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black teachers
Booker T. Washington teaches a class in 1916. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collections

If we are to improve educational outcomes among low-income students of color, then it’s not just the black students who need black teachers; it’s white students too.

We regularly extol the benefits of black and brown teachers on the students who look like them. But undoing the racism that stifles achievement requires something more.

Better teaching should be aimed at the source of schooling problems – future policy makers.

Privilege is passed on like inheritance. Therefore, we must educate the children of people currently in power so they won’t replicate the systems of the past. Undoing the racism that muffles achievement requires teaching the scions of privilege who will likely end up running systems that fail students of color.

Yes, black students need black teachers for all the obvious reasons. Becoming an effective teacher is the purest evidence of a functional educational system. For students of color to matriculate successfully through college to return and teach means that schooling truly added value to a system that apparently rejects black and brown talent. Blacks and Hispanics represented less that 14 percent of teachers in 2012 at a time when the two populations approached half of all students in public schools.

Black students certainly need to have role models of smartness. The experience of receiving white teachers throughout students of color’s educational trajectory imparts what scholar bell hooks* names the hidden curriculum – the unexamined, implicit cultural values that are communicated to students. Not seeing black and brown teachers insidiously puts a race on smartness.

White students absorb these same cultural cues.

In addition, effective teaching matters. That’s why white students need teachers of color.

It’s a given that members from all racial groups benefit from quality teaching.

There’s no downside. Research shows that “African American students and white students with the same level of prior achievement make comparable academic progress when they are assigned to teachers of comparable effectiveness.”

Cultural differences influence teaching efficacy, however. “Most results show that when black teachers teach black students, black students achieve more than when taught by white teachers,” writes Andy Porter in Rethinking the Achievement Gap.

Related: Column Bright black students taught by black teachers are more likely to get into gifted-and-talented classrooms

According to a recent study at Johns Hopkins University, white teachers have lower expectations of black and brown students. The study found that when a black teacher and a white teacher evaluate the same black student, the white teacher is about 30 percent less likely to predict the student will complete a four-year college degree.

The same is true when it comes to high school graduation. An aside – I wish states and universities considered expectations when considering teacher candidates. The clog of discouragement in the teacher pipeline starts in primary and secondary school.

Our notions of teacher quality should include expectations.

I’m not talking about the trite, somewhat dangerous brand of expectation inherent in statements like: “I want to create the kind of schools that suburban kids go to.”

I’m talking about the expectation that sees students as already possessing assets.

Related: Leading by example: Black male teachers make students ‘feel proud’

Black students will always underachieve when they are perceived as needing fixing.

“Black teachers may have a larger policy impact when they teach white students.”

The irony is that black students aren’t the ones who need fixing.

Deficit thinking corrupts the potential effectiveness of even the most competent teachers.

White folk must unlearn their negative expectations. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change the structures that really hold students back.

When teachers of color teach people in power they dig at the root causes of low expectations and open doors of opportunity for the profession and beyond.

Black teachers may have a larger policy impact when they teach white students.

Higher expectations can check the deficit thinking that festers in segregated schooling environments. Nip racism in the bud by teaching equality in youngsters.

But don’t place the burden of increasing the number of black and brown teachers on the people who are saddled with low expectations from the start.

It’s easier for the upper classes to hear calls for diversifying the teaching pool when those calls pertain to its benefits upon black and brown students. This feeds the common thinking that students of color need fixing.

There’s nothing wrong with black and brown students that ending racism can’t solve.

What’s hard to swallow is the thought that one’s supposedly privileged education actually contributes to the problem of inequality.

Black and brown students do not choose districts that are underfunded and teachers who are underprepared.

They certainly don’t choose curricula that fail to prepare them for college or careers.

Black and brown people don’t make teacher certification requirements that limit their own participation.

Related: Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show

The people in power who make these choices don’t look like the students who need change.

So, who needs a better education?


That’s the main reason why white students need black and brown teachers as much as do students of color.

Simply saying we need more black and brown teachers won’t change the power dynamics that create negative outcomes. In the classroom, “speaking truth to power” translates to people of color teaching persons in power. When that happens, the institutions of low expectations can fall.

*The scholar formerly known as Jean Watkins spells her pen name, bell hooks, without uppercase letters.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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