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Few Black men become school psychologists. Here's why that matters

LA Johnson

Black men in the U.S. are more likely to be professional football players than public school psychologists.

It's a startling statistic. But for Chase McCullum, a Black man who became a school psychologist over a decade ago, it's just reality.

"Education is not a field that I think a lot of people from my background would typically pursue," he says.

Growing up in southern Mississippi during the '90s, McCullum planned on becoming a lawyer.

"I really did not know what a school psychologist was."

But when he learned about the profession – through an internet search as a college student at the University of Mississippi – he was sold. "Once I found out what it was, and all the things that school psychologists can do, I fell in love with it."

Psychologists play a critical role in K-12 schools. They support students with their mental health, help prevent bullying and promote conflict resolution between students. They're often the only person in an entire school who is trained to assess a student's behavioral, emotional and academic needs. A key element of that is assessing whether a student has a disability.

That representation of a Black male professional in the school building, it's almost priceless ... It impacts the entire school.

And yet there's a clear mismatch between the demographics of school psychologists and the student populations they serve. According to survey data from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), more than 85% of school psychologists are white, while most K-12 public school students are not.

The exact number of Black male school psychologists is hard to pin down, but NASP estimates they make up fewer than 1% of psychologists in U.S. public schools.

Other groups, including Asian Americans and Hispanics, are also underrepresented. But, some experts are particularly worried about the dearth of Black male psychologists. Black children, especially boys, are disproportionately likely to be disciplined in school, handled forcibly by police andreferred for special education services.

"That representation of a Black male professional in the school building, it's almost priceless," says Bobby Gueh, who teaches at Georgia State University's Department of Counseling and Psychological Services.

And it isn't only Black boys who stand to benefit. "It impacts the entire school," he says.

The history of special education may be turning 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 given student, that could mean providing occupational therapy, counseling or time with a paraprofessional. School psychologists also help make the call about whether to place students into separate special education classrooms.

For decades, Black students have disproportionately been referred for special education services. The National Center for 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 an intellectual disability. They're also more likely to be identified as having an "emotional disturbance," a label advocates have long criticized as stigmatizing.

"Representation matters," says Celeste Malone, an associate professor of school psychology at Howard University. "What does it mean to have a predominantly white profession working with predominantly kids of color, within a racist society?"

She believes the history of special education may discourage Black people from pursuing school psychology as a career.

"It could be hard to reconcile wanting to be in a profession and wanting to support kids that look like you," with the role that school psychology "has played in the special education evaluation system," she explains.

Malone, who is also the president of NASP, notes that at some historically black colleges and universities, psychology departments don't direct their students toward school psychology because of "the historical legacy" of the field.

Black men don't always feel there's a place for them in education

Another challenge, several experts tell NPR, is that Black men often are steered away from education as a career.

"The conversation most Black boys are having is 'you need to go into a field that makes a lot of money,' " says Gueh of Georgia State.

The conversation most Black boys are having is 'you need to go into a field that makes a lot of money.'

McCullum, the school psychologist in Mississippi, agrees: "I don't think men feel like there's a place for them in education."

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 kind of like, 'Why would you go into that when you could pursue something else?' " he says. "I think the perception is, if you're going to go to college and you're trying to take care of your family and do those types of things, you probably go into another field."

A solution may lie in targeted recruitment

With such an extreme shortage of Black men in a field that desperately needs them, some leaders are working on solutions.

NASP is expanding itsExposure Project, where school psychologists of color deliver presentations to undergraduate and high school classes in an effort to find recruits. "If you see more people from different backgrounds," says McCullum, "and recognize that we are all doing the same work, I think that can really change how we see the field."

Some school psychologists are focusing on changing the profession's practices. Byron McClure, a school psychologist in Houston who advocates for more representation in the field, says that to bring more Black men in, there needs to be a major shift in the role school psychologists play.

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 design a more culturally responsive curriculum.

Doing 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 much of their time on evaluations for special ed.

McClure has launched 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."

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Pooja Salhotra
Pooja Salhotra is the 2022 summer intern on NPR's Education Team. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and economics from Yale University and an MFA from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.