Amidst battles over various school reforms throughout the nation, urban educators strive to meet students’, families’, and communities’ extensive needs despite having the fewest resources.
Disparate impacts of school reforms have been stratified by race. No segment of educators has experienced the intersection of school reform policy pressures, economic issues, and racialized problems like Black educators. Professional obstacles for Black educators have remained, while pressure and stresses have increased for urban public schools.
Public schools across America need Black educators, yet they are rapidly pushing us out of the profession.
Philadelphia is a strong example of this issue. For 85 years, the School District of Philadelphia has promised to increase its Black educators and has under-delivered. There have been plenty of changes but only a slow trickle of Black educators into leadership positions. School reforms there correlated with constant tension, flux, and uncertainty for Black educators, students, families, and communities, especially those who needed strong schools the most. This has persisted, so much so that there were fewer Black educators in Philly’s public schools in 2009 than there were in 1964.
Throughout the nation, Black educators are often type-cast and under-valued. People ignore Black educators’ intellect, subject matter expertise, and instructional prowess and reduce them to caricatures of disciplinarians, mammies, and mentors. Black educators are often given the toughest situations, with the least supports while they are held to the same standards as others regarding student achievement.
These pressures are not just racialized but also gendered. Black women are expected to serve as OtherMothers to their Black students without recognition or remuneration.
Black men are expected to mentor Black boys, to show them how to be men, and to stand in the gap for allegedly missing Black fathers without consideration of how this upholds patriarchy and gender oppression. Even when these roles are met well, they are additional work for which there is neither training nor pay, all the while pressuring these same Black educators to also improve students’ academic outcomes.
Too often, because of this view of Black educators as schools’ crowd control, Black educators are not seen as intellectually astute. Rewarding Black educators for being climate managers and for strong classroom cultures while not encouraging, supporting, and pushing them to pursue the intricacies of teaching and learning and other intellectual endeavors is a trap that blocks the path to Black educators’ economic mobility and limits student achievement. Multiple studies have demonstrated the ways Black students and all students benefit from Black educators. How do all students get to see a wide range of educators and thus see the endeavor of deep study and teaching and learning and achieving as worthwhile? Why would school districts let this impact slip away?
This phenomenon of decreasing Black education professionals is not unique to Philadelphia. Black educators’ presence has also declined in Boston and New York City, as well. Black educators are 65 percent of the educators in schools targeted to be closed in Chicago. In Newark, New Jersey, Black educators are more likely to work in schools that have been targeted for closure. When New Orleans closed their entire school district after Hurricane Katrina, it was mostly Black educators who were left without jobs.
After the George Floyd uprisings of 2020, so many school systems claimed an antiracist orientation, only to relent in 2021 with trumped-up tales of critical race theory in schools. School boards often engage in performances of equality so they can look good publicly while ignoring opportunities to remedy harm.
Creating policies and practices to retain and increase the presence and support the professional development of Black educators as thinkers and leaders is essential if school systems aim to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive. School reform policies and practices either seek ways to expand Black educators in their school systems or they are complicit in maintaining oppression, squandering student achievement, and will keep driving Black educators to take their vast talents elsewhere.
Parts of this op-ed were taken from Camika Royal’s first book, “Not Paved For Us: Black Educators and Public School Reform in Philadelphia.” She is currently an associate professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland. Her work focuses on racism and other forms of oppression in school reform policies and practices.