New research by the Urban Strategies Council of Oakland found that 55% of African American male students in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) were at risk of not graduating due to high suspension rates, chronic absences and poor academic performance. This compares with a still high rate of 37.5% for the general student population, according to the Bay Citizen.
Of those who were not on track to graduate on time, 73% were chronically absent in elementary school, missing at least 10% of school days. This parallels findings from a Baltimore study (see here). The same percentage had been suspended at least once in middle school.
It is easy to blame schools, teachers and parents for the problem. Indeed, the Bay Citizen quoted Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, who said that “five-year-olds don’t miss school without an adult knowing at home,” as if the parent was keeping the child home for illegitimate reasons. Yet, high absenteeism is not primarily due to irresponsible parents who simply keep their kids home or don’t monitor their attendance. Rather, high absenteeism correlates with poverty and lack of health insurance or access to affordable care, suggesting that poor kids stay home more because they are not receiving preventative or prompt curative care, leading to longer and more severe infectious and chronic illnesses.
Of course, at the higher grades, students sometimes cut class for other reasons, like preferring to be out on the streets or with friends, to avoid gangs or bullies, or because they are so behind in grades or academic skills that school has become a traumatic and unpleasant experience for them.
Most of these problems, likewise, cannot be directly blamed on parents, teachers or even the students themselves. Poverty creates an achievement gap before children have even entered kindergarten (see here and here). The achievement gap only gets worse as children progress through the system, with affluent students continuing to reap benefits like summer travel, enriching extracurricular activities and better health and nutrition that are denied to their lower income peers. Failure and frustration are thus built into the system and routine for many students and cutting class could be seen as a rational response to the embarrassment, powerlessness or frustration of being stuck in classes in which one is lost, confused and has little chance of passing.
Gangs are also a product of socioeconomic conditions and a problem that can be significantly reduced or eliminated by eradicating poverty and providing jobs and extracurricular activities for youth. Until that happens, students who must cross through rival gang territory in order to get to school could be provided with transportation alternatives that bypass the dangerous turf or reassigned to other schools.
Bullying is also a societal problem. It occurs at home and in the streets and playgrounds. Politicians, bosses and community leaders also engage in it. Until it as addressed at these levels, children and adults will continue to see it as a normal (and effective) way to interact and achieve one’s goals and the problem will persist. However, schools can do a lot more to reduce bullying on campus by better educating their staffs and creating and enforcing disciplinary policies that treat it as a serious offense.
High suspension rates are also related to socioeconomic factors. While racial bias probably plays a role in the higher suspension rates for African American males among certain teachers and administrators, it is unlikely the main cause (see Parsing the Black-White Suspension Gap for more analysis of this topic). Rather, lower rates of academic success (remember, the achievement gap is already in place before students even start school) likely create a frustrating academic experience that contributes to disruptive behavior. Also, the middle class culture, mores and expectations of school often come into conflict with the culture, mores and expectations of lower income and non-white communities, leading to the unnecessary escalation of conflicts and more severe punishment for students.
Oakland students of color, particularly black males, indeed have an appallingly high risk of not graduating on time from high school. However, if we really want to see improvements, we need to stop scapegoating the parents, teachers and children themselves and start addressing the socioeconomic factors that are the primary cause of the problem.