The Specter of Race: Are Black, Male Teachers and School Leaders More Effective in Teaching Male Students of Color?

The subtext of every conversation is race, gender and class.

It was the third inning and my beloved Mets were down 11-0, the stands kept filling up – the game was to be followed by a Nos concert. The white older gent next sitting next to me was perplexed,

“Who is Nos?”

A young man sitting next to me anxiously responded,

“A rapper – a poet and philosopher for today.”

The older white gentleman and the enthusiastic young black male live in differing universes – galaxies far, far away from each other.

We are a nation deeply divided culturally along racial lines.

Bill O’Reilly and Michael Eric Dyson railed about the Zimmerman-Martin decision – screaming past each other to their own audiences; the teenage proto-gangster or the innocent teen murdered by an arrogant vigilante.

Black and brown children, especially males, have been stumbling in school for decades. In our triage school system scores of high schools filled with black and brown kids had graduation rates in the 30-40% range and the kids who graduated received an Regents Competency Test (RCT)diploma – passing exit exams at an Eighth grade level while schools serving predominantly middle class kids had 60-80% graduation rates with many kids receiving the Regents diploma.

In spite of a dozen years of Bloomberg reforms and New York State initiative after initiative as of June 2012 only 58.1% of black students received high school diplomas and 12.5% were deemed college and career ready, and, although the data is not disaggregated by gender I’d bet the success rate of males is significantly lower – embarrassingly low.

The answers, according to Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and the coven of (de)formers is a combination student test score driven teacher accountability, complex teacher effectiveness systems, the constant accumulation of student data, rigorous frequent testing of students and the raising of “standards” through the Common Core State Standards.

For the (de)formers some years down the road we will have rid schools of less effective teachers and the improvement in teacher quality will translate in eliminating the black/brown versus white achievement gap.

The critics of the (de)formers see the achievement gap as actually an opportunity gap – until the pernicious impact of poverty is lessened the opportunity-based achievement gap will remain.

The stain of blatant racism may have been removed from education – has it been replaced by a deleterious white guilt?

Shelby Steele, in a stinging essayavers,

Two great, immutable forces have driven America’s attitudes, customs, and public policies around race. The first has been white racism, and the second has been white guilt. The civil-rights movement was the dividing line between the two…. the great achievement of the civil-rights movement was that its relentless moral witness finally defeated the legitimacy of racism as propriety–a principle of social organization, manners, and customs that defines decency itself. An idea controls culture when it achieves the invisibility of propriety. And it must be remembered that racism was propriety, a form of decency. When, as a boy, I was prohibited from entering the fine Christian home of the occasional white playmate, it was to save the household an indecency. Today, thanks to the civil-rights movement, white guilt is propriety–an utterly invisible code that defines decency in our culture with thousands of little protocols we no longer even think about. We have been living in an age of white guilt for four decades now.

What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative–that they are not racist–to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.

Are the (de)formers compensating for “white guilt”?

What is particularly distressing about the race-gender based achievement data is that even middle class black students under perform their white peers.

Claude Steele (Shelby’s twin brother), after an in-depth research project, called the phenomenon “stereotype threat.”

Two students, one black and the other white, sit next to each other in a college classroom. Both are bright and from middle-class families. They went to decent high schools and did well on college placement exams. But the black student is flunking, and the white one is not.

Why do they perform so differently?

Stanford University social psychologist Claude Steele believes he has an answer. And it isn’t genetics, social class, lack of academic skills, family dysfunction or segregation–the usual suspects in the lineup of explanations for the stubborn problem of black underachievement.

Steele says that blacks–or any member of a group freighted with negative stereotypes–constantly labor under the suspicion that the stereotypes about them are true. Thus, women contend with the image of being mathematical klutzes, the elderly with insinuations of forgetfulness, blacks with the specter of intellectual inferiority. This burden alone, he believes, can make an otherwise competent student flounder.

Steele argues that the possibility of being judged by a stereotype–or inadvertently fulfilling it–can cause an anxiety so disruptive that it impairs intellectual performance. The victim may reject the stereotype, yet can’t avoid its glare.

Steele calls this condition “stereotype threat.” For black college students, it can deaden the commitment to academics, becoming a barrier as effective, he says, as a lock on the schoolhouse door.

In summer school a number of schools are clustered in the same building, the host principal serves as principal for the clustered schools.

I met a black, male teacher who was seething.

He was called out of his classroom by the “host” principal,

“One of the kids from your school is refusing to open his book and complete the lesson – speak to him – find out what’s his problem?”

The teacher responded, “Fail him – he’s testing you.”

The principal angrily answered. “You, of all people, we have to find out his underlying problem – maybe something at home – we can’t be overly harsh – after all he comes from East New York.”

The teacher, “Are you a theater fan – have you ever seen Sweeney Todd?”

The principal, quizzically, “Yes – what has that got to do with anything?”

The teacher, “Remember Sweeney’s line – ‘The story of the world my son is who gets eaten and who gets to eat,’ he’s testing you – he lives in Sweeney’s world and if you give in to him you’ll be eaten, every other kid is watching.”

The teacher bemoaned liberal, white teachers and principals, well-intentioned, who “negotiated” with middle schoolers and constantly lowered the bar.

