Too Important to Fail: The Dropout Crisis of African American Males

Tavis Smiley is a busy man. Besides a “poverty tour” with Dr. Cornel West, he is producing video episodes for his PBS show, including this recent one on the challenges of the high school drop out crisis among African American males, Too Important to Fail (50-minute video and companion e-book). 

In “Too Important to Fail,” Tavis travels across the country, speaking to education experts, as well as to the boys themselves about the challenges they face and how education can be redirected to address their needs. He profiles individuals who are making a difference in the lives of young Black males and looks at the schools that are best serving them.

Tavis talks with Dr. Alfred Tatum who heads up a literacy program in Chicago and is one of many educators grappling with how to reverse the alarming dropout rate. He also sits down with noted author and educational consultant Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, who identifies the core problem as one of the special literacy needs of boys, both black and white. However, the country’s response would be more immediate had white boys been experiencing a drop out crisis.

“…if 53% was the dropout for white males, it would be unacceptable; if 41% of their children were being placed in special education, that would be a major crisis,” says Dr. Kunjufu. “If only 20% of their boys were proficient in reading in eighth grade, that would be a crisis. If only 2.5% of white males ever earned a college degree, that would be a major crisis in America.”

One of our coaches, Mark Salinas, supported a school leader in using this video at a recent day-long professional development session at Leadership High School on Castlemont Campus in Oakland.  It was well received.  The conversation was powerful for this group given that in the past they have tended to stick to the technical aspects of teaching in professional development sessions.  This video gave teachers an opportunity to have a different conversation about the wider conditions that contribute to Black young men dropping out/being pushed out of school. 

Viewing and discussing the video preceded the next item on the agenda, “unpacking” the school-wide writing focus. New insights from this conversation pushed the discourse about the technical elements of writing to the notion of “writing to live!” That is, how are we giving students opportunities to do academic writing where they can express their voice, passions, allow for self-discovery, and critically analyze things that matter to them?

Video-Based Discussion Agenda – “Too Important to Fail” (Tavis Smiley)

Guiding Questions

  • What are the issues that this video is trying to raise?
  • What are some considerations that were surfaced to address these issues?
  • Do these considerations seem viable from your perspective? What thoughts and/or feelings does this video raise for you?

Chalk Talk – Responses to Guiding Questions
(members of the group write responses to the questions on the board without discussion)


This entry was posted in achievement gap, Changing the Discourse, racial equity, Relationships, school reform, Structural Racism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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