Why Black Teachers Matter: A Response

(This is a guest post by Micia Mosely, PhD and Matthew Florence of the Black Teachers Project. Scroll to the end for their bios.)

An article recently posted on New York School Talk, “A Parent’s Perspective on the Benefits of Teachers of Color,” posed the challenging question of how to make our schools more effective at educating our young people. After dismissing several solutions like Finnish-style education and Computer Science as magic bullets, the article turned to efforts at diversifying the teacher population. The question essentially turned to whether should school districts be hiring more Black teachers for the sake of diversity or hiring more capable teachers. As part of an organization that advocates for Black teachers, the framing of this question got our dander up. More than anything, as we continued to read the article, we came to the same conclusion we’ve held since we started: increasing diversity and increasing the effectiveness of teachers are not diametrically opposed goals; in fact, they are inextricably linked.

First let’s talk about the importance of Black teachers. Black teachers bring something special, different, and vital to the classroom. This is not just opinion but a fact that has been backed up by a number of studies. The most recent, published in March 2017, looked to measure the long-term impact on Black students of having a Black teacher. One of its conclusions is that a Black student’s probability of dropping out fell by 29% if they had at least one Black teacher in third through fifth grades (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, and Papageorge, 2017). The dropout probability for low-income Black boys fell even further, by 39%. As one of the study’s authors, Nicholas W. Papageorge, said in a corresponding interview, “Many of these kids can’t imagine being an educated person, and perhaps that’s because they’ve never seen [a teacher] that actually looks like them… This one teacher can change a student’s entire future outlook.”

But beyond this role model effect, Black teachers have a deeper understanding of Black students and other students of color. As a result, Black students perform better with Black teachers due to their higher expectations for their students. A study by John Hopkins University found that for a Black student, a Black teacher is 30% more likely to believe that student will graduate from a four-year college than their white counterpart (Deruy, 2016). That belief is an important component of teaching. It shows up in subtle but important ways in daily interactions. Imagine being in a class where your teacher doesn’t believe you can succeed. Will you live into that expectation or try to defy it? Yes, a small proportion of students will try to prove the teacher wrong, but the majority will accept what this authority figure thinks.

Black students make up over 30% of the public school population in New York City, while Black teachers make up only slightly more than 19% of the teacher population (Albert Shanker Institute, 2016). Given the disparity in expectations between the different teachers, this is an issue of fairness and whether students are being being set up for success or failure. These expectations are a real skill for teachers and provide measurable value to students. And having teachers without the necessary skills in pedagogy and classroom management is not an answer to that inequity.

But New York, like many other locales around the country, faces a teacher shortage. And when new teachers come on board, they don’t always stay long. Unlike in many other cities, Black teachers in NYC do not leave at the highest rates. Even so, retention is a problem as “after three years, 30 percent of new White teachers left the district, [and] approximately 25 percent of Black and Hispanic hires” do, as well (Albert Shanker Institute, 2016). Different people and cultures have differing reasons for leaving, but very often the high attrition rate for Black teachers is due to school and school system culture, policies, processes, etc. that do not fully support them (Kini & Podolsky, 6/16).

Given that many times inexperienced teachers are thrust into schools with many students of color, an equity problem arises. Students of color “are three to four times more likely to attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers than White students.” Experienced teachers also positively affect student outcomes and other factors such as attendance (Kini & Podolsky, 6/16).   

The lack of support many Black teachers feel also affects student outcomes with research showing “that teachers’ rate of improvement over time also depends on the supportiveness of their professional working environment” (Kini & Podolsky, 6/16). We believe that one of the most effective ways to recruit and retain effective Black teachers is to foster and maintain a work environment that authentically values them, focuses on their development, and empowers them.

Developing a more diverse teaching population that reflects the diversity and excellence of Black people is not just a matter of recruitment. We must create the conditions such that Black teachers, and all teachers, in fact, can thrive and build lifelong careers. And we must provide support for new and existing teachers so that they can continue developing their craft and hone their leadership skills for themselves, their students, and their communities. By fostering the development of a diverse, supported, and excellent teaching force, we can help ensure the success of all of our children.

Micia Mosely, the Black Teacher Project’s Executive Director, is an expert on leadership, cultural competence, data-based inquiry, and school design. Mosely began her career as the Social Studies department head at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, CA and received her PhD in Education, with an emphasis on Social and Cultural Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Mosely lives in both Harlem, NY and Oakland, CA.

Matthew Florence, the Black Teacher Project’s Director of Development, is a Southern native who has worked in the areas of HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ community, Black and Latino community and health, and technology for nonprofits as a program director, executive director, and consultant.

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