Calling Black Men To The Blackboard

Our guest author today is Travis Bristol, former high school English teacher in New York City public schools, who is currently a clinical teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program, as well as a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests focus on the intersection of gender and race in organizations. Travis is a 2013 National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellow.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent American scholar, suggested that the problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color-line. Without question, the problem of the 21st century continues to be the “color-line," which is to say race. And so it is understandable why Cabinet members in the Obama administration continue to address the race question head-on, through policies that attempt to decrease systemic disparities between Latino and Black Americans when compared to White Americans.

Most recently, in August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department’s decision to reduce federal mandatory drug sentencing regulations.  Holder called “shameful” the fact that “black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes." Attempts, such as Holder's, to reform the criminal justice system appear to be an acknowledgment that institutionalized racism influences how Blacks and Whites are sentenced.

The parallels between prisons and schools are well-documented. The term "school-to-prison pipeline" refers to the fact that many school systems are unable to provide struggling students with enough skills and support, thereby increasing their likelihood of entering correctional facilities. Those students most trapped in this pipeline are Black males. Given this reality, like Attorney General Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described a policy initiative aimed at improving the in- and out-of-school outcomes for Black boys: increase the number Black male teachers in U.S. public schools.

At a college commencement in December, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that this shortage is endemic to the nation: “less than 15 percent of our teachers are black or Latino. It is especially troubling that less than two percent of our nation's teachers are African-American males. Less than one in 50! It's unacceptable." Earlier that year, at Morehouse College, the nation’s only all-male historically Black institution, Secretary Duncan launched the department’s "Black Men to the Blackboard" teacher recruitment campaign

One reason for this recruitment campaign is the hope that it could help redress the current social and educational outcomes of Black men and boys. As noted by one department official at the Morehouse event: “Faced with the startling fact that black males represent six percent of the U.S. population, yet 35 percent of the prison population and less than two percent of teachers, I can’t help but think how far we have to go."

The dearth of Black male teachers is often attributed to Black boys’ performance in school; that is, the academic under-achievement of Black males makes them less likely to attain degrees in higher education.  However, researchers and policy makers, and those calling “Black Men to the Blackboard," have failed to ask why many of those who do graduate and enter teaching go on to leave the classroom. Put simply, districts and schools, particularly those in urban areas, might have as much difficulty retaining Black male teachers as recruiting them.

Indeed, in an analysis of longitudinal data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) Ingersoll & May found that minority male teachers, most of whom were Black, were more likely to move to other schools than teachers from other sub-groups. A recent meta-analysis of turnover and retention among teachers of color identified only one study that explored the turnover patterns for Black male teachers. In this study, researchers analyzed a longitudinal data set from the Texas State Department of Education and found that White female and Black male teachers were leaving the profession at higher rates than other groups. While researchers are aware of some of the organizational conditions that affect the retention of teachers, there is little empirical research on how those conditions influence the decisions for sub-groups (see here), such as Black male teachers.

To add to the research on how schools influence the experiences of Black male teachers, I designed, with the help of Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap at Harvard University, a Black Male Teacher Environment Survey (BMTES). In June 2012, I administered BMTES to Black male teachers in Boston Public Schools (BPS). In an analysis of BMTES data*, I observed that the number of Black men in the building influenced their experiences in the school. Specifically, I explored the responses of “Loners," respondents who were the only Black men on their faculty and “Groupers," respondents in schools with four or more Black men on the faculty. From the overall sample, 78 percent of respondents intended to stay at their current schools; but Loners (57 percent), when compared to Groupers (20 percent), indicated a greater desire to leave their current schools, even in a down economy.

Some other interesting differences between the two groups include the fact that Loners were disproportionately more likely to have taught in three or more schools (86 percent), compared to Groupers (50 percent).  Loners were also more likely to cite challenges with colleagues as one influence on their decision to leave. In a soon to be published book chapter, I analyze the differences between how Loners and Groupers perceive the experiences of male students of color.

In sum, preliminary findings from this survey, BMTES, reveal that Black men who were the only Black male teacher on staff are more likely to want to leave their current schools. And, despite ongoing efforts to increase the number of Black male teachers in the workforce, Black men appear more likely to be movers and leavers when compared to other sub-groups. The results of this survey extend the nascent literature on Black male teacher turnover by providing a framework that explores how workers experience the organization, particularly for those in the numerical minority.

As the new school year begins, newspapers across the country – from Florida to Virginia, Illinois to Iowa – are reporting on school districts’ search for minority teachers, especially African American teachers – evidence that we, as a society, continue to navigate around the color line.  If administrators and policy makers continue to focus solely on recruitment efforts, without attention to retention, they run the risk of creating a revolving door of teachers in our public schools.

Only in the past decade have researchers turned their attention to an investigation of Black male teachers. Almost all of this burgeoning research has focused on exploring pathways into the profession (here and here, for example) and the teaching practices of Black male teachers (see here). There has been little research that attempts to understand how the organizational conditions in schools shape the work experiences of Black male teachers. If we are ever to get a handle on this issue, more research is needed, exploring how organizational conditions, characteristics, and dynamics in schools affect the career choices and trajectories of Black male teachers.

- Travis Bristol


* A link to the online survey was sent to each Black male teacher of record on Tuesday, June 26th - three days before the end of the school year. The timing may be one influence to the survey’s 34 percent response rate. In total, 85 of the 266 Black male teachers in BPS responded to the survey. It is important to note that the absolute size of my Loner (n=8) and Grouper (n=33) teachers on whom I base the below analysis only allows me to provide an impression of potential patterns in the district. An increase in response rate could change some of my findings.


Thanks for your views - a topic I am writing about on my blog,…

While retention is a core issue - attracting males of color into education is diifcult in an economic environment in which college graduate males of color have many choices, and, TFA "legitamatizes" teaching as a "brief stop" on a career path ...

Does your research address the impact of black, male teachers on student academic achievement and other non-cognitive measures ....?


Hi Peter,

First, thank you for taking the time to read my piece. I do agree that the supply of potential Black male teachers might be limited due to some of the points you raise (e.g. low graduation rates, many more lucrative job options etc.). I don't think the issue around why Black men do not enter the teaching profession is about how to "attract" them to teaching. I wonder what percentages of Black men apply and are denied admission to teaching training programs. I wonder what criteria are used in the selection process. I wonder if we changed the selection committee if the type of students who matriculate into teacher training programs would also change.

With that said, my piece is focused on exploring why Black men have such high rates of turnover. Specifically, I am curious to know what is it about how we organize schools that cause these men to leave in such high numbers, relative to their peers.

While I did not look at the relationship of Black male teachers and student learning in my survey, I ask teachers to describe their perceptions of how boys of color experience school. I've come across one study, Thomas Dee's has done work on the benefits for children when taught by the same-gender and race teacher. In the book chapter that I mentioned in this blog, I detail how the number of Black male teachers in the building (e.g. loner or grouper) seems to influence the relationships boys of color have with their schools.


A friend of mine passed along this commentary after he read why I discourage Latinos from becoming teachers:…

I'm a Latino English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. This is my 19th year.

It's interesting that Arne Duncan finds it wrong that we have a low number of black men teaching in black communities BUT he is fine with himself--a white, non-educator with only a bachelor's degree--leading our country's schools.

Potential teachers need to know the realities of teaching. It's rough. If they're passionate, they should go for it but they need to realize that it will like be hard to transition out of teaching into something else--especially if they're Latino or black.

The caveat for recruitment programs, like that movie TEACH, is that we cannot be like the military and blind Latinos or African Americans into believing it will be perfect, amazing, rewarding every day. Let's be honest with them. And allow them to decide.