By John King, former Secretary of Education
July-September 2017 Issue of Poverty & Race
This fall, teachers and students all across the country are returning to school. But it’s not the typical start of the school year. Amid the usual preparations of setting up their classrooms, planning lessons, and getting to know children and families, educators also are confronting the need to help students process the violence and hate that manifested on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia before most schools opened their doors.
Students throughout the nation witnessed armed militiamen, neo-Nazis, and members of the KKK marching through the streets of an American city, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and lifting up racist sentiments. They witnessed domestic terrorism that resulted in people losing their lives.
They have heard—on television and the Internet, and through conversations with their families—about the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the United States for citizens from predominantly Muslim countries. They have heard about the reversal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects from deportation those youth who have been brought to this country as children. And they have heard rhetoric that targets people because of their religion, their race, and their families’ country of origin, and they wonder if they are safe.
As school begins, many teachers will have tough conversations with their new classes about current events. Teachers will help young people to understand the historical context of our nation’s struggles with racism, prejudice, xenophobia, and bigotry, as well as our continued, sometimes painful journey toward equality and opportunity for all. Teachers will ensure that students understand they are valued and loved—no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, or how much money their parents make. And teachers will help students to recognize the responsibility they have—as young people—to be knowledgeable and active citizens.
Teachers are critical in shaping who our students become and, in turn, what our nation represents.
In fact, I am convinced that the continued conflicts in this country with racism and intolerance would be profoundly reduced if our children regularly encountered and learned from teachers who embody America’s growing diversity.
To be sure, the weight of solving America’s societal ills cannot be placed entirely on the shoulders of educators. But, given the country’s current climate and the urgency both to educate our children and ensure that they are prepared to reject harmful prejudice and hate, it’s beyond time to take teacher diversity efforts seriously in our schools.
The unfortunate reality today, though, is that many students in our public elementary and secondary classrooms rarely—if ever—encounter a teacher of color.
A new survey shows that most teachers—about 80 percent of the country’s nearly 4 million public school educators—are white. Just 9 percent of teachers are Latino, 7 percent are Black, and 2 percent are Asian (National Center for Education Statistics 2017).
This lack of diversity in our nation’s educator workforce is striking, by comparison, when we look at our youth. Today, our public school population is made up of a majority of students of color, with the percentage of white students projected to decline over the next decade. What’s more, an overall trend toward greater diversity throughout America is predicted to continue. According to some estimates, by the year 2055, no racial or ethnic group will constitute a majority in this country (Pew Research Center 2016).
We need a teaching force that is as diverse as our students.
Excellent teachers come from all backgrounds, yet there also is substantial evidence that exposure for students of color to teachers who share their background and experiences can have a profound effect.
Teachers of color, for example, often have higher expectations for students of color, are more likely to use culturally relevant practices to connect with and teach diverse students, and have a greater tendency to confront racism in their lessons. A recent study also shows that Black students from low-income families are more likely to graduate from high school and consider enrolling in college if they are taught by just one Black teacher in elementary school. (Johns Hopkins University 2017). And research shows that Black students are less likely to be suspended or expelled by Black teachers and more likely to be identified for gifted programs by educators of their same race (Blad 2016), Nicholson-Crotty et al. 2016).
But it’s not just students of color who experience positive effects by being taught by diverse educators. We know that all students benefit when they learn from adults with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences (Anderson, 2015). For white students, it is important to see people of color in leadership positions and as mentors and role models in their classrooms and communities.
And for all students, exposure to diversity can help to reduce bias and increase empathy. These positive results occur when children learn in classrooms alongside peers who have different backgrounds, who come from families along varying degrees of the socioeconomic spectrum, who practice different faiths, who are immigrants, and who represent the many other characteristics of our diverse American tapestry.
To be sure, in our multicultural society and global economy, we do our students a major disservice if their first encounter with a person of a different race or ethnic background isn’t until they reach college or the workforce.
Unless we act, as a country, the mismatch between the diversity of our students and our teaching force only will continue to grow.
In fact, a 2016 report found that—without major changes to our nation’s educator pipeline—teacher diversity gaps likely will not close through at least the next half century (Putnam et al. 2016).
To address this pressing issue, we need action at every level—from public schools and institutions of higher education, to policymakers and administrators, to advocates and whole communities.
Encouraging a wider array of young people to consider teaching as a career is a start.
But funneling more students into education majors won’t address teacher diversity gaps unless our K-12 public schools do a better job of preparing all students for the rigors of college, and institutions of higher education do even more to support students through to graduation.
A seminal report from the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration revealed large completion rate gaps for college students majoring in education. The gap between white and Black students was approximately 30 percentage points (73 percent versus 42 percent) and the gap between white and Hispanic students was more than 20 percentage points (73 percent versus 49 percent) (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
And while state and local policy–makers can make it a priority to recruit diverse teacher candidates, create more innovative pathways into teaching, and examine whether their teacher licensure policies or teacher pay rates produce unintended barriers for people from underrepresented groups, research shows that attracting teachers of color may not be the biggest challenge (Bond et al. 2015).
