Urban Wire Sharing responsibility for boys and young men of color
Margaret Simms, Ronald F. Ferguson
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The White House's My Brother’s Keeper Initiative and the MBK Alliance call for public and private efforts to help boys and young men of color achieve milestones at the same rate as others in the United States. This blog series discusses strategies that could be effective in meeting those goals.

Four of the six My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) goals involve education, indicating that in looking for ways to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, we need to pay special attention to our schools.

Boys and young men of color tend to be less academically successful than their peers. This is not because they don’t want to do well. Our research shows boys of color desire to learn as much as others, yet they aren’t succeeding at the same rates. Fortunately, there are things that we can do to help them.

Differences start early

Preparation for school success starts at birth. Boys of color face special challenges beginning with the first MBK milestone: entering school ready to learn. Developmental gaps between boys of color and white boys emerge by age 2, and this is true, on average, regardless of the parents’ educational level. These early skill gaps make it harder for boys of color to reach other educational milestones because they have extra ground to make up from day one.

Developmental Gaps between Boys of Color and White Boys Emerge by Age 2

There is evidence that some of the differences may come from what goes on in families: how parents and other caregivers treat boys versus girls as infants and toddlers and how much they interact with children to build early cognitive skills. Supporting parents and other caregivers through examples and encouragement to interact as much as they can with male infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in ways that are fun and cognitively stimulating is an important first step.

The role of peer pressure

Once children enter the educational system, conditions in many schools work against boys of color as they struggle to catch up and excel. Even by the 12th grade, the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that significant gaps between white males and African American, Latino, and Native American males remain. These gaps are predictive of lower post–high school education and earnings and higher unemployment for young men of color, particularly African Americans.

Data from a recent survey of students reveal several factors that may explain why the gaps persist. A survey of 2,700 third through fifth grade classrooms asked students to describe their own behavior, that of their classmates, and certain qualities of their teachers. Boys of color reported worse behaviors on average, but not necessarily because they wanted to misbehave. Social pressures matter!

Boys of Color Reported Worse Behaviors on Average, but Peer Pressure Plays a Role

As middle schoolers, boys of color are more likely than any other group to report succumbing to peer pressure and doing things that they would prefer not to do. As early as elementary school, many of their misbehaviors are actually attempts to conform to social norms. Boys and young men of color may be ensnared in their peer culture. They need help from empathetic adults to change it or escape it.

To better prepare students, better prepare teachers

Teaching matters, too. In the survey, individual students in thousands of classrooms were asked to rate the teacher on the Tripod 7Cs™ components of effective teaching (care, confer, captivate, clarify, consolidate, challenge, and classroom management). On average, individuals self-reported better behavior in the classes their peers rated higher on instructional quality. This finding applies regardless of classroom racial composition.

Peer pressures, poor behavior, and teachers who need better preparation to manage discipline help explain why a higher concentration of students of color predicted a more difficult learning environment. One question asked students whether behavior in the classroom is mostly or always “so bad that it slows down learning.” The higher the percentage students of color, the more likely students were to agree that behavior is a big problem. At the same time, for any given percentage of students of color, higher-quality teaching improved behavior and supported learning.

Is Behavior in the Classroom Mostly or Always “So Bad that It Slows Down Learning?"

Matching the student and the environment

There is much that we can do to help boys of color escape their current predicament so that more will learn to read at grade level by third grade, graduate high school, secure additional education or training, and obtain gainful employment. In a new paper, we explore some strategies focusing on improving person-environment fit. This fit is achieved when the school and the child are well matched on what they expect and need from one another. Achieving better person-environment fit for young men of color requires focusing more intentionally from birth through high school on developmentally important routines in homes, schools, peer groups, and communities.

When early childhood learning experiences, classroom teaching, peer supports, and school disciplinary practices are better matched to what young males of color need for achieving their potential, they will stand a better chance of reaching the MBK goals. However, achieving these things is beyond the ability of any individual child, parent, teacher, or administrator. It will take many of us working together, mobilizing resources, changing our own behaviors, and holding ourselves accountable for effectively playing our distinctive roles in an intergenerational MBK movement.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities K-12 education Early childhood education Men and boys Inequality and mobility Racial equity in education Structural racism
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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