September 12, 2013

Quality is Job One

Back when I was growing up in Chicago, I used to describe what my mom did for a living as "teaching teachers how to teach."  Little did I, or she for that matter, know that she was also teaching her son how to teach.  Hearing story upon story of her drive up and down the length of Chicago (usually avoiding such high traffic areas such as the Kennedy or Dan Ryan) on Western Avenue or Halsted Avenue visiting her student teachers and recent graduates, I was privy to a daily report of the problems, inequities, successes and failures of 1970s-80s Chicago Public Schools from not just one side of town, but from the entire city. Hearing about such a diverse array of neighborhoods and schools was something that only in retrospect I realize was unique.  Most people only have experiences with their local schools directly, or on the peripheral, the larger system as a whole.  There are many in urban areas who have zero experience with public schools. With that background, coupled with my own practice in the classroom both in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as my research and doctoral work in Philadelphia I should merit standing to be able to make the assertions I am about to make in this blog.  I'm sure, for some of you, my experiences will only count as an outlier or aberration.  For that, let me only say, in the words of Lonnie Rashid Lynn (aka Common), one day it'll all make sense.

I recently heard a piece on WBEZ ( about the push for teacher quality in the state of Illinois and how an unintended consequence of raising the entrance test scores on the Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP) has created a racial gap among new teachers.  Let me first say that for the past ten years I have noticed, perhaps because I've frequently been one of the few Blacks let alone males in the room, this phenomenon up close and personal.  It is an imperfect storm.  As teachers from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the same ones my mom used to mentor and teach, retire, the incoming mix of teachers has becoming increasingly monolithic.  One of the negatives (and yes, we can argue there are many more) about Teach for America is that they have contributed greatly to the "whitening" of the teaching population.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2010 (the latest numbers), the teaching population is only 7% Black. Further, even more problematic is that out of the approximately 235,000 Black teachers in the country, only 58,000 are male.  No wonder I was one of only the few in the room.  According to the documentary (which I HIGHLY recommend, American Teacher), the numbers are even more depressing.  In 1970, 34% of the teaching population was male.  In 2002, that number was 22% and today, it sits at an alarmingly low 16%. In fact, statistics such as these are the reason why it was so difficult for me to leave the classroom and start my PhD program. I didn't want to leave my students of color behind.  I came to the realization that having a PhD, and doing the type of research I intend to do will hopefully multiply myself 10 fold.
LAUSD Pay Grid

The WBEZ piece noted that in the past over 60% of Blacks passed the TAP exam.  Today that number is 17%.  As a qualitative person, I want to go beyond the numbers and try to understand what that really means.  Does it mean that there was an over-inflation of Black folk passing the test previously, and now this is a leveling out? Or does it mean that the colleges and universities are grade inflating and those wishing to enter the profession aren't as prepared as previously thought?  Is it a combination of both, neither, something else?  Those are tough questions to isolate.  What is known is that there is a problem.

In Illinois, and elsewhere, the population of white teachers has hovered between 82-85% for decades.  At the same time, we know the population of public school students, particularly in urban areas has becoming increasingly students of color (I would no longer use the word "minority" since they are clearly the majority of the school aged population).  So what can we as educators, activists and politicians do?

I strongly believe that we need a minority equivalent to Teach for America.  I also believe that we need to cease this us versus them mentality when it comes to veteran educators versus first year teachers.  I also feel that, much in the same way as there is a dearth of Black baseball players, some argue, because of the minor league system, some students of color feel as if the road to becoming a teacher is too long for the amount of pay on the front end.  Thus a program like TFA would serve as an alternative route, and of course tackling the challenge of teacher pay would be another.  Scholars such as Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond and others have also recommended a review of teacher pay.  We can no longer simply live by an outdated model of the current grid structure (see above LAUSD grid as an example).

As the Black teaching population continues to age out of the profession, I think having an honest, serious discussion of what, in the 21st century, does it mean for teachers of color to teach students of color.  In addition, let me be clear. I, by no means am disparaging white teachers who continue to serve students of color with honor and high expectations. In fact, my own schooling is littered with many such examples. Perhaps it is an expectations problem. In too many cases, for too long we have had low expectations of our teachers, and they, in turn, have had low expectations regarding their students.  When we examine good schools, two things are always present, high expectations and trust.  Let's trust that as we raise the bar for teachers, they will in turn raise the bar for their students.

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