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Why black teachers are leaving urban schools

What's behind the drop off in African American teachers? The answer is more complicated than you may think.

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    President Barack Obama speaks to business leaders at the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, to renew his calls for increased spending in infrastructure, education and scientific research.
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While the percentage of minority teachers has risen in the US, the number of black teachers has declined between 2002 and 20012 in nine cities, according to a recent study by the Albert Shanker Institute.

What does this mean not only for the communities in which these schools exist, but for the nation as a whole?

“Diversity is a key component to equality and opportunity,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Washington Post. “Where there’s a diverse teaching workforce, all kids thrive. That’s why we note with alarm the sharp decline in the population of black teachers in our cities.”

There are several factors which may be behind this decline. The first is low pay for teachers. According to a study by Young Invincibles, an advocacy group, the average starting salary for a teacher is $34,575 – or about $6,000 less than the average starting salary of 28 professions.

The second is the recurring emphasis that education policy tends to place on test scores. This rigidity, argues Nekita Lamour, a Haitian-American and tenured educator, disincentivises black and Hispanic educators from participating in the system: they are not being encouraged to teach their fellow man, but to the test, instead.

The Shanker Institute’s study found that over a ten-year period, from 2002 to 2012 (a period marked by an explosion in the development of charter schools, and an accompanying dialogue about education reform), the population of black teachers declined by as much as 62 percent in the cities studied (although in the case of New Orleans, many black teachers were fired).  

“Minority teachers quit because of working conditions in their schools,” Richard Ingersoll, an expert who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, also told the Washington Post. “In surveys, those teachers cite lack of autonomy and input into school decisions [in large urban schools].”

There is also evidence that suggests black and Hispanic teachers are crucial to an effective school system, especially to minority-majority districts: not only do they serve as a role model to young kids who may not be acquainted with many college-educated adults, they also have what the study terms “heritage knowledge,” or an ingrained understanding of the culture in which they operate because they are from it. This so-called “heritage knowledge” can lessen the barrier of educational accessibility for minority students, because they are being taught by adults who are from their own backgrounds.  

As the Shanker Institute study notes, the issue has not been recruiting these teachers, but retaining them. In July 2012, President Barack Obama created the White House Executive Order on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, designed to "improve the recruitment, preparation, development, and retention of successful African-American teachers."

This executive order proposed reforms that would "[support] efforts to increase the number of African American teachers and administrators, specifically the number of African American males in the profession" and "[strengthen] relationships between schools and communities," including local businesses. Liberal news outlets such as the Huffington Post have noted that as part of Mr. Obama's overall education plan, his focus on helping minority-majority neighborhoods succeed is a critical one, while The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, views Obama's proposals with concern, as they feel that the Department of Education's budget has too big.

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