The corporate reformers have wreaked havoc in schools across the nation. They’ve promoted charter schools and vouchers, slapped the “failing” label on struggling schools and students, and shut educators out of the dialogue. In the process, public education in many communities has suffered. And there’s been another result as well.
“In one of the most far-reaching consequences of the past decade’s wave of education reform, the nation has lost tens of thousands of experienced black teachers and principals,” Kristina Rizga writes for Mother Jones magazine in “Black Teachers Matter.”
Over the past several years, “26,000 African American teachers have disappeared from the nation’s public schools—even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000.” This is not only a teacher disappearance act; we’re also losing black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses, counselors and other educators.
As an association, we have focused on turning the trend around by promoting partnerships between local school systems and higher education institutions with strong teacher preparation programs, particularly historically black colleges and universities.
Very often, the loss of black teachers is driven by closures of schools that are targeted as “failing” because of low test scores. A study by the Albert Shanker Institute showed how sharply the number of black teachers declined in the nation’s largest urban school districts from 2000 to 2012. In New Orleans, for instance, the percentage of black teachers fell by more than 62 percent. In Chicago and Cleveland, the proportion dropped by 39.2 percent and 33.9 percent, respectively.
Nationwide, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are non-white, while more than 50 percent of public school students are African American, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander or Native American. As I’ve said before, this “disappearance crisis” isn’t just a problem for non-white students; it is a problem for all students. Teachers of color “can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds,” Melinda D. Anderson wrote recently in The Atlantic.
Furthermore, many studies show that black students are disciplined and punished at a higher rate than non-black students. Just as troubling, black students are only half as likely as white students to get into “gifted” programs, even when test scores are comparable. The presence of African-American teachers helps reverse these trends, because they are less apt to “mentally sort kids into ‘teachable’ or ‘problem student categories.” (Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education researcher at Santa Clara University, wrote about this in her book “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children.”)
And careers in public education, along with other public-service positions, have historically been a pathway for African-American families into the middle class. During segregation, these professionals were revered role models who were also activists for social justice. Our nation needs those voices and that activism today more than ever.
Rizga, author of “Mission High,” which looks at a San Francisco high school that is succeeding despite the odds, looks at the disappearance crisis through the prism of Philadelphia’s schools. She talks to educators such as Darlene Lomax, principal of an elementary school that, along with 23 others, was closed in 2013.
America has seen this before. During desegregation, thousands of black teachers and principals lost their jobs “even though they often had more credentials and teaching experience than white educators,” according to the soon-to-be-released book “Jim Crow’s Pink Slip,” by Leslie Fenwick, dean of the Howard University School of Education.
The new wrinkle is the efforts by corporate reformers to undercut public education and shut out educators. Many urban superintendents follow a familiar script, brought to them by foundations such as Eli Broad, one of the carnival barkers of factory school reform. They declare schools to be failing, push for school reform commissions or takeovers and then propose charter schools and vouchers as saviors.
Superintendents such as William Hite in Philadelphia propose a “portfolio model” of schools that includes charters. (To his credit, Hite also supports community schools.) But charter schools put more stress on already overtaxed education budgets. Plus, these schools often pick and choose which students they’ll accept.
And nearly as harsh as the loss to students is the loss to the neighborhood, because when schools are shuttered, an important hub that brings people together and helps stabilize the community is gone. There’s nothing sadder than looking at a stately school building through the links of a locked chain fence.
“It’s very hard to explain just how much emotional energy it takes to improve a school,” Lomax, the Philadelphia principal whose school closed in 2013, said in Rizga’s excellent article. “After six years of hard work together, I really felt like we were finally on the cusp of something great. Students were engaged, parents were volunteering more, teachers’ hearts were into it, and then it was shut down. I never want to go through something like this again.”
It’s no secret to us that charters, vouchers and other half-baked notions that take support and resources away from students are wrecking schools and communities. Rizga gives us even more reason to reject the corporate reformers and their bad ideas.