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Every Student Succeeds Act

Most Students of Color Have White Teachers. Here’s Pete Buttigieg’s Plan to Change That

By Evie Blad — July 15, 2019 8 min read
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While a majority of U.S. public school students are children of color, most teachers are white women, data show. Would new federal requirements for accountability and transparency about educator hiring practices help change that?

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, proposed adding new teacher diversity requirements to the Every Student Succeeds Act as part of a larger set of policies designed to advance racial equity. The plan, named for Frederick Douglass, includes proposals for a variety of government sectors that aim to dismantle “structures that inhibit prosperity and [build] new ones that will unlock the collective potential of Black America.”

More than half of U.S. schools’ enrollment is students of color, but 82 percent of teachers are white, a figure that has hardly changed in 15 years, according to a federal report cited in Buttigieg’s plan. His plan most directly centers on teacher diversity, but he’s not the only candidate to address it. Other contenders for the Democratic nomination have also proposed attracting more teachers, including teachers of color, to the field through pay increases, assisting with student debt, and working with minority-serving institutions, like historically black colleges and universities, to attract more black graduates to high-demand fields like education.

Research suggests that having a black teacher can be a gamechanger for black students. Black students who have a black teacher in kindergarten through 3rd grade are more likely to graduate from high school than their black peers who had teachers of a different race, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper cited in the Buttigieg plan. Other research links having a black teacher to better disciplinary outcomes for black students and a higher likelihood of being placed in gifted programs. And researchers have found that white educators have lower expectations for black students, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies when students internalize those perceptions.

“That is why we will require new transparency around teacher hiring procedures: States will disaggregate their applicant and hiring by race and document teacher diversity initiatives as part of their Every Student Succeeds Act school improvement plans,” Buttigieg’s plan says. “We will also set new guidelines around the use of Title II funds to invest in recruiting, training, and supporting the next generation of school leaders of color.”

Here’s What ESSA Already Says About Teachers

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal K-12 education law, loosened teacher quality requirements that were included in its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, giving more power to the states in areas like teacher evaluations.

ESSA doesn’t have any explicit teacher diversity requirements, but it requires states’ plans to address “how the local educational agency will identify and address ... any disparities that result in low-income students and minority students being taught at higher rates than other students by ineffective, inexperienced, or out-of-field teachers.” The law leaves it to states to define “ineffective, inexperienced, or out-of-field teachers.”

How More Teacher Diversity Data Could Help

Requiring additional reporting on teacher diversity and hiring practices could help build public understanding of the issue and identify issues that need to be addressed, said Anne Hyslop assistant director of policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

She pointed to the policy changes that have followed other increased federal data collection. When schools began reporting suspensions and expulsions of children as young as prekindergarten, for example, the statistics surprised many parents and policymakers, leading states and districts responded by changing their discipline policies.

Elizabeth Ross, the managing director of teacher policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the federal government is “uniquely positioned” to gather data at the scale that will help education leaders identify what policies aren’t working for retaining and hiring teachers.

“Teacher diversity matters for all students, but particularly and especially for our most vulnerable students,” she said. “Without access to good data, system-level leaders can’t uncover what problems exist, and they can’t make good decisions about interventions.”

Brookings researchers, for example, have found that certain school and district financial incentives—like relocation assistance, and student loan repayment—are more strongly associated with a diverse teacher workforce.

How The Teacher Career Pipeline Affects Diversity

Some state district leaders who’ve worked to hire a more diverse pool of teachers say the issue is complicated. Ten states are working with the Council of Chief State School Officers as part of its Diverse and Learner-Ready Teachers Initiative, which involves a range of innovations. And dozens of advocacy groups have pushed Congress to make educator diversity a priority.

A mostly white workforce isn’t merely the result of poor hiring practices, they say. As Education Week‘s Madeline Will wrote in May, historians trace a dearth of black teachers back to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. As public schools around the country desegregated, many dismissed black teachers from formerly all-black schools and retained white teachers instead.

“The number of black teachers has increased by about 34 percent over the past three decades—a smaller increase than any other group of teachers, except for Native American teachers (whose numbers have decreased over this time),” she wrote.

Researchers attribute that slow growth and a lack of black teachers in some schools to a range of factors, including the cost of retaking licensure tests, an uneven distribution of black teachers in urban schools, the extra labor black teachers have to do (many report being pigeonholed as disciplinarians), and poor retention of black teachers because of poor school climate or a lack of support from administrators.

The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at the American Institutes for Research has identified a continuum of factors that contribute to low teacher diversity, including lower graduation rates for students in some racial groups, predominantly white enrollment in some teacher-preparation programs, problems with state licensure tests, and district- and school-level interviews. Addressing policies and practices at any of these steps could help, says the organization, which has created a data tool to help leaders explore existing data.

Additional data could help states better hone in on solutions not directly related to hiring, said Ary Amerikaner, the vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research at Ed Trust, an education civil rights advocacy group.

“If we want to improve teacher diversity, we have to tackle the gaps at each point in the teacher pipeline,” she said.

For example, data about teacher demographics could be analyzed against school discipline rates or placement rates for students of color in advanced coursework as a barometer of equity. Or data could explore retention rates among black teachers who are led by black principals, she said.

Only six states mention teacher diversity in their ESSA plans: Connecticut, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, Amerikaner said.

Is Amending ESSA Realistic?

But any new requirements would require Congress to agree to amend ESSA. It would be an understatement to say that historically, federal lawmakers have dragged their feet at updating the federal education law (just do a little walk down memory lane about No Child Left Behind), and movers and shakers are largely focused on the Higher Education Act at the moment.

In addition, some district and state leaders have said they already feel burdened by the lack of data collection and reporting they are required to do.

Beyond an official act of Congress, a future president could promote educator diversity in other ways, Amerikaner said, for example by using the bully pulpit to explain the importance of the issue, issue guidance and technical assistance to promote state-level efforts, or further analyze existing federal-level data.

Buttigieg seems to hint at this type of action by proposing “new guidelines” for the use of Title II, the chunk of federal teacher development funding that doesn’t have a lot of strings attached. Such funding could help with early career retention of new teachers, which can be a “leak” in the diversity pipeline, Amerikaner said, or it could be used to advance more people of color into principal roles, which can be influential in school staffing. (Under ESSA, states can already set aside 3 percent of their Title II funding for principal training).

A Parallel in South Bend

The national discussion about hiring a more diverse pool of teachers has some parallels to efforts to hire more black police officers in South Bend, an issue that has made headlines in recent weeks after a white police officer shot and killed a black man in June while his body camera was shut off.

“According to data provided by the city, 15 of the police department’s 241 officers are black, representing 6 percent of the force,” the South Bend Tribune reports. “In 2012, Buttigieg’s first year in office, there were 29 black officers, about 11 percent of all sworn officers. According to the most recent census estimates, 26 percent of South Bend residents are African-American.”

Buttigieg, who also faced criticism for previously firing the city’s black police chief, has pointed in interviews to an online portal that lets the public explore the city’s hiring practices and the pipeline of steps between applying for a job with the force and suiting up as an officer. The city has also made adjustments, like changing the language used in hiring notices and working with high schools to build interest in policing.

When asked about boosting police diversity in a recent Democratic presidential debate, Buttigieg acknowledged that he “didn’t get it done.”

“This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the county,” he said. “And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.”

Image: Getty

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