(This is Part One in a three-part series on this topic)
This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:
What impact can having more teachers of color have on our schools & what needs to be done to make it happen?
In light of the killings of African-American youth in Ferguson, Cleveland, and elsewhere, the issue of recruiting and retaining teachers of color has drawn more attention. Some groups and individuals have been working on that challenge for quite awhile, and others have taken note of it more recently. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m in the latter category. Here are links where you can read more about the concrete work of organizations and public bodies like Educolor, the Boston Public Schools, and the Montgomery County Schools. You can read about these efforts and others at the recent Education Week column, We Need Teachers Of Color, and in a collection of other articles I’ve “curated.”
During the next week, this blog will host contributions from researchers, teachers and students about this topic. I hope readers will share their own thoughts, too.
Today’s responses come from Gloria Ladson-Billings, Travis J. Bristol, and Terrenda Corisa White. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation with Professor Ladson-Billings at my BAM! Radio Show.
Response Gloria Ladson-Billings
Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction and Faculty Affiliate in the Departments of Educational Policy Studies, Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis & Afro American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
“What if We Had More Black Teachers?”
Almost every conversation about the remedy for Black - White academic achievement disparities includes a recommendation for recruiting and retaining more Black teachers. For those who do not know, the number of Black teachers has been on a steady decline for the past half century. Today Black teachers comprise less than 7 percent of the US public school teaching force.
If you look at the inverse relationship between the number of Black school students and the number of Black teachers, increasing the number of Black teachers seems a logical and necessary strategy. Unfortunately, there is no empirical evidence to support it. Indeed, if having Black teachers spelled academic success for Black children, Detroit, Washington, DC, and Atlanta would be the highest performing school districts for Black students and we know that is not the case. The solution to achievement disparities is multi-faceted and complex--the skin color of the teacher alone is not the answer. However, increasing the number of Black teachers may address some other issues.
One study did suggest that although there were no significant differences in the test scores of students with Black versus White teachers, Black teachers were more likely to persist with Black students. That persistence could signal just the boost some students may need to continue on toward grade completion and/or graduation. But the “Black teacher effect” may be something other than a quantifiable indicator.
I cannot imagine my own schooling without the Black teachers who nurtured me in my de facto segregated elementary school. Their prodding and insistence that I was capable prepared me for the hostile desegregated environment I encountered in junior high school and later the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog milieu of my highly competitive high school. I cannot imagine my career in the academy had I chosen one of the predominately White colleges/universities into which I was admitted. Instead, I went to a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) where my mostly Black professors not only exposed me to an expansive liberal arts education but also taught me some of the nuances associated with operating successfully in the White work world. Incidentally, I share some of those lessons with my own college students--especially first generation college students who may not have the social capital to facilely negotiate middle class workspaces.
I do know the experience of walking into schools (especially elementary and middle schools) where Black students ask me with eagerness, “Are you a teacher here?” And, I recognize the disappointment that falls over those same faces when I shake my head, “no.” Their longing for a teacher that “looks like them” is palpable. The current statistics indicate that class after class of children--Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian--go through entire school careers without ever having a teacher of their same race or ethnicity.
But, I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is White students having Black teachers! It is important for White students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them. Black students ALREADY know that Black people have a wide range of capabilities. They see them in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their churches. They are the Sunday School teachers, their Scout Leaders, their coaches, and family members. But what opportunities do White students have to see and experience Black competence?
In my many years as a university professor I have had so many White students who revealed that I was the first African American teacher they had ever had at any level. And, many confessed to being somewhat surprised that I was also the “best” (that’s debatable) teacher they ever had. They seemed amazed that I had both a wide and deep knowledge of a variety of subject areas and knew how to encourage and draw more out of them than they thought possible. My hope is that their experience with me makes them walk into classrooms filled with Black children and say, “there could be doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, inventors, and teachers in here,” rather than assume that their black skins limited their intellectual possibilities.
