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(The Root) — Recently, the media reported that Florida and Virginia are attempting to close the "achievement gap" by setting different performance standards for black and white students. These controversial and misguided proposals demonstrate a dreadfully shortsighted assessment of race and achievement in the United States. Instead of dealing with the complicated racial nuances that shape black students' classroom experiences, Florida and Virginia are flirting with the idea of "lowering the bar" for black students, and by association, their teachers.

The recently ended Chicago teachers' strike highlighted the challenges of defining teacher effectiveness in the U.S. Although teaching in Chicago involves significant cross-cultural interactions between teachers and students, racial issues in the classroom were rarely discussed in the media or among school leaders. In Chicago, the preschool through 12th-grade student population is only 15 percent white (9 percent in public schools), yet the Chicago teaching force is 53 percent white. Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 80 percent of Chicago schoolchildren, yet they make up only 40 percent of the teaching force. 

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Black students in Chicago are being suspended and arrested at a rate that greatly exceeds their representation in the student body. Earlier this year, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education estimated that police made 2,546 school-based arrests (75 percent black) between September 2011 and February 2012 in Chicago. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection Report, black students account for 76 percent (pdf) of students who are suspended in Chicago public schools, yet they only represent 45 percent of the student body. 

In a perfect world, the race of a teacher would matter no more than the race of a physician. However, research evidence suggests that cultural differences between teachers and students may account for key differences between the schooling experiences of black and white students. (Details on that research follow on the next page.) Some school advocates suspect that teachers who lack cultural proficiency may relate to black and Hispanic students in a manner that undermines their potential.

After an in-service training on reducing suspensions, a white assistant principal in Chicago told me that the No. 1 reason they suspend students is for coming to school late. He said, "I just don't get it," because no matter how many times they suspend students, students keep coming to school late.

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He asked me if there was anything he could do about it, and I asked, "Have you ever asked them why they come to school late?"

His response was, "No, I never thought of that." This is a typical "suspend first, and ask questions never" approach that many educators take with black students. 

In many ways, the situation in Chicago is a microcosm of the larger U.S. education landscape, whereby rapid demographic changes appear to be creating fractures in student-teacher relationships, and disrupting black students' learning experience. In this installment of "Show Me the Numbers" I consider the evidence that the stark contrast between the races of teachers and students might explain why black students are subject disproportionately to harsh discipline, which can result in lower school engagement and diminished academic performance. I also consider the impact of having a majority white and female teaching force in a diverse school system, and whether improving the diversity of the teaching population is the answer. 

Who Makes up the U.S. Teaching Population?

Today, of the more than 6 million teachers in the United States, nearly 80 percent are white, 9.3 percent are black, 7.4 percent are Hispanic, 2.3 percent are Asian and 1.2 percent is another race. Eighty percent of all teachers are female. Relative to the composition of preschool through 12th-grade students in the U.S., the current teaching force lacks racial and gender diversity. However, a deeper look at the numbers reveals that it may be harder than it sounds to diversify the ranks of teachers, particularly with black men.

Teachers comprise the largest professional occupation in the United States, accounting for the most professional employees among college-educated white women, black women and black men. Despite the large number of teachers relative to other professions held by college-educated black men, they represent less than 2 percent of the teaching force, of a student body that is 7 percent black male. I will address the reasons for that more fully in an upcoming column, but suffice it to say that with teaching already being the top profession for the black men qualified to do it, increasing significantly their share of the teaching force will be difficult.

By comparison, white female teachers comprise 62 percent of the teaching force, of a student body that is 26 percent white female. Considering the entire student body, the U.S. has one white female teacher for every 15 students and one black male teacher for every 534 students. See the graphic below for a complete picture of the racial and gender diversity in the U.S. teaching force.

This image was lost some time after publication.

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The truth is, males of all races are underrepresented in the U.S. teaching force. The percent of white male preschool through 12th-grade students is twice the percent of white male teachers; the percent of black male students is more than three times the percent of black male teachers; and the percent of Hispanic male students is almost seven times the percent of Hispanic male teachers.

