This article was first published on usatoday.com
WASHINGTON — After a semester spent wrangling preschoolers, Ricardo Carter has learned one important lesson: Never say no.
“I don’t use the word ‘no,’” he said recently during a break at Aiton Elementary School in Washington’s Deanwood neighborhood. “I like to say ‘not right now.’”
Carter, a soft-spoken 20-year old who graduated from high school just seven months earlier, is part of a bold, if small, experiment here. Last fall, the school district began placing the first of 10 young African-American men in preschool classes citywide, hoping they’ll fall in love with the work and eventually train to be teachers.
Part of the city’s Empowering Males of Color initiative, the effort is an attempt to crack a particularly tough nut in American education: a stubborn racial imbalance between teachers and students.
Nearly 63 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case kick-started racial integration in schools — and six decades after a group of African-American students had to be escorted by federal troops as they desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School — students nationwide are taught by an overwhelmingly white workforce. Even as the proportion of black, Latino, Asian, Indian, African and other “non-white” students grows inexorably, the teachers these children encounter are nearly all white. And the racial mismatch, in many places, is getting worse.
The dilemma is, in part, a little-known and unintended legacy of the Brown decision. Because most white communities in the 1950s and 1960s preferred white teachers over black ones, court-ordered desegregation often ended the teaching careers of black educators. One historian, Emory University’s Vanessa Siddle Walker, has said the culture of black teaching “died with Brown.”
Six decades later, D.C. city schools are actually statistical outliers. In a city where more than nine in 10 public school students are non-white, it has by far the lowest percentage of white teachers: 26%, according to federal statistics.
But nationwide, our schools look very different. At last count, about 82% of teachers were white, down from 83% eight years earlier. While the percentage of non-white students in U.S. schools rose 6 percentage points between the 2003-2004 and 2011-2012 school years, from 39.6% to 45.7%, the percentage of non-white teachers rose just 1.2 percentage points, from 16.9% to 18.1%.
In the 19 states with the largest gains in non-white students during this period, only five — Arkansas, Illinois, New Mexico, New York and Washington state — saw similarly large gains in non-white teachers. In two of the states — Kansas and South Dakota — the percentage of non-white teachers actually dropped.
Among other findings:
— In 24 states, more than 90% of teachers were white in the 2011-2012 school year;
— In 17 of those states, more than 95% of teachers were white, even as the percentage of non-white students grew in all but two;
— In those 17 states, non-white students accounted for 18.4% of students, on average. But just 3.3% of teachers were non-white.
Put another way: Even in schools located in the USA’s whitest 17 states, each class typically contains four or five non-white students. But just 1 in 33 classrooms has a non-white teacher.
U.S. schools have made “very little progress” in recruiting and retaining minority teachers over the past three decades, said Anna Egalite, a researcher at North Carolina State University’s College of Education. When she began looking at the statistics, she said, “one of the most stunning things” was just how little had changed since 1987, when the proportion of white teachers was 87%.
Egalite got interested in the topic after she and her husband, an African-American middle school science teacher, moved from Arkansas to Boston. They began having conversations about how rare it was to see male teachers of color in the schools there. Existing research, she knew, showed modest academic benefits for students who shared their teachers’ ethnic profile. But new research was beginning to show something more important: Non-white teachers had higher expectations for students of color.
“If you have low expectations for someone, you’re not going to push them so hard,” Egalite said.
Low expectations begin a vicious cycle, starting with lower achievement, which eventually means a student is less likely to go to college. That means he or she doesn’t have access to a career like teaching, which means the next generation once again sees fewer teachers of color.
Egalite’s own research has shown “small but significant” positive effects in math and reading, especially in elementary school, when black and white students are assigned to teachers of the same race. Low-performing students seem to get particular benefit, she and colleagues noted in 2014. All of which shows that the USA’s teacher/student racial disconnect isn’t just a curiosity. It’s holding back millions of young people.
“It’s a problem for students of color because it’s important for them to see mentors and role models,” said John King, Education secretary in the final year of the Obama administration. “But I also think it’s a problem for white students. I think there’s a real benefit for white students in having diverse teachers, because ultimately we’re trying to prepare all kids for a diverse world.”
