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The educational value of a Black teacher

Jul 31, 2020 12:46PM ● By Andre Perry, The Hechinger Report

The coronavirus is offering a chance to ‘reimagine’ education, but if the new landscape doesn’t include efforts to recruit and retain more Black teachers, reform will be a farce

Adapted and reprinted from Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities by Andre Perry, with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 by Brookings Institution.

If, after a natural disaster decimated a city, I proposed to a governor or a school board that they replace a significant portion of a majority-white teaching corps with Black teachers because doing so would potentially confer educational and social benefits, I’d probably be denounced as a racist and publicly excoriated.

But the reverse is exactly what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and it’s what could happen again across the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic if we’re not paying close attention. Thousands of Black teachers were laid off after the hurricane and replaced by white ones. When schools come back after the coronavirus, Black teachers are once again more likely to be lost to the budget cuts and health problems following in its wake.

If this is our chance to reimagine schools, remembering this history and prioritizing the protection of the Black teaching force will be essential to create better places for Black students to learn.

A cursory reading of the literature on Black teachers should have given politicians and reformers pause before forcing their mass exit, and should do so again, but alas, even the research has apparently been devalued. For years, researchers such as Gloria Ladson-Billings, Pedro Noguera, Lisa Delpit, Adrienne Dixson, Christopher Emdin, and James A. Banks — all people of color — validated the need for Black teachers in New Orleans schools through their studies on teachers of color. Their scholarship serves as the foundation for inquiries like one by Stanford University researcher Thomas Dee who, the year before Katrina, found that Black students of both sexes who had a Black teacher scored 3 to 6 percentile points higher on standardized tests in reading than those who did not. Dee found a similar increase in the math scores of Black students taught by a Black teacher.

There’s something about living in Brown skin that gives you a different set of expectations for your Black students than those of your white peers.

In a 2017 study published by the Institute of Labor Economics, researchers found that low- income Black male elementary school students who were paired with a Black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grades were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school. The researchers also found that matching low-income Black students of both sexes with at least one Black teacher between the third and fifth grades increased their aspirations to attend a four-year college by 19 percent.

In addition to academic gains, Black students taught by Black teachers exhibited better behavioral outcomes. According to 2015 research by Adam C. Wright, a professor of economics at Western Washington University, behavioral assessments of Black students in the classroom significantly improve when they have a Black teacher rather than a white teacher. Wright found that as Black students receive instruction from a greater number of Black teachers, the probability of suspension decreases. In a 2017 study, Wright and his team showed that students of color placed with a teacher of color were less likely to argue or act out than minority students placed with white teachers.

The research suggests that a focus on Black teacher recruitment and retention post-Katrina could have helped prevent educators from using excessive suspension and expulsion, which was certainly a problem prior to Katrina. However, reformers instituted “zero-tolerance” policies that became fashionable at the time, criminalizing mundane school infractions. School leaders were told to “sweat the little things,” such as uniform infractions, walking out of line, and unsanctioned verbal communication.

“In 2007-08, if a student had a stripe on their sock or a mark on a shoe, there was a consequence,” Ben Kleban, then CEO of the charter network College Prep told the Atlantic in 2014. Multiple violations culminated in out-of-school suspensions. While reformers didn’t create discipline disparities between white and Black students, reform didn’t help reverse those injustices. Isn’t that what reform is supposed to do — correct injustices? Instead, evidence suggests there was an increase in expulsions in the years just after the reforms with the increase of white teachers.

Having Brown skin doesn’t make you a better teacher. However, there’s something about living in Brown skin that gives you a different set of expectations for your Black students than those of your white peers.

“I didn’t need a trick to get kids to be respectful and sit down and take their education seriously,” said Amanda Aiken, a former teacher and administrator for College Prep who happened to be one of the few Black staff members in her school. It didn’t take long for white teachers to lean on Aiken beyond her official role as an academic coach. They began seeking her out to discipline and manage specific students. White teachers asked, “Oh, Ms. Aiken, can you talk to this child because he won’t sit down,” Aiken said. She’d walk in the classroom, look at the child and ask, “Are we going to do this today?” The student would sit down as he or she did in Aiken’s classroom. “When you are one of the only Black people in a school, you also end up being the disciplinarian,” she said.

The advantage Black teachers bring to schools goes beyond a reduction in the number of Black kids who are suspended to an increase in the number of Black kids who go on to college.

American University economics professor Seth Gershenson and his colleagues examined, in a 2016 study, how racial lenses color teacher expectations. They found that when white teachers and Black teachers assessed the same African American students, white teachers were 40 percent less likely to predict that their Black students would complete high school, and 30 percent less likely to believe they would graduate from a four-year college program. Black female teachers were more likely than any other demographic group to believe that their Black male students would graduate from high school. The researchers argued that the low expectations many teachers have of their Black students could negatively affect these students’ school performances and goals for the future. Therefore, an increase in Black teachers could positively affect the goals and expectations that Black students set for themselves. It makes sense that if teachers instill high expectations in their students, said students will be more likely to believe they can grow up to be a teacher than those who don’t believe in themselves.

Why return to a place that brings you down? According to research conducted by a team of education researchers led by Betty Achinstein, increasing diversity in teaching is also important because teachers of color are more likely to teach and stay at schools that are considered “hard to staff.” Urban schools with higher minority and low-income populations often suffer from higher levels of teacher turnover. Retaining minority teachers in these hard-to-staff schools may allow for increased stability in urban schools. Education reforms that decrease the number of Black teachers hurt their own cause in the long run. Especially in Black-majority cities where there are higher percentages of both Black students and teachers, reducing the number of Black teachers can be detrimental to students’ social mobility, their future professional opportunities in teaching, and the local economy.

Black students aren’t the only ones who benefit from efforts to increase the percentage of Black teachers in schools. In their research on the impact of minority teachers in the classroom, University researchers Alice Quiocho and Francisco Rios argue that having a teacher of color is beneficial to students of all races. Because of the lived experience that comes with being a person of color, minority teachers are able to identify and deconstruct the racial and cultural biases present in school systems, making it more likely that classroom discussions include a social justice orientation. Reducing the number of Black teachers also robs white students of the opportunity to form critical relationships that could disrupt how racism is passed on to the next generation. Racist children become racist adults. Black teachers can help end the cycle. Alas, this was the lens that was clearly needed in New Orleans after the storm, when, instead, education reform negatively affected Black workforces.

Black teachers are assets. If the purpose of education reform is to boost students’ academic outcomes, reduce suspensions, raise expectations, and even recruit (less racist) teachers into the profession, research suggests that increasing the number of Black teachers should be part of any serious strategy. And any reform that reduces them is the same old repression Black communities have dealt with for generations, wrapped in a different garb.

This story about Black teachers was adapted and reprinted by The Hechinger Report from Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities by Andre Perry, with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 by Brookings Institution.

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.