Equity & Diversity Opinion

Do Black Children Need Black Teachers?

By Richard Whitmire — August 31, 2011 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

That’s the conclusion of Syracuse professor Boyce Watkins, writing in NewsOne for Black America. Watkins cites the example of the white Patterson, N.J., teacher who was fired for posting this on Facebook: “I am not a teacher. I am a warden for future criminals.?

The teacher, Jennifer O’Brien, later explained:

I was speaking out of frustration to their behavior, just that build up of 'I don't know what else to do,' and I'm actually scared for their futures, for some of them," O'Brien said. "If you're hitting your teacher at 6 or 7 years old, that's not a good path."

Comments Watkins:

I find myself personally disappointed with O'Brien's remarks because I was one of "those" children: Horrible grades, in detention more than class, and in the principal's office so much that I knew the names of his wife and kids. The truth was that I wasn't a dumb child or one who was destined for the penitentiary; I was looking for a teacher who gave a damn about me and didn't think I was a menace to society. And to be honest, school bored me to death because no one ever explained how a good education can help you make more money (which matters quite a bit to kids who are born to single mothers in the projects). If Ms. O'Brien can't handle little Black kids, she doesn't need to be teaching them. The school district in Paterson would be wise to realize that there are thousands of highly-qualified Black and brown teachers, consultants and counselors who know how to handle Black children. Unfortunately, the overseers of our educational systems would rather have the Black/brown inner city children poisoned by the white female teacher from the suburbs than to have that child exposed to someone like myself or Dr. Marc Lamont Hill at Columbia University (you know, those controversial and "dangerous" Black men). So, in some ways, even as adults, many of us are still being treated like the children in Ms. O'Brien's class - "at risk Black boys" simply receive a label transformation into "dangerous Black men" when we enter adulthood.

The logic is attractive, in part because there’s truth in it. Many minority boys never see minority male teachers, leading them to assume that school is for girls. Finding more black male college graduates, who usually have opportunities for better paying jobs, is not going to be easy. But that sidesteps the real question: Do black students do better with black teachers?

Marginally so, based on my review of the research. What really matters are the expectations held by the teacher in front of the class and that teacher’s competence and persistence. In researching The Bee Eater, a book about Michelle Rhee’s time in Washington, D.C., the teachers with the lower expectations, the ones most likely to blame poverty and poor parenting entirely for the bad outcomes of their students, were often veteran African American teachers.

In researching Why Boys Fail I tracked two boys through two different high achieving charter schools serving all-minority children, one in New York, the other in Washington. In both schools, white teachers dominated the staff. Both schools were at the top of city academic rankings.

I also profiled a rural school in Delaware which had the same demographic mismatch between teachers and students -- a mostly Latino and black student body, nearly all white staff. And yet this school was wildly outperforming similar schools and matching the performance of some schools with middle class students.

There are very good reasons to try to attract more minority male teachers. As role models, they appear to be effective in reducing dropout rates. But is that the solution to the minority academic gap? My conclusion: It will take far more than recruiting more minority teachers.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Why Boys Fail are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.