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The Power of Now
Race and gender disparities in opportunity and academic achievement lead to high dropout rates, limited job opportunities, and increased risk of poverty
(Washington, D.C.) Due to pervasive, systemic barriers in education rooted in racial and gender bias and stereotypes, African American girls are faring worse than the national average for girls on almost every measure of academic achievement, according to a comprehensive report (executive summary) released today by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). In sharp contrast to reports of the academic success of girls overall, African American girls are more likely than any other group of girls to get poor grades and be held back a grade.
The report, Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity, outlines what are sometimes insurmountable barriers to staying in school and how poor educational outcomes result in limited job opportunities, lower lifetime earnings, and increased risk of economic insecurity for African American women. In 2013, 43 percent of African American women without a high school diploma were living in poverty, compared to nine percent of African American women with at least a bachelor’s degree.
The report examines roadblocks faced by both African American girls and boys—such as under-resourced schools—and emphasizes those that have a distinct impact on African American girls due to the intersection of gender and race stereotypes. These barriers include lack of access to college-and career-preparatory curricula in schools; limited access to athletics and other extracurricular activities; disproportionate and overly punitive disciplinary practices that exclude them from school for minor and subjective infractions, such as dress code violations and wearing natural hairstyles; discrimination against pregnant and parenting students; and pervasive sexual harassment and violence.
“Our educational policies and practices must open the doors of opportunity for all – regardless of race or gender. Only then will we fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling that invalidated legal segregation in America 60 years ago,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. “The report’s findings,” Ifill added, “complement the important, ongoing work to improve educational outcomes for boys and men of color and provide additional information about the challenges facing African American children in education.”
“The futures of African American girls are on the line,” said NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger. “It’s shameful that too many girls are falling between the cracks of an educational system that ignores their real needs. A strong education is essential for people in our country to compete in our economy and earn wages that can support themselves and their families. It’s critical to turn this crisis around and put these girls on a path to success.”
In the 2011-12 school year, 12 percent of all African American female pre-K-12 students were suspended from school, six times the rate of white girls and more than any other group of girls and several groups of boys – despite research showing that African American children do not misbehave more frequently than their peers. The experience of Tiambrya Jenkins – a 16-year-old high school student in Rome, Georgia – illustrates the impact that overly punitive disciplinary practices can have on African American girls. Two years ago, when Jenkins was a straight-A student in ninth grade with a dream of becoming a nurse, she got into a fight after school with a white female classmate. Both girls were transferred to an alternative school as punishment. The white classmate returned to regular school after 90 days, but Jenkins was held at the alternative school for the entire school year.
“It was like being in prison,” said Jenkins. “The classrooms had no windows. There was an adult in the room, but there was almost no teaching. We’d just sit around and talk until the bell rang. A year later, I was finally sent back to my regular school. But, by then, my classmates were way ahead of me. Now, I’m flunking math, my favorite class. I’m slipping further behind day by day and doubt I’ll ever catch up.”
Compelling research and statistics detailed in the report underscore the need for a far-reaching plan of action:
- In 2010, one-third (34 percent) of African American girls did not graduate from high school on time (within four years), compared to only 18 percent of white female students and 22 percent of all female students.
- The average female African American college graduate with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $657,000 more over her lifetime than the average female African American high school graduate.
- Nearly half (45 percent) of African American girls and young women will become pregnant at least once by age 20, which is more than one and a half times the national average. Although data doesn't show what percentage of these girls and young women will become parents, pregnant and parenting students are too often pushed out of school in violation of Title IX, and many struggle to stay in school due to the barriers they face to access child care, transportation, housing, health care, and financial assistance.
The report outlines recommendations for policymakers, schools, community members, and philanthropic organizations to improve educational and career outcomes, including the following:
- Invest in early childhood education; reduce disparities in school resources; maintain transparency and accountability for the performance of all students;
- Reduce reliance on overly punitive and exclusionary discipline practices in schools, such as suspensions and expulsions for minor offenses, and promote the use of alternative discipline practices, such as Restorative Justice, that encourage positive behavior and address trauma. Increase transparency in and accuracy of schools’ annually reported discipline data.
- Increase access to and promote African American girls’ participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses;
- Support pregnant students and those who are parents;
- Reduce gender- and race-based bullying, harassment and violence, and train school staff to recognize and address signs of trauma in students;
- Increase access to athletics and other after-school activities and programs;
- Target philanthropic funding to provide social services and support systems that address the needs of African American girls, especially the most vulnerable – those who are low-income, in the child welfare system, victims of child sex trafficking, struggling to complete school, or in the juvenile justice system.
The National Women's Law Center is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1972 to advance and protect women's equality and opportunity. The Center focuses on major policy areas of importance to women and their families including economic security, education, employment and health, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women. For more information on the Center, visit: www.nwlc.org.