The “Invisible” And Costly Tax That Black Teachers Are Being Forced To Pay

According to a new study, teachers who teach in high-poverty schools are penalized on their classroom observations and often, those teachers are Black. This is another aspect of the invisible tax on Black teachers that encourages them to leave the profession while simultaneously discouraging prospective Black teachers from entering the profession, among other reasons.

This study supports a 2019 study, showing that teachers of color disproportionately receive lower scores than white teachers.  

Nationally, a higher percentage of Black teachers teach in city schools versus suburban, town and rural schools versus white, Latinx and Asian teachers. However, Black teachers (Latinx and Asian teachers also) are out numbered by white teachers. The same is true in my home state of New Jersey; among all teachers, the majority of Black teachers teach in city schools and they are still outnumbered by white teachers by nearly 4 to 1.

Table 1: Percent Teachers By Race in Cities According to Both City School Composition & Subgroup

 Nationally*New Jersey**
 % In City Schools% of Subgroup% In City Schools% of Subgroup
White69%25%61%16%
Black12%51%17%61%
Latinx14%44%18%55%
Asian3%41%3%31%

*Source: National Center for Education Statistics
**Source: New Jersey Department of Education

In New Jersey, the highest poverty areas are cities. The majority (54%) of New Jersey’s cities are above the U.S. poverty rate of 10.5%; 60% of Black teachers in New Jersey teach at school districts in these cities. 9 of top the 10 highest poverty areas in New Jersey are cities; 36% of Black teachers teach there.

Table 2: Percent Black Teachers in New Jersey Teaching in High Poverty Areas

New Jersey City Categories% Among Black Teachers% Among Black Students
All Cities61%40%
Cities Above National Poverty Rate60%39%
Highest Poverty Cities36%19%

*Source: New Jersey Department of Education

According the most recent school district evaluation scores reported by the New Jersey Department of Education, the percentage of teachers rated as either effectively or highly effective in city schools (95%) is similar for teachers rate the same in non-city schools (98%). However, what’s notable isn’t so much about which group of teachers were rated worse, but rather which were rated better. Double the percentage of teachers at non-city public school were rated as highly effective compared to teachers at city schools and high poverty districts (42% versus 21%).

Table 3: Teacher Evaluation Percentages According to Location

 Non-CityCityHigh Poverty City
% Effective & Highly Effective98%95%95%
% Highly Effective Only41%21%21%
% Partially or Ineffective2%4%5%

*Source: New Jersey Department of Education

It is no coincidence that among Black teachers, the majority teach in city schools, where large percentages of Black students attend.

An argument can be made that subruban and rural school districts would rather not hire Black teachers. Teacher demographic data doesn’t dispute that argument. According to University of California, Graduate School of Education, Assistant Professor Travis Bristol, Black teachers are sometimes tracked into high-poverty schools because of bias that can happen in the hiring process.

However, it’s equally plausible that Black teachers tend to work in city schools, where Black students attend in higher percentages because those districts “want” Black teachers. Evidence shows that Blacks students perform better when taught by a Black teachers.

Also, evidence point to Black teacher gravitating to schools where Black students attend in order to give back to communities, such as there and work with those students. They often choose teaching as a profession because they want to improve the academic experiences of students of color, to support the educational transformation of their own communities, and to act as racial justice advocates. Black teachers, and other teachers of color, want the students to perform well academically, however student grades, scores and GPAs is a part of how they define their success and justice; not the only part.

I can attest to this as a former classroom teacher.

It was paramount that my students learned how to react critically to historical events, how to articulate their reactions to what the read and hear, both verbally and on paper, as well as how to verbally spar with evidence… ahem, I mean cordially debate.

Those skills correlate to core competencies whereby students are assessed for growth and progress. Those skills are also necessary to dig for truth, speak truth to power, dig for more truth and teach someone else.

For me, academic achievement and the empowerment of Black and Brown children fit like a hand in a glove. However, I encountered a few challenges to accomplishing that work.

I taught in Camden City. Camden has the second highest poverty rate in New Jersey, only behind Atlantic City, another city in South Jersey. Many of our students lived in indigent households; raised by one parent or by an aunt, uncle or grandparent. Some of our students were homeless. A number of our students’ experience trauma as a result of violence they may have witnessed or experienced firsthand. There were students who had underlying health conditions due to the air and water quality in the city.

Breaking through the impact of these challenges took additional time and necessary work that, while detracted from the time allotted for curriculum work, made teaching and learning possible. Many of these challenges and circumstances can be attributed to racist policies; the very policies I sought to make my students aware of through my instruction.

Generally, my observation scores were good to excellent. However, my instructional style sometimes ran afoul of what my instructional leaders desired and spirited conversations ensued. My praxis may not have reflected Danielson, but I gave my students what I know they needed. I suspect the Black teachers from the above mention study shared a similar experience as I and did the same; they gave the students what they needed.

As mentioned above, skills attainment and student empowerment must be the goal of classroom instruction. When assessing the success of achieving that goal, student circumstances must be considered, and even weighed, when scoring teachers. As Dr. Bristol recommended, multiple measure should be applied to determine how a teacher is improving student learning; not excusing teachers for student circumstances but taking it into account.

Student academic achievement is important. Given the evidence regarding the impact Black teachers have on Black student achievement, hiring and retaining Black teachers must be equally important. Black teachers shouldn’t be recipients of an additional penalty for teaching Black and Brown students in high poverty schools. Rather they should be the recipients of additional support when teaching in these schools.

By no means should poor teaching be excused. But the school leaders must account for the racism that impacts and informs classroom instruction. Or else, they’ll continue perpetuating the very racism driving Black teachers from the profession.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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