NEA Report: Lack of Teacher Diversity Jeopardizes Student Achievement

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced several weeks ago that the 2014-2015 school year would signal the first time non-white students represent a majority in America’s public schools, it marked a watershed moment for the country’s increasingly diverse population.  But even as minority enrollment in schools has skyrocketed over the last two decades, the effort to increase  the number teachers of color has fallen behind.

A new report released by the National Education Association, Time for a Change: Diversity in Teaching Revisited,” finds that the disparity between minority student enrollment and teachers of color continues to be a major stumbling block on the path towards greater academic performance for all students.

As the number of minority students in schools continues to grow, it becomes essential for the teaching force to not only relate to them, but also provide a well-rounded education that makes every child feel included. Having a racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse teaching force provides students with multiple perspectives that allows them to gain a greater understanding of the world around them.

“A teaching force that represents the nation’s racial, ethnic, and linguistic cultures and effectively incorporates this background and knowledge to enhance students’ academic achievement is advantageous to the academic performance of students of all backgrounds, and for students of color specifically,” the report said. “A mere 18 percent of the PK–12 teaching corps are people of color and, as research shows, far too many educators, regardless of background, struggle to comprehend and employ the tenets of culturally responsive practice.”

While a great amount of attention has been given to the nation and its public schools’ shifting demographics, programs and initiatives designed to increase teachers of color have been slow to take hold across the nation.

Mary Dilworth, the co-author of the report, says the country’s commitment to creating a diverse teaching force has waned over the last several decades. Dilworth is also and a Principal Investigator for a National Science Foundation project that’s designed to recruit, prepare, license and employ STEM professionals for middle and high school science teaching.

“Two decades ago, 26% of the teaching population was of color,” says Dilworth. “Today it’s 18%. That tells me that we have been losing ground. Greater diversity in the teaching force is not going to happen by coincidence. It has got to be recognized, identified, and included in the teacher quality agenda. Diversity includes everyone and it omits no one.”

Teachers of color are often employed in school districts that are minority-majority and are often struggling with budgetary issues. And for many of these teachers the realities of stagnant pay, poor facilities, and limited resources push them toward the exits – a turnover rate that eclipses the number entering the profession.

“Teachers in low-performing schools are more than 50 percent more likely to leave their district than are teachers in high-performing and well-resourced schools and communities,” the report says.

While infusing schools with a more diverse teaching staff has positive benefits for all students, targeting teachers who have grown up in a diverse community will allow them to better identify with their students and understand the realities of their situations. Adding these teachers also gives them a further incentive to stay in the schools, while also giving students an opportunity to connect with someone who can relate to their experience firsthand.

Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, a Professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, says the goal should be to not only increase the number of minority teachers, but also work to identify and engage committed youngsters who will return to their communities to institute real change.

“We don’t want to pluck young people from their communities so they can get educated and never come back,” Tintiangco-Cubales says. “We want them to come back and serve as teachers in their communities. And, to me, when we think of diversity it shouldn’t just be putting people who look like all the students in front of them.”

So what are some of the ways to draw more teachers of color into the profession? For starters, more programs and initiatives need to be developed that work towards bringing minority teachers into the profession. As the report notes, many states have policies working to create a diverse teaching profession, but the follow-through is often scattershot and can widely vary from state to state.

Increasing the programs that work—through scope, funding, and size—will allow more minorities to join the teaching profession. Working on supporting high-need schools will not only benefit the students, but also help give teachers—many of whom are teachers of color—an added support system to keep them in the profession. And, working on strengthening the current policies in place—including scholarships, training programs, and Grow Your Own projects—will allow more minorities to access the resources they need to enter the teaching workforce and stay for their entire careers.

The NEA report also found that a majority of states have adopted policy stances that focus attention on attracting minority teachers for hard-to- staff schools through alternative routes and also by using scholarships.

“We have to be able to explicitly identify ways to increase teachers of color,” Dilworth explains. “Do we intend on having few teachers of color, or do we intend on having parity? Do we want representation, and if so, what kind of representation? We have to be very explicit.”

Read Time for a Change: Diversity in Teaching Revisited