The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
Searching for role models
One in four CPS students is an African-American boy, but just one in 16 teachers is an African-American man. And the percentage of black male teachers is on a downward spiral, creating a teaching gap despite evidence that African-American boys benefit from the presence of male role models with similar backgrounds.
“We know that to really teach black kids, we need some black teachers,” says Marvin Lynn, an expert on minority teachers and an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Some research, he adds, has established a clear link between higher test scores and students and teachers sharing gender and race.
“Teaching really is about relationships, caring,” Lynn adds. “It’s about communicating in healthy ways with students. And it’s also about content knowledge. But knowledge in the absence of all the other things is not going to be effective.”
In communities of color, such relationships may have special significance. An often-cited 1997 survey by researcher Clifton Casteel found that white students typically name their parents as the adults they try to please most with school work, but African-American students are more likely to name their teachers.
- Thomas Dee’s “Teachers, Race and Student Achievement in a Randomized Experiment” finds academic gains where students and teachers share the same race and gender.
- Marvin Lynn’s “African-American Male Teachers and ‘The Education of Children Whose Nightmares Occur both Day and Night’” reviews the small but growing literature on black male teachers.
- Chance Lewis’ “African-American Male Teachers in Public Schools: An Examination of Three Urban School Districts” suggests recruitment tips based on a survey of 147 black male teachers in Louisiana.
Nationally, and in CPS, the lack of black male teachers is particularly acute in elementary schools. Theorists have identified a host of reasons, from stereotypes that peg teaching as a woman’s profession to fears among men that parents and administrators who hire black male teachers will see them as potential threats to children.
Yet black men may be needed most in elementary schools. Lynn says new research suggests that boys are falling behind early in their schooling, since elementary schools tend to reward conformity and quieter personalities, qualities that girls are more likely to exhibit.
“Men are more likely to understand the need boys have to be outspoken or their need to move around,” Lynn explains.
Black boys may also need to see more examples of successful professionals who look like them. As Eric Carlton, president of Banner Schools, an alternative schools group in Chicago, puts it: “With African-American males, there are not enough positive role models that say school is the place to be. There are not enough opportunities for black boys to look in the mirror and say ‘I like who I see, and I like who I am.’”
Lynn believes this larger issue may play a central role in the shortage of black male teachers: Black boys end up bypassing an education career because they do not see enough black men in the classroom. He and others—including Nancy Slavin, the CPS officer for recruitment and workforce planning—say colleges of education need to step up their recruiting. Slavin says Chicago has had some success on this front through alternative certification programs, although she concedes that the district still needs more candidates.
In New York, the Schott Foundation is trying to build up the candidate pool through its Teachers As Leaders initiative, part of the foundation’s overall effort to address the achievement gap for black boys. New York lags behind Chicago, but not by much: Black men comprise just 4.4 percent of the city’s teaching force, compared to 5.7 percent in Chicago. The Schott program, run through the city’s community colleges, has already provided scholarships to 35 aspiring teachers and will add another 80 this year.
Catalyst Chicago’s analysis shows that African-American males are more likely to be teaching in lower-performing and predominantly black Chicago schools.
However, Lynn cautions against misinterpreting the data to conclude that black male teachers are lagging when it comes to teaching black boys. Rather, black males may be landing jobs at lower-performing schools because principals at high-performing schools stereotype their abilities, or because principals at struggling black schools are looking to hire black male teachers.
Several principals tell Catalyst that they do actively seek out black men—and come up against the shortage first-hand.
Cheryl Armstrong-Belt at Miles Davis Academy, a recently launched magnet school in Englewood, says black men accounted for just five of the 125 teacher applicants she received last year. She hired two, including Curtis Bynum, the school’s new social science teacher.
Bynum says he left Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park for the challenge of teaching in a poorer, higher-needs community. Many of his coworkers turn to him for help when disciplining boys, he says. Several of the boys in Bynum’s class describe him as “friendly,” “fun” and “supportive”—qualities revered by researchers like Lynn.
In March, Bynum’s 7th-grade classroom happened to include two 8th-graders, who were—according to their own assessment—“avoiding suspension” by skipping their math class on the day a substitute was in charge. Bynum says a substitute would have struggled with the boys, who had already been suspended multiple times, and he volunteered to take them into his class to keep them out of trouble.
While Bynum focuses on his lesson on Mesopotamian culture, the boys avoid schoolwork but play quietly on the computer. While little learning took place, Bynum says the boys at least avoided being suspended. According to some research, more suspensions increase the odds that boys will eventually drop out of school entirely.
Two years ago, Catalyst reported on Principal Terrence Carter’s stepped-up efforts to hire black men at Barton Elementary. (See "Principals get creative within bounds of district bureaucracy" ) At the time, Carter had at least one male teacher at each grade; at 7th and 8th grade, he had five.
Now Carter is down to one black male, and reports that one left to become a principal, others left for the suburbs and some quit teaching altogether to take jobs with more lucrative pay.
Similarly, Shayne Evans, an African American who has earned a reputation for effective teaching at the University of Chicago’s Woodson South Charter School, is being promoted to director of the charter network’s high school campus in Woodlawn.
Woodson’s teaching staff is nearly one-third black men, and Evans believes other schools could do the same, even given the shortage of candidates, if motivated.
In Evans’ view, teachers must establish trusting yet demanding relationships with all students. He says research on Chicago schools has shown that where trust and mutual respect is high between administrators, teachers and parents, schools excel. “That must also go down to teachers and students,” he adds.
But trust can be difficult to establish, especially with black boys who have been bombarded with stereotypes and negative media portrayals all their lives. Evans says male teachers can offset the problem, but ultimately all teachers need to demand more from black boys and expect excellence.
“Mainstream society, either by neglect or by design, has consistently said that African-American men are not intelligent,” he says. “You have to create a counter narrative.” To that end, he carefully picks books for his students that challenge the stereotypes, such as the Malcolm X biography.
Says Evans, “Students are extremely smart, and they know when you believe in them and when you do not.”