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Black Boys and 4th Grade Failure Syndrome

It is no secret that Black men are disproportionately uneducated, unemployed and incarcerated. Articles I’ve read in Noteworthy News and The Black Scholar toss out statistics that say that a six year old Black boy has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and the unemployment rate among young Black men is forty percent. To understand the issues affecting Black men, we have to understand the life experiences of Black boys which shape the attitudes and behaviors of Black men. These statistics say one thing to me: Black men are becoming more and more disconnected from society each day.

Where does this start? How can we prevent this? Is it a preventable phenomenon?

The author of Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (an old book but one that I recommend nonetheless) tried to explain this phenomenon by performing a longitudinal study of test scores, general attitude toward school and self-image in a group of 80 boys, all in the same school, and all in the same class. What he found was alarming. Through first grade, the Black boys in his study express positive feelings about themselves and school. These feelings make a shift for the worse in second grade and by fifth grade the boys are outright cynical about the schooling process and their sense of self has degraded correspondingly. This shift in attitude correlates with a shift in performance. The author refers to this drop in enthusiasm and academic performance as Fourth Grade Failure Syndrome, the “poor transition boys make between the primary and intermediate division”.

The causes can be identified as teachers not understanding “Black Male Culture” which leads to boys feeling as if they are marginalized in class, that they exist outside of the culture of the classroom. The teachers in the study became less encouraging academically and more inclined to pushing Black boys disproportionately toward athletics. This is reinforced by the media and the fact that Black boys have limited access to positive images of Black men.

Second through fifth grade is a crucial time in any of our lives. We are building ideas of self at this time while trying to reconcile the different ways that people view us. If teachers positively reinforce athletic achievement in Black males more than academic achievement and the idea that academic achievement being akin to “acting White” among Black schoolchildren, then we have a confluence of pressure from teachers and peers to find success outside of the schoolbooks at an early age. To achieve academically then is to reconfigure ideas of self that are not consistent with those that society tends to impose on Black males.

By the time young Black men enter the intermediate stage of their schooling, they are left confused by notions of success and have constructed negative images of self. And if you ask me, that is the real Fourth Grade Failure Syndrome. The fact that Black boys enter the school system on par with their peers shows that there are no at risk kids, just at risk situations. If we can remedy the situations, then perhaps we can take a step toward improving the current condition of Black males.