A USA TODAY analysis of 2013-14 federal data shows a hidden benefit along the lines of Egalite’s findings: In 203 cities where at least 10% of the teaching force is black, African-American public school students are better represented in gifted and talented programs. In cities where black teachers made up less than 10% of the teaching force, black students, on average, were only 3.3% of gifted and talented enrollment. But in cities where black teachers were represented in double-digits, the percentage of black students in gifted and talented programs was five times higher.
The difference was most pronounced in 195 cities — many of them in the South — where both the black teaching force and black enrollment was at least 10%. In those cities, nearly one in five gifted and talented students was black.
The analysis also shows that black high-schoolers who made up at least 10% of enrollment were slightly more likely to take the SAT and ACT college entrance exams in cities where black teachers were at least 10% of the teaching force. Southern cities had the highest rates in this area as well.
But while black students might fare better academically in schools with more black teachers, the analysis suggests they also are disciplined at higher rates in that environment: In cities where black teachers were less than 10% of the teaching force, blacks made up about 16% of the student population with one or more in-school suspensions. In cities where black teachers were represented in double-digits, black students made up more than half of those suspended.
The same pattern held for expulsions. The black expulsion rate was about three times higher in cities where the black teaching force was 10% or higher.
The data cover 638 cities represented in the 2010 U.S. Census Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) report, which lists total workers for occupations such as public school teachers by race. The EEO data were paired with school district reports compiled by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which summarize student disciplinary actions and performance by race.
Recent research has found that the teacher recruiting problem starts in college. The U.S. Department of Education last year found that students of color are underrepresented in teacher preparation programs, occupying only 1 in 4 seats, even as non-white college students make up 38% of postsecondary enrollment.
Recruiting more teachers of color isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Researchers found a “completion rate gap” between white and minority students majoring in education: Among whites, 73% earn a degree, compared with just 42% of black students. The gap between white and Hispanic students is comparable: 73% vs. 49%.
“There are gaps at every step of the pipeline,” said King, who is African-American and Puerto Rican. “There are gaps in graduation rates, there are gaps in students choosing education as their major. There are gaps in students graduating from college. There are gaps in entering the teacher workforce, and then gaps in retention. So it’s really at every stage. And it is a big challenge.”
Once they enter the profession, King said, minority teachers face what he calls an “invisible tax” in the form of extra work that leads to higher attrition rates. African-American male teachers have told him that they’re expected to mentor and support all of their schools’ struggling African-American boys, for instance. Latino teachers often find themselves serving as translators for a school’s non-English-speaking parents.
“That may be something folks are willing to do,” King said, “but it is an additional responsibility and ought to be recognized as such and supported as such.”
He noted that a few nonprofit groups such as Teach For America have successfully diversified their teacher corps, but only because they applied “focused effort” to the problem.
“They will describe very intentional efforts to focus their recruitment, and also to build networks of support so that their teachers of color feel connected to other teachers, feel a sense of community,” he said.
In Washington, D.C., where 45% of students are males of color — and only 60% graduated from high school last spring — school officials found that just 18 males of color were teaching in early childhood classrooms. They resolved to focus there.
“It’s become a cycle,” said Jen Nelson, who helps coordinate the Empowering Males of Color program. “Because it’s been so rare for them to see a male teacher, then, in their brain, ‘This isn’t a career path that I want to pursue.’”
The early childhood program trains 10 “fellows” as literacy tutors and offers a $5,000 scholarship to pursue undergraduate study when they’re done. They also get help with college applications and applying for financial aid, take part in college visits and attend academic conferences.
Carter, the early childhood trainee, remembered just one black male teacher, in sixth-grade science. That tracks with national statistics that find only 2% of the USA’s more than 3 million teachers are black males.
Antwan Perry, who runs the program with Nelson, said the fellows “were not used to seeing a man of color in the classroom.” At most schools, such men were either disciplinarians, custodians or cafeteria workers. “So being in the actual classroom for them is just new territory,” he said. “They can be a male presence in the classroom, something that they really didn’t see.”
One fellow made the issue soberingly real: He told Perry that if he’d had just one black male teacher as a child, “I just wonder how much farther along I would be.”
Contributing: Brad Heath. Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo; Follow Mark Nichols on Twitter: @nicholsmarkc