A few weeks before the school year ends, Taree Porter leads word drills with her second graders and reads a Judy Blume classic amid the din of giggles.
Porter, a teacher for 14 years, is black and comes from a family of Chicago Public Schools educators.
Just 15 years go, 40 percent teachers in CPS schools were black. Today, it’s 23 percent. Many black students are segregated into majority black schools—like National Teachers Academy in the South Loop, where Porter teaches.
The fact that she's among a dwindling demographic isn't lost on Porter. And all this change didn’t occur in a vacuum. Modern education reform in Chicago started in 1995 and ramped up in the following years.
“What I noticed was the recruitment of non-black teachers outside of the state of Illinois and even within the state,” Porter said. “Somewhere midway in my career I think I noticed that there were a lot of alternative certification programs popping up. People did alternative certification but didn’t last long once they became full-fledged teachers. And a lot of times they had to work in inner-city schools with African-American children and it seems no matter what the training, they weren’t prepared.”
The face of Chicago Public Schools teachers is changing: the teaching workforce is whiter and less experienced. Meanwhile, most of the students in Chicago’s public schools are Hispanic and African American. Black enrollment has gone down, but black students still make up 39 percent of the district.
Chicago Teachers Union researcher Pavlyn Jankov says more and more schools are like Porter’s -- mostly black students, mostly white teachers. And he said it didn’t happen by chance.
“It lines up with the huge proliferation of charter schools and those schools along with the AUSL turnaround schools are mainly responsible for the staff who are predominately teachers with perhaps one to five years experience and predominantly white teachers,” Jankov said.
He said, at the same time, the numbers also show how stubbornly the segregation of teachers and students holds on.
“We’ve looked at how the percentage of schools across CPS that are segregated on both ends in terms of schools that have a majority black teaching staff and a hyper-segregated black student population has actually maintained despite the fact that there’ve been these closings,” Jankov said.
He said the number and percentage of schools where there are virtually no staff or no students who are African American has increased a lot too. In just the last decade the number of schools with fewer than a 10 percent black teaching staff jumped from 69 to 223. Schools with no black teachers soared from 10 to 50.
Of course, school policies aren’t the only thing going on. There also may be fewer black teachers because other professions have opened up to African Americans.
Dominic Belmonte, president and CEO of the Golden Apple Foundation, has another theory.
“If you are a person of color with a 25 ACT and you’re a high school senior, there are avenues for you that are everywhere that are saying come hither, come join us in law, come join us in business, come join us in finance where the ground will be padded down for you, where you can have internships,” he said. “...and here we are in the teaching corner, saying, ‘Come here where no one believes you’re doing a good job. Come on over here where you are distrusted and belittled and maligned.’”
At one point, approximately half of all black professionals across the country were teachers. In the era of Jim Crow, African Americans had to staff schools that were all black. Teaching became a pathway to the middle class.
Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo says the decline of black teachers has consequences inside and outside the classroom.
“When you have big teacher layoffs or you have a decline in the number of black teachers, that could destabilize some of the neighborhoods that are most well-known as Chicago’s black middle-class neighborhoods -- places like Chatham and Pill Hill and parts of South Shore and parts of Auburn-Gresham, and those kind of neighborhoods could be negatively affected by declines in the teaching profession,” she said.
For children, Pattillo said, the value of a teacher who looks like you can play into some of the most rigorous ways we measure teaching and learning.
“The demographics of the teaching profession is very important. A number of studies have begun to show that having a teacher of one’s own race can boost all kinds of education outcomes. Can boost scores on standardized tests, those kind of things,” Pattillo said.
Second grade teacher Porter said she hasn’t had honest conversations with teacher friends or colleagues about race in the classrooms.
“Because most of my friends are African American, we don’t talk about race as it relates to teaching and our decision to teach or even decision to leave the field. I think the decision for people to leave the field is not based on race. It’s based on the conditions and things that have seemingly nothing to do with race but the political nature of it sometimes takes us back to race,” Porter said.
Circling back to race is common—and important—in a school system of mostly black and brown students.
Clarification: National Teachers Academy is a training school for teachers who go into turnaround schools.