Recruitment & Retention

Teacher Diversity Gap Poses a Steep Climb

By Madeline Will — August 30, 2016 6 min read

Creating greater diversity in the teacher workforce has increasingly become a priority for school districts, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and even the federal government. But a new report suggests that there’s still a steep road ahead.

The goal of reaching a broadly diverse teacher workforce likely won’t be achieved within the next half-century without substantial patches to the teacher pipeline, according to the report, a joint effort by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Students of color make up about half of all U.S. public school students, yet only 18 percent of teachers are of color. Research has shown that students of color benefit from having teachers who look like them, and proponents of greater teacher diversity say that it’s no less important for white students to see positive examples of nonwhite leaders.

The Teacher Diversity Gap Over Time

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Source: Brown Center on Education Policy analysis of data from United States Census Bureau, 2014 National Population Projections

Yet the Brookings and NCTQ researchers found that, at the current rate of change, the proportional difference between black teachers and black students in public schools will remain at about 9 percentage points through 2060. The proportional difference between Hispanic teachers and Hispanic students is expected to increase by 4 percentage points, to about 22 percent in that timeframe.

Improving teacher-retention rates and implementing more strategic hiring practices alone won’t close the gap, the report says. To get to the heart of the matter, the researchers argue, education leaders and policymakers must put more attention on the nation’s leaky teacher pipeline, in part by increasing college-graduation rates among minority students and persuading people of color to become teachers.

In nearly every pathway leading into the classroom, people of color are less represented, the researchers found through an analysis of federal data and existing research. A smaller proportion of nonwhite college students major in education, and of those who do, not all want to be teachers. While 95 percent of white college graduates who majored in education are interested in teaching, only 76 percent of black degree holders have the same interest, the report says.

Deeply Rooted Problem

“What is it about the teaching profession that is scaring away minorities?” Michael Hansen, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and one of the authors of the report, said in an interview.

The answer is not found in research, he said. And poor teacher pay cannot be the sole reason, Hansen added, since people of color often pursue socially-oriented jobs that pay comparatively low wages.

The lack of interest might instead be part of a cycle: Many nonwhite students don’t have a teacher of their same race or ethnicity to emulate.

“People aspire to serve in the positions where they’ve seen people like themselves working,” Hansen said.

Margarita Bianco, an associate professor of education at the University of Colorado Denver, said the root cause may go even deeper, involving institutional racism.

For many students of color, “school is not a safe or welcoming place,” she said, citing barriers to academic success, discriminatory policies, and disproportionately high discipline rates. If students remember mainly negative experiences with their teachers, they are not likely to want to become educators themselves, Bianco said.

Education majors who are African-American and Hispanic are hired at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to the report. But simply hiring more black and Hispanic teachers from the available pool of teachers of color would do almost nothing to close the gap because that pool is too small, the researchers stress.

Still, Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies teacher-employment trends but was not involved in the report, said schools have seen big gains in the numbers of minority teachers in recent decades, gains that have actually surpassed the increases in minority students.

“Conventional wisdom is this is sort of a tale of lament, and yes, it’s true that we don’t have parity, but there’s actually been a victory there,” he said.

Ingersoll said improving retention rates among nonwhite teachers, which are lower than those of white teachers, is central to building on the hiring gains.

The new report projects, however, that focusing on retention alone won’t close the gaps. Retaining black teachers as much as white teachers would only close the diversity gap between black teachers and students by 2 percentage points by 2060. For the rapidly growing Hispanic student population, keeping more Hispanic teachers would barely make a dent in the diversity gap.

While allowing that he had not examined the report’s methodology, Ingersoll cautioned against placing too much credence in the long-term projections.

“The truth is, it’s not much better than a crystal ball,” he said. “You have to make so many assumptions if you want to project to 2060.”

‘Homegrown’ Teachers

Nonetheless, the report’s conclusions ring true for many district recruiters.

The Boston school system, for example, has made diversifying its workforce a priority: 38 percent of teachers now in the district are nonwhite—far above the national average.

Ceronne Daly, the director of diversity programs for the district, said that targeted recruiting and earlier hiring have been keys to yielding diversity gains. But just “trying to recruit our way out of this is not sustainable,” Daly said.

There’s a finite pool of diverse teachers in the state, she said.

As a potential solution, Boston has been focusing on cultivating its own pool of diverse “homegrown teachers,” she said.

For example, the district’s High School-to-Teacher program is entering its third year, with 75 students who have been identified as prospective teachers.

Educator-mentors assigned by the district advise the students through high school with a focus on developing their leadership skills, guiding them toward higher education, and encouraging them, eventually, to return to Boston schools to teach.

University of Colorado’s Bianco serves as the executive director of a similar program in Denver called Pathways2Teaching.

Generally, she said, many teachers of color come back to their own community to teach. Grow-your-own programs tap into that trend. Bianco’s program, which is designed for 11th and 12th grade students of color to earn college credit by studying issues related to educational justice, is starting its seventh year with close to 140 students across four local districts.

While she doesn’t have tracking data yet, Bianco said many of the program’s graduates are enrolled in teacher-preparation programs and at least one has started her first year of teaching.

Ultimately, the keys to closing teacher-diversity gaps—such as boosting college-completion rates among black and Hispanic students—entail broad policy goals that go beyond schools’ and districts’ purview, the Brown Center’s Hansen said.

In the meantime, he said, schools could put strategies in place that mitigate possible racial biases toward students—by having a diverse group of teachers and administrators making the decisions regarding student suspensions or gifted-and-talented selections, for example.

Diverse Interactions

In conjunction with teacher-diversity efforts, Boston’s Daly said it’s important to stay committed to high-quality teacher preparation.

“It’s not about just having someone who looks like our students teach our students,” she said. "[We want] highly effective and diverse teachers; it’s not an ‘either/or,’ it’s an ‘and.’ ”

The report’s authors cautioned that, in their view, the end goal should not be that every student is taught by a teacher of the same race but that all students interact regularly with teachers of their own and different races and ethnicities.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2016 edition of Education Week as Efforts to Boost Teacher Diversity Seen Falling Short

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