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Teaching Profession Opinion

Black Teachers Matter. School Integration Doesn’t

By Rafiq R. Kalam Id-Din II — May 04, 2017 4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a teacher vanishing before a classroom of young students.
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New research confirms what black education reformers have always known: The success of black students lies not in school integration, but in more black teachers and black-led charter schools committed to their achievement and well-being.

The study, issued last month by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, found that low-income black students who have just one black teacher in grades 3-5 are more likely to graduate and consider college, their likelihood of dropping out reduced by 29 percent. This is especially true for low-income black boys, whose dropout rates fall by a whopping 39 percent when a black teacher leads the class.

Much of the education world expressed shock at this news. The findings are stunning, especially considering that, according to National Center for Education Statistics data from 2013-14, only 72.5 percent of black students nationwide graduate from high school in four years, compared with 87 percent of white students. For black boys, the numbers are worse: In 2012-13, only 59 percent graduated in four years, according to a 2015 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

What’s at stake now is how education reformers choose to respond. Many proponents of equity continue to suggest public school integration as the antidote to the achievement gap between students of color and white students. But as suggested by a recent social-media uproar over a Pepsi commercial—in which Kendall Jenner “ends” racist violence with a soda and a smile—mere proximity and interracial camaraderie do not defeat racism. Similarly, the mere presence of white students has never benefited black students.

Embracing the placebo of black-white integration as the answer to black underachievement in K-12 education allows reformers to ignore effective evidenced-based solutions while inequity festers unresolved.

In New York City, where I teach, state testing sets the stage for the annual hand-wringing over the achievement gap between black and white students, which has barely budged in more than a decade. In 2016, the black-white achievement gap in English for students in grades 3-8 was staggering, with only 27 percent of black students achieving proficiency compared with 59 percent of white students.

Greater numbers of black teachers and leaders significantly improve the academic achievement of black students, particularly from low-income households.

Even in Brooklyn, where charter and traditional public schools put tremendous effort into integrated classrooms, the achievement gap remains. In 2016, none of the Brooklyn-based members of the National Coalition of Diverse Schools achieved proficiency rates in English for black students that matched or exceeded those of white students.

The disparity between black and white students is often obscured by reporting a school’s overall academic-achievement results. When scores at integrated schools are broken down by race, it becomes clear that wealthy white students pump up results, thus masking the ways schools continue to fail their low-income black students.

Integration is not the only solution educators have explored to close the racial achievement gap. Some charter schools with a high number of low-income black students have seen impressive outcomes, but at a cost to their students. These schools, staffed mostly by white teachers, achieve results through two objectionable tactics: intensive test preparation and “no excuses” behavior-management policies. The former can lead to a narrow schooling experience, the latter to extremely high suspension rates, particularly for black boys. By undermining students’ sense of agency and self-esteem, these solutions do more harm than good, no matter how much they may increase test scores.

The solution is perfectly clear: Greater numbers of black teachers and leaders significantly improve the academic achievement of black students, particularly from low-income households. A 2004 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when black teachers taught black students from kindergarten to 3rd grade, the gap in children’s reading and math scores closed, respectively, by 71 percent and 65 percent.

However, in public schools nationwide, roughly 7 percent of teachers are black. We must make the recruiting and retaining of black teachers a top priority.

At the Brooklyn charter school where I, a black man, lead and teach, black teachers make up more than 90 percent of the instructional staff. Our low-income black students essentially close the achievement gap with their white counterparts in English classes by the end of 5th grade, and our suspension rate is below 3 percent. We eschew zero-tolerance policies and respond to discordant behavior with mindfulness and cognitive-based therapeutic practices. Student agency, not control, is the goal.

More black teachers and school leaders would not only improve student achievement, they would also improve suspension rates. The Brookings Institution found in February that a more diverse teaching force would virtually eliminate the need for suspension, even for the most underresourced students. This is in part because black teachers are far less likely to characterize black student behavior as problematic and to suspend or expel students.

Black parents, students, legislators, and educators have long viewed Brown v. Board of Education as a victory, but it is the spirit of the ruling—that all children deserve an excellent education—we should pursue. As Carter G. Woodson, the black educator and often-credited founder of Black History Month, suggested so many years ago, when it comes to reversing the failure of educating black students, we must stop looking to the beneficiaries of white supremacy for salvation, and instead be led by black teachers and black schools to solve this problem. And now the data say so, too.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Black Teachers Matter. School Integration Doesn’t

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