Dr. Ivory Toldson addresses the “Kirwan” Commission on what Black students need to succeed.

Dr. Ivory Toldson is a national expert on educating students of color and building channels for post-secondary success. President and CEO of The Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network and professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, Dr. Toldson is also the former head of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Thanks to the efforts of ACLU of Maryland’s Kim Humphrey, Esq., Dr. Toldson recently addressed the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (“Kirwan” Commission) about racial equity in school funding and what it takes for Black students to succeed. The Kirwan decision-makers should take action on Dr. Toldson’s recommendations. 

Examining Systemic Inequities in Schools

Back in 2008, many reports came out claiming to understand and analyze the problems with students’ participation in school, particularly Black males. The reports pointed to dire consequences if we continued to have these gaps in education. Dr. Toldson wanted to get to the bottom of what it took for Black students, males in particular, to achieve in school. Dr. Toldson has dedicated his career to creating, identifying, analyzing and disseminating the best possible policy recommendations to help Black students succeed in school. To do so, he lays out three important areas to understand:
  1. How to look for the best information
  2. Think about the standards we are using 
  3. How to properly use research and data
In his groundbreaking report Breaking Barriers, Dr. Toldson identified four primary factors that affect the ability for Black males to succeed in school: (1) personal and emotional, (2) family, (3) social and environmental, and (4) school factors including diet. Ultimately, if a student isn’t eating or sleeping well, feels unsafe in or outside of school, has overall negative perceptions of school, or experiences the compounding impact of several of those factors, they will have a harder time doing well in school. 
To help schools structure themselves in a way that would help Black students, Dr. Toldson admits to naively thinking policymakers would embrace his findings since they were research-based. Instead, he was met with skepticism. Many people believed that the problem was so far out of their reach that his strategies seemed unreasonable. He developed a national reputation of myth buster because he refused to let misinformation about Black males continue to dominate the conversation. No, there are not more Black men in prison than in college. No, 50% of Black males are not dropping out of school. To him, it wasn’t about a game of gotcha, but challenging school policy makers to see that headlines were shaping their positions on issues in a way that undermined viable solutions. 

What information helps us create viable solutions? 

First, what does research show when Black and Brown children are set apart from other groups that have more resources? Dr. Toldson discovered that most of the research out there was achievement gap data that compared Black males to other race groups. But when he looked at high-achieving Black males and compared them to other Black males who were middle and low-achieving, he started to see success factors. 
A focus of Dr. Toldson’s research has been looking at outliers – the highest achievers within the group. He claims that is where we find the most reasonable strategies for success, both for students and for schools. To develop strategies that help predominantly Black and Brown schools do well, we cannot look at schools that are predominantly White. Find the predominantly Black and Brown schools that are doing better than trends and talk to the principal, teachers, students, and parents and ask them how they are doing a good job despite the circumstances.
Second, what standards are being used? Schools are often using competing standards because those for university admissions are often different than for State. Schools are preparing students for tests, such as the SAT, that universities are looking at less and less.
Another problem hurting Black teachers is implied standards. Black teachers have the highest probability of getting a low rating when they teach at a predominantly Black school with a Black Principal. Why? Because the principal is using standards set forth by the State that has in mind predominantly White suburban schools. These standards don’t consider what it truly takes for teachers to succeed in areas of concentrated poverty. Those standards don’t consider that extra mile and extra time the teachers take to give students the support they need. Instead, the Black principal has to rate the teacher the same as a White teacher in the suburbs who is teaching students with access to greater resources. 
Third, put the best research to use properly. According to Dr. Toldson, schools in the United States are not using the best research. A lot of schools focus on graduation rates and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. But there are other sets of rich data such as the High School Longitudinal Study and parent participation. These studies provide more useful information about students, which correspond with the four primary factors Dr. Toldson identified in Breaking Barriers

The P.R.O.P.E.R. Way to Educate Black Students

Rather than asking why young Black males are failing, Dr. Toldson urges us to ask why schools are failing young Black males. That is why he created a six-point call to action for the nation: The P.R.O.P.E.R. way to educate Black students reframes and reiterates key information from Challenge the Status Quo, a report he co-authored with Dr. Chance Lewis in 2012:
P: Principals, counselors, and teachers should have mandatory trainings and resources to develop cultural competence, enhance empathy and respect, defense management, and classroom management. 
R: Reduce suspensions. 
O: Offer a culturally aligned and academically enriching curriculum.
P: Parents should have support from the school.
E: Eliminate biases, stereotypes, and misinformation from school staff.
R: Regularly monitor collective student progress. 

Get Engaged

Dr. Toldson made a big impression on Dr. Kirwan and the Kirwan Commission. Watch the video of his presentation to get the full details. The Q&A with Kirwan Commissioners delves more into the role of parents, concentrated poverty, and recruiting and retaining Black teachers. 
But will the Commission (comprised of a rather homogenous group, with little to no experience in developing school strategies for Black and Brown students) put his presentation into action? We hope to see Dr. Toldson’s analysis and findings in the Commission’s final recommendations this fall. 
It’s not too late to get engaged and impact the Commission’s work. The morning sessions of the full Commission are livestreamed, but the working groups are not, so your attendance matters. You can find materials and meeting schedules for the Kirwan Commission here.