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Black male teachers needed

Some argue having more black men teaching will aid black male students; others say race - and gender - shouldn't matter.

Published June 3, 2005

[Times photos: Bill Serne]
During a first-grade math exercise using M&M's, teacher Rudy Morrow works with Rodarius Green, 7, at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg. He is one of 19 African-American male elementary teachers in Pinellas County.

Rudy Morrow talks to his first-grade class at the beginning of a new day at Lakewood Elementary School.

If only Rudy Morrow could be cloned.

The first-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg is a black man in a profession dominated by white women. A small but growing chorus of educators, politicians and parents say more teachers like him would boost black male students, who struggle the most.

"Students relate better to teachers who, in short, look like them," says Winston Holton, field coordinator for Call Me MISTER, a program at Clemson University in South Carolina that aims to put more black men into the teaching ranks.

Research shows those students might score higher, too.

Yet few black men are going into teaching, and few incentives are being offered to change that. Pay is low, teaching is still widely viewed as women's work and for college-educated black men, doors of opportunity are swinging open elsewhere.

"There's just not a lot of them interested in it," says Byron Williams, who is black, a former teacher and now a teacher recruiter for Hillsborough County schools. "I had a lot of people tell me, "You're going into education? Why are you doing that? There's no money in that."'

Morrow, 27, is the only black man teaching at Lakewood and one of only 75 teaching elementary school in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

That's 75 out of 8,800 elementary teachers total. In districts where more than one in every 10 students is black.

Morrow said he went into teaching after realizing he wasn't cut out for his first choice, electrical engineering. He was always good with kids, he said. He sees himself as a role model.

"I want them to see that this is how you act as an adult," he says.

Morrow's class is predominantly black.

Statistics show that black male students are more likely than any other group to flunk tests, be disciplined and be placed in special education classes. Fewer than half graduate. Barely a third go to college.

Education observers across the country see a link between the gloomy statistics and the scarcity of black male teachers.

In elementary school, black boys "determine education is a girl/woman thing, and they get behind," says U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat who has sponsored legislation to nudge black men into early childhood education.

Those pushing for more diversity in teaching have been making similar arguments for years.

They say black teachers communicate better with black children. They're better at keeping their attention. They're more likely to hold them to higher standards.

They make them feel more comfortable.

Little things can make a difference - a bit of slang, an example based on a shared cultural experience.

"Not everybody learns in the same way, and culture is a big piece that contributes to how people learn," says Beatriz Clewell, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., who has studied test scores and teacher race.

Not everyone agrees.

Williams, the Hillsborough recruiter, says he watched a 54-year-old white woman win over an all-black class in an inner-city elementary school and raise reading scores.

"Initially? Maybe. Maybe the student feels more comfortable," Williams says. "But if you have a teacher who knows what he or she is doing, the kids are going to love them no matter what color they are, even if they are green.

"We're selling ourselves short when we say, "These kids need a black teacher to succeed."'

Research on the issue is sparse. And it offers a mixed message.

Swarthmore College economics professor Thomas Dee found students scored 2 to 4 percentile points higher on standardized reading and math tests when paired with teachers of the same race or ethnicity. In another study, teachers were 25 percent more likely to label a student disruptive if they were of a different race.

Gender matters, too. Teachers were 10 percent more likely to consider a student inattentive if they were of the opposite gender.

"There's something there," Dee says.

His findings would seem to support efforts to recruit more minority teachers. But they also show a potential downside: Under minority teachers, the test scores of nonminority students drop.

Recruiting more black and male teachers "may come at some cost to female students and nonblack students," Dee says.

More research is needed to determine why a teacher's race and gender matter, he says. In the meantime, policymakers should consider bridging differences by other means, such as sensitivity training.

At Lakewood on a recent morning, jazz breezes from a radio while Morrow waits for his students. A former point guard for his college basketball team, he is muscular but easy going, with eyes that scrunch up when he laughs.

Morrow says he doesn't treat his students any differently than other teachers. But he has been told his patience can run too deep.

On this day, one of his black male students drifts again and again from a work sheet to talk to his neighbors. Again and again, Morrow responds, soft but direct.

Eventually, he kneels next to the boy and whispers. The student leaves the room, returning a few minutes later with a teacher's aide.

The boy didn't need punishment, Morrow says. He needed "a change of pace."

Given current trends, teachers like Morrow will never be common.

Among 4,900 education majors at the University of South Florida, 92 are black men. At the University of Florida, 14 black men are on the teacher track.

"By the time we get the number of black male teachers up to where they make a difference, how many generations of children will have gone through school?" says Clewell, with the Urban Institute. "We should be thinking of solutions that can be more immediately applied."

Some are trying anyway.

At Clemson University, the Call Me MISTER program has graduated 19 black male teachers since it began in 1999 and has more than 100 in the pipeline. It offers up to $5,000 a year in tuition and other assistance in return for teaching in South Carolina schools.

Clemson hopes to replicate the program at other colleges, and recently drew 400 people to an information-sharing conference.

Florida does not have a similar program. When it comes to recruiting black men, its school districts are used to being outgunned by out-of-state districts that offer better pay.

"One of the first questions they asked me was, "How much are you going to pay me? And do you have any bonuses?"' says Sandra Hopkins, a senior human resources specialist with the Pinellas district.

The answer: Beginning teachers will earn $34,300 this year.

They can get up to $1,000 for moving expenses.

There is no bonus.

To try to beef up the ranks, the Pinellas school board in March voted to spend $737,000 on a nonprofit group that specializes in recruiting alternatively certified teachers. Black teachers, and black male teachers, will be among its targets.

Despite the hurdles, there are small victories. Hopkins and her recruiting team recently filled three elementary school positions with black men.

"Three is a big deal," she says. "Sometimes, one is a big deal."

--Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or

[Last modified June 3, 2005, 01:16:00]

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