For Black students in America, having a same-race social studies teacher is extremely rare. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), social studies teachers make up just 7% of the entire teacher workforce. And of all social studies teachers, roughly 94% are White (54% men and 40% women). Just 3% of America’s social studies teachers are Black men. And only 3% are Black women. In fact, the average social studies teacher is a White male in his mid-40s despite the fact that men only make up 23% of all teachers. As a result, only 1 to 2 lessons or 8–9% of total US History class time is devoted to Black history.
When establishing the American education system, civic leaders wanted students to develop an understanding of patriotism and nationalistic values by encouraging instruction that would promote civic and moral training. Unfortunately, civics education has always been taught and received differently by Black students based upon the race and knowledge of their teachers. And as a result of policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act, required social studies courses in most states have dwindled overtime making it even more difficult for Black students to receive an adequate or meaningful civics education.
This is evident when reviewing recent history, civics, and geography scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For Black students, the outcomes were alarming. Not only did Black students post the lowest scores of any demographic group, their overall scores declined between 2014 and 2018 and the White/Black achievement gap increased. Given the tumultuous state of racial affairs America has embarked upon once again, now is the time for federal and state policy makers to require the incorporation of social justice and Black History lessons into social studies curriculums. As secondary English teacher Jasmine Lane recently wrote, “a high graduation rate is meaningless when our graduates enter the world without a fundamental grasp of the tools and knowledge necessary for full participation in life and citizenship”. In order to ensure all students leave school prepared to complete their moral and civic duties, more must be done immediately to increase the number of Black social studies teachers, especially Black men.
Why Black Men are the Answer
Not only does research show White students specifically benefit from having Black teachers because it counters their biases, increasing the number of Black men teaching social studies could aid in improving the academic and social outcomes of Black students who are disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline. Additionally, Black men are well positioned to teach significant aspects of history often left out of curriculums.
While it is vitally important for all students to learn about essential aspects of history such as the ancient empires, the American Revolution, and the Holocaust; it is equally important that all students learn about the transatlantic slave trade, race riots of the early 20th century, and the economic impact of systemic racism on Black communities. For far too long Black students have been required to learn the history of people around the world without ever learning their own.
Black men, more than any other demographic, are best positioned to lead the effort in teaching social justice and the significance of civic engagement to the youth of today. They are also well positioned to help students of all races better understand the intersectional identities within the Black community such as its LGBTQ, Afro-Latinx, and Muslim members. Not only will this benefit Black students who are in need of positive male role models and teachers, an increase in the number of Black male social studies teachers specifically will also benefit White students who oftentimes lack any knowledge of Black history.
Since 1990, only two Black men have been named National Teacher of the Year (TOY) and both of them taught social studies in juvenile detention centers, a telling fact considering the disproportionate impact the school-to-prison pipeline has on Black students. In 1992, Thomas Fleming of Michigan received the honor and was also a Milken Educator. Nearly 30 years later in 2019, Rodney Robinson, a graduate of Virginia State University, a Historically Black University (HBCU), used the title to travel the nation calling to action the need for more Black male teachers who currently make up just 2% of the teacher workforce.
Robinson; however, cannot lead the rallying cry alone. In the growing age of #BlackLivesMatter and other social justice movements coupled with an increase in White social studies teachers’ use of culturally insensitive, demeaning, and racist in-class practices, now is the time for organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies, who recently condemned the killing of Black people, to lead the charge in recruiting and retaining more Black men and women as social studies teachers.
The Next Best Move
In January my twin sister Dr. Trina Fletcher and I co-penned a piece Does America Really Want More Black Teachers? aimed at stressing the need to support Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the largest producers of Black teachers, in their effort to continue their steadfast work. Since then – following the lead of Senator Kamala Harris – Presidential nominee Joe Biden presented a Black agenda that aims to support HBCUs in increasing the number of Black teachers. This move is heavily supported by growing research finding that for Black students having one Black teacher in elementary school increases the chances of academic and social success.
Black students too often land at the failing end of the opportunity gap. School closings and lack of access to the tools needed to complete assignments virtually as a result of COVID-19 will inevitably result in even wider achievement gaps between Black and White students. To make matters worse, Black students are also struggling more now than ever to survive in a nation with growing racial unrest as seen by international #BlackLivesMatter protests in honor of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.
If nothing else, 2020 has shown us that unprecedented steps must be taken to improve the academic success of Black students. If policy makers and education officials really want to improve the academic success and civics education of Black students, increasing the number of Black male social studies teachers is a necessary step. Now is not the time to wait for the pandemic to end or for policy makers to decide #BlackStudentsMatter because, unfortunately, time is not on their side. In order for Black students to succeed in the present and in the future, change must happen now.
Tina L. Fletcher is an education policy doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies the recruitment and retention of Black male teachers, the school-to-prison pipeline, and Black teacher experience with the Praxis exam. She is a former social studies teacher at Anacostia High School in Washington, DC.