The following is a transcript of the conversation with Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera is a professor at the Steinhardt School of Education at
New York University, as well as the Executive Director of the
Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, and the co-director of the
Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan
recently, he is the author of “The Trouble with Black Boys: And Other
Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education.”
Welcome to the show.
So, I guess the first question is, is public education, as we know it today, broken?
Well, it depends on where you live. If you live in an affluent suburb,
you probably have fine schools. If you are lucky to live in an urban
area where they spend a lot on public schools, you might also have fine
schools. What it tends to be throughout this country, is that wherever
poor children are concentrated, we have schools that don’t work very
I generally divide schools into three categories. We have very bad
schools for poor kids. Then there is another category of schools that
are fairly mediocre, and you can get all kinds of kids in there; poor,
middleclass. Then you have another number of schools that are fine and
really do meet world-class standards and do as well as schools in most
Now, obviously you focused for your book here on black boys, in
particular. I guess the first question here is why? And the second
question is, you mentioned the three categories of schools, are there
ones that are serving black boys well?
Sure. There are two reasons to focus on black boys. One is because the
data, with respect to academic outcomes for black boys, is the most
troubling. Black males are over-represented in every category
associated with failure. From drop-out rates,to low test scores, to
discipline referrals, to over-representation in Special Education. And
under-represented in every category associated with success. College
attendance, taking honors and AP courses, gifted classes, etcetera.
is even more troubling is the fact that the patterns we see in schools
mirror patterns we see in adult life; over-representation in prisons,
over-representation among the ranks of the unemployed, etcetera. So, if
you really are concerned about what is happening to adult black males,
and I think our country should be; this is not a black problem, it is
an American problem; then we really have to focus on schools. Schools
should be where we do the work of intervening.
The second thing
is that, I argue. And I’m not the only one. Lani Guanier at Harvard Law
School has made the same point. We really need to see the troubles
facing black boys as really kind of a canary in the mind. That is, an
indicator of other big problems in our schools. That is, whenever we
see a vulnerable group like black males, in this case, that are
experiencing this many hardships, it is a sign of other problems
[pause] and assigned it. Probably there are lots of other students out
there, whether it be disabled kids, immigrant kids, kids with single
parents, who are also at risk.
And so, what I am trying to do
here is to draw attention to the ways in which our schools don’t serve
very well large numbers of students, not just black males.
Are there schools that are serving them well that we can learn from and try to replicate those?
Absolutely. That’s the good news. There are schools across the country,
and in my book I try to identify some of those schools, that serve
black male students extremely well. I described one recently on the
radio, PS188 here in Manhattan on the Lower East Side, which does an
extremely good job at educating not just black male students, but all
of their students. And showing that being poor and coming from the
housing projects does not mean you cannot get a good education.
describe another school in the Bronx, PS323, which is also doing a
tremendous job at providing support to their Black and Latino male
students. And again, showing that under the right conditions, many of
the negative behaviors do not have to be inevitable. In fact, we can
reverse those and create very positive outcomes for these students.
Now, these schools that are working, is it a question of the teachers
or the administrators just putting more money into it? What is it that
is making them work?
Well, it is a combination. It is the fact that they are lucky enough to
go to school where there is good leadership. And by good leadership, I
mean leaders who know how to draw on the community for resources and
know how to inspire their staff. There are teachers who are dedicated.
And not only dedicated, but also highly competent and understand how to
motivate and to meet the academic needs of these students.
are counselors who reinforce the mission of schools. So, it is not just
on the teachers to do the work. There is a lot of parental involvement
and community support.
So, it is the combination of things that
makes these schools succeed, or makes it possible for them to succeed
when so many others have 4failed.
Now, you just touched on parents there. How important are parents and
the community versus the teachers and the administration? How do those
roles break out, ideally?
Parents are of vital importance because most kids cannot be successful
in school without parental support. And what we need to do is to be
able to work with parents, build partnerships in schools with parents,
so parents understand their role and understand what they can do to
support their children.
that said, the sad fact is that there are many kids out there whose
parents are either too overwhelmed by life circumstances or who simply
are not present. We have a large number of kids raised by single
parents. And in some cases, by no parent at all because they are being
raised by foster care or by grandparent.
In these cases, we need
to try to supplement what the family cannot do with more support at
home. We have a number of initiatives around the country that are
showing that this can be done effectively if there is the care given to
create a positive learning environment where adults develop strong
connections to students.
Now, in the communities where the schools are not working or in a city
like New York, in the individual schools that are not working, does
this have to be a grass-roots movement to get change or is it something
the government leaders can push down? How can we address this?