White guilt replaced the racism of earlier generations.

The teacher explained how he set rules in his classroom and everyone, no exceptions, had to live by the rules, if you chose not to, there were consequences, unpleasant and immediate consequences.

“I never raise my voice – I speak eyeball to eyeball – I make sure the kid understands me – he repeats what I said – and we move on – in my classroom and on my team – the kids want and need structure.”

Me, “Does your race matter?”

Without equivocation he answered, “Yes … it’s more difficult for a white teacher.”

Nationally fewer than 2% of teachers are male, black teachers and the number of male, black principals is infinitesimal, even Arne Duncan bemoans the paucity of black, male teachers.

“I think all of our students benefit from having a black male in the classroom,” Duncan says, “But particularly our young black males. I think what we haven’t talked about enough is that we’re competing with the gangs, we’re competing with the drug dealers on the corner, and when students fall through the cracks, when young people don’t have that positive mentor, in a school setting, in the church or community, there’s always a guy on the street corner that can say come my way.”

Instead of bemoaning the invisibility of black teachers and school leaders Pedro Noguera and others have laid out a detailed path, see Educating Black and Latino Males: Striving for Educational Excellence and Equity (July, 2012), a path ignored by the policy makers.

Noguera focuses on what he identifies as structure, culture and agency.

This three-pronged focus allows us to move beyond false dichotomies in which the discussion is often simplistically framed: the hopelessness arising variations on the ‘demographics are destiny’ argument or variations on the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ position.

Schools must address the interconnected ways in which institutional arrangements (structure) and the attitudes and beliefs (culture) do or do not support the engagement and success (agency) of all students.

We are speeding down a dark road to oblivion, the future is not the uber-teacher, it is not stapling a knowledge chip into each kid’s earlobe, it is not the marketplace driving competing schools, rewarding “excellence” and punishing “failure,” the future is not the soma-driven “Brave New World” of the pseudo-reformers.

Successful teachers and principals in schools serving children of color are scattered across the nation, deep and profound research identifies paths to success, even teacher union leaders are anxious to partner with organizations that welcome practitioners.

The drivers of change cannot come from the cloudy aeries of biased think tanks or foundations or hedge fund managers, change happens in classrooms, change is driven by school leaders, leaders who understand that race and gender and class cannot be swept aside, who understand the poverty is an obstacle, not a determinant.

Kids and young teachers listen to Nos and Talib Kweli, just as we listened to protest folk singers of our generation.

Change is immutable, you’re either riding the wave or swept up by it – wax those surf boards and get on top of the wave.


3 responses to “The Specter of Race: Are Black, Male Teachers and School Leaders More Effective in Teaching Male Students of Color?

  1. Good teachers can teach anywhere..I heard that nonsense in 1965 when I was working @The Old Frederick Douglas JHS. I taught 7th grade math, 7th and 8th grade social studies, derved as a Guidance Counselor, Dean, NAd became the youngets Assistant Principal ever..I then worked for 25 yrs in Bed STuy and had success year in and year out. The parentys of students of color want their childrens teachers to be good ones if not excellent ones. And they dont much care what color they are.


  2. Note that even in this excellent piece there is a conflation of race/ethnicity and class. Ed writes ” high schools filled with black and brown kids” as “schools serving predominantly middle class kids.”

    More important than white guilt (which I do not believe is a universally shared attribute), is the effect of class and poverty on the students we see.
    This is made very clear in Paul Tough’s book and in its underlying studies.

    It may be easier for a black male to be a role model and “demand” effort from black male students, but it is not a necessary condition for effective teaching.

    What is necessary are professional, experienced teachers who know how to make demands and how to relate to individual students so as to keep them motivated. I am white and did so successfully (along with a white female co-teacher) and I see white teachers do this regularly where they are allowed to and supported. That is the lesson in the dialogue between the summer school teacher and the principal.

    The deformers with their insistence on test-based accountability have made “gaming the system” (cheating) the modus operandi of too many school leaders. This has resulted in “credit recovery” options (that require much less effort than their peers put forth in their classes, homework, and assignments and do not meet the common core standards) for students who did little or no work all year so that they can get the credit and graduate. This degrades the diploma and sends a message that ther are ways to get around the hard work.

    Their teacher accountability metrics are designed only to get rid of teachers. No one in the press asks Michele Rhee or Cami Anderson or Joel Klein where they are going to find the “excellent new teachers” to replace the ones who are being pushed out.

    The satirical paper, The Onion, wrote a (fictional?) dialogue between one of these new, inexperienced and soon to leave the profession teachers and a fourth grade student.,28803/

    The student writes, ” I’m an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won’t get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job.”

    I don’t think it matters whether that “real teacher” is white or black or plaid. What matters is the skill and commitment s/he brings to the work.


  3. Effectiveness in anything that people do is always an identifiable but indefinable combination of society, culture, and personal experience that can not be duplicated.
    To overemphasize and reduce quality to quantity- data- is to profoundly misunderstand the human equation and dimension of teaching/learning. We will know when we have reached real and full equality when we see an interracial Romeo and Juliet and NOT notice it! Then we will have reached the evolution of society to meet Dr. King’s admonition to “not judge people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. .


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