Five Reasons Why African-American Students Lag Behind: A Principal’s Point of View

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Why African-American Students Lag Behind

Each school year we read about test scores of students across America. Data, data, data is what politicians and school leaders spout off to parents and community members. The quality of rhetoric depends on whether or not it’s an election year. One thing that remains a constant story or question is why African-American students lag behind their white counterparts.

In urban school districts, the principals and teachers were instructed to think and focus on African-American students because the data continues to show they are not making the expected increases in growth and attainment. Two things that were not mentioned are root causes or a plan on how to improve African-American students’ progress. Administrators and teachers in the trenches know that there are many variables that contribute to the students’ progress or lack of progress.

Research is Ongoing

Research on why African-American students lag behind is ongoing. The Brookins Institute did an in-depth study, The Black-White Test Score Gap: Why it Persists and What Can Be Done as far back as 1996. Over 20 years passed and educators still have the same questions and responses to why African-American students continue to play catch-up. Actually, the subject has been around much longer. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s a continual conversation seen on Facebook posts from educators’ groups or on Twitter. The conversation is heard in schools, district offices, and teachers’ lounges. Views and opinions tend to focus on five reasons why African-American students lag behind their white counterparts.

The Culture of Poverty

The first reason is the culture of poverty.  Even the 1996 study from the Brookins Institute cites poverty and economic resources as a cause of African-American students’ lower performance academically. According to the Economic Policy Institute, poor black children are much more likely to attend a high poverty school than poor white children. Educators who work in high poverty area schools know first hand the effects of impoverishment on their students.

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Physical Readiness

Poverty affects students’ physical readiness. Children who live in poor urban or rural communities may not have proper access to nutritional foods or meals. Often the diets of these students are not healthy. Also often the students get their most nutritional meals from school breakfasts and lunches. Fresh foods may not be available because of living in food deserts. Access to fast food restaurants, junk food, and pre-packaged meals are more readily available. Let’s not forget that parents may not be able to afford to purchase groceries on a regular basis.
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Five Reasons Why Black Students Lag Behind

Poor black children are more likely to attend high poverty schools that poor white children. Image by Eye-For Ebony on

Moreover, the inability to eat proper meals leads to unhealthy bodies or poor health. The students are more susceptible to illnesses and diseases. Also, their living conditions can contribute to their poor health. For example, students may live in homes or apartments in dilapidated conditions or with serious building code violations. Some students live without heat during cold winter months, an infestation of pests, or allergens such as mold or dander.

The physical readiness of students is also affected by the areas in which they live. Many communities in poverty are not safe. So, many parents do not allow their children to play outside due to dangerous situations. Things such as gangs, drug abuse, or other acts of violence prohibit the children from playing at a nearby park or playground. Generally, most of the children’s physical activity is at school during recess or physical education classes.

Social-Emotional Readiness

Next poverty affects the social-emotional readiness of students. The psychological and cultural influences of living in poverty have serious effects on a child’s ability to learn. Physical and emotional trauma is prevalent in impoverished communities.  The residents including the students enter schools with stress, depressions, anger issues, and other destructive behaviors. Many educators are not equipped or knowledgeable on how to handle the social-emotional issues. Consequently, these issues affect teaching and learning in elementary and high schools.

Cognitive Readiness

Combining the issues of physical and social-emotional readiness leads to not being cognitively ready for learning. According to Child Trends, “Compared to other races/ethnicities, the proportion of children in poverty is highest among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic children (31 and 27 percent, respectively).”

The effects are three-fold. How can students be attentive and open to new learning when they’re hungry, sleep deprived, stressed, traumatized, or suffering from a chronic illness? It’s a big question and a bigger question is how do we fix poverty? How do we help students recover from these hardships?

Curriculum and Standardized Tests

A second reason why African-American students lag behind is that one size fits all curriculum and the dependence on standardized testing is not working. In the article, It’s Time to Try the Opposite of Standardized Testing by Brandon Bustfeed states, “schools overly focused on standardized tests (and on teaching to those tests) actually kill dreams and independence — they’re no fun, they’re deflating and they zap kids’ energy. We may now be facing the unintended consequences of our zest to test.”

