Nell Duke and collaborators call for increased literacy education for young Black boys

March 06, 2020

Professor Nell Duke published a commentary piece in the Chicago Tribune with colleagues Ernest Morrell (Coyle Professor of Literacy Education and director of the Center for Literacy Education at the University of Notre Dame) and Mimi Rodman (executive director of Stand for Children Illinois).

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In their article “Chicago Forward—Low expectations can be deadly for African American youth,” they wrote that police shootings of Black boys and men have gained more media attention than the widespread issue of low levels of academic literacy among Black boys. 

Nationwide, fifty-four percent of Black fourth graders are not reading at the “basic” level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This figure is over twice as high as it is for White students, making them more likely to drop out of school and more likely to suffer from unemployment, incarceration, chronic health problems, and even premature death. 

“Our education system’s persistent failure to prepare Black boys to fulfill their tremendous potential stems from the same pervasive racism that underlies the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed Black men,” said Duke, adding that an education system that perpetuates myths of racial hierarchy and Black male dangerousness often lead to an undereducation of Black boys.

It is imperative that we act on this knowledge, said the three colleagues, because schools with more Black youth are also more likely to have fewer books, a low percentage of Black teachers, and poor instruction in phonics, writing, science, social studies, and critical thinking. Black children in these schools also frequently face lower teacher expectations, and boys tend to deal with disproportionate disciplinary action.

The most urgent improvements need to take place in the areas of equitable school funding allocations, hiring more Black educators (particularly Black male educators), offering curricular tools that are high-quality and diverse, expanding effective literacy instructional practices, making opportunities for higher-order thinking, offering better professional development for educators, establishing anti-racist education, and engaging families as partners in this work. 

The commentary writers praised programs like the Early Literacy Impact Project from the University of Illinois at Chicago that is helping advance the literacy and intellectual development of Black boys in primary school. Chicago Public Schools are also leaders in new equity practices that are seeing academic gains. These gains, said the authors, depend on the success of every child, including Black male students.

“We know what to do to help our nation’s Black boys fulfill their potential for high levels of academic literacy and better educational and life outcomes. No less than in policing, acting on this knowledge is a moral imperative,” they said.


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