Education Commentary

Focus on Minority Teachers Is ‘Misguided’

By Richard Banks — February 15, 1989 6 min read

Swelled by the pronouncements of philanthropic foundations, corporations, and universities, the chorus of laments over the supposed shortage of minority teachers has become deafening.

But the push to solve this “problem,” while understandable, is misguided. On the one hand, the shortage reflects the broader opportunities available to minority groups. The opening of other career options for them is a boon for society, not a problem.

And on the other hand, the shortage reveals some fundamental shortcomings of the teaching profession. The disincentives to teaching are a problem, but they should be addressed in the broader context of the profession, not treated as a minority issue. In fact, the assumption that the low number of minority teachers is a major concern for schools makes it easier for educators and policymakers to gloss over the critical problems that confront teaching.

The worries of those who are calling for action stem from the predictions of recent reports about the dimensions of the impending shortage. A recent study by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, for instance, concluded that the problem is “worse than the most informed educators have envisioned.”

Another report suggests that by 1990, only 5 percent of schoolteachers will be black. The outlook for Hispanics is no brighter.

And two demographic trends compound the significance of minority teachers.

First, both the number and the proportion of minority students are increasing. The importance of educating these students has never been greater, as the nation’s future strength will depend on their productivity.

Second, a sizable number of current teachers will be retiring within the next several years; a teacher shortage--as well as expanded opportunity for aspiring teachers--will result.

But the emphasis on increasing the numbers of black, Hispanic, and Asian teachers diverts attention from more crucial issues: the quality of teacher training, the career development of current teachers, and the lack of respect accorded the profession.

This focus also implies that black students, for example, can be educated only, or at least best, by black teachers--a view that releases nonminority teachers from their responsibility. As an integral element of teacher-education programs, all teachers should be trained to teach students of different cultures, socioeconomic levels, and abilities. And the importance of such skills must be reflected in the standards by which teachers are certified and evaluated.

Issues of cultural understanding and sensitivity are not easily resolved--though many would like to believe they might be--by simply adding a few drops of color to a sea of white teachers.

An unintentional but nonetheless significant result of focusing on the shortage of minority teachers is that it places the onus for minorities’ educational failures back on them. It suggests that the reason why many black and Hispanic students have not grasped the fruits of educational achievement is simply an insufficient number of black and brown teachers--not inadequate and inequitable funding, unmanageably large classes, poorly trained and untalented teachers, or low expectations and standards.

Even to ask “are there enough” minority teachers is to pose the wrong question, for this approach reveals a dangerous preconception about what constitutes a proper proportion of minority teachers.

Promoting the idea of a “correct” level of representation for any particular racial or ethnic group in a given endeavor or profession can lead to disastrous outcomes. Just as some foundations have determined that there are not enough minority teachers, some West Coast universities seem to have determined that they have too many qualified Asian applicants.

Instead of immediately assuming that the scarcity of minority teachers is a problem, we should ask why it exists. The low number and proportion of minority teachers in fact could result from a combination of several factors.

Discrimination may keep minorities out of the teaching field. Financial barriers, lack of information about opportunities, and irrelevant admissions criteria for schools of education all constitute forms of discrimination. Of course, special efforts should be made to remove these obstacles. An abundance or shortage of any single group indicates the possibility of discrimination.

Yet a historical perspective indicates that discrimination does not keep minorities out of teaching. In fact, just the opposite is the case: In the past, discrimination in other professions has brought minorities into teaching as one of the few career options for educated minorities.

The paucity of minority teachers does result, in part, from a fundamental problem of the teaching profession in attracting talented people.

But the impact of the profession’s weaknesses on teacher recruitment becomes more apparent among minority groups simply because the pool of candidates is smaller. Framing the teacher-shortage problem in terms of minority teachers, then, casts the issue in much too narrow terms.

Within the next decade, there will not be enough teachers to effectively educate our nation’s students. But this problem has as little to do with minority teachers per se as it does with women teachers or tall teachers or foreign-born teachers.

Teaching is not well respected, does not pay well, often places teachers in dreadfully poor working conditions, and offers limited chances for career advancement. These are not minority issues; they are obstacles the profession must overcome if it hopes to attract the talented and committed people it will need in coming years.

And there are few minority teachers because many members of minority groups, as a result of historical experiences, cultural factors, and present conditions, have chosen other careers more in line with their personal preferences.

For many years, teaching was practically the only profession into which educated blacks, for example, were allowed entry. Now, the expansion of opportunities in other fields has fueled dreams of grasping what was for so long forbidden.

It was not until the 1960’s that blacks were able, in substantial numbers, to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Such fields looked--and continue to look--very attractive.

Is it bad that we now have more black doctors, lawyers, and engineers than at any time in the history of this country?

Yet an unintended consequence of many efforts to increase the number of minority teachers is to decrease minority representation in other professions. Each black college student who is recruited to be a teacher is one less black lawyer, doctor, or engineer.

As a black educator, of course I would like to see more black teachers; my gut reaction is “No, there aren’t enough.” But I know that just as there are not “enough” black teachers, there are also not “enough” black doctors or engineers.

Rather than shifting the composition of the small pool of minority college students, we should focus our efforts on increasing the pool. Then, the number of minority teachers, as well as the number of minorities in other professions, would increase naturally.

But even this approach does not address teaching’s deeper problems.

When the profession addresses these issues and the pool of minority college graduates expands, there will be no “problem” with a lack of minority teachers--even for those, however well intentioned, who desire to see one.

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Focus on Minority Teachers Is ‘Misguided’