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From Alfred Tatum on Literacy

(Re) Authorizing Literacy Practices for African American Boys

by Alfred W. Tatum, Ph.D.
University of Illinois at Chicago

The education of young children has been discussed for more than two centuries in the United States. However, we are in our infancy discussing instructional practices and methods that advance the reading and writing achievement of African American boys. This is not to say that African American boys have not been excelling at both for a very long time, but the voices of those who specifically advocate for their reading and writing development in today’s context are just beginning to carve out a space in the educational literature. This carving has led to fumbles and foibles, namely how African American boys are described from sociological, cultural, and academic perspectives. Much of the discussion focuses on academic gaps between them and their age peers. The lives of African American boys in schools continue to be shaped by language and narratives that are problematic, yielding the view that they are vulnerable.  I counter that these boys are not vulnerable in schools because they are African American or male and for some, poor; they are vulnerable because teachers and administrators continue to embrace practices and policies that hang these young males from data sheets decade after decade, failing to insulate them from in-school experiences that are harmful to their reading, writing, and intellectual strivings.  I share a personal experience below.

During my first year teaching, I had to resist the district-wide policy that would have stifled my students’ reading and intellectual gains. I was directed to use test prep booklets to bolster the scores of my eighth-grade students so that at least 70% would meet the district-wide minimum of a 7.0 reading grade equivalent to avoid summer school or possible retention. This mandate came in 1993 under then CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan. I decided to engage in a territorial dispute, my classroom vs. the district mandated minimum and the directive from my principal, to protect my students’ right to an education that was broader than a grade equivalent that was still two year below grade level for entering ninth-grade students.  Essentially, I rejected a slow-growth model of achievement.  I was being directed to focus on small upticks of achievement when I should have been directed to move with the force of heaven and earth to make sure that reading and writing never serve as a barrier to my students’ success.

There are some who believe we can give African American males the gift of policy to improve reading achievement (e.g., No Child Left Behind, Reading First, Reading Next, Race To the Top) because we have the reading and writing stuff settled. This is simply not true and is based on a sophomoric view of reading. Reading is a system of a wide range of variables, some defined (e.g., language proficiency, vocabulary, fluency, decoding) and some undefined. The influence of the undefined variables (e.g., culture, gender, economics) on reading and writing development are not easy to measure, but are talked about with a high degree of certainty. The perceived certainty is based on mining the reading data for the performance of low-income and high-income students across demographics. Then, conclusions are drawn. For example, “income affects reading performance” or it’s not race, it’s economics.” However, it is not clear how much money and what cultural characteristics are more consequential for: 1) learning the letters of the alphabet, 2) reading fluently, 3) visualizing and comprehending texts, 4) increasing vocabulary, or 5) learning how to spell and organizing a paragraph.

The authorized literacy practices and policies are more consequential for students’ reading and writing development than their cultural and economic characteristics. For example, allowing students to read low-readability, high interest texts as an academic salve, providing fewer writing experiences, adopting differentiated instruction that gives permission to teach from easier texts for low- performing students, or simply focusing on culturally relevant texts that foreclose students’ experiences with a wider array of texts do not lead to an exponential growth model of reading or accelerate growth that will yield a larger number of African American boys reading and writing at an advanced level.

Educators of African American boys need to authorize practices that will serve these boys well in schools and society. This requires an acknowledgement that much of the discussion about African American boys’ reading and writing performances in schools over the past forty years has been largely useless for improving their reading and writing achievement.  Statistical data are shared ad nauseam, data that do yield any guidance for examining the impact of quality instruction and quality texts on the lives of these young boys. The date do not provide guidance for teachers. Many educators are wrestling with two questions: 1) What can we do to improve the reading achievement (writing achievement to a lesser degree) of these boys; and; 2) What can we do at scale? These questions surface when seeking solutions for young boys who struggle with reading. Little discussion concerns high-performing African American boys who can be equally underserved by adopted instructional practices and curricular orientations.

Several things are required to authorize practices that favor African American boys. They are:

  1. Adopt a model of literacy instruction that leads African American boys to read and write across multiple texts, one fiction and one non-fiction, during each one-hour lesson. This should occur for struggling and non-struggling readers. This is a model used at the UIC Reading Clinic with success and was developed with African American boys.
  2. Avoid artificial timelines for reading and writing achievement that are based on conjecture, not proof. For example, there is nothing sacrosanct about reading by the third-grade level. Not being able to read and write well by third grade does not cement failure. Not knowing how to teach reading well beyond third grade or adopting irresponsible practices based on narrow conceptualizations of reading and writing cement failure. Everyone likes to talk about the third-grade reading score prison pipeline connection. It’s not the reading score that is determinative, but how we interact or fail to interact with struggling readers.
  3. Ensure African American boys are having meaningful experiences with texts to restore their confidence in reading and writing as tools of human development. I have referred to this practice as building students’ textual lineages. A text that becomes a part of the student long after he reads it and leads him to think and act differently as a result of the text becomes part of his lineage.
  4. Do not allow others to compromise the literacy development and justify the compromise with research that has had little to no effect on African American boys. Constantly ask, “What is missing with the proposed approach or model?”
  5. Avoid a slow-growth model and avoid celebrating small upticks. Celebrating small upticks indicate a lower threshold for success.

Any coalition, similar to COSEBOC, focused on nurturing the development of African American boys must take a critical view of the language it uses, the professional development it provides, the description and mission it adopts, the research it embraces, and the policy it endorses. Each will lead to an authorization that is either beneficial or harmful to African American boys. I end with a discussion of the Florida State Department of Education that should trouble us all.

While the U.S. Supreme court debates the use of race in higher education admissions and the way race is considered in schools nationwide, the Florida State Department of Education recently passed racially-based academic goals. At the heart of Florida’s decision is the concept of realistic expectations and outcomes for students across different racial groups. They have determined that it is realistic to expect that 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be reading at or above grade level by 2018 (this is 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education). The Florida decision is deeply flawed

A close analysis suggests the emergence of the racially-based academic goals can in large part be attributed to the ongoing discussion about the impact of poverty, race, and disabilities on reading achievement. The U.S has adopted a sub-group nomenclature that has become reckless and irresponsible. The decision in Florida is an outgrowth of the ongoing data indicating achievement gaps across racial groups, screaming foul by some leaders of urban school districts, a system of accountability that has become increasingly punitive, and scores of educational researchers and teachers who have focused on barriers to high achievement and perceived insurmountable challenges for African American boys.  Florida was simply providing a “realistic” response in their estimation. They gave license to unequal educational outcomes based on race in similar ways that school leaders give license to reading and writing practices that yield unequal outcomes. School leaders even celebrate when 40%-50% of their African American boys are reading at or above grade level if these percentages represent an increase. These decisions are a radical departure from “all men are created equal.” They communicate that African American boys are less equal.

As a literacy researcher who focuses on the reading and writing achievement of African American boys, I cannot embrace Florida’s concept of “realistic” as legitimate unless I believe something is inherently wrong with African American boys or view all teachers as insufficiently competent to teach reading and writing in the United States. While some teachers are incompetent, others become stifled by mandated practices. The larger issue, still, is who is authorizing these practices and policies inside and outside of schools that can adversely impact the reading, writing, and intellectual development of African American boys. And, what will it take to reauthorize practices that will serve their best interest? For me, it’s back to the lab to figure it out so that those who are seeking literacy solutions for African American boys will have research on their side. You, too, are duly authorized to seek solutions that make a difference.

Alfred W. Tatum, Ph.D.
University of Illinois at Chicago