In the struggle to improve educational outcomes for African-American boys as a whole, the most important battles must be fought during the first nine years of their lives — a crucial period that lasts from about the time they are in the womb until about the fourth grade.

That was the heart of a message delivered by an esteemed slate of panelists last week at a symposium titled “A Strong Start: Positioning Young Black Boys for Educational Success.”

Jointly sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, the Washington, D.C.-based child advocacy powerhouse, and Educational Testing Service (ETS), the Princeton, N.J.-based psychometric company, the symposium was meant to drive home the point that the best way to the end the so-called achievement gap is to prevent Black boys from falling behind in the first place.

Unfortunately, due to a “toxic cocktail” of poverty, maternal depression, father absence, illiteracy, violence and a host of other stressors, evidence of cognitive and emotional gaps in development begin to manifest in the first year of life, and later on become math and reading gaps that widen significantly as time wears on, according to statistics presented at the conference.

“We must alter these conditions of poverty if we expect to close the gaps in cognitive development and socioeconomic equality in life,” said Michael T. Nettles, senior vice president and the Edmund W. Gordon chairman of ETS’ Policy Evaluation & Research Center.

“By kindergarten, poor Black children have to beat the odds to catch up,” Nettles said.

“As test results show, many never do.”

“I’m convinced that we’re failing to invest in all of our children in an effective set of ways,” said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of Children’s Defense Fund.

“It’s going to be the moral Achilles’ heel of our country,” Edelman said, who urged those in audience to appeal both to people’s moral decency as well as their self-interest in order to do better by African-American boys.

“I’d rather have them working for me,” Edelman said, referring to how employed individuals pay taxes that fund services for retirees, “as opposed to me working for them.” If Black boys as a whole aren’t given better educational experiences, they will be more likely to become incarcerated and thus, a tax burden, Edelman added.

The factors that apparently contribute to the achievement gap include overexposure to TV and video games and not enough reading of books, said Iheoma Iruka, a researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Among other things, Iruka presented statistics that show book-reading rates are typically lower for Black boys than for boys of other ethnicities, while singing songs to Black boys took place more frequently in Black homes than for boys from other groups.

“We like to sing songs, and I think that’s great,” Iruka said. “But unfortunately that doesn’t always mean a lot, because we need to live in the society of the majority, and part of that is reading. That’s not happening as much as (it should).”

Several speakers attacked the culture of low expectations for Black boys, which they said permeates American education.

Oscar Barbarin III, a psychology professor at Tulane University, said Black boys often experience punishment in school because their activeness is misunderstood and misinterpreted as aggression.

Barbarin also lambasted American K-12 education as a whole as being “too effeminate.”

“We need to put a little more testosterone in classrooms,” Barbarin said. “Classrooms are not usually set up for boys. Even something as simple as changing the books that you’re reading, allowing them to dig holes, play in some dirt.”

Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, said her office has been working with school districts to eliminate racial disparities she says exist in how discipline is meted out.

She said her office has discovered that often educators seem more empathetic with White students who act out but less tolerant when Black boys misbehave.

“You saw things like, ‘Michael’s a great student. He’s just experiencing problems at home,’” Ali said of educators’ reaction to White boys who misbehave, whereas Black boys were more often suspended.

She said the situation has resulted in a civil rights violation that could expose school systems to being denied federal funding unless they abate the disparities in discipline.

Other speakers urged citizens and policy-makers to do more to ensure that all children receive high quality early childhood education in order to build a strong foundation for future academic success.