By NICK CHILES
A widely reported study out of the University of Houston, claiming that there is no added academic benefit for black students when they have black teachers, severely misses the point. As any black parent who has had a few years of experience in American schools can tell you, it’s the quality of the teacher, not the teacher’s skin color, that is the critical issue affecting student achievement. We all want GOOD teachers for our kids, not necessarily black teachers.
But there is a further point to be made here. I believe that when a black teacher is really good, which means she has the ability to get your child to see herself differently, to believe in herself, to start looking at the world in a different way, it can have an even deeper impact on a black child than with a white teacher who is equally good. It’s sort of like finding a love partner of a different race—of course a white woman can be just as good a partner to me as a black woman, but all things being equal, I don’t think a white woman will ever be able to understand me and all the cultural, historical, psychological and emotional issues that are lodged deep in my psyche, carried in my blood, the way a black woman would. I think the same is true of good teachers.
I have seen this in my own life, I have seen it repeatedly as an education reporter for a decade in New York and New Jersey, and now I’m seeing it again in the lives of my children.
For a young black child, there is nothing quite as life-altering as encountering a teacher who looks like them, who understands them on a deep, almost psychic level, and who pushes them to succeed far beyond their wildest dreams. Yes, a white teacher can also do all of these things, and I have had some wonderful white teachers, as have my children, but in my experience the connection is just more intense when the teacher seems to know you better than you know yourself, when the teacher has lived your life, walked in your shoes, seen the world through your eyes. And those things are almost impossible for a black child to feel when the teacher is white.
As a black student, you want to hear everything that a special black teacher has to say because you know the words are authentic, you want to do your best to make that teacher proud, you want that teacher to see you at your heights. It is a magical formulation—one that doesn’t get probed at all with a study such as the one done by the University of Houston researcher that merely looked at black student standardized test scores at schools with mostly black teachers and compared them to black student scores at schools with mostly white teachers.
“In this particular study, I was surprised to see that the campuses with more African-American teachers did not have the highest African-American student achievement. This just goes to show that having a positive impact on students is a complex, multi-layered process,” said the researcher, Walter Hunt.
This is where I put on my education reporter hat: There are so many factors at play when you are analyzing student data at schools where most of the teachers are black—those schools tend to be poorer than schools with mostly white teachers because white teachers with tenure are going to try to avoid poor black schools if they can, those schools tend to get the least experienced teachers (which means they will likely have more discipline problems), those schools tend to have students who come from families with less money. There’s just so much going on that you can’t conclude that black teachers don’t make a difference. What makes the biggest difference are GOOD black teachers. So in a sense, the conclusions of this researcher are almost meaningless.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.