Column

For better student outcomes, hire more black teachers

Supporting teachers and communities will boost children’s academic achievement

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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There are 60,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession began in 2007, according to an analysis of the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report by the think tank Economic Policy Institute. States and districts haven’t moved on from the austerity measures imposed by most states more than a decade ago when the recession hit. “If we include the number of jobs that should have been created just to keep up with growing student enrollment,” the EPI report states, “we are currently experiencing a 307,000 job shortfall in public education.”

A shortfall of more than 300,000 jobs in public education. Think about that the next time news of a teacher strike hits the headlines. Maybe severe budget cuts made sense to folks in 2007, but the underlying rationale behind firing teachers has never made sense to me.

In the Obama years, Republicans and Democrats alike were delighted to find common cause against teachers. Students weren’t doing so well, they argued, because their teachers simply weren’t good enough. Education reform was the name of the game, and everyone who wasn’t a quality teacher just had to go.

Problem was, that was a myopic view of the world. Neither students nor teachers exist in a vacuum. As I like to say, students don’t live in schools — they live in communities. And when their communities are negatively affected, that has a negative impact on them. So if you fire a whole bunch of black teachers, as education reformers did, with devastating effect, in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., around the time of the recession, that’s going to have ripple effects on their families and communities.

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The charter school era was predicated on the notion of breaking up the monopoly that unions have on schools. Collective bargaining agreements, aka union contracts, had a stranglehold on schools, reformers cried. It was impossible to get rid of bad teachers, they argued. They linked student outcomes solely to teacher performance, and got rid of the teachers they deemed ineffective.

But isolating one factor didn’t do the trick. Most of the teachers fired were black, and most of the charter schools were concentrated in districts that were majority-black, causing upheaval in black communities, which are disproportionately represented in public sector union jobs. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of black workers in unions, at 12.5 percent, is the highest among the major racial groups. Education services professions represent the second-highest unionization rate among all occupations.)

With the firings, reformers ignored the correlation between poverty and student performance. Solidly middle-class neighborhoods tend to boast strong educational outcomes. That’s not because teachers magically perform better in some zip codes as compared to others. Instead, much of the educational gap can be attributed to higher teacher workload, inadequate salaries, paucity of classroom supplies and school resources. When teachers are too overworked to sit down with a struggling student, who suffers? When schools don’t have enough money to purchase updated textbooks, who has to make do?

Look, black people have few enough avenues of income security, and education jobs are one of them. It’s not the salaries that are attractive — those are usually inadequate — but the security net of retirement benefits. If there’s a medical emergency, a divorce, any unexpected big expense, there’s a 401k to turn to.

This layer of protection became even more apparent when the subprime mortgage crisis hit, because black people, of all racial groups, had the greatest proportion of their wealth tied up in their homes. Black Americans had already been hit by housing devaluation due to racism, which extracted wealth from homeowners in majority black neighborhoods, and hit again by predatory lending that disproportionately affects black and brown families. The housing crisis was the final straw, devastating the financial reserves of black people. According to another EPI report, the median net worth of black households dropped by 53 percent between 2005 and 2009, while the net worth of white households dropped by only 17 percent.

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As a former manager of a charter school network in post-Katrina New Orleans, I saw Democratic and Republican reformers together erode labor protections. I regularly heard the complaint that public schools were glorified human resource offices, meaning that schools were more about the adults than the kids. But the fact is that a lot of teaching is about the adults. Kids can’t teach themselves. Problems that the adults in their school face are critical to student outcomes. Reformers wax poetic about caring for children, which is important, but to do that holistically, you have to also care for teachers and students’ families and the lunch lady in the cafeteria. Trying to fix education just by firing teachers — which, by the way, is directly related to teacher overload and therefore quality of education — doesn’t reflect the way people live.

Because of the backlash that reformers faced when scores of black educators lost their jobs, and because of the realization that replacing them with younger white hires didn’t solve the problem, the same folks who were on the warpath for black teaching jobs are now looking to hire more black teachers. Better late than never, I say.

Research shows that having a black teacher, in particular, does a lot of good for students, especially minority students. Black students who have one teacher by third grade are 7 percent more likely to graduate high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. After having two black teachers, black students’ likelihood of enrolling in college increases by 32 percent.

There’s a relevant correlation for you: Hire more black teachers, and educational outcomes of black students will improve on their own. This simple action comes with all sorts of attendant benefits for students and the communities they live in. Hire more black teachers and also fund schools in poor and black districts, and then see how a rising tide lifts all ships. But all of this requires a trust of black people and their institutions — something that education reform has yet to try at scale.

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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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