Nearly 10 years ago, school leaders in Oakland, California, launched the first district-level initiative of its kind in the nation: a program targeted exclusively to black male high schoolers that was a part of their regular classes during the school day.

A new study shows that access to an achievement program targeted to black male students lowered high school dropout rates. (Image credit: fstop123 / Getty Images)

Taught by black male instructors, the “Manhood Development” course emphasizes social-emotional learning, African and African American history and academic mentoring, drawing on culturally relevant teaching methods to counter stereotypes and create a stronger sense of community and belonging in school.

A new study led by Thomas S. Dee, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), provides the first evidence that access to the program significantly reduced the number of black males who dropped out of high school. The study found smaller reductions in the number of black females who dropped out as well, suggesting a possible spillover effect.

As hundreds of communities across the country invest in similarly targeted programs as part of the national “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative introduced by former President Barack Obama in 2014, the study provides leading evidence supporting the promise of these investments.

“Many historically marginalized students experience schools as highly alienating spaces,” said Dee. “The targeted design of this program, and the evidence of its impact, challenges us to radically reconsider how we think about promoting equity in education.”

The findings were published in a working paper on Oct. 21 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study is also available on the website of the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis at the GSE.

An effort to counter trends

The Manhood Development course is the centerpiece of the African American Male Achievement (AAMA) program, launched by the Oakland Unified School District in 2010. The program created a new model for a targeted curriculum by offering classes specifically for black male students during the school day, rather than episodic or extracurricular programming.

Thomas S. Dee (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Graduate School of Eduation)

Initially available to ninth graders in three Oakland high schools, the program soon expanded to serve students at higher grades in all nine of the district’s regular, comprehensive (not alternative) high schools.

The classes, which meet daily, include units such as “The Emotional Character of Manhood,” “The Struggle for Liberation and Dignity” and “The Black Male Image in American Media.” Students also participate in community-based projects, such as oral histories of black residents in Oakland, and field trips that expose them to colleges and careers.

A district review in 2010, when the program began, documented high rates of absenteeism, dropout and suspension among black male students at Oakland Unified. Though black males made up 16 percent of the student population, they represented 42 percent of suspensions annually. Roughly 20 percent of black male students were chronically absent across all grade levels, and 55 percent of black males were off-course from graduating on time, compared with 37 percent of students in the district overall.

“We know that failing to complete high school has dramatic, long-term economic consequences,” said Dee, the Barnett Family Professor of Education at the GSE, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and faculty director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities. “It’s catastrophic for success in the labor market. It implies worse health outcomes, lower levels of civic engagement and increased likelihood of being imprisoned. Completing high school and being college- and career-ready is fundamentally important for almost any dimension of human welfare you can identify.”

Increasing the graduation rate

Using enrollment and dropout data from the California Department of Education, Dee and his coauthor, Emily K. Penner – a former postdoctoral fellow at the GSE, now an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Irvine – found that access to the AAMA program significantly reduced the number of students who dropped out of Oakland Unified schools, particularly in ninth grade.

In the average pre-AAMA school-grade cohort of about 61 black males, access to the program reduced the number who dropped out over the next year by 43 percent, from about five students to three.

Meanwhile, between the graduating classes of 2010 and 2018, the high school graduation rate for black males in Oakland schools increased from 46 to 69 percent – a gain that exceeded districtwide improvement by about 3 percentage points.

The researchers also found evidence of smaller but statistically significant reductions in the dropout counts of black females: When the program became available in a certain school and grade level, the number of black female students who returned to school the following year increased by 1.8 percentage points. “Evidence has shown when some students improve, their peers will also improve,” Dee said.

Taking a targeted approach

In 2014, several years after Oakland Unified launched the AAMA program, Obama introduced My Brother’s Keeper, a national public-private partnership supporting mentorship and educational programs for young men of color. Nearly 250 communities from all 50 states have committed to the initiative, now run by the Obama Foundation.

The AAMA and My Brother’s Keeper programs adopt an approach known as targeted universalism, which takes into account that while certain goals may be universal – such as preparing young people to graduate from high school and pursue a career or further education – students from different backgrounds have different levels of access to resources and opportunities. Instead of pursuing the same strategies for all students, a targeted approach addresses the varying needs and circumstances of different groups.

“The idea of America as a melting pot is not the experience for many people in this country,” said Dee. “These initiatives are compelling schools to reconceive how they engage diversity – with very specifically targeted interventions to help students feel affirmed and respected, where they have a voice and a community with shared experiences and shared cultural reference points.”

Designing a curriculum around individual social identities represents a new and controversial direction for educational policy, but this study suggests that targeted universalism is worthy of serious consideration and further research, Dee said. “More generally, it also provides new quantitative evidence showing that educational practices that make students feel valued and critically engaged are an effective – and comparatively affordable – way to unlock students’ learning potential.”

Support for this research was provided by the Raikes Foundation and the Mindset Scholars Network.

Media Contacts

Brooke Donald, Stanford Graduate School of Education: (650) 721-1402,