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“Discovering” black teachers at HBCUs

Black people aren’t asking, Where are the black teachers?

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Degree of  Interest

“I’m going from place to place to place having the same conversations about how to recruit teachers of color,” said Travis Bristol, assistant professor at Boston University. Bristol, who examines national, state and local education policies that affect the recruitment and retention for teachers of color in schools, has been much in demand lately to talk about his research. He continued, “Recognition of the need is certainly there.”

You can’t help but sense his frustration, having to repeat strategies to disparate audiences, unable to get traction. The conversations around recruitment and retention of black teachers are scattershot: They’re not connected, and many of the people driving them aren’t linked to communities of color, let alone to black teacher preparation programs at minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which include historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs).

For years, black and brown educators have talked about what mainstream news outlets and research organizations have just come around to reporting. Black educators have higher expectations of students of color, which reduces the chances of them unnecessarily suspending and expelling black and brown children. Black and brown teachers don’t parachute into a culture they don’t know, so they are able to connect with the students they’re teaching. And black and brown teachers give students role models who affirm their culture.

Recently, mainstream institutions began asking, Where did all the black teachers go? And Where are the teachers of color? We’ve finally reached a point when color-blind educators admit that improving educational outcomes demands that we recruit more black and brown teachers and keep existing ones in the profession. Black and brown folk have been concerned about these issues for some time — all people had to do was listen.

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Discussions on how to increase the percentage of teachers of color should start on the campuses of MSIs, which conferred 16 percent of all degrees in 2014. They also account for 27.9 percent of all degrees conferred to Asian-American students, 44 percent to Hispanic students, and 33 percent of all degrees to black students. Similar numbers historically have been seen in the professional schools.

However, the cost of tuition to become a teacher is a deterrent for black and brown students, especially if they decide to attend a private institution. Nearly three-quarters of students who attend HBCUs are eligible for the federal Pell grant, meaning they’ve demonstrated financial hardship. Many of these students believe they can’t afford to be teachers.

Those who are finally seeing that race matters in teaching must also accept that officials at MSIs and their teacher preparation programs have to take the lead in these discussions, on their turf, by their rules. Just as we need more teachers of color, we need more black and brown leaders to change the system.

“Foundations and even the federal government look to HBCUs because our social and human capital produces innovation,” explains Deena Khalil, assistant professor at Howard University, colloquially referred to as  “the Mecca” of black education in the United States. “But funders aren’t giving money to HBCUs at the same levels as predominately white institutions.” In 2015, a U.S. Department of Education official said, “Any one of [the major research institutions] received more than all of the Black colleges combined. And that’s including Howard University. That’s a disconnect.”

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Funders look at HBCUs like they look at black children. Educators call this downward gaze “the deficit perspective” — the conscious or unconscious belief that members of a disenfranchised cultural group don’t have the skills to achieve because of their cultural background, or, in plain terms, that they’re not white or middle-class enough. So funders look to white organizations that may have helped create the pipeline problem to solve issues that black and brown have solutions for.

As a manager of charter schools in New Orleans post-Katrina, I often heard white educators say the “color of the teacher doesn’t matter,” which was followed by a decline of about 20 percent of black teachers. Color-blind reform policies haven’t done black folk favors in places like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City, which realized dramatic declines in the black teacher work force in the reform era, while white-led reform organizations continue to get funding.

By the way, there is nothing innovative about putting money in white institutions’ hands. Funding researchers at MSIs who study teacher recruitment and retention is a critical component of positive change.

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In addition, Khalil says Howard University and other MSIs are in competition with alternative-route teaching certificate programs. Also referred to as “fast track” programs because they require fewer credits, these programs receive millions from state and federal governments as well as philanthropic foundations. Funding students’ certificate programs after they have received their undergraduate degrees would encourage students who’ve spent significant time in a community to stay on as teachers. Many alt-cert programs, by design, place teachers who are outsiders in communities — another clog in the teacher pipeline.

“School and district leaders tell us they need a grow-your-own strategy to recruiting teachers of color,” said Khalil, who explained that going local makes it less likely teachers will have a deficit perspective. “HBCUs are essential to a grow-your-own approach because we train people from surrounding areas to teach in there.”

While we’re having conversations on increasing the number of black and brown teachers at MSIs, let’s rid ourselves of white standards that simply don’t make sense. Standardized tests aren’t good measures for black students. Low-income and first-generation collegians score lower on standardized test than their upper-income, multigenerational peers. This holds true for the teacher prep programs’ entrance exam, PRAXIS, as well as requirements for certification. And even the kind of knowledge that states require for certification burdens black students. If I’m a student at an HBCU, am I supposed to learn the same Eurocentric history that is taught at predominately white institutions and schools? Black history will be added to standards when black teachers are given real chances to succeed.

Black and brown teachers will matter when MSIs lead the discussion on recruitment and retention of teachers and get the resources to do it.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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