Monday, July 28, 2014

I'm so DC that. . .

Glenn Sullivan, a recent graduate from Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. in New Orleans published an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled, "My school district hires too many white teachers":
In my school, as in many schools — especially in reform-oriented school districts — a lot of the good, black teachers have been replaced by younger white teachers. Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, nearly 75 percent of the city’s public school teachers were black. That began to change after Katrina, when charter schools began to grow in number. The percentage of minority teachers across New Orleans public schools dropped from 60 percent to 54 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to data compiled by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. This troubles me. Particularly upsetting to me was the departure of the music teacher, a veteran black educator who helped run the New Tech school choir and put together trips for students.

This sparked some conversations in the grassroots ed reform community about teacher diversity. In one instance, Rutgers student, aspiring teacher, and education activist Stephanie Rivera blogged about reactions to the New Orleans student's commentary on the Bad Ass Teachers' facebook page, which in many cases was dismissive of Mr.Sullivan's point of view. From Stephanie's post:
What I find frustrating about most of these comments is their complete dismissal of the greater issues reflected by this post. The comments that argue that “there aren’t enough teachers of color” are ignoring the boundaries that keep many people of color pursuing this career. Many had oppressive\racist\non-cultural relevant education experiences, so many are reluctant to enter an environment they grew up hating. Many ignore that college-access, especially for people of color, is limited. Thus, completely leaving out the opportunity to even pursue a teaching certificate. As long as students of color are given more barriers than their white counterparts to go into teaching, the longer teachers of color will be the minority.

Another irritating argument includes that “it doesn’t matter what color a teacher is, as long as the teacher is good, that’s all that matters.” That is completely missing the point of the importance and benefits of students of color having teachers who look like them (see: Study: Minority students do better under minority teachers, Why students need more Black and Latino teachers). Yes, all teachers regardless of race can be trained to be effective teachers of black students, but black teachers can “be more adept at motivating and engaging students of color.” Additionally, by having students of color see people who look like them in successful positions, it can help prove to them that they can hold such positions too. Also, comments such as “color doesn’t matter,” is possibly one of the most racist statements one could make. By saying, “I don’t see color,” or “color doesn’t matter,” is basically saying “I don’t see your experiences, your stories, your struggles. Those elements of your identity and life don’t matter to me.” Colorblindness is not justice, equality, or being a good teacher. Colorblindness is ignoring the very issues that your students need you to fight against.
Indeed. According to the Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowships for Aspiring Teachers of Color,
  • Nearly half of the nation’s students (44 percent) are students of color, but the latest data show that just one of every six teachers (16.7 percent) is a teacher of color."
  • Research also shows, overwhelmingly, that students of color perform better – academically, personally, and socially-when taught by teachers from their own ethnic groups." 
  • Current trends indicate that, by 2020, the percentage of teachers of color will fall to an all-time low of 5 percent of the total teacher force, while the percentage of students of color in the system will likely exceed 50 percent.
And, according to this Washington Post analysis, the student-teacher diversity gap is widening:
Students of color make up almost half of the public school population, but teachers of color make up just 18 percent of that population nationwide. And the disparity is even larger in 36 states. It’s largest in California where 73 percent of students are nonwhite while just 29 percent of teachers are nonwhite.
Teacher demographics can have an impact on students, CAP argues. Studies have shown that minority students fare better when taught by minority teachers and nonwhite educators may also find it easier to relate to students with whom they share a background.

First of all, I wish that white teachers would not take assertions such as "we need more teacher of color" so personally or as an attack on them. I am a white teacher who has mostly taught students of color. While I am certain that I can always do better as a teacher and in particular with students of color, such statements and conclusions are not directed personally at me or usually at other white teachers; they are addressed to public education as an institution. Second of all, the research shows that there are objectively disproportionately fewer teachers of color and that students of color do objectively do better with when taught by people who share their culture and background. Instead of focusing our energies on defending ourselves, we white teachers should a) see how we could help attract and retain more teachers of color to the profession and b) reflect on and act upon improving our own practice in order to counter racism and to be more culturally appropriate for all students

And this is one instance, as public education and edu-color activist Sabrina Joy Stevens has pointed out, where people of color run into the arms of reformers--when they experience racism or culturally irrelevant education in the public education system and when statements about those experiences aren't acknowledged or acted upon. I would expand on that to say that such educators are no better on matters of race than reformers like Michelle Rhee are. Reformers like Rhee may differ with most teachers on what shows and how to show what a great teacher is or what makes great teaching, but she sounds the same as defensive white teachers when she says, I don't care who you are or what your background is, all that matters is that the teacher is a great one.

