How Boston Can Recruit and Retain More Teachers of Color

By Dr. Travis Bristol, SCOPE

This post is the second in a series that features testimony from a recent hearing hosted by Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson on ways to recruit and retain more teachers of color in Boston Public Schools. Read the first post, written by Councilor Jackson, here. Read the third post from Samuel Acevedo, Executive Director of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, here. And read the fourth post from Roxanne Longoria of the Boston NAACP here. Below is testimony from Dr. Travis Bristol – you can also watch it here


Dr. Travis Bristol

“I'm a Black male so I can't get mad like people can because people don't like Black males getting mad. No they're going to perceive the stereotype… Angry black male.”

This quote is from a teacher, a Black male teacher, in Boston Public Schools; one of 27 Black male teachers who participated in my study, one of the largest qualitative studies on Black male teachers in this country and one of the only studies of Black male teachers in Boston Public Schools (BPS).

Good evening. My name is Dr. Travis Bristol and I’m currently a research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. For the past eleven years, I’ve worked in the field of education, first as a teacher in New York City public schools, then education consultant with the World Bank, and most recently as a teacher-educator with the Boston Teacher Residency Program.

I’m honored by Councilor Jackson’s invitation to share empirical evidence from my recent study on Black male teachers in BPS. I have two goals this evening: First, to draw attention to the state of Black male teachers in BPS, and second, to suggest a way forward for BPS, aided by the City Council, to develop a coherent strategy for recruiting, supporting and retaining Black male teachers and, by extension, teachers of color.

The challenge around recruiting and retaining teachers of color is not one simply faced by this district; at the very moment that policymakers, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, advocate for increasing the ethnic/racial diversity of the teaching profession, teachers of color are disappearing. In city after city across these United States, Latino and Black teachers are exiting (or quite possibly being forced out of) the profession.

However, this district, Boston Public Schools, our nation’s first public school system, is uniquely positioned to lead once again by creating an accountability structure that can increase, support and retain highly qualified teachers of color.

While there are studies that draw on data from randomized control trials and nationally representative samples that find increased learning outcomes for students of color when taught by a teacher of color, we should not conclude that Latino students should have only Latino teachers, or that Asian children should have only Asian teachers, or Black students only need Black teachers. But, given our flat or interconnected world, our children in BPS deserve a diverse teaching force that will prepare them to be global citizens.

I’d like to share two interesting patterns for all teachers during the 2012-2013 school year. First, Black male teachers were more likely to have a Black principal. Second, Black male teachers were concentrated in turnaround schools, and White teachers were less likely to teach in turnaround schools.

Research already suggests that racial bias exists in hiring particularly as it relates to Black men. Might it be the case that a principal’s race and the number of Black men on the faculty be a result of racial bias in hiring? While my study did not explore principals’ decisions around hiring, it might be important for the district to explore potential bias around hiring.

I designed, in 2013, a research project to interview Black male teachers in two types of schools. In total, my findings were based on 27 Black male teachers across 14 schools; 7 schools where there was only one Black male teacher on the faculty; and 7 schools where there were three or Black male teachers on the faculty.

I wanted to understand why Black men came into the profession, how they experience schools, and how those experiences influenced their decisions to stay or leave their schools.

Finding #1: Early experience teaching influenced participants’ decisions to become teachers, so here is one policy recommendation based on this finding:

BPS, with support from the City Council and Mayor Walsh’s office, should create a fellowship program for Black males, and by extension, students of color in their junior and senior years of high school that provide funding throughout their undergraduate degree if they commit to teaching in BPS. The infrastructure exists with programs like the Boston Promise Initiative, the LEAH program at Boston Children’s Hospital, Year Up, and BTR to do this work.

Why should the district travel afar when it could create its own homegrown teacher of color pipeline within. Research suggests that teachers are more likely to teach in schools 15 miles from where they went to high school.

Finding #2: Black male teachers’ experience and satisfaction depended on whether they were the only Black man in the school (a “Loner”)  or one of three or more Black men (a “Grouper”). Loners believed they were socially alone and disconnected from the school’s core mission. My policy recommendation here is to identify and intervene in schools with low numbers of Black male teachers.  

Finding #3: My third finding was that participants felt more like behavior managers than teachers – police officers than teachers. Here, as a policy recommendation, I suggest the district include racial and gender awareness training for new administrators, as well as on-going training for current administrators.

Finding #4: And, finally, my fourth finding was that 9 out of 27 teachers moved schools or left the profession. These 9 were all in schools with 3 or more Black male teachers. These Black male teachers cited poor working conditions as their reasons for leaving, and suggested that many of their colleagues, across all racial groups, had similar feelings. 

One participant, who resigned at the end of the academic year, recounted how, after he collected all cell phones from students before the MCAS, another administrator stopped and frisked students while they were taking the exam because she did not believe all cellphones were collected. The participant decried, “That is a microcosm of what it’s like to go to school here…this isn’t a prison. We can’t treat our kids like they are criminals… I’m just done.”

My final policy recommendation is that we improve organizations when we develop both the people and the organization.

To increase Black male teacher retention, the district should concentrate on supporting these teachers. The district’s current initiative, the Male Educators of Color Executive Coaching Seminar Cities, which was informed by an initiative that I designed while on the faculty of the Boston Teacher Residency Program, should be expanded and improved with specific attention to providing socio-emotional support to male teachers of color and a space to reflect on their teaching practice.

And for an organizational recommendation: The district must ensure that turnaround schools have the same resources – if not more – than non-turnaround schools. For example, do turnaround schools have the same number of experienced and well-trained teachers as non-turnaround schools?

As this nation grapples with how to recruit and retain teachers of color, BPS is well positioned to lead once again.

I’d like to end by thanking the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, the Albert Shanker Institute, and Teachers College, Columbia University for supporting this research project. 

Watch a video of Dr. Bristol's testimony below. 

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