Why Increasing Teacher Diversity Will Improve Teacher Quality: An Interview with Etai Mizrav

Blog Post
June 25, 2019

New America is exploring recruitment, preparation, and retention strategies that educator preparation programs, districts, and states can use to strengthen Latinx teacher pathways. To inform our work on this topic, we interviewed dozens of researchers, advocates, policy experts, and practitioners. We have selected a subset of these conversations for this blog post series.

In our second post in this series, Etai Mizrav, senior technical assistance consultant and equity content leader at the Center for Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL) at American Institutes for Research, explains how diversifying the teacher workforce will improve teacher quality, and specifically how the GTL Center is working with practitioners to help identify root causes for disparities within the teacher workforce. Mizrav has extensive experience in state education policy, and specifically in equity in education and teacher quality. In his role, he supports states in developing and implementing policies on these issues. Mizrav previously served as the manager of education policy and equity for the Washington, D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

For more context on this issue, see our Promoting Teacher Diversity by Strengthening Latinx Teacher Pathways blog series page and our previous post: The Demographic Mismatch Between Students and Teachers Continues to Grow, Despite Rise in Teacher Diversity

Why is AIR choosing to focus on teacher diversity?

Research shows that access to teachers of color has a positive impact on student outcomes across the board, but particularly for students of color. Dozens of studies find that having teachers who reflect the diversity of their students is critical for raising test scores, improving graduation rates and college access, reducing disciplinary problems, and strengthening the assignment of students to gifted and talented programs. So, focusing on teacher diversity is the right thing for kids.

Do you think we can have a highly effective workforce without a diverse workforce?

It’s important to make the clear connection between diversity in the workforce, culturally competent instruction, and instructional quality. To have highly effective teachers for all students, we have to have teachers who provide the kind of instruction that recognizes the talent in every child and helps all students, especially the most vulnerable ones, grow to their full potential. I do believe that all teachers, regardless of race or background, can be culturally competent. But, it’s impossible to grow a culturally competent workforce on the scale that is needed by just sending all teachers to diversity training. While training is helpful, even the highest quality training can’t provide the culturally inclusive experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds that a diverse workforce brings to the classroom. Efforts to diversify the workforce are critical to both improve teacher effectiveness and close gaps in student achievement.

In the past, when talking about access to effective teachers, states, districts, and even researchers may not have sufficiently considered this critical diversity component. States are now going back and reexamining their human capital work with this additional lens. What is often missing from this conversation is an in-depth exploration of how the gates to the profession are frequently closed for candidates of color and closed again for teachers of color at every step along the educator career continuum. Understanding how diversity gaps develop at each stage of the pipeline—from disparities in high school graduation and college admissions, to gaps in degree completion and passing certification exams, to bias in hiring and the quality of working conditions—is critical to addressing the issue.

AIR’s Center on Great Teachers and Leaders has developed a data tool to help identify and visualize diversity gaps across the educator pipeline. How are you using this tool with states and districts?

AIR’s Diversifying the Educator Workforce: A Data Tool for Practitioners is a free, Excel-based tool designed to help state, district, and school leaders, as well as educator preparation programs, identify the root causes for why their teacher workforce lacks diversity, recognizing that the challenges may be different depending on the local context. Users can easily input their own data to generate charts that show how each phase of the teacher pipeline inherits the diversity gap that preceded it and also explores what widens, narrows, or maintains the gap.

This process helps users develop strategies to address the specific problems in their system, and avoid strategies that are not directly linked to the causes of their gaps. For example, I have observed states using strategies that focus on addressing bias in the hiring process at the district level. But using our tool, the state might discover that the cause is, in fact, a lack of candidates of color in the applicant pool. In this case, a more effective strategy would be to improve the recruitment of people of color (perhaps through strategies like Grow Your Own programs or student loan forgiveness)

Based on the work that you are doing with states, are there common drivers for gaps in the pipeline?

There are many drivers, which makes the data analysis process so important. In my work, I’ve seen two major drivers of the diversity gap. The first is college students choosing education as a major, and that connects to both recruitment and retention. We often separate the two, but they are linked. The reasons a student chooses not to become a teacher are similar to the reasons a current teacher might choose to leave the classroom—things like working conditions and pay (the average starting salary for novice teachers nationally is $39,000). And research has found that whether one can pay one’s bills (including student loan debt) is a more pervasive concern for students of color. Even when we account for the gap that already exists in students being admitted to college and enrolling in college—as the tool does—our clients have found a significant gap between students of color and white students in choosing teaching as a profession.

The second driver is retaining teachers of color. Data show that teachers of color often choose to teach in hard-to-staff schools at higher rates and in higher numbers than their white peers. They often teach in schools with more accountability pressures, higher proportions of students with special needs, fewer opportunities to collaborate, more frequent leadership turnover and, in some cases, the ongoing threat of school closure which can lead to attrition or, in the case of an actual closure, dismissal. On top of that, teachers of color are often asked to take on more responsibilities than their white peers, such as handling discipline for students of color. Because there are so few teachers of color, they are often isolated and experience working conditions that are not inclusive, which can also lead to turnover and abandonment of the profession.

Are you seeing any particularly successful strategies with recruitment and retention that states or districts are implementing based on the gaps that they are identifying?

When we're working with states, we couple our data tool with a robust qualitative research process to understand the context and associate the appropriate strategy, so the strategy will be different in different places. However, there are some more common high-impact strategies that we are seeing states and districts use. For recruitment, Grow Your Own (GYO) programs are increasing in popularity. One caution: I have seen GYO programs in some states that are less diverse than the teaching workforce in general, furthering the problem. For GYO programs to address gaps, diversifying the educator workforce has to be front and center in the program design. Some states are also improving their preparation quality, strengthening the focus on linguistically responsive pedagogy, social justice, and equity.

Loan forgiveness programs can also be critical to help eliminate diversity gaps. They hit right at the disparity with regard to pay, making teaching a more viable profession to those whose first concern is finding a job that enables them to pay their student loans. One example is the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, which makes a concerted effort to target teachers of color at rates that are at least proportional to the state’s population of students of color, and has demonstrated impressive results in both recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

In terms of retention, things like targeted teacher support systems and mentoring and induction programs that focus on schools with a concentration of teachers of color are extremely important. Research suggests that such programs can go a long way in creating a better working environment and encourage teachers of color to stay in the profession. But to accomplish that, states and districts need to focus on high-need schools while considering their unique contexts and challenges.

So, while it's too soon to tell what's successful in the places we’ve started to work with, these are research-backed approaches and best practices that we often recommend to meet specific gaps in the pipeline.

*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

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