Diversity Matters

Here’s what male teachers of color want their districts to know about them

PHOTO: Teach901
Archie Moss is principal of Bruce Elementary School in Memphis, but started out as a teacher in North Carolina on the disciplinary track.

A passion for teaching and learning is what drew Archie Moss to a career in education. But the Memphis principal recalls how he almost left the profession when he found himself increasingly tasked as a disciplinarian.

One of the few black male teachers in his former school in Charlotte, N.C., Moss had just been tapped as its new disciplinary dean when his students’ math scores came back from the state — and were the highest in his school.

It was a revelation.

“We can be instructional leaders” and “not just pushed down to discipline,” Moss said of being a black male educator.

In his new role of working with troubled students, Moss began to see his passion for education erode “because I couldn’t affect change in academics,” he remembers. “Everybody thinks that just because I’m black means I’m going to relate to my kids. You still have to work at it.”

Moss’s experience isn’t unusual. Male teachers of color often feel consigned to become school disciplinarians instead of instructional leaders, especially in districts like in Memphis that are more likely to suspend black boys, while lagging at addressing what’s behind those numbers.

The career track is based on the assumption that black male teachers can relate better to black male students than can other teachers. There’s some merit to that theory, but it’s not exclusive to discipline. A recent study showed that black boys in Tennessee and North Carolina were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had just one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades. Other research shows that low-performing students especially benefit from having a teacher of their own race.

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor/EWA
John King is former U.S. secretary of education under the Obama administration.

Even so, black teachers are often “limited to acting as disciplinarians instead of being respected for their ability to manage their classrooms,” according to a 2014 report from Education Trust, an advocacy group led by former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

Black teachers interviewed for the report also reported feeling that they were being confined to only teaching black students, weren’t heard in staff meetings, and “had to ‘tone down’ their personalities to be seen as professionals,” even if they related well to students.

The feedback points to just some of the reasons that teachers of color are exiting the profession at a higher rate than other teachers — and why effective male teachers of color are in demand across America. They make up only 2 percent of the teaching workforce nationally, even as U.S. public schools are comprised of mostly minority students. In Tennessee, more than 80 percent of school districts don’t have a single Hispanic or black teacher — male or female.

Tennessee education officials have acknowledged the gap and this year announced new investments aimed at increasing diversity and improving the state’s retention rate among effective minority teachers. Researchers say those teachers are also more likely to leave Tennessee schools than other teachers with high evaluation scores.

Charles Sturkey knows what it’s like to be “the only one.” For most of his 16-year career at Willow Oaks Elementary School in Memphis, he has been the only male teacher of color. And like Moss, he’s often called on to step in when kids act up.

“I am sure there are more than a few male teachers that will tell you that they are the go-to teacher on their grade for handling students with discipline issues. I know I am that person, so I play my role on the team,” said Sturkey, who teaches first grade.

Moss advises teachers like Sturkey to advocate for their own professional needs and desires.

PHOTO: Teach901
Archie Moss

That’s what Moss did when he left his job in North Carolina and came to Memphis. He told his new boss that he wanted to focus on instruction, not discipline. He’s now principal at Bruce Elementary School.

“If (discipline) is what you want to do, that’s fine,” Moss said. “But don’t let anyone tell you that’s what you’re going to do.”

Seeking a way to support and energize male teachers of color in Memphis, Moss was instrumental in starting a local chapter of Profound Gentlemen, a Charlotte-based network now in seven cities. The organization is having results. Last year, 95 percent of its 160 teachers continued teaching, which is higher than the national rate for all black and Hispanic teachers.

The group also pairs teachers with boys of color in hopes of mentoring them to build a pipeline of future educators. “(They) can’t be what they can’t see,” according to one of the group’s mantras.

But the benefits of having diverse role models is important for more than just minority students, reminds King, who served as the nation’s education chief under the Obama administration.

“Sometimes the issue of teacher diversity is framed as something that matters for students of color, but I actually think it matters immensely for all kids,” he told Tennessee education leaders meeting this spring in Nashville. “White students need to see African-American teachers, Latino teachers, African-American principals, Latino principals.”

From his instructional perch with first-graders in Memphis, Sturkey couldn’t agree more.

“All professions need a diverse workforce,” he said. “However, I believe this even more important in education than any other profession.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.

Training teachers

More literacy coaches to bolster Tennessee’s drive to boost student reading

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

More than half of its school districts signed on last year when Tennessee created a network of literacy coaches to help classroom teachers improve their students’ reading.

Now entering the program’s second year, another 16 districts are joining up. That means two-thirds of Tennessee districts will have instructional supports in place aimed at addressing the state’s lackluster reading levels.

Tennessee has a reading problem. Less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient in 2015, the last year for which test scores are available. In Memphis, the numbers are even more stunning. Less than a third of Shelby County Schools’ third-graders are reading on grade level.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch of Read to be Ready in 2016.

The state wants to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. (New scores coming out this fall will help track progress.)

The coaching network is a major component of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready drive, launched in 2016 by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. The focus is helping teachers improve literacy instruction for the state’s youngest students.

So far, some 200 coaches have worked directly with more than 3,000 teachers in 83 districts, including all four urban districts. This fall, 99 out of the state’s 146 school systems will participate.

About 92 percent of classroom teachers report that coaching is improving their teaching, even as many coaches say they are stretched too thin, according to a state report released Wednesday. Inadequate planning time for teachers is another barrier to success, the report notes.

To join the coaching network, districts must commit to funding a reading coach who will support about 15 teachers. New districts signing up this year are:

  • Scott County Schools
  • Smith County School System
  • Pickett County Schools
  • Jackson County Schools
  • Macon County Schools
  • Clay County Schools
  • Sumner County Schools
  • Dyer County Schools
  • Wayne County Schools
  • Bedford County Schools
  • Benton County Schools
  • Alamo City School
  • Polk County Schools
  • Kingsport City Schools
  • Oak Ridge Schools
  • Dayton City School

A complete list of participating districts can be found here.