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
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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

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