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Education Research: The Other Black-White Gap

A plethora of recent education research and policy discussion focuses on the academic and social plight of black boys in American schools, but black men make up comparatively few of the academics on the other end of those studies.

In the 30 years from 1977 to 2007, the number of black men earning postbaccalaureate degrees more than doubled, according to Shaun R. Harper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. That sounds good, until he notes that during the same time, the degree-earning rate rose 242 percent for Latino men, 425 percent for Asian-American men, and 253 percent for black women. As of 2008, little more than a third of doctoral degrees awarded to black students went to men.

"What I think is particularly interesting is that the largest share of doctorates awarded to African-Americans in any field is education, by a long shot," said Mr. Harper, who also directs the university's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. "So one would think schools of education would be incredibly more diverse than they are. Unfortunately, education schools struggle with the same diversity issues that most other academic colleges on campus grapple with."

That's why Mr. Harper's center is recruiting, training, and then following young black men entering the education research field. The study, launched in 2009, selected 10 academy students each year out of nearly 5,000 rising junior-year undergraduates across majors who were also interested in education, to participate in its Grad Prep Academy. The program paired each academy student with a current Penn education doctoral student, who mentored him in applying to graduate school; reviewed application materials, essays, and proposals; and helped the academy student select a doctoral program. The academy students' progress is being studied, as are the application materials and essays of both the academy students and about 300 finalist applicants for the program.

The program has gone through two cohorts so far, and the initial findings based on the 304 final applicants in the first class suggest the vast majority of potential education researchers did not come from an education background in undergraduate study. While 36 studied education, 35 majored in business, and 99 majored in social and behavioral sciences. (You can read more about the students in Mr. Harper's 2012 paper.

"It is important to expose, not just black undergraduate men, but really more men to career options in education beyond classroom teaching a bit earlier. We got over 3,000 inquiries when we first launched the academy, and the overwhelming majority were saying, 'Can you tell me more about this? I never knew I could have a career in education without being a teacher,' " Mr. Harper said.

He noted that a majority of students believed "education is a great equalizer" and was worthy of research, but few black men interested in research fields have been exposed to high-profile role models, such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grant winner Roland G. Fryer Jr. of Harvard University. More than 41 percent of the center's applicants and 70 percent of its students attended schools where more than 77 percent of the faculty were white.

Mr. Harper found young black male undergraduates reported they cared deeply about education, but did not know how to enter doctoral programs or education research in particular.

"The particular challenge for education, unlike say, a field like chemistry, is that it is a field that prepares practitioners, a field where policymakers and school leaders actually use the research prepared by education schools to make decisions," Mr. Harper told me. "So I would argue that diversity is even more important in the field of education, especially given the inequities we see across education, P-20."

The study is ongoing; it will be interesting to see whether increasing the support structure for these students encourages more young black men to enter the education research field.

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