Special Report
Teacher Preparation Opinion

Stop Talking About Teacher Diversity. Start Tackling the Problem

What we can learn from teacher-prep programs at minority-serving institutions
By Cassandra Herring — January 10, 2018 6 min read
Cassandra Herring is the Founder and CEO of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity (BranchED). Based in Austin, Texas, she was the dean of the Hampton University’s school of education from 2007 to 2016.
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Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

It is time to stop talking about teacher diversity and start tackling the problem.

As a dean of a college of education at a historically black university for nearly 10 years, I believe one obvious strategy is investment in educator-preparation programs at minority-serving institutions, which include historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, Asian-American-serving institutions, and tribal colleges. Indeed, such institutions have the potential to make a significant contribution to the field of education as they not only already produce nearly half the nation’s teachers of color but are also preparing educators to succeed and persist in some of the most challenging educational environments.

In some ways, the task is daunting for reasons rooted in the unique history and missions of minority-serving institutions. Most embrace a core mission of opening their doors to a spectrum of students, including those who may be less prepared academically, have fewer financial resources, and are first-generation college students. Additionally, they must often contend with limited numbers of full-time faculty and staff, heavy teaching loads, and a high level of turnover. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the schools of education at minority-serving institutions understand that the field of educator preparation is changing, and they are ready to lend their expertise. Changing demographics in America’s classrooms necessitate a re-examination of teacher-preparation practices, which must incorporate new approaches that recognize the role of culture and identity in student learning.

While minority-serving institutions’ educator-preparation programs account for a disproportionate number of the teachers of color in our nation’s schools, their contribution is about far more than just changing the demographics of the profession.

These institutions often prioritize social-justice issues, value cultural diversity, and work to expand opportunities and agency for students and communities of color. Minority-serving institutions have a rich history of preparing highly effective diverse educators who reflect and champion the diversity of our nation’s schoolchildren and who persist in the profession.

Earlier this year, I formed the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, or BranchED, a national network whose mission is to empower and connect educator-preparation programs at these institutions. We seek to spur, support, strengthen, sustain, and scale the efforts of them to improve outcomes for teacher-candidates—and, by extension, all their future students.

BranchED works closely with individual institutions through a series of workshops, convenings, technical support, intensive coaching, and online resources. We also provide opportunities for collaboration and peer learning across institutions.

As we work toward greater visibility of the minority-serving-institution education community, strategic alliances between the institutions and other leading teacher-prep efforts are key.

Minority-serving-institution teacher-preparation programs often integrate issues of culturally relevant pedagogy, equity, voice, and agency throughout their programs. One of BranchED’s goals is to amplify these best practices and advance the impact of the scholars and practitioners working in these vitally important programs.

We codified these practices into a “quality framework,” that guides our capacity-building work with individual providers.

Our work is not meant to grade or penalize educator-preparation programs but rather to operationalize the “secret recipe” for equipping and supporting the next generation of effective, equity-oriented educators. We hope to see these best practices embraced not only within minority-serving institutions but across all educator-preparation programs.

To meet the needs of the changing demographics in America’s classrooms, we must recognize the role of culture and identity in student learning—and incorporate this recognition into our teacher-preparation practices.

Background: Diversifying the Teacher Workforce

By Madeline Will

Many students of color will rarely—if ever—be taught by someone who looks like them.

Students of color make up about half the 50.7 million public school population, yet only about 20 percent of the country’s 3.8 million public school teachers are nonwhite. About 7 percent of teachers are black, 9 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian. The teacher-diversity gap is wide—and a growing body of research shows that it is a problem.

Low-income black students are more likely to graduate from high school and consider attending college if they have just one black teacher in elementary school, a 2017 Johns Hopkins University study found. Research by Indiana and Vanderbilt Universities found that black children are three times more likely to be placed in gifted education programs if they have a black teacher rather than a white teacher.

Another recent study found that African-American students are less likely to receive exclusionary discipline—suspensions, expulsions, or detentions—from black teachers, meaning that the students receive more instructional time. Exclusionary discipline has also been said to foster a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

The underlying theme, some researchers say, is that teachers of color might have higher expectations for their nonwhite students than white teachers do. And research has shown that high expectations from teachers can translate into improved outcomes for students.

In recent years, states and districts have pledged to tackle the issue head on, from mentorship programs for educators of color to grow-your-own initiatives aimed at recruiting minority candidates into the teaching profession. But a large source of prospective teachers of color has been—until recently—largely overlooked: minority-serving institutions.

These schools, which include both historically black colleges and universities and others that serve predominantly nonwhite populations, make up just 13 percent of all the teacher-preparation programs in the United States. But 38 percent of the country’s African-American teachers graduated from one of these schools, and so did nearly half the nation’s Hispanic teachers.

Minority-serving institutions have a large pool of potential teachers, advocates say.

Still, these institutions face numerous challenges. Many of them, which prioritize serving low-income students, have historically been underfunded. What’s more, minority teaching candidates tend to have lower scores than their white counterparts on measures from GPAs to the SAT to licensure tests.

But minority-serving-institution officials and advocates say that data analysis and other support services offered by a program like the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity could strengthen and grow these institutions.

After all, these schools have a critical place in the field. A 2015 Gallup poll found that black college graduates who attended an HBCU are more likely than black graduates of other institutions to be thriving in several areas of their life, including liking what they do each day. That may even extend to teaching.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teacher Preparation

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