In 1935 W. E. B. DuBois published an article in the Journal of Negro Education titled, “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Of course at the time of his writing all Black students in the South were attending separate schools. There was some integration in northern schools but since the schools reflected the neighborhoods it was not usual for schools to be largely Black or largely White. What was different was we did not have sprawling suburbs so some schools that sat on the boundary between Black and White neighborhoods served both communities. My high school was such a place that was almost equally split between African American and Jewish students.
By the late 1980s more and more Black communities were isolated and had limited resources. At this time, there was a cry for Afrocentric schools--i.e. turning segregated schools into schools with an expressed purpose of educating Black students from a “Black” perspective. Many felt this was only possible if all, or certainly most, of the teachers were Black. Interesting, DuBois’ conclusion was the “Negro” needed neither segregated nor integrated schools. They needed “good” schools. So, in a shameless appropriation of DuBois I would argue that Black children do not need Black teachers or White teachers--they need “good” teachers!
Response From Travis J. Bristol
Dr. Travis J. Bristol is a former New York City public high school teacher and teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program. His research focuses on the intersection of race and gender in organizations. Dr. Bristol is currently a research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy and Education, where Linda Darling-Hammond serves as faculty director:
Diversity drives innovation according to a recent study by Forbes of 321 global executives in companies with annual revenue of $500 million (see here). Executives state that a diverse workforce is integral to allowing their organizations to devise creative solutions to challenging problems. America’s schools should pay attention to this finding.
At the very moment policy makers, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, advocate for increasing the ethnic/racial diversity of the teaching profession (see here and here) - teachers of color are disappearing. In city after city across these United States - Latino and Black teachers are exiting or quite possibly being forced out of the profession. This disappearance is most pronounced in urban centers. For example, in 2004, Latino teachers were 38% of all Chicago public schools’ teachers; today, they are 19% (see here). Similarly, in New Orleans public schools, Black teachers were 75% of all teachers; today, they are 54% (see here). Similar patterns hold in Boston (see here) - a school district still under a federal court desegregation order to diversify the teacher force.
We can’t have a conversation about the role of teachers of color in schools or increasing the number teachers of color without, first, addressing this disappearance crisis. Simply put, if there is a leak in the faucet, the solution is not to keep pouring water down the drain. The solution should be to identify what’s causing the leak and, then, insert a patch. For researchers and policymakers, this is an important opportunity to explore why teachers of color are disappearing and, more importantly, to design polices that address this disappearance crisis.
Why should we care that the teaching force in America’s schools is becoming less diverse? Shouldn’t the quality of the teacher matter more than the teacher’s race in improving learning outcomes? While there are nationally representative data that find increases in learning when students have a same race teacher (see here and here), there is, of course, a great danger in suggesting that simply providing Latino and Black children with Latino and Black teachers will close persistent learning gaps. Given our flat or interconnected world (see here), all children need a diverse teaching force to prepare them to be global citizens.
Finally, a diverse teaching force (i.e. increasing the number of teachers of color) isn’t only good for students, but has the potential to create professional learning opportunities for teachers inside of schools. Similar to the realization by the 321 global executives, increasing the number of teachers of color in America’s schools can facilitate creative solutions to solving challenging problems - such as improving learning for historically marginalized students. Latino, Asian, and Black teachers are well positioned to bring new ideas to their colleagues on how to make the curriculum culturally responsive, for example. And, the presence of these teachers of color can serve as a sounding board to White teachers attempting to navigate unfamiliar cultural terrain.
Diversity drives innovation: America’s schools should pay attention.
Response From Terrenda Corisa White
Terrenda White is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Education at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She studies market-based education reforms in urban communities and its cultural and pedagogical implications for classroom teaching and learning, including its impact on teacher dispositions and teacher professional autonomy and identity. Dr. White is also a former elementary school teacher:
In order to benefit from more teachers of color in our public schools, we must learn from the ones we already have, and then ask ourselves why we chronically lose and dismiss so many others.
