When it comes to teachers’ roles in shaping anti-racist communities, it’s better to show than to tell. Meaning, society is better off when students see diversity in the ranks of teachers rather than when they hear lessons about the importance of inclusion from a monolithic group of educators. Representation matters. The number of black teachers across the country has been declining over the past twenty years, with individual schools becoming less inclusive. Research shows that black students who have black teachers have better academic outcomes, are suspended less often, and face higher expectations from their teachers.
According to a 2017 report on teacher diversity by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank focused on democracy and education, minority teachers are more motivated to work with minority students in extremely segregated schools. This may reduce teacher turnover in “hard-to-staff” schools. These teachers have higher academic expectations for minority students, which translate into higher achievement and social growth for this population; they also serve as positive role models.
But there’s more at stake than the educational benefits of having black teachers for black students. Ultimately, all students benefit from teachers of color, as exposure to individuals from all walks of life can reduce stereotypes, prevent unconscious bias, and prepare students to succeed in a diverse society.
When high-profile incidents of racial hatred occur — as in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, when nine people were shot and killed during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when an alt-right march precipitated the death of an antiracist protester — there is a tendency to circumscribe white supremacy and racism to their most extreme and explosive forms. However, we should not let racism at its most violent distract us from the mundane practices and quiet systems that can help foster notions of white superiority. So I’ll say it again: Representation matters. Not seeing qualified, competent black folk in positions of authority may reinforce the belief, conscious or unconscious, that black people are less worthy in some way than white people. And practices that push black people out of very visible jobs, such as teaching, are harmful to society as a whole. I often say that losing black teachers is proof of the slow leak of democracy.
This is especially true in black-majority cities, which are growing in number, outpacing the black population growth. Black people are concentrating in black-majority cities, moving by choice or being priced out due to gentrification. Compounding these demographic shifts, a decrease in black teachers, who comprise a visible chunk of the black middle class, widens the economic and social divides between black and white people.
Black-majority cities that are losing black residents should lead the way in retaining and recruiting black teachers. Eliminating barriers to the teaching profession and offering an incentive for black teachers to stay makes complete economic sense. This begins with expanding access to teaching jobs and continues by giving hardworking teachers a raise. Increasing the number of teachers while simultaneously upping the number of middle-class jobs helps make local economies more inclusive. When black people lose quality jobs, it makes it more difficult for them to own a home and afford a decent life, and increases inequality in the economy.
When black, brown and Asian students see that teachers can look like them, and when white teachers see their black students as potential teachers, they can also visualize black people being their neighbors. That’s a powerful defense against gentrification and displacement. Currently, negative perceptions of black people power many NIMBY (not in my backyard) efforts to thwart affordable housing developments, which black communities desperately need to survive in many cities. An integrated teaching corps disrupts structural white supremacy because the value of living and working together is demonstrated by the act of doing so, and does more to combat racism than any preaching about inclusion or racial harmony.
When it comes to building up a strong defense against the racism caused by ignorance and a lack of exposure to diverse authority figures the country is going in the wrong direction. The majority of students in public schools are from minority groups, but only 18 percent of teachers are people of color. And in many urban areas, where the proportion of black teachers is higher, non-black adults are supplanting black residents, from Compton, California, to Washington, D.C.
In 1970, the black population in Washington stood at approximately 71 percent, according to my analysis of Decennial Census data. The black count dropped slightly in 1990 to 66 percent, but took a precipitous dive between 2000 and 2010, tumbling from 60 to 51 percent in that ten-year span. According to the last Census count in 2017, the black population in D.C. stood at approximately 46 percent.
The teaching workforce followed a similar pattern. The Shanker report found that between 2003 and 2011 the white teaching workforce in Washington more than doubled, from 16 to 39 percent, while the black share declined precipitously, from 77 to 49 percent.
The nation’s capital has a dual system of traditional and charter schools. Charter schools educate about half (46 percent) of Washington’s public school students. Sixty percent of the students that the traditional District of Columbia Public School district educates are black, and 50 percent of the district’s teachers are black. The district’s charter schools are not required to report teacher demographic data. Consequently, a comparable analysis is not readily available.
An October 2018 report from the District of Columbia State Board of Education found rates of teacher turnover among schools in the nation’s capital were higher than those at peer institutions and higher than the national average. The district’s average teacher turnover rate at the school level is 26 percent after three years, compared to the national average of 16 percent. Charter schools in the district have different grade configurations and staffing considerations, precluding an apple-to-apples comparison. However, charter schools post a similar three-year turnover rate of 25 percent.
Prepubescent and early adolescents aren’t the only ones challenged by the notorious middle school years. The D.C. Education Board’s report showed that at 32 percent, DCPS middle schools lose a higher percentage of teachers each year compared to elementary or high schools, where turnover rates are closer to 25 percent. Turnover rates in the district follow national trends: They increase alongside the number of at-risk students (those who are experiencing homelessness, live in foster care, or are recipients of public assistance programs). Plus, schools with the highest percentages of at-risk students lose almost a third of teachers each year.
Nationally, minority teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates than other teachers. Although minority teachers are concentrated in high-poverty, minority communities, they cite the lack of a collective voice and professional autonomy as reasons for leaving.
Our collective voice should be sounding out the need to recruit and retain black teachers. When we confront the conditions that facilitate higher turnover in schools, we also combat the racism that occurs outside of them. When it comes to integration, it’s better to show than to tell.
This story about why black teachers matter was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.