Why the Country’s Lack of Teacher Diversity Is a Problem

The U.S. student population will soon be majority nonwhite, but most students still have startlingly few teachers who look like them.

National Journal
Emily Deruy, Fusion
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Emily DeRuy, Fusion
May 14, 2014, 2:50 a.m.

José Lu­is Vilson spends his days teach­ing math to middle school­ers in Wash­ing­ton Heights, a lower-in­come neigh­bor­hood in Man­hat­tan.

But his path to the classroom was any­thing but ob­vi­ous. As a com­puter-sci­ence ma­jor at Syra­cuse Uni­versity, a teach­ing ca­reer was far from the Afro-Latino’s mind. Then, a stint in his lat­ter col­lege years as a com­munity or­gan­izer of ment­or­ship work­shops brought him in con­tact with minor­ity middle-school kids and helped him real­ize, he said, that “I thought I could teach math bet­ter than what I saw grow­ing up.”

A mas­ter’s de­gree in math­em­at­ics edu­ca­tion from the City Col­lege of New York fol­lowed, and the rest is his­tory.

But Vilson’s story is all too unique.

While today’s stu­dents are in­creas­ingly di­verse, the na­tion’s teach­ers re­main largely Caucasi­an.

Ac­cord­ing to a new re­port from the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, more than 80 per­cent of pub­lic-school teach­ers are white. But around 48 per­cent of stu­dents are non­white, a fig­ure that is only ex­pec­ted to grow in the com­ing years.

That’s a prob­lem, be­cause stud­ies and an­ec­dot­al evid­ence have re­peatedly shown that kids of­ten con­nect best with people who look and sound like them. That’s not to say that a white male teach­er can­not trans­form the life of, say, a His­pan­ic girl, but she’s more likely to con­nect with a His­pan­ic teach­er whose life and struggles mir­ror her own.

“There are ad­di­tion­al be­ne­fits to teach­ers who are di­verse and un­der­stand di­verse back­grounds,” Farah Ahmad, one of the re­port’s lead au­thors, said dur­ing a phone in­ter­view, “who can be cul­tur­al brokers for stu­dents who don’t ne­ces­sar­ily have role mod­els in their lives.”

That con­nec­tion isn’t just warm-fuzzy; it can drive meas­ur­able stu­dent im­prove­ment. Black and His­pan­ic stu­dents lag their white peers on na­tion­al tests and gradu­ation rates. And while in­creas­ing teach­er di­versity is not a cure-all, stud­ies have shown that di­ver­si­fy­ing teach­ers can im­prove stu­dent per­form­ance by sev­er­al per­cent­age points.

A black male teach­er isn’t an ab­stract idea to the boys at Vilson’s school. He’s stand­ing in front of them, a will­ing ment­or.

“It’s not so much that I think teach­ers of col­or ought to teach chil­dren of col­or,” he said. “But there is something to be said for a di­versity of adults to match the di­versity of chil­dren we’re see­ing.”

Be­fore Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion, when schools were blatantly se­greg­ated, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an schools had Afric­an-Amer­ic­an teach­ers while white schools had white teach­ers. But when schools in­teg­rated, the re­port notes, of­ten by bus­ing black stu­dents to white neigh­bor­hoods, many Afric­an-Amer­ic­an teach­ers lost their jobs.

Since then, the teach­er pool has been largely white. To di­ver­si­fy, we’d have to per­suade more minor­ity stu­dents to pur­sue and main­tain teach­ing ca­reers, and the re­port in­dic­ates that may be no easy task.

Right now, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, stu­dents of col­or choose ma­jors out­side edu­ca­tion be­cause of mea­ger pay and what they say is a lack of re­spect for teach­ers. Those who do en­roll score lower on av­er­age than their non-minor­ity peers on li­cen­sure ex­ams that serve as a gate­way to teach­ing ca­reers. They are also more likely to carry stu­dent loan debt and to struggle fin­an­cially to af­ford the fifth year of high­er edu­ca­tion that many teach­ing cre­den­tial pro­grams re­quire.

“People of col­or who are com­ing in­to these pro­fes­sions don’t al­ways have that mon­et­ary found­a­tion to be able to say, ‘I want to take on teach­ing,’ ” Vilson said.

Com­pound the fin­an­cial and stu­dent debt struggles these stu­dents face with cul­tur­al pres­sure from par­ents to be­come doc­tors and law­yers, Vilson said, then add in the fact that many minor­it­ies ex­per­i­enced neg­at­ive teach­er in­ter­ac­tion grow­ing up, and it’s no won­der that get­ting minor­it­ies in­to teach­ing is a struggle.

For those who do make it to the classroom, teach­ers of col­or are dis­pro­por­tion­ately likely to teach in poor urb­an schools where fund­ing is tight­er and sup­port can be harder to come by. The re­port cites Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics data that show a teach­er salary dis­crep­ancy of up to $16,000 between high- and low-poverty dis­tricts.

