Black men in the US are more likely to become professional football players than school psychologists.
This is an amazing statistic. But for Chase McCallum, a black man who became a school psychologist more than a decade ago, it’s just reality.
“Education is not a field that I think a lot of people from my background usually do,” he says.
Growing up in southern Mississippi in the 1990s, McCallum planned to become a lawyer.
“I didn’t even know what a school psychologist was.”
But when he found out about the profession—via an internet search while a student at the University of Mississippi—he was sold. “Once I found out what it was and everything that school psychologists can do, I fell in love with it.”
Psychologists play a critical role in K-12 schools. They support students’ mental health, help prevent bullying, and help resolve conflicts between students. Often this is the only person in the entire school trained to assess the behavioral, emotional and academic needs of students. A key element of this is assessing whether the student has a disability.
Yet there is a clear mismatch between the demographics of school psychologists and the students they serve. According to a survey by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), over 85% of school psychologists are white, while the majority of students in K-12 comprehensive schools are not.
The exact number of black male school psychologists is difficult to determine, but the NASP estimates that they make up less than 1% of psychologists in U.S. public schools.
“That image of a professional black male in a school building is almost priceless,” says Bobby Gue, who teaches in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University.
And not only black boys can win. “It affects the whole school,” he says.
History of special education may turn people away from school psychology
Federal law guarantees students with disabilities the right to a “proper free public education,” and school psychologists play a key role in assessing what “proper” means. For any particular student, this may mean providing occupational therapy, counseling, or time with a paraprofessional. School psychologists also help make decisions about whether students should be placed in separate special education classes.
Inequality in school discipline persists
For decades, black students disproportionately for special education services. National Center for Learning Disabilities finds that Black students are 40% more likely than their peers to have a disability, including a learning disability or mental retardation. They are also more likely to be identified as having “emotional disorder” Proponents of the label have long been criticized as stigmatizing.
“Representation matters,” says Celeste Malone, an assistant professor of school psychology at Howard University. “What does it mean to have a predominantly white profession working predominantly with children of color in a racist society?”
She believes the history of special education may discourage blacks from pursuing school psychology as a career.
“It would be difficult to reconcile the desire to have a profession and the desire to support kids like you” with the role that school psychology “has played in the special education assessment system,” she explains.
Malone, who is also president of NASP, notes that at some historically black colleges and universities, psychology departments do not send their students into school psychology because of the field’s “historical legacy.”
Black men don’t always feel like they have a place in education
Another problem, according to several experts, is that black men often forego education as a career.
“Most black boys are talking about what you need to work in a field that brings a lot of money,” says Gue from Georgia.
McCallum, a Mississippi school psychologist, agrees: “I don’t think men feel like they have a place in the education system.”
He discovered school psychology after volunteering at a boys’ and girls’ club while in college and realized he wanted a career where he could support young people. A Google search led him to school psychology, which came as a surprise to his family.
“It was like, ‘Why would you do this when you could be doing something else?’ he says. “I think the perception is that if you’re going to go to college and you’re trying to take care of your family and do stuff like that, you’re probably going to go to another field.”
The solution may lie in the target set
With such a dire shortage of blacks in an area that desperately needs them, some leaders are working on a solution.
NASP expands its Exposition projectwhere school psychologists of color give presentations to undergraduate and high school students trying to find new hires. “If you see more people from different walks of life,” says McCallum, “and recognize that we are all doing the same work, I think it can really change our vision of the field.”
The burden of black teachers: “I don’t belong at your table”
Some school psychologists focus on changing professional practice. Byron McClure, a Houston-based school psychologist who advocates for more representation in the field, says the role school psychologists play needs to be seriously changed in order to attract more black men.
McClure says that rather than relying on grades to separate some students into special education, school psychologists should use their experience more broadly. For example, by developing a restorative justice policy or helping to develop a more culturally responsive curriculum.
All this requires more resources. NASP recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students. But most school districts aren’t even close to that goal. With such limited resources, school psychologists spend a lot of time on assessments for special education.
McClure has launched a networking and recruiting organization that he hopes will help increase the number of black school psychologists.
We can’t just complain about a problem, he says. “We have to do something about it.”