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What Is the Future of Teacher Diversity in U.S. Schools?

The teachers who are writing on America’s blackboards are predominantly white.

This is the story of why (as far as we know) and what can be done about it.

The Albert Shanker Institute recently released a report on the current state of teacher diversity in U.S. schools. According to the study, though “minorities” (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) comprise half of public school students, the teaching force has failed to keep pace with this growing trend and, at 83 percent nationally, is mostly white.*

The Shanker study examined teacher hiring and retention trends in nine major cities—Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.—and found a widening gap between the number of minority teachers and students in each. Even more striking, trends for black teachers were worse than for Hispanic teachers. In each of the cities analyzed, the number of black teachers declined, and, in some cities, such as New Orleans, did so substantially. Comparatively, the share of Hispanic teachers remained stable or showed modest growth, particularly in Los Angeles. Even so, the Hispanic teacher growth rate will likely not keep pace with the rapidly-growing Hispanic student population. After all, while the share of minority teachers inched up from 12 to 17 percent nationally, it hasn't kept pace with the growing minority student population, which now, collectively, actually comprises the majority.

The report found that, despite growing concern over teacher shortages in certain regions of the U.S. and declining enrollment in teacher training programs, the issue of increasing teacher diversity pertains less to insufficient recruitment strategies and more to the poor retention of teachers of color in the classroom.

Is the decline in teacher diversity, then, really just a matter of improving retention practices rather than recruitment? What can be done to reverse this growing trend? And why does it matter?

Don’t overlook teacher recruitment.

When looking at the issue nationally, minority teachers are both being hired and leaving the profession at higher rates than their white counterparts. And they’re leaving not because of their students’ race, ethnicity, or poverty status, but because of the working conditions of their schools. In particular, minority teachers cited “a lack of collective voice in educational decisions and a lack of professional autonomy” as key factors in leaving.

But the data behind minority teacher attrition are based on a national dataset. The authors do not closely consider why minority teachers left in the nine cities examined. More research is necessary to determine the root causes for attrition in each. And while retention seems more of a concern nationally, recruitment was also an issue in several cities. For instance, in New York City, the proportion of new black teachers was consistently low in comparison to new white teachers, and the attrition rate of black teachers was lower compared to that of their white peers. Likewise, in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, black teachers were consistently underrepresented among new hires when compared to their white counterparts.

Focusing on national trends is helpful in drawing attention to the issue, but can mask real differences in how regions should try to improve teacher diversity. In most places, the answer is likely not recruitment or retention, but a combination of both strategies. However, as with teacher shortages, the issue is best considered regionally.

“Grow Your Own” and other paraprofessional-to-teaching programs hold promise.

There are over 1 million paraprofessionals—individuals who are not licensed to practice as teachers—currently serving in U.S. schools. Many are from the communities in which they serve and reflect their students’ backgrounds. These individuals are increasingly taking on instructional responsibilities and represent an enormous untapped resource for increasing the diversity of the U.S. teaching force.

The report highlights several recruitment strategies, including “Grow Your Own” teacher preparation programs and career ladders through which paraprofessionals can take on increasing responsibility and become teachers. The authors recommend that the U.S. Department of Education and states support expanding such programs.

It’s worth noting that the Senate’s version of a reauthorized ESEA explicitly includes establishing, expanding, or improving alternative routes to teaching, including pathways for paraprofessionals, as an allowable use of state funds. And some states, such as Illinois, already have well-established “Grow Your Own” programs, while others are planning to either expand or develop new pathways. As part of its teacher equity plan, Arkansas will expand its current Grow Your Own program and also create a new teacher residency for paraprofessionals. Other states and districts should do more to support these types of programs, and to ensure they are producing high-quality diverse candidates.

Teacher diversity and cultural competence matters, now more than ever.

The report highlights evidence suggesting that minority students benefit (i.e. achieve more academically) from having teachers of the same racial background who understand their culture and can serve as role models. The study also cites more recent research showing that non-black teachers held lower expectations of their black students than black teachers did of the same students (although the researchers could not test whether black teachers were overly optimistic, non-black teachers were overly pessimistic, or some combination thereof).

At a time when the population of U.S. children has become majority minority, it is important for federal, state, and local governments to devise policies and remove persistent barriers—financial, temporal, academic, linguistic, etc.—in order to attract, prepare, and retain a high-quality, culturally competent, and diverse teaching force. This is not to say that a student’s individual race or ethnicity must always match that of his or her teacher. Trying to force racial or ethnic teacher-student pairings could lead to more segregation, an outcome that seems particularly likely given how schools have already become increasingly re-segregated by race and class. And teachers can be effective at engaging students and supporting their academic achievement irrespective of their racial or ethnic identity.

Rather, this is to insist that the focus be on raising the status of teaching to attract more effective and diverse teaching candidates into the profession. States and districts should also ensure that teaching candidates of all races and backgrounds have high-quality clinical teaching experience—ideally in schools serving diverse student populations—before taking full responsibility for a classroom. Finally, states should consider the policy levers for developing effective school leaders, particularly in high-needs schools where teachers of color are disproportionately placed, to help attract and retain strong, diverse teachers.

Of course, it would be ideal if all U.S. schools reflected the diversity of our society and communities—both among students and educators. That would likely go a long way toward helping instill cultural competency and sensitivity to people from different races and backgrounds. But putting the policies in place to limit school segregation by race and class is a political minefield, as a recent re-zoning fight in New York City makes clear. Still, to build a future of teacher diversity with more parity between minority teachers and their students, states and districts must take a comprehensive approach to promoting greater school diversity.

The U.S. student population is increasingly diverse. Those at the front of the classroom should be, too.

*The report uses the term "minority" to include those racial and ethnic categories collected by the U.S. Census Bureau at the time of the data-sets examined in the study, including Black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian. This is despite the fact that the U.S. is becoming a majority-minority population with minority children comprising 50.2% of the total population of U.S. children in 2014, and that the U.S. Census Bureau has since made some nomenclature changes to these categories. 

Authors:

Kaylan Connally was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She was a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work primarily addressed policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.

Melissa Tooley is the director of Educator Quality with New America's Education Policy program. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where she provides research and analysis on PreK-12 policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.