In fact, more teachers of color are being hired now than in years past, but these educators also are leaving the profession more frequently than their White counterparts early in their careers. It is critical to ensure that once teachers of color are hired, they stay in the classroom.
Part of doing that work thoughtfully entails listening to the experiences and perspectives of people of color who are currently teaching.
The Education Trust’s efforts are instructive here. Our recent qualitative study, Through Our Eyes, reveals that many Black educators feel their voices are not heard and their development is stifled by systemic biases and school cultures that do not recognize their expertise. A companion report, to be issued this fall, will examine the perspectives of Latino teachers (The Education Trust, 2016).
Through Our Eyes showed that instead of being offered opportunities to teach diverse students and college-level courses or take on leadership roles within their schools, many Black teachers reported that they felt limited to teaching only Black students and that they were expected to act as the school’s disciplinarians.
And while Black teachers relished the opportunity to use their cultural capital to connect with children of color, these educators expressed frustration at being pigeon-holed.
Not surprisingly, this “invisible tax” and diminished opportunities for professional growth can lead teachers of color to experience burnout and decreased job satisfaction—which can cause these educators to leave teaching (King 2016).
Advocates and communities can help to address this situation by encouraging their schools to provide targeted professional supports to teachers of color, offer training to all educators on cultural competency and culturally affirming curricula, and create and maintain schoolwide cultures that value efforts to expand diversity.
One way in which communities across the country—from Denver to Kansas City to Boston to Portland, Maine—are taking action to increase the number of teachers of color in their schools is by cultivating their own pool of “homegrown” educators. Districts implementing these “grow-your-own” initiatives advise students from underrepresented groups as early as in middle school about careers in teaching. They also develop young people’s leadership skills, guide them toward higher education, and encourage them to return home to teach as adults.
In Philadelphia, school principal Sharif El-Mekki founded The Fellowship, which seeks to inspire more men of color in the city—and even nationally—to enter into the teaching profession as a means of increasing social justice (Thomas, 2016).
And just this year, 11 states—with the help of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)—took a significant step toward increasing educator diversity. These states are committing to work toward parity between their students of color and their teachers of color. CCSSO, a national nonprofit organization of officials who head state systems of public schools, will provide technical assistance and a forum for states to share best practices.
This is a vital effort that all states can choose to take on as they implement our nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. To advance this work, Congress also has a responsibility to fund Title II, part of the law that can be used to support teacher recruitment efforts that expand students’ equitable access to effective and diverse educators.
As the new school year gets underway, all of us can be champions for equity and diversity.
Doing so will require that we acknowledge the ways in which our schools reflect America’s complex history and continued challenges around race. Doing so will require that we do more than just simply reject the most virulent expressions of intolerance and hate, such as those that we saw displayed in Charlottesville. Doing so also will require us to act. We can begin with a focus on our children’s teachers. And together, all of us can ensure our children receive an excellent education that equips them to help build the most inclusive, diverse, and tolerant America in history.
References – Stewards of Tolerance
Bond, Burnie et al. 2015. The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education. Albert Shanker Institute.
Anderson, Melinda D. 2015. “Why Schools Need More Teachers of Color—For White Students.” The Atlantic. August 6.
Blad, Evie. 2016. “Black Students Less Likely to Be Disciplined by Black Teachers, Study Says.” Education Week. September 18.
The Education Trust. 2016. Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections From Black Teachers.
Johns Hopkins University.2017. With Just One Black Teacher, Black Students More Likely to Graduate. Press Release. Available at: http://releases.jhu.edu/2017/04/05/with-just-one-black-teacher-black-students-more-likely-to-graduate/
King, John. 2016. “The Invisible Tax on Teachers of Color.” Washington Post. May 15.
National Center for Education Statistics. 2017. Characteristics of Public Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States: Results From the 2015–16 National Teacher and Principal Survey. Available at: https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2017072.
Nicholson-Crotty, Sean et al. 2016. “Disentangling the Causal Mechanisms of Representative Bureaucracy: Evidence From Assignment of Students to Gifted Programs.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. Vol. 26, No. 4, pp 745-757. October 1.
Pew Research Center. 2016. It’s Official: Minority Babies are the Majority Among the Nation’s Infants, But Only Just. Available at: www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/23/its-official-minority-babies-are-the-majority-among-the-nations-infants-but-only-just/?utm_content=buffer43d97&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
Putnam, Hannah et al. 2016. High Hopes and Harsh Realities: The Real Challenges to Building a Diverse Workforce.Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution.
Thomas, Brian. 2016. “Philly Organization Hopes to Recruit 1,000 Black Male Teachers by 2020.” Philly Magazine. Available at: www.phillymag.com/news/2016/06/17/philly-fellowship-recruit-black-male-teachers/#08OCicdMxflVtV7c.99