Brown v Board of Education’s Uncertain Legacy on Teacher Diversity

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Teacher Mary Natali goes over information with her first grade class at George Buck Elementary School in Indianapolis. Data show a growing racial gap between teachers and students. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)


There’s a growing racial gap between students and their teachers. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on May 18, the Center for American Progress and the National Education Association released data from the National Center of Education Statistics, which found that 82 percent of the teachers are white, while 48 percent of the students are non-white.

The racial gap among teachers will grow according to experts. Woodrow Wilson reports that if current trends hold, the percentage of teachers of color will fall to an all-time low of 5 percent of the total teacher workforce by 2020. At the same time the percentage of students of color will likely exceed 50 percent in the fall of 2014.

Most people look at these numbers and singularly point to a teacher pipeline issue. We assume that people of color need to be recruited into the profession. But, let’s not fall in the trap of blaming people of color for these numbers.  Ask, “Why aren’t people of color being hired as teachers?”

In debates about who should teach, we often hear, “what does race have to do with good teaching?”  District and state leaders frequently justify radical changes in staffing – often forced – that result in significant shifts in the racial makeup of the teaching workforce, with the belief of race shouldn’t matter.  Given the social consequences and the billions of dollars involved in education, the economic and academic stakes of who teaches are certainly high. Who ultimately gets to teach reflects the political maneuvering for those stakes. Saying race doesn’t matter actually benefits predominately-white organizations.

Race matters when it comes to teaching. Lessons are easier to learn when you can relate to what is taught, how it is taught and who teaches. Similarly, content has to be culturally relevant for students.  Teachers also are the primary gatekeepers to a guild or field of study. Teachers don’t dispense skills as much as they usher future apprentices into a particular academic discipline. In this regard, culture matters. We need black biologists and Latino writers, so that all students can see members of those groups as belonging in their respective fields.

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An adequate pool of teachers provides the purest evidence that our educational system and schools are working. The desire to become a teacher is strongly correlated with how students are treated in schools. We should not be surprised that the percentage of teachers of color is declining when we examine the high rates of suspension and expulsion among students of color. Even the brand of “discipline” school leaders often brag about dispensing insidiously removes teaching as a future employment option. A quality school climate and good experience compels students to become teachers. The inverse is true. Bad climates repel teaching as a career choice.

As we reflect on Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act anniversaries, we can see how far we still are from a democratic ideal. The goal of reform should not be to close some numerical achievement gap. Reform is about improving the racial climate of schools, and about increasing the number of teachers, biologist, engineers and writers. Education reform is about hiring practices. Too many reformers and education groups dismiss race as an important factor in selecting a teacher and abdicate their responsibilities to provide substantive opportunities to black and brown people.  Academic growth without corollary employment growth signals discrimination; one without the other isn’t a sign of progress. To not have significant groups participate in their own development is paternalistic discrimination.

Closing the proverbial achievement gap is not the true goal. Building stronger communities in which everyone can live out their potential is.  It’s not too much to ask for academic growth and employment. Brown v. Board of Education didn’t seek to increase academic achievement in lieu of employment opportunities, did it?  It’s been 60 years since the landmark decision, and we still haven’t learned the meaning of civil rights.

Dr. Andre Perry (@andreperryedu), founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.  On May 14, the university’s College of Urban Education will hold a teach-off and symposium, Brown v. Board of Education at 60: Closing the STEM Achievement Gap.

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