Only a small number of Metro teachers’ contracts each year are terminated due to poor performance, but too many of those teachers are minorities, according to teachers’ union the Metro Nashville Education Association.
“Institutional racism is an issue that the district has to come to grips with,” said MNEA President Erick Huth. “You have a system that undervalues minorities as employees. The best way to say it is that there are institutional barriers to attracting and retaining minorities in this district.”
The issue of too few minority teachers at Metro schools is one that the MNEA has raised repeatedly over the years.
The majority of Nashville public school students are not white. But that’s not the case for Metro’s teachers. Of Metro’s nearly 6,000 current teachers, 70 percent are white and 28.5 percent African-American. Less than one percent of teachers are Hispanic, and even less are Asian.
That’s a stark contrast from the racial breakdown of Metro’s students. According to state Report Card data, 48 percent of Metro students last were African-American, 34 percent Caucasian, 14 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.
Officials with Metro Nashville Public Schools have acknowledged that a goal of the district is to increase percentages of minority teachers. District spokesperson Olivia Brown said the district devotes resources to efforts such as attending recruitment fairs at historically black colleges.
“The recruitment of highly qualified, minority teachers is a key goal,” Brown said. “It’s maybe not quite where we want it to be, but we have seen increases based on those efforts.”
Huth, however, considers the district’s minority recruitment efforts “lackluster.” The problem is compounded, he recently told Board of Education members, by a trend he observes of disproportionate numbers of minority teachers having contracts terminated due to poor performance.
The numbers Huth is dealing with are small, compared to the size of the MNPS teaching force. Out of nearly 6,000 teachers district-wide, only 51 teachers’ contracts were not renewed for the upcoming school year due to performance, according to data obtained from the district by the MNEA.
Among those 51 teachers, the MNEA data indicates, 45 percent (a total of 23 teachers) identify themselves as African-American. White teachers make up 51 percent of that group, with 26 teachers having been terminated. One Hispanic teacher is part of the group, as is one Asian or Pacific Islander.
Process is flawed
Though this is a small group, Huth said the percentages are similar to what he’s seen in previous years. The teachers’ union has also seen several individual cases in recent months in which the reasons for termination of minority teachers appeared to be murky.
Union members have come to believe, Huth said, that some schools simply have a pattern of not renewing contracts of minority teachers.
“We’ve had some cases where the evaluation process seemed to be flawed, and the only factor that’s apparent to us is race,” Huth said. “There are schools where they don’t re-elect African-Americans. That establishes a pattern.”
Brown said that MNPS plans to look into Huth’s concerns, but the number of teachers involved is too small a sample size to suggest a trend.
“You’re talking 26 teachers versus 23 teachers,” she said. “While the percentages look higher, if you’re talking about one year, it doesn’t really show a trend.”
School board Chair David Fox also noted the small sample size. He said he considers the matter an administrative one, and that he thinks an appropriate response would be for the district to respond to Huth’s concerns and courtesy copy school board members.
“I was interested to see the information, and I’m confident that the administration is doing a lot to mine the talent that exists in the African-American pool of teachers, as well as the Hispanic pool of teachers,” Fox said.
School board member Gracie Porter said she wants to learn more about the contract renewal issue, but would like to see the district recruit more minority teachers and secure a teaching force that better reflects the demographics of Metro students. As a past Metro principal, she said she hasn’t seen institutional racism at Metro schools.
“From my perspective, I don’t see it as a racial issue. I see it as an issue as being able to recruit those individuals,” Porter said. “I just always believe in getting the best teachers for the classroom, and I’m sure there are a lot of minority teachers out there who are very good teachers. We just have to find them.”
Recruitment issues remain
Racial homogeneity of teachers is the case nationally, as well as locally. In Nashville and in the state of Tennessee as a whole, the situation has been recognized as one needing a solution. A shortage of minority teachers locally was noted as recently as the district’s strategic planning process of recent years.
In Tennessee, the State Board of Education found a shortage of minority teachers in 1987, and implemented recommendations from a task force the following year to add more diversity to the teaching force. State legislation was passed in 1993 urging local school boards to set goals for recruiting and retaining African-American teachers, according to the state Department of Education.
According to a 2006 report from the DOE, 60 percent of MNPS teachers for the 2004-2005 school year were white. While that percentage is lower than in many other state school districts, just 33 percent of teachers in the Memphis City school district that year were white. The percentage of white students in Memphis City public schools was, that year, far lower than the percentage for MNPS.
Huth has said that Memphis and Houston have a solid track record of recruiting education program graduates from local historically black college Tennessee State University.
In addition, Huth has said, starting teacher salaries are higher in Memphis than at MNPS, contributing to the recruitment success.