Well, I think you need grass-roots movement. And that certainly helps,
when there is pressure on the school to be accountable to serve the
needs of kids well. That tends to make a huge difference.
always like to point out to people that in schools in suburban
communities, if you ask the educators, “Who are you accountable to?”
The first thing they say is the parents. But if you ask the same
question to schools in poor communities, you say, “Who are you
accountable to?” You won’t hear “parents.” You will hear, “The
And that is a problem because the connection,
the partnership that is so essential, often is not there. The parents
are not seen as a resource and parents are not enlisted in ways where
they could really provide support to their children. That is something
I think that is often an issue in schools serving poor children.
does not mean that it cannot be overcome. Because again, many of the
schools I describe have strong parental involvement, even though they
are serving high-need kids in poor communities.
Now obviously, Government money is hard to come by these days.
Everybody wants to try to control spending. Is this something where you
can reallocate existing education spending? Or does there just need to
be more total education spending in order to address the issue?
You know, it is a question of priorities because the fact is, that if
we do not spend on the front end, we do not spend for things like
preschool, after-school, quality summer school. We spend much more on
the other end, in terms of more money in prison, more money to try to
address problems that could have been solved more easily later on.
the other thing that is important to keep in mind is we have a prison
system in this country that is soaking up resources faster than any
other institutions. There is no politician, in either party, who is
pointing out the fact that we are incarcerating large numbers of
nonviolent drug offenders who really should be in treatment rather than
soaking up tax dollars in prison for crimes that really don’t pose a
threat to our community.
So, we need massive prison reform as one way to begin to get at some of the resources that are needed for public education.
And as you said earlier, presumably, if you address some of the
education needs, that should have an impact on the prison population
down the road.
Now, let me throw out a couple things and get your reaction to them. “No Child Left Behind.”
I think “No Child Left Behind” has done something very important. It
has, for the first time, said that there must be evidence that all
children, regardless of their background, regardless of their perceived
ability, must be learning. And that is a tremendous step forward.
I have to give President Bush all of the credit because I think that
even though the law is flawed in many ways, which I will describe in a
moment, it at least is pushing schools to be accountable for the first
time for whether or not kids are learning.
It also requires that
school districts disaggregate the data on the basis of race, gender,
and on what they call sub-groups. And that too, is holding schools
accountable for the performance of students.
So, I think those
two aspects of the law are very important because I think there has to
be accountability in public schools. At the same time, it is a huge
mistake and problem if the only evidence we look for is performance on
a single standardized test. This is, I think, the major flaw with “No
Child Left Behind.” We are preparing kids for tests rather than for
much higher academic standards.
I think, while “No Child Left
Behind” has taken us a few steps forward, it doesn’t take us where we
need to be as a country in ensuring that all children receive a solid
I think one of the other things that you have talked about, and I
forget whether it was in the book or in one of your other interviews,
where you talked about how you want to motivate students to want to
learn rather than just to build that test based knowledge. How
important is that, that they actually care about what they are doing?
It is essential. Because we really have to find ways to get kids more
engaged, get them to see why education is so important, and to get them
to be more actively a part of their own education.
lot of the reason why this has not happened so readily is because many
kids are simply bored to death in school. They are doing far too much
test preparation. There is far too much lecture. There is not enough
hands-on applied learning.
So consequently, we have kids who are
not only bored in school, but also deeply alienated and don’t see
education as something that can be used to improve their lives. I think
this is something we really have to take on.
What about “Teach for America?” What do you think about that?
I think “Teach for America” is an admirable and important program. I
think it is a good thing to attract bright college students into the
teaching profession, and “Teach for America” has done that. I think
they have also improved the kind of training that they provide to these
let’s just be honest about this. The affluent suburban schools are not
looking for “Teach for America” graduates because they want the best
trained teachers. We should not settle for a program that provides a
few weeks of training in the summer for our neediest kids. We should
expect much more than that.
We need to treat teaching as a
genuine profession and ensure that teachers get the solid training they
need in order to meet the needs, particularly of high-needs students.
think part of the problem in this country, is we don’t really value
teaching as a profession and we don’t pay teachers the salaries they
deserve, and, therefore, can’t attract the top college students into
teaching. And this is a huge part of the problem we face in this
Speaking of teachers, are teacher unions part of the solution or part of the problem?
In some cases they are too focused on defending the status quo, on
defending their own members who are not very competent and effective.
As a result, there are obstacles to change.
the same time, I think that any serious change effort has to work with
the unions, has to engage them as partners, has to involve them in the
process. Because the fact is, that when schools don’t work well,
When there are teachers who are allowed to keep
their jobs who are not competition, other teachers suffer and question
why they’re dedicating so much of their lives to this work if that work
is not valued.
