Ninety-six Percent of Pennsylvania’s Teachers are White. Damn.

Imagine a doctor knowing vital, life-saving information about your health, but not sharing it with you. It would be not only unacceptable, it would be grounds for dismissal. Choosing not to act, when the data shows that the health of an individual or communities is spiraling out of control is a dereliction of duty.

Currently, our country has watched White students flee public schools, while the enrollment of students of color swells. The loss of Black teachers and the stagnation of Black students’ achievement levels has been largely ignored. Black student and Black teacher ratios are entrenched examples of inequity.

Black communities, and other communities of color, have always asserted that representation matters. The mental health, academic performance, and feeling of safety and belongingness of students of color strongly correlates with who leads their classrooms and schools.

John Hopkins University pointed out in their research that Black students had a 40 percent less chance of dropping out if they have just one Black teacher during their elementary school years. Knowing the risks that dropping out of high school places on our youth, any politician that isn’t making this one of their flagship priorities reveals they’re unfit to lead.

NINETY-SIX PERCENT OF PENNSYLVANIA’S TEACHERS ARE WHITE. NINETY-SIX PERCENT.

Recently, Research for Action (RFA) published a report “Patching the Leaky Pipeline: Recruiting and Retaining Teachers of Color in Pennsylvania,” that highlights some key areas where districts and states can work to increase diversity amongst public school teacher ranks.

Some data that RFA’s report notes:

  • Pennsylvania’s overall population has been diversifying, its teaching staff has not.
  • Nationally, 18 percent of teachers are persons of color, compared to only 4 percent of teachers in Pennsylvania. Moreover, the imbalance between teacher and student demographics in Pennsylvania is among the most extreme in the nation.

Ninety-six percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are White. Ninety-six percent. Mind-boggling. But, not only is that detrimental for students of color, White students only seeing White teachers is extremely problematic. Any school or district with this glaring lack of diversity should stop spouting the idea that they are preparing their students for a global economy or for life.

Some might wonder, what is wrong with students having practically all White teachers? You’ve heard it before…stop making everything racialas long as they just love kids, it shouldn’t matter what race the teacher is.

Pause. Let’s explore that line of thinking a bit differently.

Imagine a world where all White, affluent suburban schools had all Black teachers. Where exactly would that be okay with White parents, their community members, or even the students themselves?

Picture Pennsylvania’s White and Black students inhaling the inevitable implicit (and, at times, explicit) biases of the almost 100 percent White teacher force.

Think about White teachers proudly gazing on students who look like them and telling those students, “you should become a teacher” while in close proximity is a student of color, Jamal, who isn’t encouraged to become a teacher, but is encouraged to be quiet, become an athlete, or “work with your hands.”

Having an all-White teaching staff reinforces notions of White supremacy. There are few teacher colleges holding themselves accountable for ensuring teachers have the skills to support a positive racial identity in their students. It will come quite naturally for a White teacher to reinforce positive self-images and identity of White students.

What happens when Black, Latino or other students of color need their identities affirmed and celebrated beyond food, clothing and entertainment culture?

RFA’s report continues:

And the problem appears to be worsening. According to PDE, African American enrollment in postsecondary education majors has decreased by 60 percent since 1996, and the number of African American graduates in education has decreased by 71 percent since 2000.

The problem is particularly stark for Black and Latino men; the state’s colleges and universities graduated only 29 African American male and 20 Latino male teachers in 2014, out of a total of 8,552 teacher preparation program completers.

Think about that for a second. Over 8,500 people graduated from teacher colleges. Less than 50 were Black or Latino men.

And, while Pennsylvania’s teaching force is among the least diverse across the country, we are not alone. Pennsylvania was one of only six states that viewed teacher diversity an important enough issue to put in their ESSA plans they submitted to the federal government. Of course, that doesn’t mean states aren’t doing anything; some states are working with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and other coalitions to address the issue of diversity. Pennsylvania has also been selected to join a cohort of states involved in the Urban Schools Human Capital Alliance. These states are looking to improve their teacher and principal workforce, which must include diversity.

What we know is that ensuring diversity in our schools needs to be a priority. Reinforcing whiteness through the teacher ranks and teacher colleges prepares no one for what our world actually is.

We know what to do. We know what prescriptions must be administered. How many states and districts will act though?

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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