County should recruit more black teachers


September 13, 1998|By Harold Jackson

WHEN the NAACP speaks, people listen. The nation's oldest civil rights organization has for scores of years been the truest voice in exposing racial prejudice and seeking its demise. People listen because the credibility of the NAACP is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. But even a mountain is subject to erosion. Not even the NAACP always gets it right. Correcting its mistakes, however, will keep any organization from crumbling.

The Howard County chapter of the NAACP made a mistake with its recent criticism that not enough black teachers are being hired in the local school system. The criticism may be valid, but the way it was expressed made the NAACP look like it didn't know what it was talking about.

Time-worn tactics

Resorting to time-worn tactics that rarely produce the results they did 40 years ago, NAACP members showed up at an Aug. 27 board meeting with protest posters and a position paper that accused the school system of discrimination in its hiring.

Board members and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey appeared to be caught off guard by the complaint. And why shouldn't they have been? Compared with other suburban school systems around Baltimore, Howard County is doing a very good job hiring black teachers.

Twelve percent of Howard County's teachers are African-American, compared with 8.7 percent in Baltimore County, which has a much larger population of black students (28 percent compared with 16 percent). Ten percent of Anne Arundel County's teachers are black, 4.5 percent in Harford County and less than 1 percent in Carroll County.

More outstanding than these statistics is that 30.7 percent of the school-based administrators in Howard County, which includes principals and assistant principals, are African Americans. The NAACP's criticism ignored that accomplishment.

The civil rights organization's complaint extended to the hiring of nonclassroom personnel. It said Howard County schools didn't hire any black maintenance workers last year and that only four of 59 cafeteria workers hired were African-American.

But that doesn't bother me so much. I understand that black people need jobs at every level. But, in a predominantly white school system, it sends the wrong message to see African Americans overly represented in the stereotypical, low-wage jobs that some bigots want to reserve for us.

Black and white children need to see African Americans in positions of leadership within the school, which brings us back to the valid point that the NAACP clumsily tried to make.

Howard County schools do need more black teachers. The evidence is in the performance of black students.

Without most of the excuses of poverty and related social ills that impact their urban counterparts, black students in Howard County still do not do as well as whites on standardized tests and are overly represented among students who have to be disciplined.

On last year's Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, the average percentile scores of African-American ninth-graders in Howard County were 54 in reading, 45 in language and 45 in math. White ninth-graders averaged 73 in reading, 73 in language and 74 in math.

Even college-bound African Americans lag behind. The average SAT scores of black Howard County students in the senior class of 1997 were 466 on the verbal assessment and 458 in math, compared with white student averages of 546 verbal and 556 math.

The school system did a study two years ago to determine why black students were being disciplined disproportionately. (Black students accounted for 36 percent of high school suspensions, but made up only 16 percent of the high-school student population.)

The conclusion was that poor academic performance, rather than race, is the most common factor among disciplined students. If that's true, increasing the number of black students who excel academically should reduce the number who get into trouble.

All-black schools

The first 11 years of my education were spent in all-black schools. Even though I now know that our books and materials were inferior to what children in white schools received, I wouldn't trade the experience.

That's not a criticism of school integration, which also allowed me many valuable lessons about people who didn't look like me. But my exposure to so many black role models -- teachers, principals and, yes, custodians -- who were striving to be successful made me want to succeed, too.

I have seen a lot of kids in Howard County schools, black and white, who lack the inspiration to put forth their best academic effort. For some, the difference might be a teacher they find it easier to identify with.

Does that mean every black teacher can successfully teach a black child or that no white teacher can get through to an African-American student? Absolutely not. But common bonds can sometimes open doors that appear to be locked, including the portals to learning.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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