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Penn Child Research Center

The Educational Well-Being of African American Boys

A Philadelphia Story of Challenges & Possibilities

Summary of the Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture given by Dr. John Fantuzzo
University of Pennsylvania, April 30, 2009

Philadelphia, with nearly 25% of families living in poverty, has the highest poverty rate of the top 10 largest cities in America. Among school children the statistics are even more staggering. In a study of the city's third graders, GSE's John Fantuzzo found that 70% live in poverty and 9% experience homelessness. Sixty-six percent of this cohort are African American, with one out of three an African American boy, a group that is especially at risk for academic struggles, behavior problems, and truancy.

Presenting these sobering figures at the ninth annual Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture, Fantuzzo was anything but grim. The purpose of his talk - indeed the focus of his research throughout a long and distinguished career - was to consider "what's behind being behind?" Only by identifying and understanding the particular challenges African American boys face, he asserted, will it be possible to improve their odds for success. Before revealing his data, Fantuzzo urged his audience of educators, city officials, academics, philanthropic leaders, and clergy to shift from a perspective "focusing solely on deficiencies" to one that "operates out of hope and love in community." It was in that perspective of hope that Fantuzzo and colleagues first instigated an unprecedented collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the School District of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the William Penn Foundation. Together, academia and city agencies pooled strengths and shared data to create the Kids Integrated Data System (KIDS), one of the nation's first integrated system models to identify risks and improve public services for school-age children. In 2005-06, assessments mandated by No Child Left Behind legislation gave researchers an opportunity to use KIDS to study the city's 12,000 third graders taking the academic achievement tests.

At the Greenfield Lecture, Fantuzzo delivered the study's in-depth findings which, for the first time, link publically monitored risk factors - like homelessness or lead exposure - to specific educational and behavioral outcomes. (See Fast Facts, below) Controlling for poverty, Fantuzzo and his team identified eight risks that contribute to poor academic performance and behavioral problems in school: lead toxicity, preterm birth, low birth weight, inadequate prenatal care, being the child of a teen mother or mother without a high school education, substantiated child maltreatment, and family homelessness.

The ability to scrutinize risks and outcomes led researchers to some surprising discoveries. For example, they found that health risks such as preterm birth or lead exposure contribute solely to poor academic performance but not behavioral adjustment.  "Family/Social risks," on the other hand, such as having a teenage mother, being homeless, or having been maltreated - were the only risks related to behavior problems including poor classroom conduct, truancy, and school suspensions. Children whose mothers did not receive a high school diploma, who were homeless, or who suffered maltreatment faced the worst odds: each of these three risks led to low academic achievement scores as well as poor behavioral adjustment. While nearly all Philadelphia third graders faced some of these risks, African American boys bore the brunt: 38% had experienced inadequate prenatal care, 39% had been exposed to toxic levels of lead, and 13% were homeless, compared to only two percent of other third-grade boys in Philadelphia. 

Bleak though these figures may be, their very specificity gives Fantuzzo grounds for hope. Providing a thorough and comprehensive picture, these data show public health officials and other city agencies ways they can be more directly involved in improving the educational well-being of the city's African American boys.

Integrated, municipal data systems like KIDS can play a valuable role as well. Through KIDS, researchers, educators, and policy makers can analyze data geographically, map risks across the city, and pinpoint schools where certain risk factors are most prevalent.  Educators and city agencies can then tailor programs, coordinate services, and plan swift, effective interventions. "How can we use this information?" asked Fantuzzo, "How can we create unique collaborations among shelters and those working with homelessness and elementary school principals?"

Some effective interventions are already in place, as Fantuzzo was pleased to report. After focusing on making visible the daunting risks, Fantuzzo turned his attention to protective factors that have already helped African American boys. Using another diagnostic tool, the Early Care and Education Interview (ECEI), developed in collaboration with Dr. Stephanie Childs at the School District of Philadelphia, Fantuzzo investigated whether a formal early childhood experience, such as Head Start, improved third graders' academic performance and behavior.

While he found that early childhood education had a significant impact in improving reading scores and reducing truancy, the effect on math scores, while positive, was slight.  Even more distressingly, an early childhood formal care experience offered no benefit in improving classroom conduct or reducing suspensions.