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The overrepresentation of white female teachers may mitigate some issues associated with the lower number of white male teachers, because they are culturally aligned with white males. However, irrespective of gender, black and Hispanic teachers are underrepresented in the U.S. teaching force. Nationally, black and Hispanic boys will spend the majority of their school experiences under cross-gender and cross-cultural supervision.

If Most Teachers Are White, So What?

Racial differences between the teacher and student population can matter. In a recent study with my Howard University colleague, Dr. Mercedes Ebanks, I analyzed the response patterns of 8,986 students who completed the National Crime Victimization Survey: School Crime Supplement of 2009. We found that black students were less likely to perceive empathy and respect from their teachers and more likely to view the school as a punitive learning environment than white students.  

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White students' response patterns demonstrated a structure whereby teacher empathy and respect were central to students' academic success, school safety had no measurable influence on teachers' compassion for their students, and teacher punishment had no measurable impact on students' grades. On the other hand, black students' response patterns reflected a dynamic whereby school safety significantly diminished the overall level of empathy and respect that students perceived from teachers, and punishment from teachers significantly reduced students' grades.

These results suggest that many teachers may be operating under an implicit association bias, whereby on a subconscious level, they may view black children as security risks. Researchers at Harvard University have found that many prejudicial attitudes operate beyond our conscious awareness. Nevertheless, they can negatively influence our judgments and behaviors.

Beyond Black and White

Still, as I report here, any teacher, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, can teach black students. Recent media coverage of the lack of black male teachers has led to many misconceptions. The growing practice of assigning students to classes based on the race of the teacher is both unethical and misinformed. Increasing the presence of black male teachers does improve the diversity of the profession, and should be viewed as a benefit to the system, as they provide quality services to all students regardless of race or gender. However, many people falsely believe that black male teachers have a primary responsibility to foster the social development of black male students. Black male teachers should not become a prop for failed educational and economic policies.

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On the issue of setting different performance standards by race, Asians outperform whites on most, if not all achievement tests, yet this well-known fact is not viewed as a deficiency among white students. But beyond race, to set fair standards based on backgrounds, we would need to separate Cambodians and Filipinos from the rest of Asians, because most indicators suggest that they underperform blacks. We would also need to separate Nigerians and Ghanaians from the rest of blacks, because most indicators suggest that they outperform whites. We should also separate poor whites from more affluent whites — or, we can simply stop betting our educational future on tests and use more legitimate measures of academic progress. Additionally, teacher performance should not be based on test scores.

Consistent with the research, teacher performance should be based on a teacher's ability not only to "teach" a student, but to "reach" a student. Effective teachers exhibit openness, unconditional positive regard and empathy, as expressed in their ability to listen to and learn from the student. Educators' feelings toward their students and knowledge of their students' cultures are important to the students' learning process.

Teachers who have implicit or explicit biases toward black students, or who take a "colorblind" approach to understanding students' issues and needs, will have difficulty developing the authenticity necessary to reach black students. Students' evaluations of their teachers are the most effective method of gauging the teachers' ability to reach.

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All of this brings to mind Asa Fludd, a black male 11th grader whom I quoted in the report Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path to Academic Success for School-age African American Males (pdf). He said:

It was at school where I met teachers who are concerned about my education. One of those teachers is my AP US History teacher, Melissa Soule. Besides making history an exciting class, Ms. Soule expressed the realities of minorities living in the United States, especially black men. She made me realize that struggle can be a luxury when you achieve, because it makes you the person who you are. Besides Ms. Soule, there are other teachers who influence me to do my best, many of them being black men.

For black male students like Asa, black male teachers who serve as models are a luxury, but committed teachers of any race who respect and care about them as a person are a necessity.

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Editor's note: For all statistical analyses, unless otherwise noted, Toldson used the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), which consists of 66 high-precision samples of the U.S. population drawn from 16 federal censuses, and the American Community Surveys (ACS) of 2000-2010. Where the notation "(Ruggles, et al)" is given, the data come from Ruggles S., Alexander J.T., Genadek K., Goeken R., Schroeder M.B., Sobek M.; Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 (machine-readable database), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota; 2010.

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor for The Root. He can be contacted at itoldson@howard.edu. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.