So I think it’s possible and, indeed, likely that
we could work with unions to make reforms that would not only improve
conditions for the students, but also improve conditions for teachers.
So I don’t bash unions. I think that unions have to be part of the
process of reform.
One of the things that you talked about, too, is the need for black
boys to have a dual personality: the way they behave and act in school,
and the way they behave socially amongst their peers. I was wondering
if you could talk about that for a moment.
Say that one more time?
Sure. You’ve talked about how black boys act one way amongst their
peers, but we need to try to train them to act a different way in
school: how they dress, how they speak, those sorts of things. I was
wondering if you could just talk for a moment about that.
Well, sure. Any child who is not white and middle class in America
needs to become bicultural. By that, I mean they need to be able to
function in a white, middle class world. They need to have the skills.
They need to know the codes of power. By that, I mean, when is Standard
English required? What kind of dress is appropriate in a work setting?
How do I conduct myself in a job interview?
are basic life skills that a school needs to transmit to students,
because if we focus only on test scores, but don’t prepare them for the
real world, what we find is that they are not able to get jobs, they’re
not able to get into college, and they’re not able to succeed in life
because they simply haven’t had the exposure to functioning in a
mainstream environment. So that’s got to be seen as part of the
education that they need as well.
Are things that much different for black girls versus black boys? I
know you focused on them, but is this really a race thing, or a gender
thing, or a mixture of the two?
I don’t want to, by any means, say that girls don’t have their own
issues and challenges. The teen pregnancy rate is a huge problem. We’re
seeing, even, a rise in the number of girls getting into trouble with
the law and going to prison. However, in every state in the country,
now, and this is particularly true in historically black colleges,
there are more women than men in college. And that’s true across races.
That’s true for whites. That’s true for blacks. That’s true for
Latinos. It’s especially true among African-Americans and Latinos.
I think it’s something that we need to be concerned about. I think it’s
a great thing that women are pursuing their education. We need to be
worried about the boys and what’s happening to them.
What are your thoughts on Bill Cosby’s rather prominent comments?
I think Bill Cosby is speaking to a problem that exists. He’s on target
that we’ve got to do something to instill a sense of responsibility in
parents and in children. At the same time, I don’t think you get
parents to be more responsible by condemning them, by berating them, or
by putting them down. And, unfortunately, I think that’s the way some
of his comments have come off. I think that people need to be
encouraged. They need to be inspired. They need to be given practical
tools for how to be more effective as parents.
other thing I think is that when we judge others, it often has the
effect of making people become more defensive. Unfortunately, I think
that both Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint- another scholar who I respect
-their work has made many defensive in the black community, because it
seems like a condemnation. When, in fact, what we should be doing is
finding ways to build people up and give them tools to become more
effective advocates for their children.
One of the things you talked about with – PS188,is that the Lower East
Side school that you mentioned?- was that they do some after-school
stuff. Where does the line for schools begin and end these days? Is it
just that the schools should focus on “book learning” and traditional
academics, or do they really need to get involved in more, not round
the clock, but certainly many more hours of the day dealing with
Well, that’s the thing. Kids who are behind, kids who don’t live in a
home where there’s a computer and college educated parents need more
time. They simply need more time, and if we can get them into quality
after-school programs where they’re exposed to things like chess and
music, and not just sports, but theatre, to enrich their education, it
makes a difference. And there’s good research supporting extended
learning times of this nature as a way to help achievement.
other thing that’s true is that when you look at most middle class kids
are spending their summers in some kind of enrichment activity, whether
it’s summer camp or music camp or something enriched. Poor kids are in
rec camp playing basketball or at home watching TV. That’s lost time
for learning. We need to find ways to recoup that lost time.
If you were either in charge of either the New York City public schools
or the Secretary of Education in Washington, what would be the top
couple of priorities that you would want to address in your term?
I think the top priority should be to get health services to poor
families. We have a large number of kids who are coming to school and
don’t have good health or good nutrition. That has an impact on
learning. Universal health care would make a huge difference. So would
universal preschool. The achievement gap doesn’t begin at kindergarten.
It begins at infancy. We are one of the few wealthy nations in the
world that does not provide universal access to quality early childhood
those are two things that would make a tremendous difference in
supporting public education. And they have nothing to do with schools.
They have everything to do with what our society does to support
children and families. In the United States one out of five children
are poor. We have very high child poverty rates, and it’s not
surprising that we end up with so many kids who are not doing well in
Well, thank you very much. My guest today has been Pedro Noguera of New
York University and the author of “The Trouble with Black Boys and
Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education.”