Fantuzzo's study did reveal that early childhood education provides a "buffer effect," especially for children affected by multiple risk factors. For all African-American boys, academic performance and behavior declined in proportion to the number of risk factors. The slope declined at the same rate for children who had attended some form of pre-school, yet their scores were slightly higher.

Fantuzzo, though, was fascinated by another statistic. A small proportion - 25% -- of boys with three or more risk factors were able to read and do math at grade level. "Those kids and their families are resilient," said Fantuzzo. "They're beating the odds. We need to know more about them." It turned out that 80% of that small group had attended Head Start or some early childhood program. Early formal care had, in effect, inoculated these children to withstand the enormous risks and succeed in spite of having three or more strikes against them.

Fantuzzo recognizes that not all early childhood programs are created equal. As the detailed portrait of third graders revealed, African American boys are held back by behavior problems as well as academic issues. To conclude the Greenfield lecture, Fantuzzo unveiled a new model early childhood curriculum that responds to the identified risks while enhancing the protective factors associated with early childhood education. EPIC (the Evidence-Based Program for Integrated Curricula) is an integrated curriculum that teaches learning behaviors alongside math and literacy. Lamenting that all too often academics are taught while behavior is "managed," Fantuzzo said: "We don't want to be educators and then zookeepers, we want to be educators and educators. ... so we need to have a robust integrated curriculum. Guess what? Math is useful [but] being able to control yourself and affect what you want to do and be able to work with other people and regulate yourself is probably the most important thing."

The EPIC curriculum is unique in using assessment as a tool that keeps teachers informed of students' progress, engaging parents in their children's education through home-based activities, and involving teachers in their own learning community where they can share ideas and problems and contribute to building the curriculum. Research shows that African American boys have benefited tremendously from EPIC. Entering an EPIC Head Start program in the fall with lower skills than their peers, African American boys performed equal to or better than their peers in both behavioral and academic assessments in the spring.

While numbers tell part of the story, Fantuzzo engaged the audience with a video clip of an EPIC classroom in action. The teachers' energy and the children's delight were palpable as they counted to twenty, played Simon Says, counted again while touching their toes, and identified numbers, sequenced numbers, and compared quantities in a picture book, all in less than five minutes.

Fantuzzo closed his lecture with a rousing call to action. All the research means little if it doesn't lead to real improvements. He appealed to those gathered as "village elders," not just concerned with but also responsible for the well-being of African American boys, and indeed all the city's children. "We are at a key moment of community responsibility," he said, as he invited his listeners to draw on his findings to find new ways to break the cycle that has long kept African American boys from achieving.

Responding to Fantuzzo's findings in a formal discussion after the lecture, Dr. Arlene C. Ackerman, CEO and Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, acknowledged the negative effects of the risk factors identified in the study and the value of early childhood education. She also spoke passionately about the harmful effects of institutionalized racism and the importance of exposing this prevalent risk factor in public education.  She called for forums that provide African American men opportunities to speak out about their experiences of institutionalized racism in public school districts like the School District of Philadelphia. She also stressed the need to ensure that early gains are sustained. "The gains Fantuzzo demonstrated," said Ackerman, "can't stop at early childhood. We have got to carry these gains into their high school experiences. ... this is an urgent task ... . Forty-nine percent of African-American boys will not graduate from our school system, unless we do something really, drastically different." Ackerman emphasized that the adults in these children's lives must be held accountable, an accountability achieved, in part, through training educators to change deeply-engrained habits and view African-American boys' "differences" in terms of "strengths." Families too, she said, must be "engaged in learning with their children... . Our families have to understand that learning is a lifelong process."

Respondent Dr. Donald F. Schwarz, Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity and Health Commissioner, City of Philadelphia, was also struck by what Fantuzzo's findings implied for the parents of African American boys. He suggested that public health, adult education, and job programs were key not only to breaking the cycle of poverty but to ensuring that all citizens claim their right as active participants in our democracy. "For our democracy to continue, we need an educated populous," he said. "So that - that means that everyone in this democracy has to be educated in order to participate."

