Research sheds light on low reading proficiency among Black boys

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Something as simple as a chair could make a difference how well a child focuses on reading comprehension. Living conditions could also be a contributing factor why research shows elementary students in Florida aren’t reading at grade level.

Those were among the factors that surfaced after a new research report by Helios Education Foundation and WestEd was released.

The report shows that elementary and middle school age boys in Florida are lagging behind their female peers in achieving fundamental English Language Arts proficiency.  Only 30 percent of Black boys demonstrated basic proficiency by sixth grade, the report said. 

Additionally, the report pointed to data that shows girls have a higher graduation rates than boys. 

Leon County Schools district is taking major steps to help fix the problems that affect elementary age students in reading. The district is engaged with the Florida Center for Reading Research at FSU and University of Florida Literacy Institute program to find a fix.

Working with both universities is helping with the reading concerns for elementary through middle school students, said Jean Pepe, K-12 Coordinator of English Language Arts and Reading for Leon County Schools.

As spelled out in the study, Pepe is aware that there is evidence showing African Americans boys are lagging girls.

“Is it specifically with African Americans or is it more tied with the economically disadvantage? In Leon County, many of those go together,” Pepe said. “Unfortunately in our county, when we are talking about economically disadvantage often times those are African American children.”

In addition to the work that is being done with FSU and UF, Pepe said, the Office of Early Childhood is working on building school readiness from birth to age 5. It is an initiative that they are “laser-focused” on, she said.

 “The quicker we can get students to understand the connection between letters and sounds and we put them together in words we use, then we put that in writing,” Pepe said. “The quicker they see that connection, the quicker they get into reading connected text, the quicker they start seeing success and meaning in that (and) it builds more opportunities for them.”

One of the drawbacks that educators are dealing with, especially with children from marginalized communities, is the correlation between hunger and being able to read. In general, those children don’t have the best food, shelter or a sense of safety.

“If we are not experiencing those things it’s challenging for our brain to focus on other task,” Pepe said. With that, she summarized that there is a connection between hunger and not being able to read.

“We need to attend to basic needs before students can focus on a complicated task such as reading,” she said.

The Helios-WestEd report is the findings of a task force that was commissioned after the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 7033 in 2021. According to a Helios pressed release, the legislation directed the Florida Department of Education to form the 13 member task force that was made up of parents, district and school leaders, teachers, a school psychologist, nonprofits, and members of the Florida House and Senate.

Helios Education Foundation said its primary goal is to support postsecondary attainment for low-income and underrepresented communities in Arizona and Florida.

WestEd is a nonprofit research, development agency that partners with education and other communities throughout the United States and overseas.

After meeting for one year, the task force came to a conclusion on the difference in reading proficiency and presented a list of recommendations. That included looking deeper into the gender disparities and the best practices that could be put in place to help address the problem, said Janice Palmer, Helios’ Senior Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Some other recommendations include providing academic support and classroom environments that acknowledge and accommodate the unique learning and developmental assets, differences, and needs of boys.  

It also recommends developing policies that prioritize closing the gender-based achievement gap, as well are providing professional development opportunities for educators. 

Engaging family could also be one way to spark a child’s interest in reading, said Palmer.

“All the wrap-around to make those students feel valued,” she said. “When you feel like that, you are able to lean, you think education is fun and you know that people are rooting for you.”

The problem is so gripping that the Legislature this past session approved $12.5 million earmarked for mentoring programs for boys, said Palmer.

During the 2021-2022 school year, the study found that the reading differences was as high as 10 percentage points. Research shows the gaps are wider when race is considered. For example, it points to just 30 percent of Black boys in sixth grade scored proficient in the most recent ELA assessment. 

By comparison, proficiency for Black girls was at 43 percent, and 67 percent of White girls. The gaps show a similar trend across other racial and ethnic groups as well.

That, according to the report is proof of “a pressing need for targeted interventions.”

“It’s really time for us to step in and look at this gender work because we know that in Florida Black students are struggling a lot when it comes to reading efficiency,” said Paul Perrault, Ph.D., who is Helios’ Senior Vice President for Community Impact and Learning. “We want all students to have an opportunity and that is how the research developed.”

Perrault said one of the reasons for pushing to improve boys’ reading is because by third grade kids typically switch from learning to read to reading to learn. 

“Between the third and sixth grade, if you fall off it’s going to be really hard to catch up,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bauder Elementary School in Pinellas County is the only one known to be using the Helios-WestEd data in its approach to improving reading proficiency.

Principal Jodi Lichman said that one strategy they’ve used included letting a child sit in a wiggle chair in his class because it helped him to focus. They’ve also used a three-prong approach that includes a reading competition between boys that is producing positive results, she said.

While her school is has an open-concept and is classified as A-level, Lichman said she’s found the data in the report to be useful.

“In education, a group of people get ideas but it’s hard to act on it and put time in something if you don’t have the research that says it works,” she said.

Lichman said boys should be purposely targeted to help them read because of the doors it could open.

“I look beyond elementary,” she said. “If my boys are involved at elementary they are going to want to do better in middle school and be on the path for whatever they going to go into in the workforce from graduation or are they going to pursue some career that is going to require college or a career where they have to go to some kind of technical training.

“That involves reading. So regardless where they’re going to go in life and enjoying reading they are going to disengage from school and not being active members of the community.”


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