Educators of color account for less than 10% of all public school teachers across the country, Black men represent 2% of that total, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And based on numbers from California’s Department of Education, Black male teachers account for just 1% of the more than 300,000 instructors in the state.
Those stats matter because as LA Unified students struggle from pandemic learning setbacks and state test scores continue to show flat or declining results, huge achievement gaps are still a problem. Students of color, and especially Black students, are falling farther behind their white peers.
In Los Angeles, a long-time educator is trying to tackle that problem. Peter Watts co-founded the Watts of Power Foundation with his wife Didi, and its flagship program, the Teachers Village Initiative, which supports Black male teachers-in-training.
He speaks with KCRWs All Things Considered about what led him to create the initiative.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Janaya Williams: How did your own background and education influence you to co-create the Watts of Power Foundation along with your wife and the Teacher Village Initiative?
Being an elementary school teacher, I knew the impact that I had as a Black male educator on students and in my class. The reason why I know I had that impact: … because of the test scores that we saw and the academic achievements, college attendance, and high school graduations.
Also seeing these young people … that were college grads and in careers, I'd run into them in the stores, or I’d see them on social media, and just the lives that they're living.
But what really prompted us to start a Teacher Village was the experience that our own kids were having as they were going into the teaching profession, and the impact that COVID had on teaching and learning in general. In the post-pandemic time, we saw that there were lots of teachers that were retiring, and lots of teachers that were quitting. ... We wanted to address that problem by focusing on Black men.
Our organization ... focuses on recruiting and training ... young Black men to become teachers in schools. We do that with what we call our secret sauce: our training in-care as well as housing that's affordable.
Many studies say that when Black students have Black teachers, especially Black male students who have Black male teachers, it's a much more effective learning environment. What’s your opinion?
There's data that shows that when students in grades three to five have at least one Black male teacher, their dropout rate decreases by 39% and their college interest increases by 29%. If we know data for elementary school students in grade three through five, then why aren't we recruiting more Black men into the teaching profession?
One is representation because you cannot be what you cannot see. So having a Black male educator, they can look to that Black male educator saying, “Yeah I can do that as well.”
We know that right now nationally the percentage for Black men in the classroom for teachers is 2% and in California it's 1%.
Tell me more about your project to help educators with housing.
Our fellowship is a two-year fellowship and we provide housing that's affordable. During that time, we are also training them in financial literacy, home buying, debt reduction, credit and saving. So when they get that beginning-year teacher salary, they are in a better position to become a homeowner in the community where they are actually teaching.
And that's what we see as our theory of change. They are highly effective teachers – meaning that they are moving the needle on student achievement, they are fully credentialed, and they become homeowners in the community. If we can get more Black men who own homes, and who are in the teaching profession, and who live in a community, we can begin to see a significant change in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and also build wealth and legacy for Black families in Los Angeles.
It's going to be hard in LA … because this area has some of the highest property values in the whole country. Does that worry you?
That does worry me. That's why we need public, private, and government partnerships. When I became a teacher and my wife became a teacher over 20 years ago, we bought our first house because there were government programs that assisted educators, like the Teacher Next Door Program, that helped us with down payment assistance. So being able to partner with public, private, and governmental agencies to help educators — and being able to purchase homes — that's where the game changer is. That's where we need more policy change and advocacy around that.
There's a lot happening in school boards and in school curriculums around the country, like taking away AP classes in African American history. Here in California, a lot of changes are happening in curricula that are anti-LGBTQ, and a lot of things around the country that are anti-historical in general. Can you talk about the role of Black male teachers in all of that?
When you think about the history of education and the history of Black people in this country, it was illegal for Black people to learn how to read. And so when we look at the Black educator pipeline and we look at the Black educators throughout history who risked their lives to teach people how to read — and the freedom schools movement who helped young Black people all learn how to read — this is all part of that Black teaching tradition.
We tell our fellows, even in our training, that one of our models is teaching as activism. We talk to them about how teaching is a social justice issue, and how it is part of the liberatory work that we do as Black educators for Black and Brown students, and all students for that matter. We have a free public education that is available to all. We feel like Black men play a significant part in teaching correct history and talking about the issues that affect them as students in their communities and in the classroom.