Stacey McAdoo always knew that she was gifted. The 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year’s mother had been telling her so her whole life.
But McAdoo’s talents were either ignored or overlooked by teachers in her Little Rock, Ark., schools.
That changed in seventh grade when she was assigned to her first Black teacher, Mrs. Anderson. The year was 1988.
“Despite being above grade level in most subjects, I was never officially flagged as a GT [gifted and talented] student until her,” McAdoo told attendees of the State Board of Education’s biannual retreat. McAdoo was the featured speaker for a session focusing on state and national models to encourage more people to go into teaching and to diversify the teaching workforce.
Being flagged as gifted and talented was bittersweet for McAdoo. She was quickly moved to an advanced English class, leaving behind the first Black teacher she’d had. After that, McAdoo said she only had a handful of Black teachers.
“I’m lucky,” she said. “My brother never had a single same gender, same race educator his entire educational career.”
McAdoo’s brother Craig struggled academically under white educators unfamiliar with his culture and who were unable or unwilling to tailor instruction to fit his learning style.
She became a surrogate educator, teaching her skills to Craig — and her dolls — while playing school in her bedroom.
“Back then, I didn’t understand or know words such as cultural competency or student-centered learning, culturally relevant teaching, or any of those academic terms that are ultimately about trying to see and value students for who they are,” McAdoo said. “What I did know was that I always saw lots of other ways I thought my teachers could or should have taught material to make it more interesting and appealing to me.”
She said Craig often told her that he preferred her classes to those he took in school.
“I’m convinced that part of the reason Craig was able to learn content more easily from me is that I understood his world and was able to fit it into the curriculum,” McAdoo said.
A national movement
McAdoo is now the Arkansas director of Teach Plus, a national nonprofit that works to empower teachers to lead improvements in education policy and practice.
She said the experience with her first Black teacher is consistent with what the research says about the benefits and impact Black teachers can have on African-American students.
“Black educators typically refer more students of color into gifted and talented programs than their [white] counterparts do, and they are generally less likely to refer children for disciplinary reasons or to special education,” McAdoo said.
In 2018, researchers from Johns Hopkins and American University found that having one Black teacher in elementary schools makes children more likely to graduate high school and significantly more likely to attend college.
Discussions about teacher diversity were weaved throughout the two-day retreat that focused on strategies to eliminate opportunity gaps and to ensure the state’s 1.5 million students have an opportunity to receive a sound basic education as required under North Carolina’s Constitution.
Denise Forte, the interim CEO at The Education Trust, a national research and advocacy nonprofit organization working to close opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income households, said a racially and culturally diverse teacher workforce benefits all children.
“It’s especially important for students of color who can thrive in classrooms led by teachers who share their racial and cultural background,” Forte said during her closing remarks. “Yet, North Carolina, like many states has made little progress in closing this diversity gap.”
Ramping up efforts in NC
In North Carolina, 53% of the state’s public school children were non-white in the 2018-19 school year. Meanwhile, just 21% of teachers were non-white, although that is a 4% increase from 2005-06.
Those numbers closely mirror national statistics that show 50% of U.S. students identify as persons of color, while more than 80% of the nation’s public school teachers identify as white.
North Carolina recently added three universities that serve predominantly nonwhite students to partner with the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program in hopes of increasing the number of students of color who train to become teachers.
The Teaching Fellows Commission selected Fayetteville State University, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke to join five predominately white colleges and universities already offering the program.
Teaching Fellows is a merit-based, loan-forgiveness program that provides up to $8,250 annually for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in public schools.
Anthony Graham, Provost at Winston-Salem State and chairman of the Gov. Roy Cooper’s DRIVE Task Force, spent more than a year examining ways to increase teacher diversity in North Carolina. He told the State Board of Education a year ago that the benefits of having more teachers of color include improvements in reading and math scores for all students.
In addition, a diverse teacher workforce can introduce more culturally relevant practices that affirm students’ racial and ethnic identities, reduce dropout rates for Black students, and generate more interest in attending college for students of color.
McAdoo said the research is clear that students of color perform better when they have teachers who look like them. “Each of us knows there’s substantial evidence that shows all students, and in particular students of color, do better when they have diverse teachers,” she said. “So, the million-dollar question is why are we having such a hard time recruiting them and why are they leaving the workforce at a higher rate than white teachers?”
Strategies for adding more teachers of color include “grow your own” programs to introduce high school students to the profession, McAdoo said.
She noted “Educators Rising,” a national initiative that she piloted in Arkansas as one that has shown success. The program offers students several ways into the profession, including “micro-credentials,” which are short, competency-based recognitions; as well as teaching certifications. The program has a social justice component, and is intentional about recruiting underrepresented populations, especially people of color, she said.
Other programs that allow prospective teachers to earn associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees debt-free and that provide them with mentors throughout their education and into the early stages of their careers also help in the recruitment and retention of teachers, McAdoo said.
State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis said many of the ideas and strategies McAdoo shared are worth considering in North Carolina.
“We’re going to try to copy many of the things you’re doing,” Davis said.
SBE local school board advisor Brenda Stephens, who is Black, said it’s important to have well-trained teachers in classrooms, regardless of race.
“Having brown skin does not make you a better teacher, so I believe we have to be strategic in our hiring so that we can get good teachers of color in front of our students and we need to work to retain those good teachers,” Stephens said.