Black Women Teachers Need Better Working Conditions to Improve Education in the Cities

Reductions in the number of black women who teach can never lead to the academic success of black children.

The ability to hold on to black women in the teaching profession is an essential indicator of quality. The Albert Shanker Institute’s recent report on The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education essentially asserts that more must be done to improve working conditions and help retain teachers of color. But the Shanker report can go further.

Improving teachers’ work conditions for the benefit of students really means improving conditions for black women in urban schools.

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Recruitment is not the primary reason for a lack of diversity, the report found. The overall share of minority teachers increased from 1987 to 2012, but the attrition rate for teachers of color negated those gains.

In addition, the share of black, brown and Asian students outpaced the recruitment of teachers from those populations.

The Shanker report names all the reasons why this problem must be fixed. Black and brown teachers are more motivated to work with disadvantaged youth, have higher expectations, and these teachers rebut stereotypes. Diversity in the workforce is the ultimate standard of educational success.

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Using the conventional black-white achievement gap is a deceptive and harmful way to measure quality. Whenever we use white people as a referent, we are essentially saying they are the model or standard of quality. Actually, a healthy public educational system produces diverse teachers.

Contrary to equity standards is the “race of the teacher doesn’t matter” rhetoric, which devalues black work and hurts academic achievement.

White privilege in the “race of the teacher doesn’t matter” rhetoric is not seeing that an all white teaching staff instills a powerfully negative and insidiously conflicting message – smartness isn’t diverse. A diverse teaching corps will not simply come from students whom acquired the fundamentals math, language arts, social studies, art and science. A diverse workforce comes from valuing black and brown people.

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The reasons why we don’t realize a diverse teaching core isn’t because of an ineffective teacher prep programs, a dearth of potential candidates or a lack of effective recruitment strategies. Institutional racism throughout the schooling process limits access and opportunities for people of color. There’s nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t fix.

When we expel black and brown children at higher rates, we discourage teaching as a career. When tuition drives teacher prep program, we create barriers for students who come from low-income families. When teachers are fired en masse like in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. and the rehires reflect a different hue, then we know an effective or diverse teacher workforce wasn’t on the agenda.

Colorblind efforts hurt black and brown teachers. But they especially hurt black women. So let’s get this right. Gender blind approaches are as insidious as race neutral policies.

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According to 2014 Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) data, slightly more than 80 percent of elementary school teachers are women. Nearly 60 percent of high school teachers are women.

But from preschool to college, if a black person teaches you, it’s very likely to be a woman. All but two percent of all black preschool teachers are women. Women represent 80 percent among all black elementary teachers. In high schools, men are more representative of the entire black population at 48 percent. However, in the college ranks, women represent 57 percent of all black instructors.

Through the Jim Crow era of segregation until recent times, teaching represented one of the few accessible positions that provided a middle class wage as well as community respect. Before the era of The Feminine Mystique, black people understood economic and professional equity because women taught. That is not to say women enjoyed equal wages or rose to levels of management at rates of their men counterparts. However, black women teachers shattered the patriarchal ideal of the male breadwinner.

Teaching is a source of black woman empowerment, and society is better for it.

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However, education reform’s charge to improve teacher quality through race and gender neutral strategies as a means to turn around urban schools is more than an incidental attack on black women. Education reform is masculine. Paternalism in the current wave of education reform is revealed by our lack of diversity and ostensible callousness to the loss of women-held positions.

Certainly we need to recruit black men and other ethnic groups to teach in urban schools. However, the recruitment of others to the field must be a result of improving the conditions for black women teachers.

In other words, recruitment should support black women’s work in schools, not replace it.

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.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).