The Westinghouse experiment

African-American educators think all-male schools might improve prospects for black males

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Recently announced plans by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to establish single-gender academies for students at Westinghouse High School have generated spirited public commentary.

Some observers have highlighted the disproportionate impact on African-American students. Others have questioned the premise that single-gender academies can enhance educational outcomes.

We wish to contribute to the debate by presenting the results of a survey we conducted earlier this year to ascertain the views of African-American educators regarding the potential of all-male academies to improve educational outcomes for African-American males.

In September 1991, former President George H.W. Bush was roundly criticized for praising Detroit's efforts to create all-male, African-centered elementary schools for at-risk black males. Earlier that year, Detroit's Malcolm X Academy became one of the nation's first single-gender public schools in the United States to address the alarming dropout rate of African-American males.

Nearly two decades later, Urban Prep Academy for Young Men in Chicago, the nation's first all-male, all-African-American high school, received national media attention for achieving a 100 percent college enrollment rate. Located in the Englewood section of southwest Chicago, where gangs, high crime and poverty prevail, the school placed 107 seniors in 72 colleges across the country. This record should certainly increase interest in the possibility of replicating such results in Pittsburgh.

The No Child Left Behind law enacted in 2001 included special provisions to address "achievement gaps" among students of different races and national backgrounds and opened the door for the greater use of single-sex academies to help close them. The movement was further strengthened by changes to Title IX, which provided more support for single-sex schools.

In 2006, the Department of Education ruled that public schools could group students by gender, as long as the education for students of both sexes was "substantially equal." Subsequently, the number of gender-based schools has increased substantially, with approximately 220 public single-sex schools in existence across the United States in 2009. This figure includes a handful of African-American male academies.

To date, very little is known about the impact of African-American male academies on raising educational achievement. However, The Schott Foundation's recent 50-state report, which found that only 47 percent of African-American males graduated from high school in 2007-2008, should certainly arouse more interest in exploring the merits of single-sex schooling as a way to increase graduation rates for African-American males.

We recently developed a survey to solicit the opinions of experienced African-American educators regarding all-male academies, based on research suggesting that single-sex schools can have positive effects. Among some African-Americans, such reform proposals are seen not only as having significant potential for improving educational outcomes, they also strike a historical chord that suggests the possibility of greater educational self-determination or control. Our 33 respondents indicated their degree of agreement with 10 statements articulating potential benefits associated with all-male academies.

The ten dimensions covered were (1) changes in attitudes and behavior; (2) neutralizing effects of community distress; (3) access to role models; (4) access to committed instructors; (5) performance on tests and grades; (6) access to culturally relevant curricula; (7) student involvement in shaping the instructional environment; (8) reduction in negative behaviors and altered conceptions of masculinity; (9) enhanced sense of identity and positive peer influences; and (10) improved capabilities for positive relationships with females.

There was significant agreement that all-male academies might produce all 10 benefits. The lowest average score was 3.73 out of 5 for the expectation that the academies could change attitudes and behaviors. The highest levels of agreement were obtained for areas 2, 8 and 9. Female educators expressed stronger agreement with 2, 4, 5 and 6 than their male counterparts.

Although existing research does not provide strong evidence that all-male academies enhance academic outcomes, our survey indicates that, at least among our sample of African-American educators, all-male academies are seen as having the potential to ameliorate persistent academic disparities while generating additional benefits for students, parents and communities. Let us hope these benefits are realized from the reorganization of the public schools in the East End.


Dr. Anthony Mitchell is project director of the African-American Male Mentoring Program for Penn State Greater Allegheny ( abm2@psu.edu ). Dr. James Stewart is a professor emeritus of labor studies and employment relations at Penn State University.


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