A committee that tracks student achievement gaps in Fairfax County is escalating its push for an investigation of recently published evidence that the Northern Virginia school system discriminated against black applicants for teaching positions.
The Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee — a group of parents, teachers, administrators and others appointed by the county School Board — has asked the Fairfax County Public Schools to name an outside investigator to examine findings from George Mason University researchers. The committee held a meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the issue.
Also on Wednesday, the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP asked the 188,000-student system to make changes in its hiring practices in a letter to the School Board and County Board of Supervisors that called for annual public reports on teacher diversity.
The Mason researchers, in a paper published in the spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review, found the district was hiring black applicants at far lower rates than their white counterparts in 2012, even though black applicants had, on average, more experience and more education. Researchers said that they do not believe the school system was an anomaly and that hiring discrimination could be widespread. The researchers did not identify the district, but school system officials have confirmed that FCPS was the subject of the study.
“This has to be taken seriously, and that’s why we asked for an independent review of this,” Judith Hall Howard, a former school administrator and chair of the committee, said at the meeting Wednesday night at the school system’s headquarters.
In a May 1 letter, Howard told the School Board that the results of the study should inspire urgency: “There is not time to delay this inquiry — the majority of new teachers in FCPS are hired from May through August annually. FCPS must take immediate steps to identify and rectify any and all hiring practices that can, may, or do potentially discriminate.”
Fairfax school officials expressed skepticism over the study’s findings.
“Given the broad leaps in the study, upon further review, FCPS may not agree with the George Mason University authors or find their methods to be sound. FCPS may seek that they be re-examined or revised,” School Board Chair Sandy Evans (Mason) said in a statement May 5. She said the district has made progress since 2012 and highlighted its efforts to recruit more minority applicants. It has also started training staff on cultural competency.
Interim school superintendent Steve Lockard has not responded to multiple requests for comment about the study.
Dean Brooks, a recruitment administrator, said the school system is casting a wide net and reaching out to college students to encourage them to become teachers, an effort to counter the shrinking number of people entering teacher-training programs. Recruiters have talked to students at historically black colleges and universities and have been sent as far as Puerto Rico to find candidates for the hundreds of positions that open in any given year.
“We’ve seen some great benefit from our efforts,” Brooks said in an interview Wednesday.
School system officials said they were unable to provide data about the racial demographics of its applicants this year, figures that the oversight committee is also seeking.
At the meeting Wednesday night, committee members expressed frustration as what they called foot-dragging on the part of school leaders.
Evans replied in a letter to the committee that she did not think that the district needs an outside counsel to investigate the findings because of the “intense focus already placed on addressing these challenges.”
Committee member Robert Shaw, whose sons graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary, called the board’s response “insulting.”
“The optics are bad,” Shaw added. “It cannot be swept under the rug. . . . We need to hold their feet to the fire.”
While the study spurred debate in Fairfax, it also confirmed for some observers that hiring discrimination may be contributing to the dearth of black educators nationally. The authors said that they did not think that the school system was an anomaly and that they suspect hiring discrimination occurs in other districts.
Ivory Toldson, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Howard University who has studied the underrepresentation of black teachers, said the problem has often been pinned on a lack of interest among black college students and a lack of qualified black applicants. But he hopes the study shifts the spotlight to school systems.
“There were all these assumptions that were made as to why there weren’t enough black teachers, and most of it boiled down to black people not being interested in teaching or black people not being qualified,” Toldson said. “There are systemic and structural biases and racism contributing to this problem. Instead of just looking at the targets of racism, we should look at the system.”
John B. King Jr., who served as education secretary in the Obama administration and oversaw the Education Department when it issued a wide-ranging report about the underrepresentation of minority educators, said the study highlights a problem that could be keeping some aspiring minority teachers out of the classroom.
“Part of the challenge with issues of bias is implicit bias operates without intention,” King said. “That means you have to make extraordinary efforts to overcome that implicit bias.”