Nationally, 18 percent of teachers are nonwhite, compared to just over half of public school students. It’s a large gap—but 11 states have committed to working to reach parity between their own nonwhite student and teacher populations by 2040.
The 11 states are: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The state chiefs of education are working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is providing the team with support and resources, including help from researchers who study the issue of teacher diversity.
Saroja Warner, the director of educator preparation initiatives at CCSSO, said this work aligns with both CCSSO’s strategic plan and the Every Student Succeeds Act, which provides opportunities for states to prioritize building a diverse teacher workforce, including by allocating Title II funding to support districts’ recruiting efforts.
The work also seemed more urgent, Warner said, with research findings that show the positive effect teachers of color have on their students’ performance, particularly students of color. A recent study found that low-income black students are more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college if they have just one black teacher in elementary school. Another study found that black students are less likely to be suspended, expelled, or placed in detention by black teachers.
And last August, a report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the National Council on Teaching Quality found that teacher-diversity gaps won’t close through at least 2060.
“It just became more of an impetus for [state chiefs] to say, ‘no, this is not acceptable, we’re going to do something,’” Warner said. “If each state at least tackles the parity in their own states, eventually, we would be able to do this nationally. Maybe it seems like so gargantuan a problem when we [are framing this as] a national challenge.”
This work started in December with six states, Warner said. Once news of the initative spread—and with “a little bit of peer pressure"—five more states came on board. Before the end of the summer, the 11 states will have finalized comprehensive plans to diversify their teacher pipelines and improve retention for teachers of color. The first cohort has submitted its draft plans to CCSSO for feedback, and the second cohort will submit its at the end of the month.
“If we don’t put action behind doing something, it’s a waste of time,” said Melody Schopp, the education secretary of South Dakota and the board president of CCSSO. “It’s always tempting to identify a problem, make a plan, and then nobody carries it out. Through these meetings, we’re holding each other accountable with specific deadlines and times.”
In South Dakota, for instance, 13 percent of students are Native American—but less than 3 percent of teachers are, Schopp said, calling the ratio “unbalanced.”
The state has already started working to close the gap through a state-funded paraprofessional-to-teacher program on Native American reservations. “The people who are grounded in those communities ... they’re the ones who are going to stay in the communities,” Schopp said, adding that the program gives those paraprofessionals tuition assistance and support.
Warner said grow-your-own programs, targeting high school students, have emerged as one of the best practices across state lines. Another common conversation among state leaders, she said, is how to be more innovative about the pathways into teaching, she said: “Are there licensure policies that are creating unintended consequences for teachers of color?”
Studying the entrance to the teaching profession has been a priority for Nebraska’s education commissioner, Matthew Blomstedt.
"[We are looking for] data to see if we are holding potential teachers back, and I think there’s data there that proves we have work to do,” he said.
Blomstedt said he wants to create an advisory group of teachers and principals from diverse backgrounds to make recommendations on how teacher-preparation programs can support and recruit nonwhite candidates and how school districts can support retention among teachers of color, along with other issues.
“I’m white, by the way,” he said. “You’ll find that a lot of policymakers come from that background, and I want to be intentional about looking for leaders with a different type of diverse background.”
Intentionality is key in this work, Warner said: “We can’t fix a pipeline by chewing some gum and putting it on the hole. We really need comprehensive strategies.”
To that end, CCSSO has brought in researchers who work in this field to help state leaders problem-solve certain issues and “think through all the considerations,” she said.
Another benefit of the working group is that it allows chiefs to hear strategies that other states are doing that they might not have thought of, Schopp said, and to learn about national organizations that may provide some support.
The goal of parity by 2040 is ambitious, state chiefs acknowledge. “It’s going to be very difficult for some states to make it,” Schopp said. “There has to be a starting point of where we begin. Even talking about these issues is really, really critical.”
And these are hard conversations, Blomstedt said. “That’s what I appreciate about [the working group] gatherings. These [ideas] may or may not work.” State leaders can be “fairly blunt” about the challenges in their states, he added, calling it a “safe environment.”
After all, the teacher-student diversity gap has been a problem for years, Warner said.
“If we don’t set a specific goal for this work, and by doing so, recognize the urgency of acting now, we could potentially be having the same conversation 10 years from now, 20 years, 30 years from now—and not seeing any progress,” she said.
Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action, licensed under Creative Commons
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.