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Why K12 education needs diverse teachers

Education policy advocate explains why we should diversify the overwhelmingly white U.S. teaching force
Leslie T. Fenwick is dean of the School of Education at Howard University. Her upcoming book is "Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: Public Policy and the Near Decimation of Black Educational Leadership After Brown."
Leslie T. Fenwick is dean of the School of Education at Howard University. Her upcoming book is "Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: Public Policy and the Near Decimation of Black Educational Leadership After Brown."

Leslie T. Fenwick has been praised as “a fearless voice in education on behalf of communities of color.”

As dean of the School of Education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Fenwick has devoted her career to improving educational opportunity and outcomes for African-American and other underserved students from the elementary through graduate school levels. Her upcoming book, Jim Crow’s Pink Slip: Public Policy and the Near Decimation of Black Educational Leadership After Brown, will examine the cultural and social implications of educational policy as it relates to race equity and the principalship.

“It’s a touchy issue,” Fenwick says. “We’re not advocating race-matching of kids. And, with 80 percent of the nation’s teaching force being white and female, I’m not trying to throw darts at professionals who want to reach and meet the needs of all kids. We’re just saying let’s diversify the pot more.”

You wrote that HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions) provide the majority of the nation’s African-American and Hispanic teachers.

Right. HBCUs, which account for about 3 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher ed, produce 51 percent of the nation’s African-American teachers. In addition, HSIs produce 90 percent of the nation’s Hispanic/Latino teachers.

What I find interesting is that this is a small subset of institutions producing a proportionally large percentage of the nation’s black teachers. Without those institutions, the pipeline for those teachers would disappear.

So when we talk about anything related to diversifying—whether that’s the pipeline of college-going students, of teachers, dentists, or physicians—HBCUs and HSIs are still a significant player in that conversation. If they are not at the table, the goal and the aspiration to diversify is likely to be compromised.

Are these Black and Hispanic teachers making it into the system?

They are, but in smaller numbers. Blacks make up 7 percent of the teaching force. They make up about 11 percent of the nation’s 92,000 principals and about 3 percent of the nation’s 14,000 superintendents. Another 6 percent of teachers are Hispanic/Latino.

Blacks also tend to be more credentialed than their white peers. So when they ascend to the principalship or the superintendency, they are more likely to have a doctorate and more years of teaching or principal experience. And yet, they are underrepresented, as are females, in the principalship and the superintendency, which are overwhelmingly white male.

So we have this huge demographic mismatch between the public school population—which is increasingly diversified—and the school personnel who serve them.

Why does the school system remain overwhelmingly white? And, to play devil’s advocate, why is that a problem?

There’s an impact on kids. We’ve had research at least since the 1980s that shows African-American and Hispanic/Latino kids who are in high-diversity staffed schools are more likely to graduate high school in four years. They are less likely to be misplaced in special education, more likely to be tested for gifted education, and less likely to be suspended or expelled.

Does that mean we want to race-match kids and teachers? Absolutely not. But I believe we do have a need in this country to show kids diverse models of intellectual authority.

One of the problems we have in American public schools is that almost 40 percent of schools in the country have no educator of color. That’s really shocking to me in 2015.

You’ve written many times about the common misperceptions of minority students and their families.

Yes, they’re very harmful. The misperceptions act as a veil that confuses everyone. In many regards that veil is dangerous, because people are making policy decisions and personnel decisions based on these misperceptions.

Tell us some of these misperceptions.

One damaging misperception is that everyone assumes there are more black men in jail than in college. Even Howard University’s commencement speaker this year, Ursula Burns [chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox], repeated that in her address to the graduating class.

Afterward I told her, “I loved your keynote, but you are wrong about this and you need to not be wrong about it.”

In fact, there are more black men in college than in prison. There are 1.4 million black men in college and about 840,000 black men in prison. That’s too many black men in prison, obviously, but it is not empowering for us to keep repeating the falsehood.

That veil of misperception is debilitating to reasonable cross-racial conversations and progressive engagements, because the people on either side of the table are looking at each other with all this stuff rumbling around in the back of their head.

How did we arrive at this point?

Part of the reason the problem exists today is that we’ve not acknowledged the history about the near decimation of the black teacher-principal pipeline. It was smashed as part of white resistance to Brown vs. Board of Education [in which the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional].

The common notion is that, with desegregation, blacks pursued other fields. They no longer had to be teachers and preachers, so they pursued other fields. That is absolutely wrong. It’s not historically correct.

Following Brown, the 16 states that operated dual systems were supposed to desegregate. Washington, D.C., was the first of the “states” to desegregate its schools. The remaining 15, including Maryland, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, dragged their feet and resisted.

How did that resistance manifest itself?

It manifested itself in the massive demotion, dismissal and firing of black teachers and principals. The problem was so bad that in 1970 there were a series of Senate hearings on the displacement of black principals, in particular.

What’s interesting about those hearings is that each of the states that operated dual systems were required to submit reports listing every person who was fired, dismissed and demoted, and who they were replaced by. In those 16 states, there were no incidents where whites with more credentials replaced blacks. In fact, blacks were replaced by whites with lesser credentials.

We often talk about leveling the playing field and equality and giving people a fair shot. But we never talk about circumstances in which blacks exceed whites and are still victims of a racist system. There was not going to be a situation where black principals were going to manage white female teachers, and where black males or females were going to watch over white children in so-called integrated schools.

If this pipeline hadn’t been tinkered with, if the states had equitably integrated schools and were required to maintain black teachers and principals, the country would likely be in a very different place. In the dual system states, sometimes close to 50 percent of the teaching force was black. And now, in 2015, nearly two decades into a new millennium, there is no state that approaches those statistics.

What can be done to turn it around?

At the federal level, I think that the U.S. Department of Education can do more to support HBCUs and HSIs in their teacher pipeline projects. The department, under Secretary Duncan, has been very supportive of Teach for America, to the tune of $40 million. However, there has not been any comparable investment in HBCU or HSI schools and colleges of education.

In 2007, Howard University launched a Ready to Teach program. We partnered our School of Education with five urban districts—in Chicago, Houston, Maryland, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.—to recruit African-American males, as well as other underrepresented populations. They came to Howard and earned a master’s degree, and then returned to those districts with a commitment to four years of teaching.

The program was wildly successful. We had 20 slots available for each of five years, but we had over 1,800 applicants. And these were strong applicants, showing that all these people of color, African-American males, want to be teachers. This was originally funded by Margaret Spelling from the Bush administration. Arne Duncan has since spoken about more black teachers, more minority teachers, more black male teachers. He even cited Ready to Teach as worthy of being scaled up and funded. But there’s been no funding for it. Lots of talk, but no funding.

Tim Goral is senior editor.