Policy surrounding the nation’s shortage of black teachers tends to focus around recruitment or retention. However, new research suggests that those two issues are only part of the problem. The other culprit is blatant racial discrimination.
A Harvard Educational Review study looks at the hiring patterns of one large unidentified public school district. Job applicants in this district apply to a central office before human resources sends the relevant resumes to school principals. Principals then set up interviews with applicants and decide to whom they want to extend an offer.
In 2012, the black and white teachers who applied for jobs in the district were equally qualified, researchers found. However, white teachers received a disproportional number of job offers.
Although 13 percent of job applicants were black, only 6 percent received offers. On the other hand, 70 percent of applicants were white, and 77 percent received offers. Black teachers disproportionately received job offers from schools with black principals. Black teachers were also disproportionately hired in schools with high rates of low-income and minority students.
Hispanic and Asians candidates were hired at a proportional rate to the number of applicants, making the imbalance unique to black teachers.
District leaders were shocked by the results, said study author and researcher Diana D’Amico, who is an assistant professor at George Mason University. The district prides itself on its effort to recruit minority applicants and “created this story that there’s not more black teachers because black individuals are not applying,” said D’Amico.
At first, district leaders suggested that perhaps 2012 had been an unusual year for hiring. But D’Amico found no evidence of this.
“I think this is just another example of how ideas about race and racism, to be frank, are deeply embedded in the schools,” said D’Amico. “The other thing is, if there are these racial assumptions that inhibit the hiring of black individuals, I wonder how those same perceptions influence teachers once they’re already in the system.”
Indeed, minority teachers tend to have lower rates of retention than their white counterparts. Nationwide, during the 2012-2013 school year, the turnover rate for minority teachers was 19 percent, but only 15 percent for non-minority teachers.
The lack of black teachers is a problem in this district and around the country. Although about 15 percent of American students are black, only 8 percent of American teachers are black.
The stakes on this issue are high. Numerous studies have indicated that black teachers can have an enormous positive impact on black students. Having a black teacher in elementary school significantly increases the likelihood that a black student will graduate, a recent John Hopkins University study found. The impact is particularly acute for low-income black boys. For this demographic, having at least one black teacher from third through fifth grade reduced the likelihood of later dropping out of school by 39 percent.
It’s unclear why having a black teacher early on in life would have such an immense impact on students in high school and beyond.
“I speculate these teachers are probably just as good as other teachers but there’s something special about race match effect,” said study co-author and John Hopkins professor Nicholas Papageorge.
“There has been a lot of scholarship and research on this idea of the role model effect. This idea that if you’re a poor black boy, you might not have a lot of contact with college educated folks who look like you, and spending a year with a teacher who is also black and who is college educated, might allow them to imagine themselves in that kind of a role, and shift their own expectations and aspirations,” Papageorge told the Huffington Post, although he does not know if the role model effect influenced his study.
However, D’Amico thinks that the results of the latest study are problematic for both black and white students, since most black teachers were hired in minority schools. The fact that white students in some schools get nearly zero exposure to black teachers demands further interrogation, she says.
“Black teachers are important for black kids, and that almost rationalizes the segregation we see,” said D’Amico. “Aren’t black teachers important for white students too?”