Proponents say increasing the number of black teachers should be a national concern

Ashley Reeves, an Indiana schoolteacher, dreamed of getting her teaching license but couldn’t afford the high price of certification. She chose a renewable teaching license that allows educators to teach for a year at the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy, a kindergarten through eighth grade in Indianapolis. However, Reeves’ aspirations were revived when she saw a flyer for the Educate ME Foundation, an organization focused on helping black people become teachers.

Reeves said she joined the program in August and received personal test prep assistance and financial help to cover certification testing costs. Reeves received her license in November and returned to teaching as a certified teacher.

“It was such a relief. It was a blessing. That’s always been one of my goals,” said Reeves, 31. “I’ve been in education for a long time; it’s been six years. The program itself is just great for beginning teachers or teachers who have been in education for a long time.”

Blake Nathan founded the Educate ME Foundation in Indianapolis in 2014 to recruit and retain more black teachers. Today, the foundation works to mentor and support high school and college students pursuing careers in education. It teaches Black students the value of becoming a teacher and helps existing teachers through training and certification programs. Reeves is one of dozens of black people who have used the foundation’s programs to achieve their career goals. Nathan said that the work they do ultimately benefits the students.

“When you’re raised by a teacher of the same race, you perform better academically and emotionally in the classroom,” Nathan said. “Having a black teacher in the school building reduces the school discipline rate. And if you can lower school discipline rates, you can reduce the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Before Covid changed the educational landscape, black students were already disadvantaged due to the dismal number of black teachers in the classroom and other effects of systemic racism. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, blacks made up just 7% of teachers in the 2017-18 school year, with white teachers making up 79% of the field. This is a dire situation because research shows that Black students who have teachers who look like them are less likely to be over-disciplined and more likely to finish high school and consider college. As a result, experts say hiring black teachers is necessary to address the racial disparities that lead to poor educational outcomes and criminalization for black children.

But there are many barriers to black people entering the teaching field. Costly certification tests and exams, known as practice tests, are a major obstacle for black teachers trying to get certified because blacks are more likely to fail these tests than whites, according to a Chalkbeat report. Meanwhile, blacks who are able to enter the profession can be booted out of their teaching jobs if they fail these tests.

Critics believe these tests, which were first administered decades ago, are designed only to exclude black teachers and do not adequately measure a person’s teaching ability. And there is little evidence that these tests predict teacher effectiveness at all. And research has shown that in some cases, black students do better academically with a black teacher who failed the practice test than with a white teacher who passed.

Additionally, advocates say black students who don’t have black teachers are less likely to become teachers themselves. Therefore, commitment to industry diversification must begin early in the classroom.

The Educate Me Foundation is one of many programs across the country that aim to train and recruit more Black people into the teaching profession. Programs may use different methodologies, with some focusing on breaking down the field’s financial barriers and others prioritizing the need to eliminate implicit bias in attestation processes (or promoting cultural inclusivity in schools). But they all ultimately aim to improve the educational experience for black children.

Call Me MISTER, a Clemson University development program for black men to become elementary school teachers, has produced about 367 educators since 2004, said program field coordinator Winston Holton. Participants must work at a K-12 public school in South Carolina for between one and four years after completing the program, which typically lasts four years, Holton said. Students from “socio-economically disadvantaged and educationally disadvantaged communities” receive student aid, mentoring and assistance in navigating the education industry, as well as help with job placement.

Caleb Brown.Courtesy, call me MISTER

Founder Tom Parks decided to start the program in 2000 after learning of the worrying incarceration rates and dismal educational opportunities for black men. Holton joined the program in 2001 and now serves as a mentor to participants such as Caleb Brown, a 20-year-old in the program’s third year who hopes to become a middle school teacher.

“Representation in the classroom is important,” Brown said. “Considering the many relationships and connections I’ve made and this early experience, this would not have been possible without the help of Call Me MISTER.”

Many of these development and recruitment programs target all genders, but some — like Call Me MISTER and Men of CHS Teach, a Call Me MISTER-inspired program in Charleston, South Carolina — focus on producing more black male teachers. Only 2% of the country’s teachers are black men.

This startling statistic, proponents say, is why programs offering multiple paths to certification are important.

“Minority men face many obstacles in their K-12 experience,” said Eric Stallings, who works with Men of CHS Teach to recruit and support teachers. Men of CHS Teach, which prioritizes men of color, is a partnership between the University of South Carolina and the Charleston County School District.

“They might go into business or marketing, but something always pulls you and you’re like, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I just don’t know,'” he said. “Bringing ways to do that has allowed some of them to come back as educators and really make a difference. I think that speaks a lot for an alternative certification.”

Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Center for Black Educator Development, said the center’s mission is to build a “national pipeline for black teachers through political and advocacy efforts, programs and partnerships with school districts, colleges and the like.” build programs across the country. The center is working with school districts to facilitate a course for students interested in teaching “but from a black educational framework, as opposed to what students typically get, an all-white educational theory,” El-Mekki said.

“If you try to continue and reform education without a deep understanding of the racism that causes these disparities, you will never achieve what you claim to achieve,” he said.

Teacher Ja'Quan Evans with students.
Teacher Ja’Quan Evans with students.Courtesy of men from CHS Teach

The center also offers training and mentoring programs for high school and college students, professional development for everyone from college professors to administrators, and advisory services for school districts across the country that want to retain black teachers. Since its inception in 2019, the center has produced at least 30 teachers who are now educators or in teacher residency programs.

While some groups focus on getting more black teachers into the classroom, others focus on the cultural inclusivity they say is necessary to reduce implicit bias in schools — be it in the classroom or in administrative offices. The Black Teacher Project in Oakland, California, is working with black teachers to “reinvent schools as communities of liberated learning,” according to the project’s website. The project offers black teachers an 18-month stipend in which to explore black identity, wellness, and culturally competent teaching (or “teaching rooted in blackness,” according to the website). It also teaches educators how to implement restorative practices in their classrooms and invites them to retreats to promote community among Black teachers.

This, proponents say, will have a positive impact on black students.

“BTP’s vision is that every student will benefit from the diversity, excellence and leadership of an empowered Black teacher,” the website reads. “That’s why the motto of the Black Teacher Project is ‘Every child deserves a black teacher.'”

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