Looking in the Mirror: Positive Effects of Same Race Teachers for Black & Brown Students

Looking in the Mirror: Positive Effects of Same Race Teachers for Black & Brown Students

by Macheo Payne, Ed.D., MSW, Senior Director of Equity & Educational Initiatives, Lincoln/ Assist. Professor at California State University, East Bay


Today’s racial achievement gap, alternatively termed America’s educational debt by Gloria Ladson-Billings, is a poor reflection on America's education system. Ladson-Billing's calls it the educational debt because it’s not just the gap between current black students and white students in GPA, graduation rates, college acceptance rates, and college completion rates, but the gap that spans generations, due to educational neglect and sometimes abuse.

This racial educational debt is a huge problem with no easy fix but even with the most complex problems, there are always factors that can show significant promise, despite persistent systemic patterns that continue to do a disservice to black & brown students.

One such factor is black & brown teachers for black & brown students. It seems so obvious and simple. In a white female dominated profession, black & brown students represent 40% of all students in the U.S. We cannot balance the scales until this changes.

I’m not saying black and brown students cannot learn from white teachers. Of course they can. Inspiration and excellence knows no color. What is true is that for black & brown students, when the teacher is of the same race, they do even better. Furthermore, when it comes to education, housing, employment, health, and public safety, nothing matters more than race. The colorblind approach is detrimental to students who continually face challenges because of their race but are being taught that race doesn’t matter.

A recent study by Egalite, Kisida, & Winters (2015) found black & brown students showed improved scores in math and reading when the teacher was of the same race. Furthermore, there was a neutral impact on white students who had black or brown teachers. They didn’t do any better or worse with a black or brown teacher. It’s as if diversity is good for everybody but lack of diversity has no negative effect for white students but is detrimental to non-white students.

In Oakland, we have seen similar success with the Freedom School model that is able to successfully recruit, train and place teaching interns that reflect the background of the children in the program, 100%. This element undoubtedly contributes to the consistent improvement of racial self-esteem and positive self regard (Bethea, 1999) as well as improved reading level. The program has worked for 23 years in Oakland. So these findings are not new, and to date, no reputable scholar disagrees that for black & brown students, having black & brown teachers, mentors and educational advocates is a good thing.

The biggest challenge is overcoming the systemic problem of recruitment, hiring & retention of black & brown professionals in the places where they are desperately needed. Oakland Freedom Schools never had that problem, and the African American Male Achievement office (AAMA) in Oakland public schools has not had this problem with it’s manhood development program either. So why can’t public school districts across the nation do the same?

The common reasons include lack of qualified applicants, institutional barriers like biased testing, inequitable credentialing process, but other hidden factors include the fact that a public school can be an inhospitable environment for a sole black male or female teacher. They are oftentimes expected to carry the burden of being professionally colorblind while constantly experiencing anything but equal treatment.

How then can OFS & AAMA successfully recruit, train, place and retain teachers of color? We rarely offer an explanation because we are seldom asked! Instead, I have heard disparaging whispers over the years like: “Freedom Schools? Oh, they only hire black people.” Really?? There is substantially more evidence that public schools prefer white women, even when the student body reflects 40% black and brown students. Meanwhile, the Freedom Schools program, which is open to all, consistently gets 90% - 100% black scholars in the program. The double standard of race when it comes to educating black & brown students is a distraction from the more important point, that black & brown families flock to programs that feature black & brown staff.

As this nation accelerates reforms in education to eliminate the opportunity gaps that exist for black & brown students, we must look at closing the teacher gap between teachers of color and students of color.