Sharif El-Mekki guides aspiring Black teachers. Photo: Center for Black Educator Development
Sharif El-Mekki guides aspiring Black teachers. Photo: Center for Black Educator Development

The American teaching workforce has long suffered from a distinct lack of diversity. About 79% of all public school teachers are white and most are female, a stark contrast to the fact that most public school students are children of color. Black children comprise 15% of the student population, but only 7% of teachers are Black. Just 2% of teachers are Black men.

Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a longtime educator, wants to fix the leaky pipeline for recruiting, training and retaining Black teachers. The center has received a $1.5 million challenge grant over three years from the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund to support a project called the Black Teacher Pipeline. The aim is to guide promising future educators beginning in high school, where they complete early apprenticeships, all the way through their first four years as teaching professionals. The center hopes to recruit at least 21,000 Black students and funnel 9,100 teachers into the profession over its initial 12-year program, which will take place in 10 communities across the nation.

The Lauders’ grant has been matched by $500,000 apiece from the Walton Family Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and Spring Point Partners. The center also received $100,000 from Education Leaders of Color. Gary Lauder’s family founded the Estée Lauder Companies.

El-Mekki, who served as a principal for 16 years at Mastery Charter Schools and the School District of Philadelphia, says Black students can more easily see themselves in Black teachers, who can serve as models for cultural affirmation and positive identity development.

“That’s one of the biggest interventions that we can have,” he said. “I think so often, we’re chasing interventions instead of just doing what we know best on the front end, which is ensuring that more Black children have mirrors as to who they are and their lived experiences, culture and values.”

An understanding of Black children’s experiences is often lacking at teacher education programs, which mostly center on scholarship produced by white people for white children, El-Mekki said. “When you go to a typical teacher college, you’re learning a lot about European behavioral therapists, child psychologists and educational theorists, but unfortunately, not Black ones. They are nonexistent in the syllabus. We want students to have that exposure and give them a teacher apprenticeship to understand the art and science and mindset of effective teachers of our children.”

The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education

To solve persistent achievement gaps, education leaders and philanthropists have bet big on standardized testing, teacher accountability, personalized learning and school choice, but success has been mixed at best. They have not meaningfully explored what a concerted effort to expand the ranks of Black teachers would look like, despite promising evidence.

A 2017 study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University found that Black children who had at least one Black teacher between third and fifth grades were 29% less likely to drop out of high school and 13% more likely to enroll in college. Those who had two such teachers were 32% more likely to attend college. The impact is even more significant for low-income Black boys, who were 39% less likely to drop out. The study examined 100,000 Black students in North Carolina’s public schools.

In addition to getting more Black students to college, Black teachers are more likely to recommend Black students for advanced classes, boost their attendance, and reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions.

The question is, if Black teachers have a clear impact on Black students, why are there so few of them? One reason is an unintended consequence of the most important court case ever litigated in American education: Brown v. Board of Education.

In its 1954 decision, the Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional and ordered schools to integrate. However, the ruling did not extend to integrating teachers or school administrators. Before Brown, there were 82,000 Black teachers, but just a decade after the decision, the number dwindled to 44,000. White school boards and superintendents were granted authority over hiring and firing to integrate all-Black schools. As a result, many qualified and experienced Black teachers were pushed out of their careers. One form of segregation replaced another.

Ironically, there’s a case to be made that school segregation is now worse than it was during Brown, while the Black teaching workforce is nowhere near its previous levels.

The shortage of Black teachers has ramifications that reverberate far beyond classroom instruction in terms of how Black children are educated, El-Mekki said. “Who becomes instructional coaches, content leaders, leadership team members, policymakers, whether it’s school or district or state or federal? Who’s writing the policies, whether they’re grading policies, graduation requirements, disciplinary policies? They all are skewed toward one group, and in America, 80% of the teachers are white, so that means the ecosystem for other roles has colossal entanglements and colossal diseases.”

No one has asked them

In addition to the unintended impacts of Brown, there are other reasons for the dearth of Black teachers in the U.S. They include the underfunding of historically Black colleges and universities, which are often powerful feeders for Black talent; the lack of financial support given to first-generation college students, who are often people of color; and the negative experiences many Black students have in school that make them reluctant to pursue careers in teaching in the first place.

El-Mekki says all these factors are true, but there may be a simpler reason why more young Black people do not think about choosing teaching as a profession: No one has asked them.

In 2014, El-Mekki started a nonprofit called the Fellowship of Black Male Educators for Social Justice. Seventeen men were on the leadership team, and El-Mekki learned they all had something in common. “None of us had been approached in our younger years to become teachers—I was approached after I graduated from college, and so were the others,” he said.

Curious, El-Mekki and his staff asked other educators when they were asked to consider teaching. “The average response was third grade—and most of the people we asked were white women.”

El-Mekki entered teaching after an older relative urged him to attend an informational meeting about increasing the number of Black male teachers. The meeting was hosted by the nonprofit Concerned Black Men, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia. El-Mekki was initially reluctant to go, but was soon won over by Martin Ryder, a district official.

“Dr. Ryder said, ‘The purest form of activism is teaching Black children well.’” Those words stuck with El-Mekki as he shelved his plans to become a lawyer and embarked upon what would be a 23-year career in education.

Instead of searching far and wide for Black teachers, El-Mekki suggests schools would do well to look much closer to home and to start their recruitment efforts earlier. “The best recruitment to do is with the students who are sitting right in front of you,” he said. “Too often, they’re neglected, and I’m amazed how few teacher academies or teacher apprenticeship opportunities there are for high school students. But then everyone is trying to fall over themselves to recruit them once they graduate from college.”

In partnership with the United Negro College Fund, the Center for Black Educator Development will also start the Black Educators of Excellence Fellowship Program, a scholarship fund to offset tuition for teacher apprentices.

“For our high school students, they’re having dual-enrollment courses that are educationally based, having the opportunity to engage with younger students and teaching them literacy skills, particularly around phonics and reading comprehension,” El-Mekki said. “Positive racial identity, nurturing—these are all the things that we wanted to incorporate in order to support Black teachers.”

“Closest to the ground”

Eliana Lauder says her family’s interest in funding the Center stems from watching the documentary “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay. The film explores racial inequality in the United States, with a focus on the disproportionate number of Black people in prison. The Lauders wanted to support criminal justice reform, and in the course of their research, they came across organizations working in educational justice, specifically those improving teacher diversity. Following that path, the Lauders heard about El-Mekki and the center.

“It became clear that while there were great programs at the college level and regionally, there didn’t seem to be a national effort at the high school level. Sharif’s name came up a bunch in that landscape review—every road led back to Sharif, which is incredible,” Lauder said. “It was pretty obvious why: He has tremendous experience in this area and a wildly compelling vision. We were really excited to figure out how we could support him, how we could build something out—not to reinvent the wheel—but rather support him in his endeavors.”

The Lauders’ gift comes amid a nationwide racial reckoning that may mark a turning point for philanthropy. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last summer set off a wave of massive Black Lives Matter protests across the country—perhaps the largest movement in American history, which in turn sparked a flurry of racial equity commitments from foundations and companies. Inside Philanthropy previously reported on a December 2020 survey from Grantmakers for Education in which 39% of funders said racial justice was their organization’s most urgent priority over the next one to three years.

El-Mekki thinks the moment is ripe for philanthropy to finally allow the people most proximate to social problems to lead in creating solutions.

“Philanthropists don’t always go to the people closest to the ground, the people closest to the issues, the people who actually experienced the issues,” he said. “An extremely important part of the process is ensuring that funding gets closer and closer to communities they want to address.”