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Groups Tell Washington to Make Teacher Diversity a Priority. But How, Exactly?

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 23, 2019 4 min read
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A host of groups are pressing the federal government to address teacher diversity—but the number of levers lawmakers and Beltway leaders can pull is limited.

This week, two different coalitions sent letters to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate education committees asking them to keep educator diversity in mind when considering legislation. And one of the coalitions also asked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to do the same when coming up with education regulations.

One letter, dated Tuesday, came from 20 advocacy groups to education leaders in Congress; the senders include the likes of the Education Trust, the Center for American Progress, the National Education Association, and others. On Wednesday, a separate letter from more than 75 education groups was sent to Capitol Hill as well as DeVos under the banner of the American Association of Educators (a non-union professional group), as well as charter school organizations, and others.

The two coalitions aren’t the same, and neither are their letters. But their advocacy puts a bigger spotlight on an issue that had perhaps been getting gradually more attention inside and outside the nation’s capital. However, teacher diversity touches on a range of complex and sensitive issues, and it can cut across education, and the history of education, in uncomfortable ways.

The Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision 65 years ago, for example, triggered a wave of dismissals, forced resignations, and demotions of black teachers and administrators. That story isn’t just one for the archives; the black teacher workforce has never recovered, Education Week‘s Maddy Will recently reported. And the trend in teacher diversity over the last three decades is pretty clear:

There’s also a growing body of research about teacher diversity, its affects, and what policies can impact it.

At the root of the issue is not just convincing a mix of educators to go into teaching, but getting them to the point where they want to stay on the job; our colleague Stephen Sawchuk examined a California program that focused on this in 2012. Past efforts to “raise the bar” for entering the teaching profession have also run into concerns about whether they would skew the labor market against black and Latino would-be educators. And the specific schools where teachers of colors teach can matter too, not just their total or relative number.

And having even one black teacher can have long-lasting impacts on black students’ educational attainment, a recent study found.

A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report also highlighted various chokepoints at which the diversity of the teaching workforce declines.

So how exactly can the Education Department and Congress address this issue?

A big theme in the letter from Education Trust, the NEA, and others is reforming the Teacher Quality Partnerships whenever lawmakers get around to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Among other things, these groups say these partnerships should draw on “untapped sources” (such as paraprofessionals and early-childhood workers) to help grow and diversity the teacher workforce. They also think minority-serving institutions should get targeted funding specifically to help supply more graduates from teacher preparation programs into areas where there are workforce shortages, such as science, technology, engineering, and math.

“If we want to improve teacher diversity, we must address the gaps at each point in the teacher pipeline, starting with teacher preparation,” their letter states.

The American Association of Educators’ letter points out that 15 states are using teacher diversity in some way in their accountability plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act. the coalition says teacher groups, as well as community and nonprofit groups, should focus on diversifying the teacher workforce and supporting teachers of color. It also says schools shouldn’t become so focused on ensuring teachers of color serve students of color that these teachers become effectively segregated.

“Numerous organizations provide coaching and advocacy efforts to increase access and opportunity to a diverse group of people interested in working in and advancing the teaching profession,” the letter states.

And in general, AAE doesn’t want teacher diversity itself to become some sort of boutique consideration.

“We believe any regulation (and deregulation) and legislation should be evaluated to determine how it might intentionally or unintentionally exacerbate or address this specific issue. In other words, the lack of teacher diversity should not be a siloed issue,” said Colin Sharkey, AAE’s executive director, told us in an email.

It’s important to note here that the federal government doesn’t have a tremendously long list of levers to pull. For example, the section of ESSA that provides money for teacher development, Title II, includes $2.1 billion for districts but doesn’t include a lot of oversight or accountability measures as to how that money’s spent. And in general, ESSA does not really countenance Uncle Sam getting its fingers deep into teacher policy; remember that the law makes it clear Washington does not have a role in determining how teacher evaluations work.

Nevertheless, what’s helped the issue recently is the growing body of quantitative research underscoring teacher diversity’s importance to students and schools, said Lisette Partelow, the senior director of strategic initiatives for K-12 at the Center for American Progress (a left-leaning nonprofit). This has been added to decades of qualitative evidence about how helpful it can be, she said.

She noted that Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, in particular, had taken an interest in the issue. (Scott is the chairman of the House education committee.)

Asked if she thought teacher diversity would be tangibly addressed by lawmakers in legislation, Partelow responded, “What I am confident of is that there is interest.”