And it is not just students of color who should have more teachers of color. White students need more teachers of color, too. I'm going to go in a more personal direction now and I hope you'll stick with me. As I may have mentioned before, I grew up in DC in the 1970s and 1980s. I went to DC Public Schools for my entire PK-12 career. I was in the minority in all four DC public schools I went to and the majority of my teachers, principals, and counselors were black. I can't quantify the influence this has had me, and frankly, for a long time, it was just an experience I took for granted, as the natural state of things because I didn't know any different. But as the realizations of this influence have come to me in different pieces and in various stages and varying levels of intensity, I can qualify it.

My mother only recently told me the following story: My older sister and were young enough to be in elementary school and we were having a conversation with our parents about racial demographics in this US. It came up that the US was majority white and my sister and I asserted that it was majority black. My mother felt pleased that our experiences in DCPS had led us to such a conclusion, but as a civil rights lawyer, she also wanted to make sure we understood the reality, that the rest of the country was not, in fact, majority black even if our city and our schools were, so she made sure to correct our understanding.

When I got to college (and I went to "Diversity University") we had these frosh year workshops (there are no freshman at Wesleyan) where we explored topics of diversity, racism, sexism, gender, and homophobia. During one discussion in the spirit of openness the workshops encouraged, one white male student from rural New England said he had never been around or gone to school with so many students of color. That really surprised me, especially because Wesleyan didn't really seem to me to have so many students of color. I looked around and thought that, well, I have never gone to school with so many white people. I don't think I said anything at the time, but it was then that it started to dawn on me how unique my experience might have been. Toto, we ain't in DC anymore. For the most part I received a great education and I dearly love the friends I made there, but I experienced a certain amount of culture shock at Wesleyan and wonder sometimes if I would have been happier at a big state school.

This came up a few other times at Wesleyan--many of my classmates took a look at my blond hair and blue eyes and soccer cleats and assumed I was fresh out of a Massachusetts boarding school. This took me aback because my parents would never ever have sent me to a DC private school, let alone to a boarding school in New England, though in retrospect that's kind of what Wesleyan is, only for older teenagers and in Connecticut. I remember finally breaking out my high school yearbook to show one dubious hallmate from New York City that my school was not anything like a Massachusetts boarding school.

Again, I can't say anything concrete to speak to how my PK-12 schooling experience was good for me but I know I wouldn't trade it. And, I don't claim that the DCPS schools I went to existed in some racism-free bubble, that I am personally immune from contributing to racism or that I have no work to do. Just as being in a majority black setting in school influenced me, so must have the racist culture outside of school (see Shankar Vedantam on how the culture we grow up in influences our point of view).  I think given the racial composition of my neighborhood (mostly white) and given what I could pick up from the culture that surrounded me outside of school once I got older than I was during the afore-mentioned US demographics conversation, I well realized the role of racism in our country. But imagine what it was for a middle class white girl with educated parents to be the minority in her school and to go to schools where African-Americans were in most of the positions of authority. As I said, I have long taken this experience for granted, but now imagine how different (for the worse) I would be and how differently I would think and see the world without it.

DC, like New Orleans, has lost many black teachers (a post on this is in the works). The principal, counselor, and teacher corps in DCPS is markedly more white than it used to be even when factoring in that the white population of DC has increased.

And, while they are not in the minority, my own children are now in schools that are fairly diverse socioeconomically and racially (though not that diverse beyond back and white), I noticed right away when we moved here that the vast majority of their teachers and principals and people in leadership roles are white. This isn't to say that the teachers and administrators they have aren't good at what they do--they are fabulous, but it troubles me that there isn't more diversity. My husband and I can have frank conversations with our children about US history and racism and about racial dynamics in our own communities, but those conversations ultimately can't replace experiences.

I'm so DC that I know that the lack of teachers of color in my childrens' schools is a problem, but I am also so DC that this lack still surprises me and I get overwhelmed by where to start to try and change it, in what can sometimes feel like a foreign country.

But I have to start somewhere, right?

UPDATE 9/18: I'm not sure how I missed this but Melinda Anderson published a piece in Ebony in May 2014 succinctly chronicling the story of black teachers from the Brown v. Board era to now (in NYC, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia). Please read that here.


