Nov. 8, 2021
Elijah can remember having only two teachers of color throughout his schooling. The 11th grade biracial student from central Pennsylvania reckons this had a major influence on his educational experience.
“I've definitely noticed bias towards me, especially at the elementary level,” said Elijah. “One thing I remember vividly was being called defiant. Things as simple as asking questions in class, things that you're supposed to do in order to learn, caused me to be called defiant.”
He thinks his experience with teachers of color was different. It was his first Black teacher who recommended him for an advanced math program when others overlooked him. And when others trivialized his goal to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was this teacher that assured him he could achieve dreams, while counseling him on what it might take to get there. “I remember that she actually talked to me very specifically about some of the challenges I might face as a student of color in the district, and how I might have to work harder than some of my peers to achieve the same result,” he recalled.
Mounting research validates Elijah’s experience. Studies show that students of color often experience unfair treatment and low academic expectations. But same-race teachers can offer these students a leg up: Teachers of color tend to hold students of color to high standards and help boost their academic performance, from test scores to college-going rates.
Unfortunately, this benefit is far from universal in the Keystone State, where students of color made up 36 percent of those enrolled during the 2019-2020 school year, but teachers of color accounted for only 6 percent of the state’s workforce. By one estimate, this gap continues to widen and is now more than twice the national average.
In some districts, this chasm is especially dire. Half of all public schools and a third of all districts in the commonwealth employed only white teachers in the 2019-2020 school year. While schools with more students of color generally employ a higher percentage of teachers of color in the state, many districts with all white teachers enroll sizable shares of students of color. As depicted in the visualization below, Midland Borough, Northgate, and Wyoming Valley West employed no teachers of color from 2013 to 2020, while enrolling over 30 percent of students of color.
To view the full interactive data visualization, click here.
One group is working to remedy these trends. The Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium (PEDC) includes over 140 individuals from nearly 60 institutions representing school districts, charter networks, institutions of higher education, nonprofits, educational organizations, and government entities working to prop up efforts to diversify and better train the state's educator workforce.
Consortium members are hoping to bring renewed attention to teacher diversity since support has waxed and waned for the last few years. In 2016, Pennsylvania was one of only six states to make the recruitment of teachers of color a priority in its plan for implementing the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). State leaders set a goal of increasing the share of teachers of color in the state to 20 percent and they briefly funded a diversity pilot initiative, Aspiring to Educate, which served as the launching pad for PEDC.
Yet a few consortium members worry significant investments have stalled. Donna-Marie Cole-Malott, a founding member of PEDC and a higher education consultant in the state, thinks the opportunity offered by federal COVID relief funds has not been fully realized. “We have a significant amount of funds that we've gotten for the state, but nowhere is there an articulation of how these funds will be used to diversify the teacher educator workforce,” Cole-Malott said. “There is not yet a clear plan of how we can keep the momentum going.”
Districts can choose to use federal relief funds to improve teacher diversity, including by boosting recruiting and hiring, mentoring programs, and teacher retention strategies, according to Tanya Garcia, deputy secretary for higher education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. However, it is unclear if they are seizing this opportunity. Generally, local plans for federal stimulus allocations are hard to come by and what little we know suggests pipeline strategies may not be a top priority. One nationwide review of urban districts’ plans for federal funds found that just 8 percent of the 189 billion dollar infusion will be used toward supporting educator pipeline strategies.
The consortium has a few ideas about how to make teacher diversity a more urgent priority for districts. In a newly released policy agenda, PDEC suggests ways state leaders can better monitor teacher diversity, improve the recruitment and retention of racially diverse staff, and prepare teachers to be culturally responsive.
1) Monitoring Teacher Diversity
According to PEDC members, an important first step for the state is to set goals for and better monitor teacher diversity. A recent nationwide scan by Education Trust found that, unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not make educator diversity data sufficiently visible and actionable. State leaders also do not report annual information about preparation programs, candidates attending in-state teacher preparation programs, or retention rates of educators of color. This makes it difficult to maintain an ongoing, statewide national view of demographic trends and related outcomes.
2) Improving Retention
PEDC has also turned its attention to retention efforts. This is especially important in Pennsylvania, where one recent estimate found that the median retention time for teachers was 4.8 years, but 2 years for teachers of color. Because these disproportionately high turnover rates can undermine the progress of recruitment efforts, the group recently published toolkits that describe better ways to retain teachers of color, including through mentoring. The hope is to help leaders intervene so that teachers of color do not experience feelings of isolation, frustration, and fatigue, particularly in schools with few colleagues of color.
3) Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers
A third imperative for the group is building a more culturally responsive workforce. “We know that it is going to take a lot of time to get to racial parity between teachers and students so, in the meantime, we're going to address the mindset of the people who are current teachers, wherever they are, because we know that teachers have an outsized influence on the student experience,” said Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development in Philadelphia and a PEDC member.
To accomplish this, the consortium adapted New America’s Eight Competencies for Culturally Responsive Teaching and accompanying reflection guide (which are openly licensed and freely available for anyone to reuse and remix) to their context. PEDC’s reworked competencies (see below), which the group unveiled at a statewide conference this summer, include a more expansive focus on understanding and stemming microaggressions. “The competencies are not magic, but it's language and codification of what successful Black and Brown educators have always done,” El-Mekki said.
El-Mekki’s organization is currently using the PEDC’s version of the competencies to anchor their programming for aspiring teachers as are preparation programs across the state. The consortium hopes additional preparation programs and local school systems will pilot the competencies and build resources to help implement them. The ultimate goal is to nudge the state legislature to enshrine the competencies into state statute. If they succeed, Pennsylvania will join states such as Illinois, which recently revamped their requirements for teacher preparation programs to include a greater focus on culturally responsive development.
If state decision-makers heed their lead, PDEC’s recommendations could have big implications for students like Elijah. The junior is well on his way to college, where he plans to major in physics and economics—and he’s helping his peers get on a similar path. His sophomore year he founded the National Society of Black Engineers to help prevent tracking and get students of color into STEM pathways early. His hope is that students like him will have more academic advocates in the future. “From a student level, the lack of diversity in leadership and of teachers means that if you don't advocate for yourself, no one else will,” he said.
The consortium is growing and finding optimism in the energy they see among educators and education leaders across the state, although the group is notably unfunded and mostly supported by members who volunteer their time. “We are currently making sense of diversifying the workforce, creating culturally responsive educators, and doing it in partnership with individuals who actually genuinely care about this initiative. We really have no money. We are just folks coming together and saying this is important,” El-Mekki said. “But my mom used to say, if you're in a boat in the middle of nowhere, you can pray or you can pray and row—and I think that's what this group is doing.”
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