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New Research Targets Teaching's Diversity Gap

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Alternative-certification programs, including local "grow your own" efforts, are central to addressing shortages of minority teachers, according to researchers who spoke at a forum on the topic this week in Washington. The event was hosted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that has recently released two new papers on diversity in the teaching profession.

Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at CAP and author of the report "Teacher Diversity Matters: A State-by-State Analysis of Teachers of Color," opened with some statistics about what he referred to as the "teacher diversity gap." While students of color make up 40 percent of the nation's public school population, teachers of color only make up 17 percent of the teacher workforce, he said. And each individual state is suffering from its own diversity gap—though, he said, the gap is broader in some states than others. (When comparing the ratios of nonwhite teachers to nonwhite students, California has the largest gap of any state, while majority-white Vermont and Maine have the smallest.)

Minority teachers tend to be less satisfied with their working conditions and pay than their white counterparts, Boser said, corroborating other recent research. They are also more likely to work in urban, high-poverty schools, he noted, which could account for that difference.

The nation needs a "two-pronged approach" to increasing diversity of the teaching force, Boser said, which should include "improving the professional experience" for teachers of color and "expanding high-quality recruitment programs." Efforts to recruit minorities should build on the success of alternative-certification programs, he said, since a quarter of all African-American and Hispanic teachers currently come through these routes. (The National Center for Information documented similar findings in July.)

Saba Bireda, deputy director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and co-author of "Increasing Teacher Diversity: Strategies to Improve the Teacher Workforce," further emphasized alternative-route programs as an important source of minority teachers. She highlighted the recruitment strategies at some familiar programs—for example, Teach for America and the New Teacher Project's Teaching Fellows—as well as those at lesser known grow-your-own programs, in which districts partner with local universities to prepare teachers and paraprofessionals.

Teach Where You Live

One panelist hailed from a small grow-your-own program in its third year of implementation. Rachelle Rogers-Ard, program manager for Teach Tomorrow Oakland, Calif., explained that TTO candidates "actually live in Oakland and want to teach where they live. We're not looking nationally. We're not interested in bringing folks in." The program asks for a five-year commitment from participants, and removes "numerous barriers to becoming a teacher," said Rogers-Ard. "Testing fees alone cost $1,000—just to take the tests to become a teacher. We take care of that." The program also offers ongoing support once teachers are in the classroom.

TTO recruits various types of community members, including recent college graduates, mid-career professionals, working paraprofessionals, and high school students. Rogers-Ard characterized TTO as a "retention program." She noted that it currently has a retention rate of 94 percent and drew a clear distinction between TTO and programs like TFA and TNTP, which require only a two-year commitment.

Panelist Crystal McQueen, a partner with TNTP, said teachers of color with the teaching fellows programs often stay in the classroom longer than their commitment, but emphasized that TNTP's main focus is finding effective teachers. Bireda of PRRAC said that the length of teachers' commitment is a matter of less importance than their effectiveness. "A highly successful teacher that stays two years is making a big impact on students, and a highly successful teacher that stays 10 years is making a big impact on students," she said. "We're less interested in time than in making an impact."

The conversation turned philosophical when an attendee commented that the participants seemed "schizophrenic about why it's important to have teachers of color—whether it's to reflect the student population or for instruction." The "why" could affect policy decisions, she said.

Both Boser and Bireda had previously said that preliminary studies have shown students of color perform better academically when taught by teachers of color, but that more research was needed on this. However, Rogers-Ard of TTO seemed taken aback by the nature of the question. "Why? Because we're embracing diversity," she said. "Because this nation has children that are diverse and needs to have people that are diverse in all aspects of all professions. I sort of think that maybe we need to stop asking that question."

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