  1. Rachel, imagine if the headline read "My school district hires too many Black teachers" instead. I guess I'm with the conservatives a bit on this one. Of course we need to do all we can to improve access to college for minorities, and to promote teaching as a career, and I absolutely love the idea of working to increase the amount of Black teachers in White schools, and of course anybody who talks about a "color blind" society is most likely stupid and even more likely white and privileged. But in the end -- at the point of the hiring, not all the prior stuff you correctly write about -- we need to evaluate on teaching, not skin pigment. Regardless, it's not so easy to identify who is "white" and who is "black."

  2. @Derek

    Thanks for reading ad for commenting. The thing is that the practice of "we need to evaluate on teaching, not skin pigment" is a "colorblind" concept.

    Yes, race aka skin pigment is a social construct. But unfortunately, that was what was used to justify slavery and to justify all that has followed. In the process of racism, experiences are shared by certain groups of people even if the groups were arbitrarily assigned by skin pigment.

    Hence, experiences vis a vis racism have become part of who we are, and what we have to share with students as teachers, whether we mean to or not. And also, relationships between teachers and students can be (though are certainly not always) key in the learning process. These things become part of what kind of teachers we are and what kind of teaching we practice. And I want my children and all children to learn from people of all of these different perspectives and cultures and I want students of color to be able to learn from at least some people, or some more people in some places, who might share their perspective and culture.

    And I think that's what so many of the current reformers miss; they think that good teaching (maybe pedagogy?) and what you have to teach (maybe curriculum?) are things that exist in some objective, un-biased, baggage-less, quantifiably measurable vacuum, and they don't.

    Perhaps it's different or less intense in larger college lectures, I don't know.

    But doesn't it kind of seem like, when you look at the numbers (and I will present some on DC soon), that the reformers who came into DC and New Orleans pretty much decided that "My school district hires too many black teachers"? That's what it kind of looked to me and I think that that's what it might have felt like to the people there.

  3. Rachel, your last paragraph is most salient for me. It brought to mind frequent conversations about politics and ed reform I had over the past decade with a recently-retired colleague and friend, a black foreign language teacher, who logged a much-celebrated 30-year career in public schools, first in Oakland then in Sacramento. Among his most important points, which he came back to over and over again, was that in majority black communities like the Oakland where he grew up, black teachers, especially black women, were indeed present in significant numbers. Both his mother and grandmother were public school teachers. He had black teachers as role models from elementary through high school (always crediting his parents and teachers with charting the path that got him from Oakland to UC Berkeley just up the road). Despite obstacles I will never know, black teachers and admin built long-lasting professional, respected middle class careers with good benefits and retirements. And since the 60s and 70s, many were unionized. He warned from the early days of ed reform, that the focus on standardized test-based improvement metrics, neighborhood school closures, charters, a business school approach to "closing the achievement gap," and de-unionization -- all occurring as an outgrowth of relentlessly shifting American political, economic and social structures --would undoubtedly hit the black teaching community the hardest. In fact, he brought this up at his retirement party, telling some of us that he really believed there would be very few like him or his mother or grandmother ever again in the public school teaching corps going was a poignant and revelatory statement.

  4. @L. Jablonski: Thanks for sharing this. We (meaning my husband and children and I) actually lived in Oakland, just for two years, and sent our boys to OUSD for kindergarten.

    Anyway, yes, what your friend describes I am worried is happening to a whole generation (or two) of black education professionals in DC. I am working on a follow-up post as we speak that takes a look at some of the teacher and student demographic data out of DC.

  5. Rachel, everything you write is correct. But the problem is, in the end, the equal protection clause demands just that, including in the hiring process. Again, I support a whole host of programs to address this problem, maybe quite left-wing (if we could tax the rich to support scholarships to broaden access to teaching, great), but not hiring based on skin color. .. Separately, it's an interesting argument to suggest that because the social construction of race was use to justify slavery, we should therefore continue to reify it. Perhaps. Or we could work toward getting away from one of the spurious planks that supported slavery.

  6. I see. So, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race? That's a very seductive line of reasoning. It's even been made by the United States Chief Supreme Court Justice! But it doesn't seduce me. And it's offensive to suggest that saying there should be more teachers of color = reifying/ embracing one of spurious planks that supported slavery.

    Derek, this is not about winning an argument high school debate club style; it's about having a conversation.


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