Teaching Profession

What Teachers of Color Say Will Actually Work to Diversify the Profession

By Madeline Will — September 20, 2022 6 min read
Image of a teacher in front of a high school classroom.
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School districts have long sought teachers of color, who make up just 20 percent of the profession and provide valuable academic and social-emotional benefits to all students, but particularly to students of color.

Yet teachers of color aren’t often asked directly what they think would help in recruitment and retention efforts to diversify the profession. A new study by the RAND Corp. provides some answers—teachers of color overwhelmingly favor broad solutions that make it more affordable to become a teacher.

“There is a huge value in just asking teachers: Is this working? Why or why not?” said José Vilson, the executive director of EduColor and a former New York City math teacher who was not involved in the RAND study. “If we improve working conditions for teachers of color, we’re more likely to raise the bar for everybody—it’s a tide that lifts all boats.”

In January, RAND Corp. researchers conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,360 K-12 teachers. The researchers also oversampled teachers of color and were able to break those results into nationally representative estimates for Black and Hispanic teachers.

The researchers presented the teachers with a series of policies and practices in four categories—teacher preparation, pay-based hiring strategies, non-pay-based hiring strategies, and retention—aimed at teachers of color, and asked them to pick the three that they believed would be most effective.

Then, the RAND researchers convened a panel of 14 policymakers, researchers, and practitioners (including teachers’ union representatives, hiring managers, and teacher-preparation program staff) to ask them some of the same questions.

“I think what these results bring to the conversation is teacher voice and perspective, compared to policymakers and researchers,” said Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at RAND and one of the authors of the paper.

Here’s what the teachers of color said would work to diversify the profession—and how their responses differed from policymakers.

What changes related to teacher-prep could bring more teachers of color into the profession

Teachers of color overwhelmingly chose financial incentives and relief as a strategy to boost enrollment in teacher preparation.

  • 58 percent of teachers of color—and 67 percent of Black teachers—said expanding student loan forgiveness or service scholarships;
  • 35 percent of teachers of color said expanding teacher-preparation programs at minority-serving institutions; and
  • 31 percent of teachers of color said creating teacher residencies, which allow trainees to spend up to a year student-teaching and earning a paycheck while completing coursework.

Less than 10 percent of teachers of color thought policies that would eliminate academic admissions standards or reduce certification requirements would be effective at recruiting a diverse cohort of teachers.

Meanwhile, the policymakers favored both student loan forgiveness and an expansion of grow-your-own programs, which target high school students or school staff who want to be teachers with the aim that they’ll return to their communities to teach. Two-thirds of the panelists selected those types of programs as an effective strategy, compared to just 9 percent of teachers of color.

The survey and panel discussions were conducted before President Joe Biden forgave up to $20,000 in student loans. But debt may remain a challenge for teachers of color, who are more likely to take out loans—and more of them—than their white peers. A National Education Association report last year found that on average, Black educators had an initial total of $68,300 in loans, compared to $54,300 for white educators and $56,400 for Hispanic educators.

“Teachers of color are not folks who are coming in with generational wealth,” Vilson said, adding that many Black and Latinx teachers he knows give money back to their families. More student loan forgiveness would provide relief, he said.

What pay-based hiring strategies can work for recruitment and retention

Loan forgiveness continued to be a top-of-mind issue for teachers when thinking about how districts can hire and retain educators of color.

  • 72 percent of teachers of color said increasing teacher salaries throughout the pay scale;
  • 60 percent said offering student loan forgiveness or other payment assistance; and
  • 45 percent said offering higher starting salaries.

“Pay is super, super important,” Steiner said. “Somehow addressing the financial insecurity that teachers feel was important [among most teachers of color]—there are several strategies that alleviate that concern for teachers.”

Many districts have used some of their federal relief money to offer bonuses to recruit new teachers. Yet only 8 percent of teachers of color said it would help if districts provided a one-time signing bonus. (Similarly, past research has found that few teachers in general say that bonuses under $5,000 would keep them from quitting.)

The policymakers, meanwhile, favored targeted forms of financial incentives—such as higher pay or benefits for historically hard-to-staff positions, or financial incentives for teachers who work in high-needs schools. Differentiated pay has historically been unpopular among teachers.

What non-pay-based strategies can work for recruitment

After taking pay out of the equation, the educators preferred cutting some of the red tape that complicates transferring teacher licenses across states.

  • 51 percent said allowing licensure or certification reciprocity across states;
  • 49 percent said partnering with local teacher-preparation programs that have racially diverse candidates; and
  • 32 percent said starting the teacher hiring process earlier, ideally in February or March.

Nearly half of the policymakers—but just 28 percent of the teachers of color surveyed—said they thought requiring ongoing training for school hiring teams about anti-racist hiring practices would be effective. Experts say that school districts are increasingly asking teacher-candidates questions about cultural competency, race, and equity during the application and interview process.

What can get teachers of color to stay in the profession

Teachers of color reached less of a consensus about what retention policies could work.

  • 28 percent said ensuring that new teachers of color who serve high-needs students receive adequate support;
  • 25 percent said providing more time for collaboration with other teachers;
  • 24 percent said increasing teachers’ say in their schools’ policies; and
  • Another 24 percent said providing schools with dedicated support staff and/or programs to address student behavior.

“There’s not going to be just one lever that does it,” Vilson said, referring to the array of retention strategies.

But community and support are critical tools to keep teachers of color in the classroom, he said. Research has found that Black male teachers who are alone in their school building are more likely to want to leave their schools than Black male teachers who teach alongside other Black men.

“That shared responsibility, that shared understanding, is going to help them stay,” Vilson said. “No one teacher is by themselves even when they close the door. When they succeed, they succeed because they’re working with colleagues.”

Among policymakers, offering support to new teachers of color who serve high-needs students and better preparing principals to support teachers of color were by far the most popular strategies.

Steiner said she would like to see future surveys provide teachers of color a shorter list of all these recruitment and retention policies and have them rank the options.

“I would love to see how teachers value some of the non-financial policies,” she said. “If the choice was a salary increase or an additional paraprofessional—when you try to juxtapose two supports that both cost [the school district] money, I would love to see how teachers value those things when they’re directly compared.”

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