February 2011
Professor Ivory Toldson Is Helping to Break Barriers
By S. Z. Freeman, graduate assistant, Office of University Communications

Professor Toldson’s report “Breaking Barriers 2” focuses on the juvenile justice system and will be released in April. (Justin D. Knight)

Some people continue to say that the Black male is in crisis, but psychology professor Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., isn't buying it.

Last year, after reading a misleading newspaper article about Black male underachievement in education, he struck back. Toldson, who often finds troublesome statistics in stories about Black men, fired off a blog post challenging the report.

"One of the things that was missing from what I was reading was any focus on solutions," he said.  "The problem is crisis talk. A lot of people don't respond to crisis or back away. In my opinion, the Black man has problems that are well within our capacity to address.' "I felt that if we wanted to really understand what it took, the best source would be high-achieving Black males."
Toldson, 37, is an associate professor in the Counseling Psychology program, and since 2008 has served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education. The journal is known for its legendary past, including publishing the "Black/White doll" research that led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Toldson said he is focused on bringing the 78-year-old publication into the digital age.

His own scholarship and work as a senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation continues to gain traction. In the coming months, he will formally unveil an update to his well-received 2008 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation research study,  "Breaking Barriers," which focused on the educational achievement of Black males.

Toldson brought to the work a pivotal change in approach: Whereas most of the research on  Black males compared them to other race groups, he decided to use comparisons to academically successful Black males.

“I felt that if we wanted to really understand what it took, the best source would be high-achieving Black males,” he said. “It really seemed like common sense to me. The path that a lot of successful Black males take is different from the path of successful White males.”

Toldson said he was also driven by a need to acknowledge successful Black male students. "A lot of the research out there denied the existence that there were any successful Black men that we could learn from."

His latest report, "Breaking Barriers 2," focuses on the juvenile justice system and will be released in April. (An executive summary of the report was released last September.) In the study, Toldson examines what policy think tanks have termed the "school to prison" pipeline. The work evaluates trends in education including zero-tolerance discipline policies and the use of law enforcement personnel to break up fights.

"A lot of research has demonstrated that when schools take on a more correctional feel to them, they track males, particularly Black males, into the juvenile justice system instead of the principal's office," Toldson said.  "It brings [young men] in contact with the justice system earlier than you might be if you were in a suburban school district."

Toldson cited surveys of eighth and tenth graders that showed 59 percent of Black males report that they have been suspended or expelled from school, compared to 26 percent of White males. He acknowledged legitimate concerns about school safety.  "It's a complex problem and I wanted to capture that complexity in this report," he said.  "It takes a heightened awareness of school officials and a diligent effort in the Black community to reduce the level of delinquency and criminal activity."

Click play button to hear from Professor Toldson

Toldson has spent a lot of time traveling across the country talking with teachers in part about misleading media statistics that invariably either link Black males to crime or question their ability to learn. In the end, he said the rampant negativity only works to spread fear in teachers.

"The only thing they can do is doubt their own capacity to teach these kids and think the problem is so out of reach that there is nothing they can do," Toldson said. "When I talk to White teachers and break down statistics, a lot of them are relieved."

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