During last year’s September 12th presidential debate held at Texas Southern University, an HBCU in Houston, Senator Kamala Harris, a graduate of Washington, DC’s premier HBCU Howard University, introduced her plan to allocate “$2 trillion [dollars] into investing in our HBCUs for teachers”. According to her campaign website, “teachers of color are significantly underrepresented in our education system.” Harris’ plan and promise were timely given the fiscal challenges some HBCUs face due, in part, to ongoing inequities in federal and state funding. According to Howard University education professor Dr. Deena Khalil, “…any one of [the major research institutions] receive more than all of the Black colleges combined.”
Black Teachers Matter.
In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 75% of students who earned a Bachelor’s degree in education were White and according to scholar Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ book Crossing Over to Canaan, America’s teacher educators are 88% White. Nonetheless, a 2016 study by Cherng and Halpin found that students of all races prefer teachers of color. Additionally, the study found that students have a more positive rating of Latino and Black teachers, in particular. Despite these findings, Black teachers make up less than 8% of the teacher workforce and that percentage is declining. These findings are particularly significant because scholars also argue that teachers of color have higher expectations for their students and are more culturally sensitive. Thus, the need for more teachers of color, especially Black teachers, is a necessary call to action. As Dr. William Hayes, a Black male principal with Morehouse College (HBCU), Harvard University, and Vanderbilt University credentials puts it, “[Teachers of Color] are not afraid to articulate [to students]: You are Black, you are Latino; it’s not going to be easy for you, but we want you to be successful…”
A national call to action for more Black teachers is especially necessary when considering research shows Black teachers are less likely to suspend or expel students of a shared race. Thus, increasing the number of Black teachers can aid in eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, a system 2019 national Teacher of the Year (TOY), Rodney Robinson, knows too well. The first Black male TOY since Thomas Fleming in 1992, Robinson teaches social studies in a Richmond juvenile detention center. Ironically, Fleming also taught social studies in juvenile detention center, an important coincidence considering the disproportionate impact the pipeline has on Black boys. As he travels the nation speaking to people with decision-making power, Robinson, a graduate of Virginia State University (HBCU), has made it his mission is to help increase the number of Black male teachers who currently make up just 2% of the teacher workforce.
Why HBCUs are the Answer
According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE,) HBCUs trained one-third of African American teaching candidates. And for the 25% of education majors who aren’t white, training to become teachers at PWIs can have a negative impact. In a 2001 Journal for Teacher Education article, scholar Christine Sleeter stated “for preservice students of color in predominantly White programs, the overwhelming presence of Whiteness can be silencing.” This has led some scholars to suggest the recruitment of Black teachers should start and be heavily focused around institutions with large percentages of Black students, HBCUs. A unique opportunity within the HBCU teacher preparation community includes single sex institutions Spelman College and Bennett College, both female focused, and Morehouse College, male focused, as they are well positioned to help increase the number of Black teachers because they “consistently strive to meet the needs of prospective Black educators.”
It Took a Village. Now, it will Take a Nation.
National calls for more Black teachers are not new. Both Carnegie and Holmes reports of the 1980s called for more teachers of color and in 2011, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, made a national call to increase the number of Black male teachers while visiting Morehouse College in Atlanta. Several power players responded. The Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation have all funded initiatives or organizations focused on increasing and supporting Black educators. In fact, the Kellogg Foundation has gone as far to support and fund an extensive framework for teacher education at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and a 3-year project focused on introducing high school Black males to teaching through HBCU partnerships. As a result, several grassroots organizations have launched and grown including the Black Male Educator Convening, Profound Gentlemen, and the Leading Men Fellowship, to name a few.
Increasing the number of Black teachers will take more than foundation support and verbal promises from presidential candidates. Policy makers and universities must rethink teacher preparation in its entirety. Admissions and certification requirements along with other burdensome hurdles that disproportionately impact HBCUs and the overall pipeline of teacher production must be reconsidered. Education leaders, philanthropist and funding operators must continue to lift this topic in front of and behind closed doors in order to increase the number of Black teachers in America. If America is really interested in diversifying its teacher workforce, everyone at the table must decide that HBCUs are a vital piece of the puzzle and support them accordingly.
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 and the school-to-prison pipeline. She is a former high school social studies teacher. Dr. Trina L. Fletcher is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at the Florida International University where her research focuses on HBCUs and their production Black STEM degree holders.
The Fletcher twins are natives of Arkansas and hope to improve the state’s education system through innovative solutions and strategic partnerships.