Many in the audience echoed Ackerman's concerns and raised questions about how to undo generations of institutional racism, attitudes and social structures that subtly but insidiously undermine African American boys and their opportunities to achieve. "We have to be conscious of differences and responsive to those differences," Fantuzzo agreed. "We have to be responsive to the individual developmental differences of children ... but we also have to be responsible for the rich cultural and family differences and make sure that we don't get in the way of the differences, but that we celebrate [them]."

Early in the lecture, in the midst of a series of slides showing bar graphs and pie charts, Fantuzzo gave the problems he was discussing a very human face. Three bright-eyed brothers, arms flung around each other, grinned at the camera. "These are beautiful living souls, vibrant spirits, eager to learn and to embrace life." Fantuzzo's own eyes sparked with passion. "We have to give them the skills that they need to be successful. More than that, we have to get them to be excited about the dance of learning that we want them to participate in all the days of their lives. So this is basically our purpose: Success."

This research was funded by the William Penn Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educational Sciences, and the Interagency School Readiness Consortium (The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), and the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) of the U.S. Department of Education).

Fast Facts from the 2009 Albert M. Greenfield Memorial Lecture

Philadelphia's 3rd-graders evidenced substantial challenges to academic and behavioral adjustment.

  • 58% of the cohort did not meet state reading proficiency standards and 41% did not meet similar standards for math.
  • 34% of the cohort had 8 or more unexcused absences, meeting the threshold for truancy; 7% met criterion for severe truancy (25 or more unexcused absences).
  • Over one in 10 children had been suspended during the third grade academic year.


African American boys in the 3rd-grade cohort demonstrated higher rates of poor academic and behavioral outcomes.

  • 62% of African American boys did not meet proficiency in reading as compared to 40% of Caucasian boys.
  • African American boys were more than twice as likely to not meet proficiency in math as compared to Caucasian boys (45% versus 22%).
  • Over twice as many African American boys than Caucasian boys were truant more than 25 days (39% versus 19%).
  • Three times as many African American boys were suspended compared to Caucasian boys (12% versus 3%).


Compared to national percentages, Philadelphia 3rd graders-African American boys in particular-had substantially more early risks factors.

  • Teen mother: 4% nationally compared to 27% of African American boys and 22% of the other boys in the Philadelphia third-grade cohort.
  • Inadequate prenatal care: 4% nationally compared to 38% of African American boys and 28% of the other boys in the Philadelphia third-grade cohort.
  • Homelessness: 3% nationally compared to 12% of African American boys and 2% of the other boys in the Philadelphia third-grade cohort.
  • Maltreatment: 1% nationally compared to 12% of African American boys and 9% of the other boys in the Philadelphia third-grade cohort.
  • High lead exposure: 3% nationally compared to 28% of African American boys and 10% of the other boys in the Philadelphia third-grade cohort.


Family- and health-related risk factors had differing effects on academic and behavioral outcomes.

  • Child maltreatment, homelessness, and having a mother who did not graduate from high school were related to both academic and behavioral outcomes.
  • Health-related risks including preterm or low birth weight, inadequate prenatal care, and high lead exposure, were related to academic outcomes (reading and math) but not behavioral outcomes (truancy, suspensions, and classroom conduct).
  • All family risks including child maltreatment, homelessness, having a teen mother, and having a mother who did not graduate from high school were related to behavioral outcomes.

African American boys in Philadelphia who participated as preschoolers in Evidence-Based Program for Integrated Curricula (EPIC) demonstrated substantial gains in academic and learning behavior outcomes.

  • Children who participated in EPIC evidenced significantly greater growth in math and literacy/language outcomes compared to children in the standard school district preschool program, and African American boys responded equally as well as their peers to the curriculum. 
  • At the beginning of the school year, African American boys in EPIC were performing at a lower level than their EPIC peers in alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness, and listening comprehension. Within three months, the African American boys had surpassed their peers on these skills.  
  • By the winter testing period, African American boys in EPIC had closed the gap with their EPIC peers in important learning behaviors including attention control, frustration tolerance, and group learning. 
  • Families of African American boys demonstrated high percentages of involvement in EPIC home connection activities through the school year, averaging an involvement rate of 87%.

For a video of Dr. Fantuzzo's Greenfield lecture, click here.