Race & Education: Public Education: The Impact of White Teachers on Student Achievement

Reprint from a blog published Oct. 13, 2018

New York City (NYC) is home to the largest and most segregated school system in the country. It is tasked with providing educational instruction to more than 1.1 million students from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. There are 1,842 public schools, which are inclusive of the 227 existing charter schools, spanning across 32 school districts throughout the five boroughs.

According to the 2017 student demographic data collected by the city’s Department of Education, the current racial composition of the student population in public schools is as follows:

Hispanic: 40.5%
Black/African American: 26%
Asian: 16.1%

This translates to a student population that is comprised of over 80% students of color. According to the 2015 student data, 77% of public school students came from homes that met or exceeded the federal guidelines for poverty (this information is no longer collected). Though NYC’s public schools are overwhelmingly comprised of Black and Latinx students, it employs a teaching force that is nearly 60% White and overwhelmingly female; and statewide, one-third of New York schools have no Black or Latinx teachers. Based on the existing data, many of the teachers in NYC schools have had little or no experience with the communities and cultures from which their students come and have had uneven teacher preparation across the board.

Let me repeat this because its important:

(1) NYC’s student population is over 80% children of color. (2) 77% are identified as living in poverty. (3) These children are being taught by a population of teachers who are primarily White who have had little understanding of their students’ cultural or community realities. (4) Teachers in schools have had uneven preparation prior to entering into classrooms that exist in the largest and most segregated school system in the nation.

When we talk about the achievement gap in schools, let’s not forget these statistical realities. This data is important is because there is a correlation between a student’s classroom/school experience and achievement. Many educators and educational policy analysts have wrestled with identifying and attempting to resolve the numerous factors that prohibit children from educational success. This included identifying “barriers to achievement” that name a host of factors that are associated with being “high-risk”. This translates to identifying and tagging those students who come from under-served and under-resourced communities; who’s families experience a lack of access to educational resources, poverty, language barriers, a prevalence of drugs, family incarceration, abuse, etc. But this is not the whole story for all children who experience toxic stressors. These factors do assume that achievement gaps are correlated with external factors that do not include the influence and impact of teachers, unless a student is able to excel. For these reasons it is important to assess the barriers to achievement that exist inside schools.

Schools are a microcosm of our society and serve really to indoctrinate children into society — I realize that may not be widely accepted but that is the history and tradition of America’s school system. A school’s culture includes the intersection of race, class, culture, gender, and power dynamics within its walls — these factors matter greatly in the context of student/teacher relationships and how a child experiences the school/classroom. A recent Chalkbeat article discussed the severe lack of teachers of color in classrooms and the implications of this for all students noting that this its not only a New York phenomena, but an American problem.

According to a 2008 study, researchers began to unpack the impact of Black students who were educated by teachers who did not share their ethnic, racial, or cultural background. It was noted that discussions about the achievement gap for Black students too often focused on external factors as reference above. They discussed the impact of implicit bias on students noting that a teacher’s ability to connect with students supports their academic achievement. But most importantly, what was found is that Black students did not fare as well as their White peers with White teachers. This is not to say that White teachers cannot teach Black students, rather, White teachers have to be trained, developed, and supported to actively work to ensure their bias does not harm Black students.

Scholars Ed Morris (2007) and Jamilia Blake, etc. (2017) have produced rich research that highlights the role that implicit bias plays in shaping attitudes towards Black girls in schools. The phenomena of “adultifying” Black girls for not displaying or engaging in heteronormative characteristics or behaviors can lead to a host of issues for them in school. A consequence of this includes seeing Black girls as needing less protection, less nurturing, and less support or comfort while simultaneously seeing them as more independent and aware of adult topics including sex. According to Blake’s work, adults see Black girls in this way as early as 5-years-old. The impact of these biases on developing children may have huge implications for Black girls including disparities in disciplinary practices in schools. This is often replicated when these students come into contact with the criminal justice system. So what are the ways in which we can help children?

Adults need to be made aware and mindful of how they impact the children they work with. All teachers actively interpret student behavior, however, White teachers do this without having a clear understanding of cultural differences and bias that may influence their interpretations. This can lead to misunderstandings that with huge implications for those students.

Recently, NYC’s education chancellor, Richard Carranza, called for a financial investment towards implicit bias training for every public school teacher. I commend him and think this is a right step but does not go far enough. Implicit bias is a phenomena that is constructed through a lifetime of socialization and therefore undoing it must be intentional and ongoing work. This type of work must take place before teachers enter into classrooms. Instead, teacher preparation programs must be more robust and intentional in training teachers. Teachers should be allowed to spend a year, similar to a residency model, learning their craft and being developed in significant ways during their preparation process. They should be partnered with a master teacher, given feedback, and afforded opportunities during their learning process to unpack issues of bias and racism. They should be able to learn about restorative justice practices and mindfulness so that when they enter their classrooms, both students and teachers are given the best opportunities to excel in their collective learning and growth.

Under our current system, students who are regularly disciplined in schools become disengaged from their own learning and achievement. The results are higher dropout rates and greater contact with the criminal justice system for Black and Latinx children. This equates to more than just an achievement gap — its an opportunity gap, its a life gap — one that can lead to underemployment, unemployment, or worse, incarceration. The day to day experiences for students in schools are connected to student achievement. We know the impact of external stresses like abuse, poverty, and toxic environments on students but we cannot discount the impact of teachers — positive and negative — on their students. There is a critical need to have a teaching force that is not just reflective of the student population here in NYC but that one that is substantially prepared to enter into classrooms and engage all children as human beings.

© Akilah Rosado and Musings from a Brooklyn Chick, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Akilah Rosado and Musing from a Brooklyn Chick with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Afro-Latina Brooklyn Born Race Scholar — I write about anti-Black racism and systems of oppression in schools, politics, and policy.

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