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Education Professor Links Discipline with Achievement in Urban Schools


Carlos McCray, Ph.D., says that the adultification of students results in penalties that are overly harsh.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Carlos McCray, Ed.D., speaks plainly when addressing the topic of African-American males in urban schools:

“In many of these schools, the graduation rate for black males is only 50 percent. That means the other half is dropping out,” said McCray, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education.

“I don’t know how the principle of utility can apply in this circumstance,” he said, shaking his head.

McCray referred to the principle of utility because it may be leading to what he calls “collision and collusion” in urban schools. Collision refers to the divergent cultures that students and teachers bring to the classroom. Collusion expresses the idea that students trust each other to the total exclusion of teachers, and vice versa.

He expounded on those topics in his latest book, Cultural Collision and Collusion: Reflections on Hip-Hop Culture, Values and Schools (Peter Lang Publishing, 2011), which he co-wrote with Floyd D. Beachum, Ph.D., of Lehigh University.

“There is much discussion [in published research]about the academic achievement gap, but not so much about the discipline gap,” he said. “We wanted to get educators and school leaders thinking about the problems that are plaguing inner-city schools with regard to the attrition of young African-American males.”

The notion of collision deals with the concept that there are students coming from communities where they are influenced by hip-hop culture, rap videos and other visual media, as well as the violence and dysfunction they see within their communities, which contrasts greatly with the culture that teachers bring to schools, McCray said.

“Many teachers are coming from middle class backgrounds, and sometimes they have a disconnect with the culture that the students are bringing and the culture of the school itself,” he said.

Collision occurs when teachers don’t relate to the students, who don’t necessarily relate to teachers because they don’t always have the necessary social and cultural capital, McCray said.

“There are other forms of capital out there that researchers have identified, but what educators generally look for in students is the more traditional social and cultural capital. If the student is not bringing this form of capital to the school, it can be to the disadvantage of the student,” he said.

So where is the collusion?

When students come to school they are bringing the “code of the streets,” about which sociologist Elijiah Anderson has written, McCray said.

“In many instances, this can be undergirded by a code of shady dealings,” he continued. “In the book, we quote a lyric by hip-hop artist Rob Bass: ‘It takes two to make a thing go right.’ Collusion demands that it takes two to make a thing go wrong. So you have teachers who are looking at students from a deficit theory, thinking there must be something wrong with them, and the students are picking up on that.”

In fact, research shows that students know when teachers do not care about them.

“So you have both parties colluding. Students are implicitly sabotaging their own education and educators are implicitly helping with that process because they are looking at them as nothing more than problem students,” McCray said.

If educators are subscribing to the utilitarian principle, he added, thinking, “If I can get a few of these problem students out of the classroom, then I’ll be able to teach everyone else,” it’s effectively ushering a number of students out of school.

That line of thinking is flawed, McCray said, again pointing to the numbers. The New York Timeslooked at Baltimore public schools and found that in 2004 alone, there were 26,000 school suspensions and expulsions.

“That’s very problematic,” he said. “Research shows the more students are suspended or expelled, the more they’ll end up dropping out. Thirty percent of sophomores who drop out have been suspended three times more than their peers who remain in class. While we talk about the achievement gap, we also have to talk about the discipline gap. How can students learn when they are not in class?”

Unfortunately, educators disregard other forms of discipline at their disposal and instead rely heavily on suspensions and expulsions.

“In many instances, disregarding these students means they will end up dropping out. Once you drop out of school, you are left underemployed or unemployed and with the possibility of getting into the prison pipeline increases dramatically. That’s why it’s important that we keep these students in class,” he said.

Finding a way to keep these students in their seats is a way to address broader social issues as well as the academic achievement gap that is talked about so often, said McCray, who offers suggestions in his book.

Deficit Theory
“If we train educators not to look at the students as if something is wrong with them, they may realize instead that some classroom issues can be fixed if they concentrate on raising students’ reading and math scores,” he said.

Correspondence Theory and Banking Model
“School leaders and educators have to address the notion of pedagogy as it pertains to how we deliver instruction,” he said. “Right now, we are using an antiquated model with teachers delivering information as if all students are just there to soak it in without any input into the learning process. We suggest they partake in professional development and enhance their skill set with regard to how to deliver good instruction to students in a variety of ways.”

“Students in school are adultified. This means the consequences of their actions are going to be more severe,” McCray said. “They are not looked at as ‘Boys will be boys.’ Instead, it’s ‘Because you said something under your breath, I’m taking that as hostility, and the most severe penalty will be applied.’ This process is leading to the increased rate of students being expelled or suspended from school. They are not seen as youths. Therefore, the consequences they face are more severe.”

When it comes to African-American males in urban schools, McCray is aware of the success stories that have been marked by the media.

“We need to learn from them, but realize there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” he said.


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