Special Report

Competition Is Fierce For Minority Teachers

By Jeff Archer — January 13, 2000 7 min read
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Shortly after taking her job as the coordinator of teacher recruitment for the Nashville, Tenn., schools, Patricia McNeal found out just how much the odds were against her.

When she showed up at a job fair at a historically black college in Florida, she represented one of 83 districts vying for a mere 29 candidates at the event. Only one prospective teacher showed great interest in her 70,000-student district, but he opted to stay in the Sunshine State. “The bottom line,” says McNeal, “is that it’s up to the student to select a job.”

In the current market for teaching jobs, about the only thing more difficult than finding qualified teachers is finding qualified minority teachers. As McNeal’s experience shows, even a district’s best recruitment efforts can be for naught if enough black, Hispanic, or other minority candidates aren’t moving through the pipeline.

Teacher-recruiter Patricia McNeal says minority teachers can have their pick of job offers.

Nearly a third of school-age children in the United States are members of minority groups, compared with about 12 percent of teachers. The proportion of African-Americans in the teaching force has declined in recent years, and that of Latino teachers has increased only slightly. But the percentage of K-12 students who are members of minority groups is in the midst of a long and steep incline, largely because of an increase in the Hispanic population.

Between 2030 and 2040, racial and ethnic minorities are expected to make up more than half the nation’s students.

Many educators worry about the implications of that trend as schools try to prepare their students-both minority and majority-to live and work in an increasingly diverse United States. Though there’s little hard evidence that being a member of a minority group in itself makes one a more effective teacher of minority students, some educators see important pedagogical reasons for ensuring that students encounter teachers of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds.

“The fact that a teacher has an understanding of the culture of the day-to-day lives of those kids can... bring in topics that are important and relevant to their experiences,” says Ana Maria Villegas, an education professor at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J.

Recruitment Challenges

But many states with the greatest need for minority teachers are seeing their race-based policies for college admissions challenged. At the same time, the drive to raise teaching standards has resulted in a renewed emphasis on screening potential educators with standardized tests, which have a history of negatively and disproportionately affecting minorities.

And finally, now that teaching is no longer viewed as one of their only entrees to the middle class, many African-Americans are opting for more lucrative careers.

Still, some states have begun trying to help districts recruit more people of color. Most of those efforts involve scholarship or loan-forgiveness programs. Some seek to draw the best and the brightest minority college students into traditional teacher-preparation programs. Others allow districts to “grow their own” teachers by tapping into local career-changers or encouraging students to consider education careers before they even get to college.

Florida, which has one of the largest initiatives specifically designed to draw minority candidates into teaching, allocates about $3 million a year in state lottery revenue to its program, the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers. The fund has given loan assistance to more than 1,000 candidates since it began in 1996.

Seeking to widen the pipeline of potential teachers, the Florida program has focused on students from community colleges. “The whole idea is to increase the pool of teachers,” says Thomas Alexander, the fund’s executive director. “And the only way to increase that number is to go after people who have not thought about teaching.”

Home Grown

South Carolina has a 10-year-old program aimed at getting young minority students to think about teaching before they even get to high school. The ProTeam initiative offers 7th and 8th graders the chance to take an elective course on teaching, which allows students to shadow teachers and meet with other participants from around the state. Many who take the special class wind up in the Teacher Cadet program for high schoolers, which includes an honors-level class in which students often work with teachers or tutor younger children.

Were it not for the two initiatives, it’s unlikely that Fedrick Cohens would have become a teacher. The 22-year-old African-American educator says he never considered the career until his 6th grade teacher recommended him for the ProTeam course. He went on to become a Teacher Cadet and this year joined the Georgetown, S.C., schools, the same district he graduated from in 1995. Enrollment there is 55 percent black, compared with about 22 percent of the teaching force.

“People instill in kids that they should be a doctor or a lawyer, but no one says that they should be a teacher,” Cohens says.

McNeal favors a state-financed program in her district that recruits from the system’ own paraprofessionals. Teachers’ aides, secretaries, and other staff members must be recommended by principals. Each candidate--who must already have an undergraduate degree--receives tuition assistance at a fast-track teacher-preparation program at a local college or university.

McNeal says such initiatives are especially effective because the participants generally have an investment in the local community and know the kinds of situations teachers encounter in its schools. “When you take folks who already have a degree and provide a comprehensive but accelerated model for licensure, and let them earn money while doing it, you can turn someone into a teacher in a year or a year and a half,” she says. “With a traditional program, it takes four or five years, after which you’ve got someone who may or may not still want to be a teacher.”

Given the fact that programs for career-changers often are the most successful at recruiting minority teachers, the proliferation of alternative routes to a teacher’s license also holds promise. Nearly half the candidates who have gone through California’s alternative program are members of minority groups, as are 41 percent of those who went through Texas’ program, according to the National Center for Education Information, a private research organization in Washington. Those who go through those programs are also more likely to stay in their districts.

While such findings are good news, states need to ensure that their alternative routes provide enough training and support, so that their graduates are skilled enough to do the job, some experts stress. “Some of them, when they started out, were called alternative certification, but that was just a fancy name for emergency certification,” says Segun Eubanks, a National Education Association official who handles minority-recruitment issues.

Inching Up

Last fall, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education released a report with some good news. Between 1991 and 1995, the proportion of African-American enrollment in colleges of education had risen from 6 percent to 9 percent, suggesting that blacks’ downward trend in the teaching force might be reversing.

But Eubanks cautions that the increase may only minimally slow the growth of the diversity gap, and only temporarily. Part of the problem, he suggests, is that the state efforts under way are so small that their impact is negligible.

“It’s less on the radar screen of policymakers than it needs to be, because I don’t know that we have made a compelling enough argument about the connection between teacher quality and teacher diversity,” Eubanks says.

Perhaps the most daunting part of the challenge relates to the larger failure of the K-12 system to produce enough minority graduates.

Richard J. Murnane, a professor in Harvard University’s graduate school of education, along with a graduate student, Emiliana Vegas, found in a recent study that African-American, Native American, and Hispanic college graduates chose to become teachers far more often than white ones.

The problem, they found, is that students in those minority groups generally are much less likely to succeed in, and ultimately graduate from, high school. If the nation wants tomorrow’s teaching force to better reflect society, says Jacqueline Jordon Irvine, an education professor at Emory University in Atlanta, it must focus more attention on today’s elementary and secondary students. “If you want to find good African-American teachers,” she says, “they are in the schools now.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2000 edition of Education Week


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