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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Does it matter so long as it's a 'good' teacher?
Now that it's clear that black-majority public schools are coming back, who should be at the head of the class - A BLACK TEACHER?A WHITE TEACHER?
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published July 1, 2007
[John Corbitt | Times illustration]
And so it will be. - Starting in 2008, enrollments at several Pinellas public schools are all but certain to become predominantly black for the first time since 1970, following a national trend. - The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way with a ruling Thursday that limits the ability of school districts to assign students by race. The truth is Pinellas - like so many other urban districts - already was headed that way. - The district's proposed new assignment plan places far more emphasis on families getting into a school close to home than it does on racial diversity. That's what Pinellas families asked for in a recent survey that showed most black and "nonblack" parents want many of the same things: Strong academics. Special programs like magnet and fundamental schools that encourage some racial mixing. Neighborhood schools. - But the point where black and nonblack parents differ raises questions about how the system should staff a mostly black or an all-black school. Asked to rank the importance of having "teachers of different races" at their school, nearly 60 percent of the black parents surveyed by the district said it was very important. Only 15 percent of white parents had the same response. - Asked to list their top three reasons for choosing a school, black parents were 12 times more likely than white parents to put teacher diversity at or near the top. Nowhere else was the opinion gap so large. - Would the district do well to staff its mostly black schools with more black teachers? Would black students - who trail their peers in every schoolhouse category - respond better to black teachers? How about an entire staff of black teachers? A black principal?
Pinellas educators have never needed to answer these questions. Before desegregation began more than 35 years ago, a black teacher naturally was assigned to a black school.
Could we or should we return to all-black school environments? And if that's what black parents say is needed, should the district try?
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy may have touched on the issue Thursday, suggesting in a separate opinion that districts consider recruiting teachers by race as one of the few tools left to ease effects of racial isolation.
As with many issues involving race in America, there are few clear answers.
The parent survey in Pinellas seems to reflect a long-held feeling in some quarters that black teachers, as a rule, have a special connection with black students that cannot be replicated by even the most talented, engaging and well-meaning white teachers.
It has come to be conventional wisdom, an article of faith. It is one reason an August 2000 court-ordered settlement in the Pinellas desegregation case contained a provision that still compels the school district to work harder to recruit black teachers, who make up only 8 percent of the district's instructors.
So strong is this idea that some black parents and grandparents report a longing sometimes for the days of segregation and a school full of black teachers, whom they remember as more caring.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better expression of this theme than in the 1997 book, Black Teachers on Teaching, a collection of reflections by 20 black teachers compiled by Michele Foster, a black education professor.
"Even though I only had four black teachers throughout my elementary and secondary school years, those black teachers were the most influential teachers in my educational career, " wrote Ashallah Williams, then a teacher in her late 20s.
"My black teachers were more than role models. The way they interacted with me was familiar. It was as if they were aunts, older sisters, uncles or a grandmother. It was easier for me to read them, to understand their intentions, and they mine."
Evidence is mixed
Ronald F. Ferguson, a black economist at Harvard University and a pre-eminent researcher on the education gap, has studied the issue like few others.
"On balance I do not find clear support for the proposition that black teachers are significantly better than white teachers in helping black children to improve their scores on standardized examinations, " he concluded in a paper for the Brookings Institution. Ferguson said the topic had not been fully researched and the evidence so far was mixed. He did cite "tentative evidence that teachers' social class backgrounds might be as important as race, but in complicated ways."
One study of 20 Baltimore schools in the early 1980s looked at the impact that black and white teachers from different income backgrounds had on first-graders. High-status black teachers were best at getting test score gains from white students, but less successful with black students. Black students got the best gains from high-status white teachers and low-status black teachers.
Ferguson ventured an explanation, saying it was plausible high-status white teachers and low-status black teachers were more comfortable with poor black children, may have felt "least threatened" and were "most inclined to believe that such children can achieve at high levels."
More recently, a pair of prominent researchers, David Figlio and Cecilia Rouse, studied Pinellas students and teachers. Their December report analyzed the gap in performance between black and nonblack students on the 2005 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
They concluded that black teachers did not reduce the gap. "If anything, the data suggest the opposite, " they said.
The study also found that black administrators were just as likely as their white counterparts to suspend black students, who are disciplined at disproportionate rates.
Says Ferguson: "In any case, what surely matters most is that teachers of any race have the skills they need to be effective in the classroom."
Black teachers compose only 8 percent of the teaching force in a district with 19 percent black enrollment. There is little sign of that changing.
Nationally for years, black college students have increasingly chosen non-teaching professions. That exacerbates a shortage created in the 1970s when desegregation prompted white-run, mostly Southern, districts to fire black teachers by the thousands. White parents, they argued at the time, did not want their children taught by black teachers. The ranks of black teachers have been on the thin side ever since.
As Pinellas faces the prospect of mostly black schools, district officials have concentrated most on how they would get extra resources to those students, many of whom are poor.
Asked recently whether he might send more black teachers to those schools, superintendent Clayton Wilcox said the Figlio and Rouse data didn't support such a decision.
"We don't go out and say we want black teachers just because we want black teachers, " he said. "We want to go out and find the best teachers we can find."
Mary Brown, the School Board's only black member, is saddened by the environment that has launched the district toward resegregation. She sees it as a setback threatening to erode hard-won gains in racial understanding accruing since desegregation started. The issue is not who teaches where, she said."There are good white teachers that build relationships with black children; there are good black teachers who build good relationships with white children. I wouldn't care what color they are, as long as they build relationships."