In 2014, white students made up less than 50% of the public school system in the United States for the first time. But while our country’s racial and ethnic demographics may be changing, the people instructing those kids are largely, and increasingly, monolithic.
The teaching force in America is made up mostly of white, middle-aged, Christian women, meaning that a large number of kids are growing up without seeing themselves represented in education during the most formative part of their lives.
The teacher diversity problem arose after Brown v. Board of Education, when schools across the country were forced to desegregate. Up to that point, Black teachers had taught Black students and vice versa, but when the teaching force integrated, Black teachers were left by the wayside.
It’s ironic that one of the most important cases in terms of racial equality in our country actually worked in the opposite direction for Black educators, but America be like that sometimes.
So what is the going on? Why are there so fewer minority educators, why does it matter, and what can be done about it?
It’s hard to understand that as our country becomes increasingly diverse, the teaching force has become less so, but that’s exactly what has in the last 20 years.
USA Today charted the statistics:
“At last count, about 82% of teachers were white, down from 83% eight years earlier. While the percentage of non-white students in U.S. schools rose 6 percentage points between the 2003-2004 and 2011-2012 school years, from 39.6% to 45.7%, the percentage of non-white teachers rose just 1.2 percentage points, from 16.9% to 18.1%.”
There are actually more white teachers compared to the turn of the century. USA Today further broke down how much whiter teachers are than their students:
“Even in schools located in the USA’s whitest 17 states, each class typically contains four or five non-white students. But just 1 in 33 classrooms has a non-white teacher.”
These statistics are staggering not only because diversity is so important to young, impressionable minds, but also because the already-formed minds of teachers contain implicit biases within them.
A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that white teachers are far less likely to expect a Black student to graduate college than a Black teacher would be for the same student.
From the study:
“When a Black teacher and a white teacher evaluate the same Black student, the white teacher is about 30 percent less likely to predict the student will complete a four-year college degree, the study found. White teachers are also almost 40 percent less likely to expect their Black students will graduate high school.”
John King, Education secretary in the final year of the Obama administration, spoke about how problematic this is for kids, regardless of race:
“It’s a problem for students of color because it’s important for them to see mentors and role models. But I also think it’s a problem for white students. I think there’s a real benefit for white students in having diverse teachers, because ultimately we’re trying to prepare all kids for a diverse world.”
Ok, so we’re clear. There aren’t nearly enough minority teachers, the problem is getting worse, and the white teachers we do have are statistically more likely to expect less out of minority students. Not great.
Benefits of a diverse workforce
When you come across diversity arguments, which permeate virtually every industry and educational sphere (as they should), you’ll hear a lot of talk about choosing “the best candidate” irrespective of race or ethnicity. These people say we should treat everything as a meritocracy and give the position (whatever it may be) to the person who is most deserving.
This argument is meaningless. The problem with many of these spaces is that the hiring or selection processes are marked by biases that disqualify minority candidates, not that minority candidates are TAKING JOBS away from shockingly qualified white people.
That is to say, hiring processes in typically white spaces are not very good at improving diversity, even when data tells them they should.
In the case of diversity in education, kids of all races benefit from learning from minority educators.
A recent study found that young Black men from low-income families see their chances of dropping out of high school drop 39% if they have one Black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade.
That is a pretty staggering statistic, but the title of the paper, “The Long-Run Impact of Same-Race Teachers” feels slightly reductive. Are we meant to completely segregate our schools and have all our kids learn from same-race teachers?
Far from it, actually, because white students also benefit from having minority teachers. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke to the UW website about how Black teachers can positively affect white students early in life:
“I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is White students having Black teachers! It is important for White students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them. Black students ALREADY know that Black people have a wide range of capabilities. They see them in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their churches. They are the Sunday School teachers, their Scout Leaders, their coaches, and family members. But what opportunities do White students have to see and experience Black competence?”
It’s true that a white student, especially one from a racially monolithic area, would benefit from a cultural competency perspective by having a minority teacher. But an NYU study, “The Importance of Minority Teachers“, also found students favor minority teachers over their white counterparts. From the study:
“Using data from the Measure of Effective Teaching study, we find that students perceive minority teachers more favorably than White teachers. There is mixed evidence that race matching is linked with more favorable student perceptions. These findings underscore the importance of minority teacher recruitment and retention.”
Ok so, not only do kids benefit from having minority teachers from a test-taking and cultural efficiency perspective, but they actually prefer these teachers. So what’s being done to improve hiring practices?
Searching for solutions
The diversity issue in education starts with hiring. Many administrators from places like Silicon Valley to universities to school boards will claim that there aren’t enough qualified candidates when faced with calls for improved diversity.
This is never actually the case.
School districts need to the best they can to ensure diversity in its teaching force, even in the whitest districts.
One district in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana was forced to desegregate its teaching force as a result of a court case Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board. The resulting desegregation, and how the district would incorporate and hire more Black teachers, became a sort of case study in how schools should improve diversity amongst educators.
Now, Tangipahoa Parish’s hiring practices are far ahead of the state and nationwide averages for minority teachers, but test scores have also improved. The Atlantic reported on the changes:
“And the value of this policy, it seems, wasn’t just a matter of optics. Since the paper was released, [study author Diane Whitmore] Schanzenbach has obtained additional race-specific data that reflect notable achievements for Black students. After the court order was implemented, the black-white achievement disparity in test scores narrowed by 5 percent. While it’s difficult to assess causation, this improvement, Schanzenbach theorized, happened ‘just from hiring different teachers within the pool of applicants.'”
In Tangipahoa Parish, quotas for Black teachers were enforced by the court and positive changes occurred both in the diversity of the teaching staff and the test scores of the students.
Pinellas County, Florida has vowed to increase the number of Black teachers in an attempt to improve test scores, but no quotas are enforced. Perhaps schools should have an NFL style ‘Rooney Rule’ where teams have to interview a minority candidate for head coaching for high-level front office positions.
Valerie Hill-Jackson, a clinical professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at Texas A&M University, told The Atlantic that this isn’t just about everyone feeling better, teacher diversity yields results.
“This isn’t pie in the sky, kumbaya. Whether our kids are growing in math, science, or language arts, it works to have [nonwhite educators] in front of the classroom.”
Rian Reed, a Black teacher who was turned down for a job in suburban Pennsylvania before being hired in the predominately Black Prince George’s County, Maryland, spoke to The Atlantic about the need for active efforts to recruit minority teachers.
“If student success is a priority [as] it should be, school districts must consistently reevaluate their hiring practices to ensure that they have a culturally diverse staff, [and] not just through quotas.”
Hire minority teachers.