Black and Hispanic students and faculty members still encounter biases in the school system that make it more challenging for them to succeed, according to an annual report completed on May 30 and released on June 1 by a Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) advisory committee.
The Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee (MSAOC) found a “troubling pattern” when examining teacher recruitment and retention, student discipline, and minority student participation in advanced academic programs at FCPS.
“When discretion played a role in the decision-making or evaluation process, there was a disparate impact on black and/or Hispanic students and teachers,” the report says, concluding that those demographics suffer when personal feelings or perceptions are a factor.
The committee found that black applicants are less likely to be hired for teaching jobs.
In addition, black and Hispanic children are more likely to be suspended from school for subjective infractions, such as disrespect, insubordination, and classroom disruption. Those same students are also less likely to be accepted into advanced academic programs, including Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate programs.
MSAOC has been charged with identifying and assessing issues affecting minority student academic achievement for the past 25 years, releasing annual reports to the Fairfax County School Board starting in 1994.
For the 2016-2017 school year, the Fairfax County School Board charged MSAOC with providing guidance on how FCPS could eliminate any disparities in its policies and practices, a mission prompted by the “One Fairfax” resolution adopted by the county’s Board of Supervisors on July 12, 2016.
The annual report found that 54.7 percent of the 185,490 students in FCPS were black, Hispanic, or Asian as of Sept. 30, 2015, but those ethnicities accounted for only 15.5 percent of the school system’s teachers.
The lack of diversity in teacher workforces is often characterized as a pipeline problem. For example, while Hispanic and Asian teachers have a limited presence in the school system, they are hired at rates proportional to the frequency with which they apply for jobs, according to MSOAC, which credits FCPS for “taking steps to improve its outreach to underrepresented populations.”
However, the report suggests that the absence of black teachers may be attributable more directly to racial biases, citing a study conducted by George Mason University (GMU) professors and published in the Harvard Education Review’s spring 2017 issue.
Titled “Where Are All the Black Teachers? Discrimination in the Labor Market,” the study found that black teachers who apply to FCPS are significantly less likely to receive job offers than their white counterparts, despite generally having more work experience and more advanced academic credentials, according to The Washington Post.
Analyzing job application data from 2012, the GMU study found that black candidates made up 13 percent of the applicant pool that year but received 6 percent of the job offers, whereas white candidates submitted 70 percent of the total number of applications and got 77 percent of the job offers.
Leaders of the NAACP’s Fairfax County chapter met with FCPS deputy superintendent Steve Lockard and a school board representative on May 31 to discuss the issues raised by the GMU study.
Fairfax County NAACP president Kofi Annan says the data revealed by the study supports what the organization has heard anecdotally for years from teachers, who have also said that black teachers are more likely to be fired by FCPS.
“I can’t say we were totally surprised [by the study],” Annan said. “…Now we have some hard evidence that we can present to the school board to demonstrate that there is a problem within the school district.”
During their 90-minute meeting with Lockard and the school board, Fairfax County NAACP leaders urged school officials to publicly acknowledge the GMU study, which did not openly name the school district in question, and called for an independent study of hiring and retention practices, according to Annan.
They also discussed racially-based bullying, disproportionate punishment, and other concerns that have been raised by students.
According to the MSAOC report, Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately given out-of-school suspensions for offenses where officials are given discretion in determining discipline, but when it comes to conduct violations with mandatory punishments, such as the possession of a weapon or drugs, students are suspended at comparable rates regardless of their race or ethnicity.
FCPS public information officer John Torre says that the school system has increased minority hiring by 40 percent since 2012, despite the availability of teaching candidates nationwide hitting its lowest level in a decade.
“FCPS greatly values diversity in its hiring and believes it is critical to hire teachers that reflect the diverse community that we serve,” Torre said in a statement to the Fairfax County Times.
According to Torre, the Fairfax County school system has partnered with several colleges and universities that have significant minority populations, including Virginia State University, Spelman College, and Hampton University, to encourage those students to pursue teaching.
However, the GMU study and MSAOC report suggest that those recruiting efforts will still not necessarily address the challenges facing black applicants.
“This is not a supply issue,” Annan said. “You could recruit all the black teachers that you want, but at the end of the day, if you’re still discriminating on the hiring side of it, then all of the efforts to recruit are really for naught.”