Black men in the US are more likely to be professional football players than public school psychologists.
This is a staggering statistic. But for Chase McCallum, a black man who became a school psychologist more than a decade ago, it’s just reality.
“I think a lot of people with my background usually go into education,” 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 learned about the profession — through an Internet search while a student at the University of Mississippi — he was sold. “Once I learned what it was and everything that school psychologists could do, I fell in love with it.”
Psychologists play an important role in K-12 schools. They support students with their mental health, help prevent bullying and facilitate conflict resolution between students. They are often the only person in the entire school trained to assess a student’s behavioral, emotional, and academic needs. A key element of this is assessing whether the student has a disability.
And yet there is a clear mismatch between the demographic characteristics of school psychologists and the students they serve. According to a National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) survey, more than 85% of school psychologists are white, while the majority of K-12 public school students are not.
The exact number of Black school psychologists is difficult to determine, but NASP estimates that they make up less than 1% of psychologists in US public schools.
Other groups, including Asian Americans and Hispanics, are also underrepresented. But some experts are particularly concerned about the shortage of black male psychologists. Black children, especially boys, are disproportionately likely disciplined at school, violently processed by the police and referred to special education services.
“That representation of a black male professional in a school building is almost priceless,” says Bobby Geh, who teaches in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University.
And it’s not just black boys who benefit from this. “It affects the whole school,” he says.
The history of special education can turn people away from school psychology
Federal law guarantees students with disabilities the right to a “free appropriate public education,” and school psychologists play a key role in evaluating what “appropriate” means. For any student, this may mean providing occupational therapy, counseling, or time with a paraprofessional. School psychologists also help determine whether students should be placed in separate special education classes.
For decades, black students disproportionately transferred for special education services. National Center on Learning Disabilities finds that Black students are 40% more likely than their peers to be identified as having a disability, including a learning disability or intellectual disability. They are also more likely to be identified as having “emotional shock”, defenders of the label have long criticized it as stigmatizing.
“Representation matters,” says Celeste Malone, associate professor of school psychology at Howard University. “What does it mean to have a predominantly white profession working with predominantly children of color in a racist society?”
She believes that the history of special education can discourage black people from pursuing school psychology as a career.
“It can be difficult to reconcile wanting to be in a profession and wanting to support kids who look like you” with the role that school psychology “plays in the special education evaluation system,” she explains.
Malone, who is also president of NASP, notes that at some historically black colleges and universities, psychology departments do not refer their students to school psychology because of the field’s “historical legacy.”
Black males do not always feel that there is a place for them in education
Another problem, several experts tell NPR, is that black men often reject education as a career.
“The conversation most black boys have is, ‘You need to go into a field that makes a lot of money,'” says Georgia State’s Ge.
McCallum, a school psychologist in Mississippi, agrees: “I don’t think men feel they have a place in education.”
He discovered school psychology after volunteering at the Boys & 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, a surprise to his family.
“It was like, ‘Why would you do this when you can do something else?’ ” he says. “I feel like if you’re going to go to college and you’re trying to take care of your family and do things like that, you’re probably going to go into a different field.”
The output can be targeted recruitment
With such an extreme shortage of black people in a field that desperately needs them, some leaders are working on solutions.
NASP is expanding its Exposition project, where school psychologists of color give presentations to undergraduates and high school students to find new recruits. “When you see more people with different backgrounds,” McCallum says, “and you realize that we’re all doing the same job, I think that can really change the way we look at the field.”
Some school psychologists focus on changing the practice of the profession. Byron McClure, a Houston-based school psychologist who advocates for more representation in the field, says the role of school psychologists needs to change significantly to attract more black males.
Instead of relying on assessments to separate some students into special education, McClure says, school psychologists should use their expertise more broadly. For example, by creating restorative justice policies 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 don’t even come close to that goal. With such limited resources, school psychologists spend a lot of time on assessments for special ed.
McClure founded a networking and recruiting organization that he hopes will help increase the number of black male school psychologists.
We can’t just complain about the problem, he says. “We have to do something about it.”