America’s K-12 teaching force today remains predominantly white in stark contrast to its rapidly diversifying student body.
Almost 80 percent of public school teachers are white, according to a 2017-18 National Center for Education Statistics survey. That’s despite the fact that students of color today make up the majority of America’s student body.
Research shows that having more teachers of color in a district boosts the performance of all students, no matter their race, and makes students of color feel a sense of belonging.
But districts—even when they’re aware of the shortfall—have struggled to recruit and retain teachers of color for a variety of reasons, including flawed hiring practices, racially biased workplace environments, and lack of sustained diversity efforts, according to experts.
1. Establish teacher residency programs
Aspiring teachers of color are more likely than white teachers to carry with them mounds of student loan debt, according to a recent study from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. That debt can stop them from pursuing a teaching job which may not pay as much as other professions, said Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
“One barrier for teachers of color to enter the teaching profession is actually the cost of certification,” he said.
Bristol suggests that districts consider starting their own teacher residency programs, or partnerships with local universities that allow teaching candidates to work in a school as they complete their teaching certification.
Some residency programs cover the full costs of becoming a teacher and allow candidates to work in schools as they complete their certification requirements, Bristol said.
These programs help teachers get hands-on experience and often cover a part or all of their tuition for the certification program they are enrolled in.
California recently allocated $350 million in teacher residency program grants.
2. Advocate for states to rethink the use of teacher certification exams or establish alternative certification requirements
An NEA report from 2019 estimated that each year, the Praxis exams that many aspiring educators must take to become teachers screen out almost half of people of color, which is 27.5 percent higher than the exclusion rate for white teachers.
That might be, critics theorize, because the Praxis—which is used in more than 40 states—is culturally biased. Some questions exclude people who have not been exposed to a majority-white experience, according to a study by the American Federation for Teachers. For example, a question referencing “sand traps” requires working knowledge of golf courses, which are not universally familiar, especially outside white communities.
However, teacher certification exams aim to measure an aspiring teacher’s knowledge and skills and are typically used by most districts across the country to make sure teachers are qualified to be placed in front of students.
Many candidates of color are more likely than their peers to have received poor test preparation in their K-12 schooling and are aware of the stereotype that African-Americans don’t do well on standardized tests, which creates test anxiety. That can lead to poor performance on the Praxis, according to Emery Petchauer, an associate professor of English and teacher education at Michigan State University.
In May 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended two standardized tests for teacher candidates due to the pandemic. The state’s public university system, which trains the largest number of teachers of color in the state, saw more Black and brown teachers entering the profession because of the temporary suspension of the certification exam, Bristol said.
“It’s a standardized exam in which Black or Latinx teachers just do less well than their white or Asian colleagues,” he said. “So certification exams have historically been a barrier.”
3. Establish ‘grow your own’ programs
In Minnesota, districts have been working with the legislature to build “grow your own” programs, which recruit people from their own school communities to become teachers. Candidates might be non-licensed staff members like paraprofessionals or teacher’s assistants, education technicians, or simply community members affiliated with the district.
Laura Mogelson, director of the Multiple Pathways to Teaching program at the University of Minnesota, runs one such program that specifically seeks bilingual elementary school teachers from diverse backgrounds and pays for their licensure and training fees. Since 2018, the program has prepared more than 73 teachers of color, and the cohorts are made up on average of over 70 percent teachers of color. About 90 percent of all program participants have stayed in the profession.
Minnesota’s legislature passed a bill earlier this year aiming to allocate $17 million for the grow-your-own pathways, with the goal of increasing the percentage of teachers of color each year by 2 percent.
4. Provide targeted specific training and support for teachers of color
Black teachers often face questions about their teaching style, are undermined or ignored when they have suggestions on how to improve the school, and are overlooked for formal leadership positions, according to Rita Kohli, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Kohli has studied the struggles, assets, and possibilities of teachers of color.
Teachers of color also face criticism for their efforts to include race and ethnicity discussions in the curriculum or are tasked with extra responsibilities of acting as disciplinarians for students of color, according to a study by EdTrust, a civil rights group that advocates for more accountability of low-performing school districts.
In recent years, many districts have established affinity groups for teachers of color, and started focusing on their well-being, Bristol said. Affinity groups allow employees a safe space to share their experiences, typically without supervision.
“A real issue that our new teachers often face if they’re a teacher of color is being racially isolated in a school,” Mogelson said.
It’s important to not only offer support to teachers of color in navigating workplace issues related to race and ethnicity, but also training for principals to recognize and address these issues, Bristol said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4 Changes Schools Can Make To Recruit Teachers of Color And Keep Them Around