By Rosita Chatonda
The economic downturn of recent years brought the decline of the middle class into the forefront of national discourse. However, the “lifting up” of the middle class doesn’t often include black professionals, in this case black teachers.
Teaching and nursing professions are traditionally the vehicles by which black women move up the socioeconomic ladder. However, in the past 60 years, there has been a structural decline of educators of African descent in public education. According to a USA Today April 2004 article by Greg Toppo, the 1954 Brown vs. Nichols desegregation decision set precedent for the “decimation” of black teachers. Toppo wrote, “In 1954, about 82,000 black teachers were responsible for teaching 2 million black children. In the 11 years immediately following Brown, more than 38,000 black teachers and administrators in 17 Southern and border states lost their jobs.”
The decline of teachers of African descent is often due to structural rather than competency- or performance-related factors. From K-12 educators and administrators, to college professors, though tenured – through pseudo evaluations, “school turnarounds,” downsizing, layoffs, and other questionable means – black educators have experienced unfair terminations or demotions. According to a September 2012 Reuters’ article, African-American teachers in Chicago went from 45 percent in 1995 down to 19 percent in 2012. In contrast to New Orleans who lost 7,000 teachers after Katrina or Chicago that made national news, unfair displacements of black educators from other parts of the country have not been heard. Most institutional entities such as the unions, courts and EEOC have dismissed their legal complaints.
Moreover, numerous studies on the need for minority teachers encompass all teachers of color, not the historical context of the black teachers’ experience. Based on a November 2011 research by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Bireda and Chait wrote … “Nationally, minority students make up 40.7 percent of the public school population. Although many schools (both urban and rural) are increasingly made up of a majority of black and Latino students, black and Latino teachers represent only about 14.6 percent of the teaching workforce. And in urban and high-poverty schools where minority teachers are disproportionately employed, teaching staffs are still predominately composed of white teachers.
…“And while there are effective teachers of many races, teachers of color have demonstrated success in increasing academic achievement for engaging students of similar backgrounds.” Hence, putting more black, Asian, and Latino teachers in the classrooms is important to improving students’ performance and exposure to a larger representation of this global village.
The lack of internal, grassroots voices addressing the decline of role models for students of color may fuel the decline of African descent professionals in the education field. Usually neither black civic organizations nor faith leaders advocate for these mostly committed educators. In terms of black immigrants, as in the immigrant milieu, the focus is on immigration reform issues, or their native countries, not on the immigrants’ involvement in Pre K-12 education. Hence, a displaced, demoted, or dismissed black teacher often has no one to turn to.
The retention of successful African-American teachers alluded to in President Barack Obama’s July 2012 White House Executive Order on Educational Excellence for African Americans has not been on the forefront of the Achievement Gap discourse either. Replacing veteran black teachers by Teach for America graduates is adversely affecting the education and social upbringing of black youth. Retaining highly skilled black teachers who are more likely to be connected and have a relationship with the black community is an important issue that needs to be visited within the context of high quality education. Teach for America graduates do not bring in two years or so, the community relationship that black teachers bring to the education arena or the role models that black students need.
Hopefully, the decline of educators of African descent presented above would serve as an example that the black middle class is in jeopardy. Given such economic disparity and scarcity of teachers of color in the schools, the structural removal of black professionals from middle class jobs is in need of remedy.
Rosita Chatonda, cofounder of Coalition & Alliance of Urban Schools’ Educators, is a displaced educator, an educational and union organizer who taught in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.