A recent Fordham Institute study about student-teacher race matching in charter and traditional public schools found that black students are 50% more likely to see a black teacher in charter schools than in traditional public schools. The study, by Seth Gershenson, used student-level data for all public school students in North Carolina from grades three to five between 2006 and 2013. According to the study:
Although we cannot claim that these findings are applicable to all states, North Carolina’s public education system generally resembles those of many other large states, and results there tend to align with those that use nationally representative data… One important distinction, however, is that in many states charter schools are clumped in urban centers, while in North Carolina they are located throughout the state, including rural areas. Still, because of the state’s checkered racial history and atypical charter population, we urge caution in generalizing the results of the current study beyond North Carolina.
That caution is warranted, at least to judge by the data in my own state, New Jersey. Inspired in part by the Fordham findings about North Carolina, I had a look at the Garden State’s statistics.
New Jersey is a state of the sort mentioned by the Fordham study, where many charter schools are lumped in urban centers. Of the more than 90 charter schools in New Jersey, a majority are located in urban centers where the rates of poverty exceed the national rate.
According to New Jersey Department of Education data, New Jersey does mirror North Carolina in the sense that, statewide, charter schools have higher percentages of black teachers than traditional public schools: Black teachers make up 18% of charter school teachers in New Jersey as opposed to 6% in traditional public schools.
|Public Schools||Charter Schools|
Source: N.J. Department of Education
However, it cannot be said that black students are more likely to see a black teacher in a charter school versus a public school without considering where the charter school is located.
The three New Jersey municipalities with the highest number of charter schools — Camden, Jersey City, and Newark — house 41% of all charter schools in New Jersey.
In New Jersey, in the three districts I looked at, the traditional public schools actually employ higher percentages of black teachers compared to charter schools. In Camden and Newark, two out of the three districts, white teachers in the traditional public schools are outnumbered by Black and Latinx teachers. The same is not true for the charter schools located in any of these areas.
|T. Public||Charter||T. Public||Charter||T. Public||Charter|
|Black Teacher Pop %||43%||17%||17%||12%||35%||30%|
|Latinx Teacher Pop %||11%||8%||21%||25%||22%||16%|
|White Teacher Pop %||47%||72%||55%||51%||39%||49%|
Source: N.J. Department of Education
“Charter” column includes both Renaissance Charter Schools and independent charters.
A comprehensive look at charter schools nationwide is required to really make sense of the North Carolina or New Jersey numbers. Any conclusion would have to take into account where black teachers tend to be located. A Fordham blog post following up on the North Carolina study does look at some national data and finds charters “employ a more diverse teacher workforce” than do traditional public schools. Nevertheless, the data from Gershenson’s Fordham study and the New Jersey Department of Education raise some interesting questions.
One such question is, which charter schools are hiring which teachers? According to the New Jersey Department of Education, teacher demographics for charter schools in low poverty areas (municipalities whose poverty rate is below the national average of 12%) reflect teacher demographics of public schools, both in New Jersey and nationwide.
|Traditional Public School (U.S.)||Traditional Public School (N.J.)||Low-Poverty Charter Schools (N.J.)||High-Poverty Charter Schools (N.J.)|
Source: National Center for Education Statistics and N.J. Department of Education
Other research has reported that more black educators are leaving the profession than entering it. Perhaps educational leaders place a higher value on hiring black teachers than on retaining them. There’s a view that black teachers will help black students academically achieve simply because they are black and can relate. However, that assumption leads to black teachers being made de facto disciplinarians and given classrooms with the lowest performing students. These are precisely the things that can drive black teachers out of schools.
Black teachers often choose teaching as a profession because they want to improve the academic experiences of students of color, to support the educational transformation of their own communities, and to act as racial justice advocates. However, black teachers have an added value in all schools with all populations.
After the Fordham Gershenson study was published, a New Jersey teacher named Nicholas Ferroni tweeted: “Social Experiment: If you come across this tweet, reply with the grade you were in when you had your first nonwhite teacher.” The tweet went viral, generating more than 85,000 responses in less than a week. One of the more interesting responses came from a person who posted, “In all seriousness, Barack Obama was my first non-white teacher, in law school.”
Research shows that all children, including white children, benefit from having black teachers. Should charter schools be commended for hiring black teachers in schools where poor black children tend to be the majority? Sure. However, there’s plenty of room for further progress, by both charters and traditional public schools, in poor cities with large minority student populations and also in wealthier suburbs with fewer African-American and Latinx students.
Rann Miller is a director of a federally funded after-school & summer program located in southern New Jersey.
Last updated July 23, 2019