We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” when it comes to hiring. Looking at the racial disparities among teachers, it’s apparent that black would-be teachers apparently don’t know many hiring managers. Teachers of color comprised about 20 percent of the public school teachers in the U.S. in 2017, according to data compiled by researchers at the centrist think tank the Brookings Institution (where I am a fellow). Meanwhile, students of color represented slightly more than half of all public school students in the same year.
A 2016 U.S. Department of Education demographic study of principals found that the vast majority of the people doing the hiring are white. While the percentage of white principals declined from 87 percent in 1987–88 to 80 percent in 2011–12, the percentage of black principals did not change significantly. The percentage of Hispanic principals increased by 4 percentage points from 3 to 7 percent, but white principals still account for the lion’s share of that population.
And if a vast proportion of the hiring managers are white, it’s likely that their social networks are predominantly white, too. Three-quarters of white Americans say they have social circles that are entirely white, as compared to 65 percent of African-Americans and 46 percent of people who identified as Hispanic, according to a 2013 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research. This has a profound professional impact when principals and school district leaders recruit from within their social circles, be it from a university or nonprofit teacher prep program. This kind of hiring needs to be called out for what it really is — discrimination.
Discrimination is what’s clogging the teacher pipeline in public schools, according to a 2017 Harvard University study. “Black applicants were significantly less likely than their White counterparts to receive a job offer,” researchers found. In addition, black applicants were much more likely to be placed into schools with higher percentages of black children, reinforcing the ghettoization of black teachers and students.
Professional circles are never strictly professional — they are social as well. White principals must expand their professional circles if students are to see a better representation of society in their classrooms and teachers who look like them. A new framework is in order, and the National Football League has a good one we can borrow.
The Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, the late chairman of the NFL team the Pittsburgh Steelers, mandates that as a condition of owning a franchise, teams must interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and general manager positions. Certainly, teams have conducted bogus interviews to fulfill the rule’s requirements without any intention of hiring that person, but since the rule was enacted in 2003, the league has seen a significant increase in the number of black head coaches. According to a 2016 article published by the data reporting outlet FiveThirtyEight, “In the 12 seasons before the rule was instituted, the NFL had only six non-white head coaches. In 12 seasons under the rule, the league has added 14 head coaches of color.” In a league in which approximately 70 percent of the players are black, the Rooney Rule gave black players hope they would not be relegated to the playing field, to be controlled by white management.
It also showed other industries a concrete way to knock down cultural and social barriers in the hiring process. Amazon recently adopted a version of the Rooney Rule, vowing to interview women and minorities for all board openings. Given the racial imbalance between teachers and students in public schools, educational leaders must also implement a version of the rule.
But it’s not just representation for the sake of representation that counts. Having a teacher of color brings with it tangible benefits for students. According to research conducted by Stanford University education scholar Thomas Dee in 2004, black students of both sexes who’d had a black teacher experienced a 3 to 6 percentile-point increase in their reading scores on standardized tests. In a 2017 study published by the Institute of Labor Economics, an economics think tank, researchers found that low-income black male elementary school students who were paired with a black teacher in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th grades were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school. This study also found that matching low-income black students of both sexes with at least one black teacher between the 3rd grade and the 5th grade significantly boosted their aspirations to attend a four-year college.
There are more reasons that hiring more black teachers has an overall positive effect on schools. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, often referred to as the “congressional watchdog,” published an investigation into the Department of Education’s national civil rights data from 2013 to 2014 and found that black students are disproportionately punished at school compared to their white peers.
Hiring more black teachers might help alleviate that issue. Behavioral assessments of black students in the classroom significantly improve when they have a black teacher rather than a white teacher, according to a 2015 University of California, Santa Barbara study.
We need more black teachers in the classroom, and interviewing candidates of color is just a start. But just like in the NFL, the Rooney Rule is no panacea. There’s a small chance an interview might dissuade prospective black candidates. “When you’re in an interview and they use words like ‘culture fit’ several times,” one black teacher who didn’t take a job in a Washington, D.C., school told me, “I’ve learned they [white principals] are really asking if you’re not going to be black and be like us.”
Introducing the Rooney Rule may not solve the problem on its own, but it can help to change a culture of racism and discrimination that’s blocking black and brown teachers from helping students get to the goal line of graduation.