Recruitment & Retention

4 Actions Districts and States Can Take to Increase Staff Diversity

By Denisa R. Superville — January 31, 2023 5 min read
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School districts, charter management organizations, and states can do lot more to recruit people of color into teaching and school leadership and encourage them to stay once they take the job.

These institutions can make key policy and practical changes that can have significant impacts, according to a national school leadership training group.

Offering financial incentives to would-be educators and school leaders, setting up high-level cabinet posts to oversee workforce diversity, and partnering with higher-education institutions and nonprofits that train school leaders of color are all on the list of actions for districts, charters, and states to take.

In a new report detailing such steps, New Leaders—a leadership development program that prioritizes training leaders to work in schools that serve large numbers of students of color and those from low-income households—argues that messaging is one of the most crucial.

Constantly communicating that educator and school leadership diversity is an important priority—and backing up those words with actions is one of the first, and relatively low-lift, steps that districts and state education officials can make. If it’s a priority, say it out loud, set public goals and targets—message clearly what you’re hoping to accomplish and why, according to the report, which gives advice to districts and charter management organizations, as well as to states and the federal government.

We’ve previously reported what leaders of color say would attract them to the profession in higher numbers and get them to stay.

Here are four key ways—by no means comprehensive—that state and district leaders can help diversify the K-12 education workforce and the ranks of school leadership.

1. Look at the barriers to entry—and dismantle them

There are a lot of things big and small that make it harder for people of color to enter the education profession and stay: hefty student loan balances, low salaries at the beginning of their careers, a lack of transparency about how they can move from one position to another, and how to find help and community if they have to uproot their families and move to a new city for a job.

States can offer tuition assistance to help paraprofessionals transition into the classroom, like Massachusetts did under Education Commissioner Jeff Riley through the state’s Teacher Diversity Pilot Program Grant. The program offered tuition assistance to paraprofessionals, who tend to come from more diverse backgrounds than the current teaching corps—to attend state-approved educator-prep programs. States can also offer grants to districts to forgive student loans and help with relocation costs.

Districts can review their policies and practices, through audits, to see what gets in the way of hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds. They should also examine how biases may show up in the hiring process and train and provide professional development to hiring managers and human resources staffers on how to tamp down on bias.

Cleveland, for example, screens candidates only after their names have been removed from their résumés to prevent managers from guessing a candidate’s race or ethnic background by simply looking at their names.

And since search firms play a huge role in who ends up in the principal’s office, knowing their commitment to diversity or how that factors into their searches when they cast a net for candidates can also help districts, the report said.

Developing internal career pipelines that are transparent and shared with the school community so that those in the system know how to get from point A to B can be a big game-changer. And a leader-tracking system that keeps tabs on the career trajectory of leaders and educators of color can help districts and charter management organizations make better decisions about how to support them.

2. Build partnerships

Collaborating with outside experts can help states, districts, and charter management organizations in a number of ways. Working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions, and nonprofits that prepare educators of color or educators of any race focused on equity, change management, and identity can draw a wider pool of qualified candidates.

But other partnerships can help, too. Working with local nonprofits on housing and transportation can help draw candidates who may be ambivalent about moving. Some school systems are not only selling their school districts, they’re also selling their cities as a good place to live and raise families. Teach Cleveland, for example, markets the entire midwestern city, not just the school system.

Local and statewide organizations that offer mentoring opportunities, professional learning communities, and affinity groups can also help educators and leaders of color find community, as well as professional and personal support.

3. Change staffing to show that educator diversity is a priority

If states and districts say educator diversity is a priority, their staffing models should reflect that.

States and districts can choose a point-person—with authority and visibility—to lead the effort.

We wrote earlier this month about the Eden Prairie school district in Eden Prairie, Minn., which has increased its percentage of school leaders of color in five years so that it nearly matches the percentage of students of color in the system. Nearly half of the school leaders in the district are people of color, compared to 48 percent of students from non-white backgrounds.

One key part of the push was hiring a cabinet member, Carlondrea Hines, the associate superintendent of academics and innovation, to champion the district’s diversity efforts.

4. Grow your own corps of educators of color

Sometimes, you just have to do it yourself.

Students in public schools come from much more diverse backgrounds than the current teacher and school leadership workforce, and districts can develop pathways to encourage students to enter the profession.

States can help subsidize those programs.

States have additional ways to make a difference, according to the report. When renewing program licenses, for example, they can require the preparation programs to provide data on their commitment and track record of educating and placing leaders of color and the outcomes for those graduates.

There’s also a role for Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, too. They can help leverage AmeriCorps to introduce a new generation of workers to education, expand student-loan-forgiveness programs, and increase federal funding in several areas, including the School Leader Recruitment and Support Program, which gives money to prepare school leaders to serve in high-need schools.

The report, “The Shoulder Tap: Educators of Color on Leadership Representation Gap—and What We Can Do About It,” includes insights gleaned from 11 focus groups of nearly two dozen educators and five interviews with former state and district leaders. The focus groups and interviews were conducted between summer 2021 and last spring.

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