The racist realities of teacher retention

All students, and the teaching profession itself, benefit from the work of Black teachers. Yet, huge numbers of quality Black teachers have been barred and pushed from the teaching profession by systemic racism. This post examines why acknowledging and removing these barriers is a necessary step towards reducing the Black teacher shortage and improving the quality of education for all children. 

The systematic, intentional elimination of Black teachers from the teaching force has a long and ugly history. According to a July 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education, while the overall proportion of teachers of color (TOC) has increased slightly from 1987 – 2012, the proportion of Black teachers in schools over that same period decreased from 8% to 7%.  In fact, the number of Black teachers in America’s schools has been declining steadily since the 1950s, starting with the firing of tens of thousands of Black educators during the fight to desegregate Southern schools. As one veteran of that era recalled in a conversation with me, “We were told that we weren’t good enough to teach white children.” Some were fired outright; others were forced to be teacher assistants under less qualified and lower seniority whites.

As I noted on the 60th Anniversary of the Brown decision: “Just as African American students have been the victims of low expectations in the classroom, African American educators have been the victims of low expectations inside the larger education community. Within a profession that itself has struggled for respect and empowerment, the voices of Black educators have been historically muted, particularly in the areas of educational policy and reform.”

The need for more Black teachers

According to the Department of Education, while 16% of all public school students are black, 82% of teachers in K-12 are white. However, a recent study at Johns Hopkins University found that Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are much more likely to complete high school and consider college. In fact, one study reveals that students of all races seem to prefer Black teachers. Ironically, lead researcher of the Johns Hopkins study, Nicholas Papageorge, describes what they found as “the power of [teacher] expectations.”

Blocking the schoolhouse door

Despite this clear need for more Black teachers,  in the teacher preparation and licensure pipeline, only 42% of Black students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in education successfully complete those programs within six years, while 73% of white students do. During my 10-years on Mississippi’s Educator Licensure Commission, I fought, unsuccessfully, the politicized practice of setting cut scores for the teacher licensure exam well above the top scores of most Black teacher candidates, even though the test publisher insisted these candidates placed within the range of proficiency.

Even if black teacher candidates navigate the systemic barriers in teacher preparation, black teachers like Marilyn Rhames, must also contend with discriminatory district hiring practices. Hiring inequities not only affect teachers of color but also cause a disservice to all students. Renowned teacher educator, Gloria Ladson-Billings, argues that white students have an even greater need than their African American peers to encounter Black teachers at some point. Likewise, Dr. Travis Bristol insists that teachers of color are essential to helping their colleagues and the teaching profession develop the ability to work effectively and ethically with our increasingly multicultural student population.

Racism fuels Black teacher attrition

The problem, however, is not just getting more Black teachers into K-12 classrooms and schools, it’s keeping them there.  

After getting hired, Black teachers often face continued racism in our working environments, including racially motivated challenges to our competency.

Black male teachers often complain of being made the de facto disciplinarian for every Black student in their school.

Not surprisingly, Black teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than any other group, but many of them are not leaving by choice. African American researcher/educator, Dr. Terrenda White, makes a critical observation:

Pre-retirement departures among veteran educators of color…are sometimes the result of massive dismissals on the part of reformers…The sad irony here is that as veteran teachers of color are now blamed for the conditions of these schools, one consistent finding about teachers of color was their commitment to work in the very schools where other teachers were less willing to work, and whose departure from these schools was historically much lower.

This disturbing trend continues. I’ve seen it in my own career, and others have documented it around the nation, such as recent examples in Chicago and New Orleans.

So, how can we get (and keep) more Black teachers? 

We can start by acknowledging and confronting the racism within the profession, and treating Black teachers with respect and equity.  That’s harder than it sounds within an educational system that by design criminalizes Black children starting in preschool.  Many of our (white) colleagues can’t even imagine the effects working within culturally damaging school settings have on Black teachers, some of whom fought their way as students through these same dysfunctional systems. Witnessing and fighting the racist inequities suffered by my own children and their peers in the same school system for which I worked has been among the most wrenching experiences of my teaching career.

Yet, it is often our desire to see those conditions forever changed that has inspired many Black candidates to enter teaching. Eliminating education’s racist realities will require hard transformational work all along the continuum, and not just by Black teachers. One promising trend is the development of teacher residencies (as mentioned earlier in this series by Jessica Keigan), particularly when they are connected to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as those at Xavier University of Louisiana or at North Carolina A & T State University. The Department of Education report referenced earlier notes that 16% of all Black teacher candidates attend HBCUs. It makes sense that districts or systems serious about increasing the numbers of Black teachers would partner with HBCUs in these types of programs.

To attract and keep more Black teachers, we should also continue to raise professional status for all teachers, and the best way to do that is through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Just as there is an important distinction between someone with an accounting degree and a Certified Public Accountant, there are critical differences between someone given a state license to supervise a classroom, and a teacher who has demonstrated highly accomplished practice, which includes genuine cultural competency.

Non-negotiable: Anti-bias training for all

For the present and much of the foreseeable future, most Black children will be taught mostly by white teachers. Therefore, anti-racist, anti-bias training must be part of every teacher’s preparation and ongoing professional development. For the children’s sakes, and for the sake of the teaching profession, we must do more to ensure all teachers are culturally competent/proficient to work with all students, parents/guardians, communities, and their colleagues. Meanwhile, those of us committed to public education must continue the fight to expose and correct existing structures of racism embedded in our own school systems.


Renee’s post is part of CTQ’s May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.