Research on the impact of teachers of color includes not only their “humanistic commitments” to work in hard-to-staff schools or their presence as role models for students of color. Teachers of color also model diverse practices that broaden our conception and understanding of classroom pedagogy, student learning, and educational equity. Despite the current emphasis on test score production and technocratic definitions of teacher quality, successful educators of color have taught us the value of culturally responsive teaching, which includes “warm demanders" who do not divorce rigor and achievement from the cultivation of relationships with students that are grounded in a value for students’ socio-emotional and cultural experiences in and out of schools. Indeed teachers of color are part and parcel of the on-going development of critical teaching practices and innovative approaches to pedagogy, such as hip-hop pedagogy and the inclusion of youth-based multi-modal literacies. These practices can improve levels of student engagement for all students, not only for students of color.
In light of this knowledge, however, we have to consider why it is that teachers of color are chronically under-represented in our nation’s schools. Contrary to what many may think, the racial and ethnic gap between America’s teaching force and the demography of American school children is not solely or primarily due to growing enrollments of students of color or the lack of recruitment of teachers of color. Instead, research indicates that our chronic need for more teachers of color comes from failure to retain the ones we already have--a relatively new phenomenon whereby teachers of color leave our public schools at higher rates than white teachers, and for very different reasons. For some educators of color, departure from the profession is not by choice, while for others it is a choice associated with school and organizational conditions that bar them from key decision-making opportunities and conditions that limit their autonomy (Ingersoll and May, 2011). These findings are significant because it means the chronic need for more teachers of color stems from failure to learn from the ones we already have, including those who may challenge working conditions or question narrow approaches to teaching and learning.
Pre-retirement departures among veteran educators of color, for example, are not always by choice, and are sometimes the result of massive dismissals on the part of reformers in urban districts who have closed low-performing public schools. Reformers have mistakenly associated the struggles of these schools with teachers of color themselves who have disproportionately worked in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools. The sad irony here is that as veteran teachers of color are now blamed for the conditions of these schools, one consistent finding about teachers of color was their commitment to work in the very schools where other teachers were less willing to work, and whose departure from these schools was historically much lower.
Today, as we close public schools in urban communities and open scores of charter schools, these schools often struggle with high levels of staff attrition and turnover among an overwhelmingly “green" workforce of beginning teachers, including novice educators of color. As a researcher in these contexts, I have spent considerable time studying the experiences of these teachers and have witnessed factors leading to their decisions to leave or to stay. What I’ve learned is that today’s novice educators of color, like their predecessors, value culturally inclusive approaches to teaching and learning but have less and less opportunities (and professional protections) to voice their concerns and to actively shape teaching and learning in innovative ways, let alone the working conditions in their schools.
Administrators who are interested in increasing the number of teachers of color in their schools, therefore, must value these teachers not only for diversity’s sake, but for the sake of teaching itself and incorporate the range of ideas and approaches they bring to the classroom. In doing so, they move beyond recruitment and work toward needed retention.
Ingersoll, Richard & May, Henry. (2011). Recruitment, Retention, and the Minority Teacher Shortage.
CRPE Report. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.
Ingersoll, R., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven trends: the transformation of the teaching force, updated April 2014. CPRE Report (#RR-80). Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). “Characteristics of Public and Private
Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States: Results From the 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey.”
Toppo, G. (2012, Sep 04). More teachers green in the classroom. USA Today.
Ware, Franita. 2006. “Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching that Supports a Culture
of Achievement for African American Students” Urban Education. vol. 41, no. 4. pp. 427-456.
 Ware, Franita. 2006. “Warm Demander Pedagogy: Culturally Responsive Teaching that Supports a Culture of Achievement for African American Students” Urban Education. Vol. 41, no. 4., pp. 427-456
 Recruitment efforts in the past decades have been successful in doubling the number of teachers of color in urban public schools, which have outpaced growth in both the number of white teachers and the number of students of color (Ingersoll and May, 2011).
 Generally, as of 2011-12, the most common teacher, across all schools was someone in his or her fifth year, compared to 1987-88 when the modal teacher had 15 years of experience (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014). Indeed nearly half of the teaching force (1.7 million teachers) has 10 or fewer years of experience (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014).
Thanks to Drs. Ladson-Billings, Bristol and White for their contributions!
Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including contributions from readers in Part Three.
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