Black Voices

Dream Deferred: Are We Leaving Black Students Behind?

Empty classroom with no students
Empty classroom with no students

This article is part of a Huffington Post series examining the state of Black America. To read more, click here.

NEW YORK -- When Dwight Davis, a black educator from Washington, D.C., thinks about his good teachers, he spouts their names in rapid succession. But when he reflects on the bad ones, their identities fade into a nightmarish blur. It's their actions that haunt him.

There was that time one teacher confused him for a special-education student, so she mistakenly told Davis' mother that he would be held back.

In fourth grade, Davis auditioned for choir, singing "It's A Small World." The choir teacher -- whose name Davis can't recall -- started laughing. It was devastating.

The next year, a friend in the school's science club encouraged Davis to join. "He was from a middle-class family, I was not," Davis recalls. Enthralled by his friend's extensive science knowledge, he asked the club’s teacher if he could join. She rolled her eyes and said no. "It was pretty horrible," he says. "I don't know what happened. She maybe had a Zimmerman moment and thought that because of how I dressed and looked, I was unworthy."

Overall, Davis sensed that no one cared. Though he excelled in elementary school, as he got older, he recalls, he fell in with the wrong crowd. His grades dropped, and he wound up in lower level classes, courses that attracted "all the bad teachers." They were so bad, he explained, that he nearly stopped attending school. But he still mysteriously pulled C's and D's. "They just wanted to push me through," he says. Teachers were passing him on, he felt, because that was easier than catching him up.

Davis’s experiences in D.C.'s public schools mirror nationwide trends among black students, a group that often gets shortchanged on teacher quality. As a result, black students, especially older ones, frequently struggle to perform at the same level as their white counterparts.

Despite the disadvantage, black students in earlier grades have made great strides in closing the so-called achievement gap between black and white students, particularly in reading. Between 1994 and 2012, the gap in ninth-grade reading narrowed from 33 points to 13, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most reliable national education exam.

But as students progress through the school system -- as they're "pushed through" -- they often drop off academically. The gap between black and white high school students, kids at the threshold of adult life, remains profound. For 17-year-olds taking the same reading test, white students still outscore black students by 26 points.

A major reason for this discrepancy is something that has long plagued America's schools: minority students are more likely to have ineffective teachers -- by any measure. Federal data shows their educators are less experienced and less likely to have majored in the subject they're teaching, and generally, they have less impressive records in helping students grow their test scores. The problem, known as "equitable distribution of teachers," reflects broader arenas in which blacks lose out on resources.

Experts guess that better teachers are often attracted to whiter, less-challenging school districts because they often have more resources, cachet and management. When longtime civil rights activist Amy Wilkins attends D.C. cocktail parties and someone says they teach in Anacostia, a low-income area, guests meander across the room to get another drink, she says. But a teacher at Sidwell Friends, the tony private school where President Barack Obama sends his kids, stirs excitement.

"We have to figure out how to fix the horrible cultural narrative, which says that teaching black kids is at best rewarding and at worst impossible," says Wilkins, who now works on civil rights issues at the College Board. "We've created a narrative around these children that makes them totally unattractive, this big cultural racism that says no."

Over the last few decades, researchers have concluded that teachers are the most powerful in-school determinant of a student's success. And perhaps uniquely, the problem of equitable distribution of teachers among minority students actually has a fix on the books.

The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 included language requiring states to "ensure that poor and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.”

But to the dismay of advocates, it has never been consistently enforced. The idea of forcing teachers to work in low-income schools rankles unions, and nobody wants to put a reluctant teacher, regardless of how objectively good they are, in front of the neediest students.

The law also has a major loophole, known in education circles as "comparability": it lets states report teacher salaries in a misleading manner. In effect, this allows wealthier schools to use federal money intended to help the poorer schools across town.

And despite No Child Left Behind, nationally, little has been done to put America's best teachers in front of minority students. In 2006, the Bush administration made states submit plans to show how they would get the job done, but according to a report by the D.C.-based advocacy group Education Trust, "very few states used this opportunity to right an injustice." Most states, EdTrust wrote, didn't even measure inequity, though required by law.

"On the whole, this is not something that's been enforced," says EdTrust's teacher quality director Sarah Almy. "There's a real hesitancy to disrupt the status quo. People hear of equitable distribution, and they think of forced placement."

Since minority students are often poor students, their schools rely on lower property tax bases, and are therefore generally poorly funded as well. It'd hard to find teachers who want to work in schools where limited resources confine them to an existence of smelly bathrooms, outdated libraries and leaky roofs.

Alice Johnson Cain, a former U.S. Senate staffer who now works for Teach Plus, remembers arranging a hearing in East St. Louis, Ill., in the early 1990s. She drove up to the building "through a war zone," and once she arrived, found shoddy plumbing and not one computer. The library was so strapped that even its most recent books didn't reflect the fact that man had, indeed, landed on the moon. "Compared to the education I got, I thought, this was broken," Johnson Cain, who is white, says.

More recently, the "Waiting For Superman" education reform set has fixated on identifying good teachers. Economists have developed an equation known as "value-added," a formula that is supposed to control for student-specific variables and tease out the degree to which teachers affect student learning. Thirty-two states now use value-added as an effort to sort out good teachers from bad ones.

But, Wilkins says, while policymakers may be getting better at identifying good teachers, she hasn't seen these new capabilities being used explicitly to help black students, for the most part. She calls this "the great disappointment" of the teacher quality movement. "Very few people are using the data to ensure that kids of color get a fair share of whatever 'good' is determined to be," she says. "It's heartbreaking."

The Obama administration's stimulus bill included language for correcting teacher distribution problems, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed interest in incentivizing teaching jobs in less desirable schools. But activists such as Wilkins and EdTrust's leader Kati Haycock say the administration has done little to accomplish that goal. "The Obama administration has the support of black people no matter what they do," Wilkins says. "In a cold political calculus, it's like, why do we have to do anything, these people vote for us, they love us?" An administration official did not respond to requests for comment.

While forcing teachers into low-performing schools rarely works, more successful efforts in places like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. and Boston take the opposite approach. With tools such as a selective application process, they lend prestige to traditionally undesirable schools, and teachers have responded enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, organizations that intentionally place teachers at tough-to-staff schools try to fill the gap. Teach for America, an elite if controversial two-year teaching corps, says a major goal is to reverse the equitable distribution problem. According to information provided to HuffPost, 55 percent of next year's corps of 5,900 new teachers will come from low-income backgrounds or communities of color, including 15 percent who identify as African-American. One quarter of them are the first in their families to attend college.

Samantha Arpino, who hails from New York City and identifies as multi-racial, is one of them. She grew up "not knowing what college was" as a kid, but wound up in a middle school that directed her there. "So I want to take the opportunity to teach in an urban area, to work with students who have a similar story," she said. "I could potentially be a role model for people like me, and they can see that college is an actual thing and not just a word."

She starts teaching in a Harlem charter school this fall.

Davis, meanwhile, is preparing to begin his 10th year teaching in his own city, Washington. His first years were rough -- he felt he had to insulate his fifth graders from what he saw as bad teachers, teachers who just passed along students who didn't learn or try.

He's now in a better school, and he's mentoring a young, African-American teacher, but he's worried those carefully-honed skills might leave the community. "I'm teaching him as much as I can," he says, "but if he goes to a private school, all of that teaching will be somewhere else. It'll be lost on us."

Before You Go