“Your presence is an act of resistance.” —Vincent Cobb II, CEO of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice

In October 2017, The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice invited black male educators from around the country to engage in a conversation centered on social justice and equity through the lens of black men and the students they serve. The organization views diversity and equity as a fundamental part of a child’s education, yet schools and districts often provide a monolithic perspective of society and power through their hiring and retention practices.

Recently, the Center for American Progress released a report on teacher diversity from the school years 2013–16. The authors determined that teacher diversity numbers have gotten worse since 2012. Meanwhile, the country’s student population continues to grow more diverse. Of the 19 states with more recent data, all states saw an increase in their nonwhite student populations. This should come as no surprise, as 2014 saw the percentage of students of color exceed the percentage of white students in U.S. public schools for the first time.

It should be noted that in May 2016, the TeachStrong coalition released a set of policy proposals for identifying, attracting, and developing educators of color. The recommendations called for revamped teacher preparation programs, higher standards for teacher licensure and certification, greater time for professional development, and targeted professional learning opportunities to address teacher needs. Nearly 70 national and state organizations have adopted these principles as a viable strategy for diversifying the teacher workforce.

Black communities have always known that having more highly effective black men (and women) leading classrooms and schools can have a direct and tangible impact on our students’ achievement. So has the country; it’s just that rarely are districts and cities serious about implementing it.

Expect Great Things

Since 1968—the year Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published Pygmalion in the Classroom—we’ve known that “when we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” This “Pygmalion Effect” translates into classrooms when teachers’ expectations influence student performance. When educators have positive outlooks about their students and high expectations, it has a positive influence on students’ outcomes. Conversely, when educators have negative expectations about students, it has a detrimental effect on students’ performance.

The body of research that confirms what we have always known continues to grow. Having more black teachers can have a tremendous impact on black students. Consider these statistics:

  • Having just one black teacher in elementary school can decrease dropout rates by almost 40 percent, according to a working paper published by the Institute of Labor Economics.
  • According to the same study, persistently low-income male students who have had at least one black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade are 29 percent more likely to be interested in pursuing college.
  • When black students have black teachers, they have an increase in academic achievement, according to the Institute of Labor Economics.
  • When black students have white teachers, they are half as likely to be placed in gifted programs than if they have a black teacher—even if they have the same scores as white students, according to research published by the American Educational Research Association.
  • We know that black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled; however, when black students have more black teachers, students see a decrease in suspension and expulsion rates, according to research published by the journal Education Next.
  • A study published in the Economics of Education Review found that black teachers have higher expectations and confidence in black students than white teachers.

It isn’t just black children who are impacted by having teachers of color. In a study analyzing student surveys from sixth- through ninth-graders in cities around the country, researchers found that all students—even white students—had the most positive perceptions of their black and Latino teachers.

Bias and racism aren’t just reinforced by institutions. Often, these mindsets are reinforced at kitchen tables and in living rooms. Many of the white students who benefit from having a black male teacher will grow up to influence policy, police neighborhoods, and raise a new generation.

By seeing black men in positions of power and influence in close proximity, a cognitive dissonance can occur that challenges negative notions white children hold of black people, often honed by the media and bias-forming conversations and upbringings.

Sizing Up Solutions

So, what can states and districts do? First, make a real commitment to diversify and engage those who are closest to the issue. Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has engaged members of The Fellowship and other stakeholders to address increasing teacher diversity. After realizing that only 28 black men graduated from Pennsylvania’s teacher colleges in 2014, education leaders joined a cohort of states working with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to ensure that Pennsylvania’s diversity increases by 2040.

Without significant and deliberate interventions, in many places across the country the yawning gaps between student and teacher diversity won’t close until 2060. Is that good enough for you? If not, consider implementing some of these interventions:

  • Set real, transparent goals and results. Share them. Don’t hide behind the potential of “failure”—stake a clear goal. You’ll likely attract allies to help.
  • Grow your own teachers. Use opportunities to investigate pathways to teaching.
  • Investigate licensure and certification paths, and determine what unnecessary barriers exist, including costs.
  • Engage practitioners and practitioner-based organizations such as The Fellowship, Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models), Brothers Empowered 2 Teach, Profound Gentlemen, Building BONDS, NYC Men Teach, Boston Teacher Residency Male Teachers of Color Network, and the Black Teacher Project in solving this national problem. You can’t manage complex problems from Excel spreadsheets.
  • Address working conditions and provide professional development for administrators to better support the teachers of color on staff.
  • Ensure that ongoing and mandated cultural proficiency professional development is provided for local-, district-, and state-level staff. It shouldn’t just be teachers who receive training on bias, race, and equity; recruiters and policymakers should also have this training. Too often, professional development (PD) that dives into topics such as race and equity is offered as an opt-in. This should be deeply addressed in teacher colleges, as well as in schools and districts.
  • Use cohort models to place teachers of color. Ensure that there are very few “loners” in schools and that school leaders are consciously combatting the potential for the “invisible tax” that teachers of color often face.
  • Look at schools that have higher retention rates of teachers of color, and engage them in providing PD for other schools (as well as the district) in what they have found to be promising practices.
  • Invest in colleges that are supporting black teachers in becoming highly effective educators—particularly historically black colleges and universities. Also, consider loan forgiveness, housing stipends, college scholarships, etc. The Fellowship is fundraising for an endowment to be used to recruit and support talented high school students. Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, has created the Project IMPACT program, a cohort model, to address New Jersey’s diversity issues. Consider looking at the outstanding North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, which had strong recruitment and retention rates, but was cut from North Carolina’s budget after years of success.
  • Don’t approach the work of diversifying schools as the only lever—there is other work that needs to be done to improve the achievement levels of our students. Diversification is one important spoke in a big wheel.

Where there is a will, there is a way. When there is no will, the road to diversifying our schools will be as avoidable as policymakers want it to be.

Sharif El-Mekki is principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia, PA. He served as principal ambassador fellow at the U.S. Department of Education from 2013–15. In October 2014, he founded The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, a professional organization dedicated to advancing the recruitment, development, and retention of black male educators in schools throughout Greater Philadelphia.