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Education Opinion

Separate But Equal: Teacher Diversity 60 Years After Brown v. Board

By Guest Blogger — May 16, 2014 6 min read
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Note: Members from Educators For Excellence (E4E) are guest posting this week. Today’s post is from Ryan Mulso. Ryan is a teacher at Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul and a member of the E4E-MN Equity Action Team.

“I can’t handle what you do!” It was this moment that I thought about all the reasons why I teach. Why was this student, who was an immigrant female with postsecondary aspiration, telling me that she couldn’t handle what I do? Teaching is a tough job, but what was happening to make a student feel this way? I started to reflect about what students in the past had experienced and what students were experiencing now. As an AVID teacher (Advancement Via Individual Determination, a college readiness class) in St. Paul Public Schools, I have a vested interest in the achievement of minority and low-income students. Looking back, I took a moment to reflect on the policy that initially put focus on inequity in schools.

The 60th anniversary of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education provides us with a chance to reevaluate what has happened in the time since. In 1954, the argument was that the student’s access to resources was unfair and therefore unconstitutional. That underlying problem has not been solved today.

The consensus among professionals is that teachers have the single largest effect on student achievement. Schools now are having an identity and hiring crisis, and we have a lack of quality teachers of color in the workforce. There are far more students of color than there are teachers of color, and this slows any hope of ending educational inequality.

What do our schools look like today?

Percentage of students of color

Percentage of teachers of color

Diversity Gap Index



56% White

17% Black

21% Latino/Hispanic


1% Native American

83% White

7% Black

7% Latino/Hispanic


<1% Native American

27 points



76% White

9% Black

6% Latino/Hispanic


2% Native American

97% White

<1% Black

<1% Latino/Hispanic

<1% AAPI

<1% Native American

21 points

In the Minneapolis - St. Paul metro area


St Paul (SPPS)

31% AAPI

29% Black

24% White

14% Latino/Hispanic

<1% Native American

Minneapolis (MPS)

36% Black

33% White

19% Latino/Hispanic


5% Native American

St Paul (SPPS)

83% White


5% Black

4% Latino/Hispanic

1% Native American

Minneapolis (MPS)

84% White

5% Black

4% Multiracial

2% Latino/Hispanic


<1% Native American


59 points


51 points

Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Common Core of Data (2008); National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, and U.S. Department of Education, School and Staffing Survey, Teacher Questionnaire, 2007-08. District data obtained by Freedom of Information Act request in February 2014.

Nationally, 45 percent of students are considered people of color while around 83 percent of the teachers are white. In my home state of Minnesota, we have a smaller gap than the national average between the number of minority students and teachers, but only 3 percent of teachers across the state identify as people of color. But when you look at the most populated metro areas, like within my district of St. Paul, there is a staggering 59 point gap between the percentage of teachers of color and the percentage of students of color.

The fact of the matter is, teacher diversity matters. My personal experience and studies have both shown that it does. According to the National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force, “Students of color tend to have higher academic, personal, and social performance when taught by teachers from their own ethnic groups. (However this finding does not suggest that culturally competent teachers could not achieve similar gains with students of color from different ethnic groups.)” Other research has pointed to the fact that increasing the rates of teachers of color drives down suspension and other disciplinary rates, lowers the overrepresentation of students of color in special education programs, and increases community engagement. These things will all continue to grow in importance as more and more of our students are young people of color.

What makes a good teacher, and therefore a successful student, is a mix of knowledge, skill, competence, passion, and many other factors. One intangible comes in the form of an ability to connect with students, understand their history, and believe infinitely in their potential. Teachers of all races can bring that to the classroom, but as teachers of color, we have walked in our students’ shoes. That’s why we have a problem when a school is predominantly staffed with teachers who don’t speak the same language as their students and their families, can’t identify with students needs, make assumptions about what their home life might be like, or simply can’t conceive of how a student’s lived experience affects his educational experience. We won’t be able to reverse centuries of racial oppression and educational inequity with teachers who claim not to “see color.” This is why diversity matters.

Deep systematic issues have led to this inequity in the classroom. From beginning to end, we can all do more when it comes to this issue. Teachers need to be better prepared for diverse classrooms, administrators need to find ways to foster viable teaching candidates, universities need to recruit more minority students into education programs, unions and districts need to work to make the teaching field attractive both financially and professionally to graduates, state teaching boards need to create alternative pathways to certification. This fight must be fought on all fronts, at all levels.

From new retention programs to career paths for nontraditional teacher candidates, many people are working on this issue and experimenting with possible solutions. As a member of Educators 4 Excellence’s Equity Action Team in Minnesota, I’ve had the opportunity to research many of these ideas. One clear example is the work being done nationally to expand pathways into the teaching profession. Illinois has instituted a “Grow Your Own” Program, where educational assistants can work to gain teacher certification. Minneapolis is on the verge of introducing a similar program. Recently, my union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, worked on a proposal to create a new pathway for Education Support Professionals to get licensed to teach in special education settings. There are positives developments like this happening everyday.

We must all commit to solving this problem and serving our students, and I plan to start with myself. Every day I wake up with an opportunity to act as an ambassador for the teaching profession by modeling what a teacher of color looks and acts like. By being a role model and consistently advocating for my students and my profession, I will work to improve the climate of schools, which will in turn help recruit new young people into the profession and keep the teachers of color we have.

60 years later we can still see that the work that was set forth in Brown v. Board of Education is not done. Despite these challenges, as a teacher of color, I find solace and happiness that I have a voice and my passion to make things as equal as possible. I want my students to see a face that can stare back at them and say, “You can handle this!”

--Ryan Mulso

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