Why Chicago’s Public Schools Are Losing Black Teachers

Chicago’s WBEZ radio recently ran a story titled, Why Are There Fewer Black Teachers in CPS? I’ve taught in Chicago Public Schools for the past 11 years, and in the past five, I’ve found myself increasingly asking that same question. The percentage of black teachers has fallen from 40 percent in 2000 to 23 percent today, according to WBEZ. In fact, in the last decade the number of schools with fewer than 10 percent of black teachers on staff jumped from 69 to 223—50 with no black teachers at all, according to the story. I have three suspicions for the CPS “blackout.” Suspicion #1: Black teachers are being pushed out. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) tried to highlight this phenomenon in 2011, when a disproportionate number of African-American teachers received pink slips in a district-wide layoff—they represented 30 percent of district teachers, but 43 percent of the CPS teachers laid off. When  my black principal fired me after giving me an unjust teacher evaluation in 2008, I knew race had played a role. In the two years I had worked at the school, only black teachers were being fired or disciplined. Meanwhile, I watched performance problems with my young, white colleagues go unaddressed as they struggled to control their classrooms. My third-grade class was orderly and engaged, but I also wasn’t shy about voicing concerns about school policy and holding administrators accountable. My white colleagues privately shared the same concerns with me, but they remained silent in staff meetings, too afraid to speak up. When I got fired I was ready to quit teaching forever, until I met an inspiring charter school principal who gave me the professional respect I deserved. Suspicion #2: It’s harder for black teachers to get hired. Back in 2011, when I was halfway through my Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship, I distinctly remember a teacher in my cohort saying that her African-American principal had implemented a “black hiring freeze.” Her principal had told her she wanted more young, white teachers because they were more passive. It reminded me what I went through in 2008, but the “black hiring freeze” comment also made me think of my bright and talented African-American teacher friends who struggled to get hired. It’s not always blatant discrimination. Some school leaders genuinely want to hire more black teachers, but they are prone to scrutinizing black candidates more harshly. One time a white principal candidly told me how desperately she wanted to hire a qualified black teacher. She even went to a job fair at Chicago State University, which has a teaching program comprising of predominantly black students. She did end up hiring a teacher from the fair, but he was white. “Because so many black students in Chicago are getting a crappy K-12 education,” she explained, “it’s affecting the quality of the teaching pool once some of them become teachers.” Suspicion #3: Black students in Chicago are discouraged from studying education in college. In 2010, the Illinois State Board of Education increased its cut scores on the basic skills exam, which teachers must pass before they can enroll in a teaching program. The reading cut score jumped from 50 to 85 percent, and the math cut score went from 35 to 75 percent. The test was then redesigned in 2012, making it more rigorous by raising the knowledge expectation to an 11th grade level, based on the Common Core State Standards. Catalyst magazine reported that a round of testing from April 2012 showed only 28 percent of blacks and 33 percent of Latinos passed the reading subtest, compared to 52 percent of whites and 48 percent of Asians. (It’s sobering to see that the K-12 achievement gap is just as pronounced on the college level, even among prospective teachers.) Still, the original pass rate of 86 percent was cut in half, impacting prospective teachers across all races, especially blacks. I know a black woman in her late 40s who has taught in private preschools for 20 years. This woman can teach 4- and 5-year olds how to read in her sleep—and she does it with so much joy! Unfortunately, she’ll never be able to teach in CPS. She decided to pursue state certification in early childhood education in 2012, but despite her best efforts, she just could not pass the Common Core-inspired math section. She failed the test five times and is now banned from ever trying again. Let me be clear: All teachers—regardless of race—must have the intellectual wherewithal to become educators. We want our best and brightest in teaching programs. However, most of the people taking the “basic skills” test are college sophomores (or older), and the implementation of the Common Core predates their entire K-12 education. Theoretically, this situation should begin to self-correct in the next three years when the Common Core goes through a full high school cycle. It will take that long before the rigorous new teacher test will achieve its goal of helping to improve teacher quality, rather than feeling like it shuts minority teachers out. Final Thoughts CPS has many amazing white teachers who care deeply for their students. Most would agree, though, that it’s vital that the low-income black and brown kids, who make up 87 percent of district, have strong teachers who look like them, reflecting the best of their heritage and community. This is a powerful form of education all by itself.  
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames' award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

Join the Movement