Wanted: black schoolteachers. Importance of classroom `role models' debated

The black schoolteacher is very nearly an endangered species. And with record numbers of black children entering America's public schools, leaders in the black community are concerned about the effect this may have on social progress for blacks. Since 1977, says Beverly Cole of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the number of minority teachers overall has dropped from 10 percent to less than 5 percent of America's teaching force. The figure is still falling, Ms. Cole adds -- with blacks making up a sizable part of the decline.

The consensus is that this new scarcity is the result of fewer blacks going to college, a greater demand for educated blacks in other fields, and a high failure rate on teacher competency tests among blacks trying to enter the profession.

Experts note that there have never been many minority teachers in America. A new factor however, is the increased number of black children entering school. The US Census Bureau estimates that by 1990, 19 percent of the children in public schools will be black; another 11 percent will be from other minorities.

For years, the standard refrain has been that to succeed, black youth need black role models as teachers and guides. Many blacks, however, now question this assumption. Some black leaders say it merely offers an excuse for failure. Albert McWilliams, dean of the Atlanta University School of Education, says that to decide black teachers are essential to black success ``is a bunch of poppycock.''

What blacks need, says Dr. McWilliams, are role models that will ``institute excellence and maintain high expectations.'' Persons of any race are capable of doing that, he says.

Many other blacks, however, disagree. ``You need minority teachers as a role model for the idea of pluralism in the schools,'' says Lovely Billups, an American Federation of Teachers union offical. Further, at a time when many inner-city black youths are isolated from mainstream society, black teachers provide an important role as ``cultural interpreters,'' she says, adding that black teachers also ``interpret'' for their fellow white teachers in such schools, helping them with the nuances of black life and culture. ``I know I needed Hispanic teachers to tell me about Hispanic children,'' she says.

This teacher issue comes to the surface following much media attention given in recent months to the plight of a large portion of the black community in America. A CBS television documentary and a major series by the Washington Post, among other media stories, have examined the alarming incidence of violent crime, teen-age pregnancy, joblessness, and dropping out of high school among black youth.

Members of the growing black middle class are concerned that such reports reinforce stereotypes, and they say the reports hardly represent the large numbers of blacks making important contributions to American culture.

But the reports have also caused a lot of soul-searching, leading many blacks to reaffirm the traditional importance of education -- and the black teacher -- in battling problems in the black community.

Bryan Washington, Harvard professor of English, said last week during a Harvard conference on the black intellectual that not enough thought is given in the black community to ``the development of talent,'' which in turn ``leaves our people on the outside.''

``We must look at poverty, crime, economic issues,'' he says. ``Our problem is that we must teach each other.''

Dr. Washington's expression is not just figurative, say black leaders. For the last 50 years, education has been the backbone of the black social structure, they say, and teaching was a job to aspire to.

In the 1950s and '60s, which Ms. Billups refers to as ``the `golden days' of black education,'' it was the black teachers who provided a sense of self-worth and dignity to young blacks, she says.

Circumstances have changed, however. Blacks who would have become teachers are taking the opportunities offered them by a loosening of job restrictions, and by integration.

In turn, it is now more common to hear blacks support white teachers, experts say, though few blacks suggest city schools should be dominated by whites. Harvard education professor Kenneth Haskins offers that having too many whites in a predominantly black school ``sends a certain kind of signal,'' unwisely enforcing ``a condition of authority'' that creates tensions.

No educators consulted for this report -- black or white -- were satisfied with the drop-off in black teachers.

What can be done about it?

Some black advocates suggest doing away with the competency tests for entering teaching. The tests are often biased or culturally skewed, they contend.

The tests are, in fact, the biggest roadblock for prospective black teachers. In 1983, 74 percent of prospective black teachers failed to pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test.

Gaining a greater hearing among educators, however, are the approaches of such black educators as Bernard Gifford, dean of the School of Education at the University of Calfornia, Berkeley.

Dr. Gifford says that ``whatever ails tests can be fixed,'' but it is entirely wrong to do away with them. ``Unfortunately, a college diploma is no longer a guarantee of literacy,'' he says. Why subject more youth -- black or white -- to poor teachers? That only perpetuates the problem, he feels.

Gifford's proposal is to spot early on (as early as high school) promising minority and low-income students who express a commitment to teaching. Test them. Then admit the best performers to a rigorous undergraduate program in college, with tuition paid. Those students maintaining a B average or better would then continue to receive scholarship money for graduate school.

Measures such as these, says Gifford, which are already being debated in the California Legislature, are the first steps in addressing an ``unacceptable'' problem.

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