It’s no sur­prise, then, that minor­ity teach­ers are dis­pro­por­tion­ately likely to ditch the pro­fes­sion for an­oth­er ca­reer path.

“What stuck out to me as I was look­ing at this is the re­ten­tion piece,” Ahmad said. “While there is a re­l­at­ively small num­ber of people of col­or go­ing in­to teach­ing, those who do are not be­ing re­tained in the teach­er pro­fes­sion. We need to ac­tu­ally be think­ing through how to provide more sup­port to more teach­ers already in the pro­fes­sion.”

As the re­port notes, these obstacles may all sound dire, but the good news is that there are steps the na­tion can take to di­ver­si­fy its teach­ers - we just need to make it a pri­or­ity.

The re­port sug­gests a few ideas to help ad­dress the prob­lem, in­clud­ing pay­ing for teach­er train­ing for young un­der­rep­res­en­ted minor­it­ies, im­prov­ing teach­er pay, and giv­ing grants to teach­ing pro­grams at his­tor­ic­ally black and His­pan­ic col­leges. Smooth­ing the cur­rently bumpy path­way from com­munity col­leges, where there is the highest pro­por­tion of minor­ity stu­dents, to four-year schools with edu­ca­tion pro­grams could also help.

In­creas­ing teach­er pay could help, as could of­fer­ing more emo­tion­al sup­port and pro­fes­sion­al de­vel­op­ment classes for such teach­ers.

“A lot of it has to do with ment­or­ing,” Vilson said.

Ahmad ad­ded that, when it comes to at­tract­ing teach­ers in the first place, “we need to think through how we can meet people where they are.”

This art­icle is pub­lished with per­mis­sion from Fu­sion, a TV and di­git­al net­work that cham­pi­ons a smart, di­verse, and in­clus­ive Amer­ica. Fu­sion is a part­ner of Na­tion­al Journ­al and The Next Amer­ica. Fol­low the au­thor on Twit­ter: @Emily_­DeR­uy

What We're Following See More »
MOST WATCHED EVER?
Little Ratings Drop-Off from Beginning to End of Debate
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

The conventional wisdom is already emerging that Donald Trump opened last night's debate well, but that he faded badly down the stretch. And most viewers apparently witnessed it. "The early Nielsen data confirms that viewership stayed high the entire time. Contrary to some speculation, there was not a big drop-off after the first hour of the 98-minute debate." Final data is still being tallied, but "Monday's face-off may well have been the most-watched debate in American history. CNN and other cable news channels saw big increases over past election years. So did some of the broadcast networks."

Source:
FUNDING RUNS OUT ON FRIDAY
Federal Agencies Prepare for Govt Shutdown
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

As Congress continues to bicker on riders to a continuing resolution, federal agencies have started working with the Office of Management and Budget to prepare for a government shutdown, which will occur if no continuing resolution is passed by 11:59 p.m. on Friday night. The OMB held a call with agencies on Sept. 23, one that is required one week before a possible shutdown. The government last shut down for 16 days in 2013, and multiple shutdowns have been narrowly avoided since then. It is expected that Congress will reach a deal before the clock strikes midnight, but until it does, preparations will continue.

Source:
OBAMA’S ENVIRONMENTAL LEGACY IN THE BALANCE
Obama’s Clean Power Plan Faces Courts
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Obama's Clean Power Plan, a large pillar of his efforts to leave a lasting environmental legacy, "goes before the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today." The plan "imposes the first national limits on carbon pollution from power plants." A number of consolidated cases finds 27 states challenging this plan, which was blocked by the Supreme Court in February pending decisions from lower courts. The states will argue that the government doesn't have the right to impose restrictions requiring them to shutter plans and restructure full industries.

Source:
UNCLEAR IF THIS WILL AFFECT POLLS
Instant Reaction: Clinton Won Debate
3 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

There seems to be a clear consensus forming about Monday's debate: Hillary Clinton was the winner. One focus group of undecided Pennsylvania voters, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, found 16 favored Clinton while five picked Donald Trump. In a Florida focus group organized by CNN, 18 of 20 undecided voters saw Clinton as the winner.

DIDN’T BECAUSE CHELSEA WAS IN THE ROOM
Trump Wanted to Bring Up Bill Clinton
3 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

As both candidates walked off the stage, Donald Trump lauded himself for being restrained and for not bringing up Bill Clinton. "I didn’t want to say—her husband was in the room along with her daughter, who I think is a very nice young lady—and I didn’t want to say what I was going to say about what’s been going on in their life," Trump said. Trump claims he stopped himself from hitting Bill Clinton because daughter Chelsea was in the room.

Source:
×