We need to look at the pipeline, institutions that are producing black and brown teachers: Educator on lack of minority teachers

Howard School of Education Dean, Leslie Fenwick, PhD joined Yahoo Finance Live to break down why such a small percentage of educators are black and what the U.S. education system should do to increase the ranks of black teachers.

Video Transcript


JEN ROGERS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Jen Rogers, here with Sibile Marcellus and Kristin Myers. We've all heard the saying, if you can see it, you can be it, a nod to the importance of being able to see people like yourself in positions of power.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Well, here's what students are seeing inside America's classrooms. Just 7% of elementary and secondary teachers are Black. The vast majority, 80%, are white. In the school office, the picture is largely the same. 11% of school administrators are Black. 78% are white.

KRISTIN MYERS: And believe it or not, that's largely a result of the desegregation of schools from Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954. Schools integrated, and it was Black teachers who lost their jobs. So here to discuss is Leslie Fenwick, dean emeritus of the Howard School of Education. So Leslie, given the mass firing of Black teachers during that period of school integration, I'm wondering, how do you increase now the ranks of Black teachers?

LESLIE FENWICH: I'm so pleased that you're examining this topic and delighted to join you this afternoon. You know, your-- we've been too, I think, hesitant to look at the causal link between what happened after the Brown decision to the Black teacher pipeline. So you're correct in the assertion that after Brown, Black teachers and principals were summarily dismissed, fired, and demoted.

And we have to remember that Brown did not mandate the closing of Black schools, but that's exactly what happened. And so when Black schools were closed, Black principals, teachers, and principals were fired. And we're left today with this constricted and drained pipeline. The statistics you shared at the top of the show were exactly correct. About 7% of the nation's teachers are African-American. About 11% are principals, and less than 3% are superintendents.

I think one of the major things that we can do is look at the pipeline of institutions, the engines that are producing Black and brown teachers. And so the nation's HBCUs-- historically Black colleges and universities-- produce today, in 2021, 50% of the nation's African-American teachers, and two Hispanic-serving institutions produce 90% of the nation's Latinx teachers. So if we didn't have HBCUs to use and HSIs as engines producing the next generation of Black and brown teachers, the nation will surely suffer.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And how important are Black teachers, in terms of being role models for at-risk students?

LESLIE FENWICH: So today, we have nearly 40 years of research that shows the academic and social benefits that accrue to Black and brown students when they are in highly-diverse-staffed schools. They are less likely to be misplaced in special education, more likely to be recommended for gifted education, less likely to be suspended or expelled, and more likely to graduate high school in four years.

There are newer studies within the last 20 years that show that African-American students in particular benefit from African-American teachers, in terms of mathematics achievement, reading achievement on standardized tests in certain grades, and also college admission and matriculation. So in the research community, we have strong research to show that there are academic and social benefits that accrue to Black and brown students when they're in highly-diverse-staffed schools.

Additionally, we're getting newer research that looks at the benefit of diverse teaching staffs for white students. And the most recent report shows that white students report that they find Black teachers more caring than their white peers. I think there need to be some follow-up studies about why white students are reporting that, what they view as caring behavior, and how that caring behavior impacts their academic achievement.

KRISTIN MYERS: So to that point, I want to read this letter from the Topeka Schools superintendent Wendell Brown to a teacher, Darla Buchanan. Now, you're nodding your head. You already know what's in this letter. He wrote, due to the present uncertainty about enrollment-- excuse me-- next year in schools for negro children, it is not possible at this time to offer you employment for the next year. If the Supreme Court should rule that segregation in the elementary grades is unconstitutional, our board will proceed on the assumption that the majority of people in Topeka will not want to employ negro teachers next year for white children.

And you were just talking about having diverse teachers is also beneficial to white students, not just Black students. But I'm wondering what kind of, you know, hurdles and difficulties Black teachers do face in predominantly white school districts if we do see that, perhaps, white families don't place as high a value on having Black teachers the same way Black families do?

LESLIE FENWICH: That letter that you just shared is so important and such a historic document. You know, as early as 1952, the NAACP, when it was litigating-- preparing to litigate Brown and was litigating cases that preceded Brown, Thurgood Marshall, who was an NAACP attorney at the time and later became our first African-American Supreme Court justice, knew that if the NAACP was successful with Brown, that Black teacher and principal jobs were at risk. And so the NAACP established the Teacher Security and Information Department to raise money in order to, you know, wage litigation for these-- who they anticipated would be fired and demoted and displaced Black principals and teachers.

And in fact, I have a forthcoming book titled "Jim Crow's Pink Slip, Public Policy and the Decimation of Black Principal and Teacher Leadership in American Education," and it looks at this ark of, you know, the decimation of the Black principal and teacher pipeline and what it has-- what the implications are for our current day school leadership and outcomes of public education. One of the things I learned in doing my research-- and I've been looking at this, really, since about 1994-- is that Black teachers and principals and superintendents are the nation's most-credentialed educators. They are more likely than their white peers to hold a doctoral degree when they assume teacher positions, principal positions, and superintendent positions.

So one of the things we're all losing out on is highly-credentialed, able educators at the top levels of leadership, including the superintendency and the principalship. We need quality and diversity. And in fact, the conversations around diversity and quality are like conjoined twins. You can't separate them. When you separate diversity out of the equation, we lose quality, and we certainly see that in the ranks of the nation's educators.

KRISTIN MYERS: You know, Leslie, Sibile and I had about 50 more questions that we wanted to ask you, so I so wish we had more time. We're going to have to have you back on, perhaps when that book comes out. I, myself, look forward to reading it. Leslie Fenwick, Howard School of Education dean emeritus, thank you so much for joining us today on this very important conversation.

LESLIE FENWICH: Thank you. It was a privilege to be here.