Recruitment & Retention

Millennials Are the Most Diverse Generation, But the Teaching Force Hasn’t Caught Up, Analysis Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — March 07, 2019 4 min read
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Is the teaching profession getting more racially diverse—or less? While there are more teachers of color than there were a few decades ago, the teacher workforce is growing whiter than the college-educated population as a whole, according to a new analysis from the Brookings Institution.

The findings, part of an ongoing series at Brookings on teacher diversity, focus on comparing the millennial teaching force to older generations of educators.

“We felt like the millennial generation is worth looking at, for two reasons,” study co-author Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at Brookings and the director of its Brown Center on Education Policy, said in an interview.

“One, they’re the incoming class of teachers to the workforce right now, so whatever they’re doing we’re taking that as a signal of demographics to come,” he said. “Second, we know that it’s well documented that millennials are very racially diverse overall as a population, and it was particularly surprising to see so few of them showing up as teachers.” (A separate study, published last year in Millennial Teachers of Color, found that millennial teachers are less diverse than their older colleagues.)

The analysis notes that research on teacher diversity has been mixed.

It points to Richard Ingersoll’s work, which has found that the population of teachers in the United States has gotten steadily less white over time. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, has tracked federal data over three decades. His latest report found that the percentage of all public school teachers of color has increased from 12.5 percent in the 1987-88 school year to 19.9 percent in 2015-2016.

The Brookings researchers don’t dispute Ingersoll’s numbers. But they write that studying demographic trends across generations of teachers presents a different picture.

In the current analysis, instead of looking at the teaching population as a whole, the Brookings researchers compared the demographics of three different age brackets of teachers over time. They used American Community Survey data from 1990-2015 to look at baby boomer teachers, born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X teachers, born between 1965 and 1979, and millennial teachers, born between 1980 and 1996.

Using this method, the researchers could compare different generations at the same age—for example, how diverse a cohort of boomers was in their late 20s, in comparison to a cohort of millenials in their late 20s.

This is a better “apples-to-apples comparison” than looking at the current population of boomer teachers next to the current population of millennial teachers, the researchers write, because teachers of color tend to enter the profession at older ages than their white peers.

In all three age brackets, data show that the teacher population grew less white over time. For both baby boomers and Gen Xers, the proportion of teachers of color peaked when the cohorts were in their late 30s and early 40s. And though millennials are less diverse than older teachers now, the cohort is diversifying at the same rate as Gen Xers did.

But at the same time, the general population of college graduates is becoming more diverse, and at a faster rate than the teaching force. Millennial teachers, as a group, are on track to be much whiter than than their college-educated peers in other professions. And this diversity gap is bigger for millennial teachers than older teachers.

“It used to be the case that teachers were not all that different from the college-educated workforce that was working out in other jobs in the economy,” said Hansen. “But there is a growing racial gap that is arising, that to us, signals that [the profession] is becoming less and less hospitable to teachers of color.”

Gregory Collins, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked with Ingersoll, said that Brookings’ finding that millennial teachers may have different racial demographics than other generations is “worth watching.” But ultimately, he said, the Brookings analysis and Ingersoll’s research are interpreting the same data and coming to different conclusions.

“The work that we’re seeing says to us, we’ve made progress,” said Collins. “They’re looking at the same picture and saying, yes, but it’s not enough. And that’s a fair and valid opinion.”

Collins also noted that teacher retention is a big piece of the teacher diversity puzzle. “The percentage of new teachers who are racial minorities has doubled since the 1980s,” he said. “One explanation we have for what [Brookings is] observing is that turnover—attrition from the profession—is higher for minorities.”

Fundamentally, Hansen said, the new analysis disrupts what is a misleading narrative about teacher diversity—that the profession is making slow improvements, and if it continues on the current path, the workforce will steadily become more diverse.

“In reality, the teaching workforce has been getting further and further removed from the population of college-educated workers in the economy with each passing generation,” said Hansen. “And I think that should be alarming.”

Image courtesy of Brookings.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.