School districts across the nation spend millions of dollars on textbooks and materials from well known educational publishers. Districts also purchase standardized test materials from some of the same publishers. Teachers are told to teach to the standards, but they’re also told to meet the students where they are academically. Yet, when the standardized tests results are revealed, teachers are scolded for not teaching to the standards.
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Textbooks are a base for instruction. How children respond to the same classroom experiences are different. Some childhood experiences are the same for most; however, cultural differences do exist. Socio-economic differences exist, too. A child’s background knowledge and experiences have implications on how he or she may answer questions on a standardized test. Also, if a student read a story that has no real value or relationship in their lives, then how do educators connect the dots? Furthermore, shouldn’t we also teach students to think, problem-solve, and persevere?

Building Relationships

Connecting the dots leads to the next reason of why African-American students lag behind. Many lack positive relationships and influences in their lives. Living in poverty or stressful home situations makes it difficult to build strong emotional bonds. Some have people or parents coming in and going out of their lives. Others may move from place to place due to homelessness thus moving from school to school. Students need consistency in their lives.

Sometimes the consistency is a teacher who seeks to understand and empathize with what students are experiencing in their personal lives. Blame is everywhere. The public blames teachers for not having high expectations of the students. Often lack of motivation is blamed for African-American students lagging behind academically. Or the parents are blamed for lack of motivation or not pushing their children to study harder. However, are educators seeking to understand the whole child, the family, and their life situations by building positive relationships?

Teacher Burn-out

The fourth possible reason of why African-American students lag behind is teacher burn-out. Teaching in a high-poverty community is difficult. Working in a high-poverty school is not the first choice of most teachers. For those who are teaching in these schools, the burden is heavy.
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Administrators and teachers deal with all of the issues addressed in this post. Consequently, teachers cannot give their best when secondary trauma begins to affect their physical and emotional health. Therefore, the heavy lifting eventually takes a toll and teachers leave the schools and students behind. Then, once again the students lose important relationships. 

Lack of Funding

The fifth reason why African-American students lag behind is lack of funding and resources. According to the Southern Education Foundation in 2015, 40 of the 50 states low-income students represent 40% of students. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 51% of students across the United States’ public schools were low income in 2013.

The statistics will probably continue to increase. Let’s think about how funding and resources. We know that teachers spend their own money and have their own underground funding system. Educators are determined to get books and materials that students need. Sometimes, the needs are socks, coats, uniforms, or groceries for the families.

Yet, the burden should not fall on educators to properly fund the education of our students. Textbooks, software programs, paper items, copier machines, furniture, and salaries can quickly eat up a budget. Every year administrators have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Sometimes that means not buying a new series of textbooks or replacing aging technology hardware.

Also, every year administrators must deal with budget cuts. Fewer funds mean hiring fewer teachers and larger class sizes. Struggling students need small class sizes, tutors, and social-emotional programs. Additional before or after-school classes can support struggling students.

School libraries, art classes, music classes, and additional social workers or counselors are on the wishlist too. Educators want and need resources but also they seek the opportunity to be creative and innovative in schools and classrooms. They want to meet students where they are without total dependence on mainstream textbooks. Lastly, teachers and administrators want less micromanagement and directives that don’t necessarily support their students’ needs or learning styles.

A Principal’s Point of View

The title of this post is Five Reasons Why African-American Students Lag Behind: A Principal’s Point of View. However, the five reasons are applicable to many students in poverty despite race or ethnicity. When writing this post, the thoughts, and opinions came from my experience as a teacher, principal, and as a colleague of many educators across the United States. I can recite all types of data, but I want to speak for the teachers and administrators who are in the trenches. 

My experiences in urban schools allowed me to observe an array of issues that affect teaching and learning in schools where the majority of students were African-American. Fortunately, during my public school career, I experienced working in schools with diverse student populations. Combining all of these journeys gave me some interesting insight into public education and its disparities.

Continue the Conversations

Finally, this topic spawns many other conversations about poverty, trauma, lack of funding, allowing teachers to be creative, and more. Let’s continue the conversations. More importantly, let’s come up with solutions.


Featured Image by Wadi Lissa on

The Black-White Test Score Gap: Why It Persists and What Can Be Done

Achievement Gap between African-American and White Students

History of Standardized Testing in the United States

Poor Black Children are More Likely to Attend High Poverty Schools Than White Children

Child Trends

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