there is plentiful data on American children and education,” the report’s authors wrote, “the lack of data broken down by race and gender together has fueled the assumption that all girls are doing fine in school.”

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls is the result of a multi-year effort to examine existing data and research on the educational opportunities of this often overlooked population. It considers not only academic outcomes, but also the barriers to achievement that continue despite great strides in civil rights over the past five decades.

On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, 63 percent of African American girls scored “below basic” in math and 39 percent in reading. This group of girls is retained at least one grade at a rate of 21 percent, compared to a rate of 10 percent for all girls.

At the high school level, African American girls often lack access to challenging courses – such as upper-level math and science, as well as highly-qualified teachers in all subject areas.

The academic struggles these girls face in school are compounded by deeply held biases, the authors say, that often lead to harsher disciplinary sanctions from educators who assume African American girls require “greater social correction” than other girls.

“… The contrast between ‘traditional’ middle class notions of femininity, which require girls to be passive and modest, and stereotypical images of African American females as loud, confrontational, assertive and provocative, can generate differing punishments for similar conduct,” the authors write.

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Civil Rights show that 12 percent of all African American girls from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were suspended in the 2011-12 school year, a rate six times that for white girls and higher than that for white, Asian and Latino boys.

African American girls also face higher rates of harassment, violence and trauma than do their white classmates, a condition that can significantly contribute to poor academic outcomes. The authors cite research showing that these students experience “the highest rate of threatened violence or injury with a weapon on school property and are disproportionately vulnerable to child sex trafficking victimization and to prosecution for their involvement in that underground economy.”

In almost all states, African American girls are graduating from high school at a lower rate than the national average for all girls.

Data from 2010 show that in Nebraska, for example, 81 percent of all girls graduated from high school in 4 years. Only 46 percent of African American girls did so. Similarly, 66 percent of all girls in Nevada graduated on time, while that number was only 48 percent for their female African American classmates.

Low academic achievement levels, the authors point out, have severe economic consequences for African American women, many of whom are the sole earners for their families.

According to the authors, 40 percent of African American women without a high school diploma were living in poverty in 2013, compared to 29 percent of those with a diploma and less than 9 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Despite the challenges faced by African American girls in the nation’s schools, these young women appear to represent a rich source of leadership for future generations, perhaps due to the same qualities exhibited by some girls, like non-conformity and assertiveness, which can lead to higher rates of disciplinary referral.

In fact, the authors say, African American girls aspire to leadership more than any other group of girls. Fifty-three percent of African American girls surveyed expressed a desire to hold positions of leadership, compared to 50 percent of Hispanic girls and 34 percent of Caucasian girls.

The report urges educators, school officials, community leaders, advocates, policymakers and philanthropic organizations to focus on improving conditions for African American girls in schools and offers a wide range of recommendations to reduce barriers to educational attainment.

“This is a call to unlock opportunity for African American girls,” the authors wrote. “Our entire nation has a stake in ensuring the academic and professional success of all children.”

Among their recommendations:

  • Invest in early childhood education and affordable, high-quality child care
  • Provide support for the most vulnerable children by ensuring early screening for disabilities and evidence-based interventions for academic and emotional needs
  • Eliminate overly punitive and exclusionary disciplinary practices and promote alternatives such as social and emotional learning and positive behavior interventions
  • Require schools to adopt and publicize strong anti-harassment policies. Ensure educators and students receive race- and gender-sensitivity training to properly identify victims of sexual violence and trauma.
  • Identify and reduce barriers for pregnant and parenting students.
  • Increase access to athletics and after school programs by reducing financial obstacles and promoting outreach to girls of color.
  • Support leadership development for African American girls and women.
  • Increase access to science, technology, engineering and math programs and other rigorous course offerings.
  • Target philanthropic funding to address the needs of women and girls of color in the United States.

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