Panel searches for answers to teacher diversity challenge

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Multiple studies prove the point: Teacher diversity, which is important to educating all children well but is particularly critical for educating children of color, is sorely lacking in public schools. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined an influential panel of experts March 8 to highlight the dearth of teachers of color in the classroom and the profound difference they can make, and to share ideas about how to recruit and retain them so every child has an opportunity to succeed.

The panel discussion, co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Howard University School of Education, the AFT, Teach for America and the Albert Shanker Institute, was held at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Participants included acting Secretary of Education John King, Teach for America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard, and Harry F. Preston V, who is a teacher, a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union Teacher Leaders Program and a Teach for America alumnus.

Panelists at teacher diversity discussionThe dean of Howard's School of Education, Leslie Fenwick, started the conversation by describing a "yawning demographic" gap: Minority students account for nearly half of all public school students, but just 17 percent of their teachers are people of color. Nearly 40 percent of American schools do not have even one minority teacher. Yet, multiple studies show the advantages of having minority teachers in classrooms with minority children: The children are less likely to be placed in special education, more likely to be placed in gifted classes, and less likely to be suspended or expelled.

"It's critically important for all Americans that we tackle this issue of diversity in the workforce," said King, who noted that white children benefit from having teachers of color as well. The Shanker Institute's "The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education" report includes clear evidence that:

  • Minority teachers are more motivated to work with minority students in high-poverty, racially and ethnically segregated schools, a fact that could reduce high attrition at those schools.
  • Minority teachers tend to have higher academic expectations for minority students, which can result in increased academic and social growth.
  • Minority teachers who share racial and ethnic backgrounds with their students serve as role models and are more familiar with students' heritage and culture.
  • Positive exposure to individuals from many racial and ethnic groups can reduce stereotypes and encourage cross-cultural bonding for all students.
  • Students who are educated by a diverse teaching force are better prepared to succeed as adults living in an increasingly diverse society.

Panelists focused on two major points: recruitment and retention. "There seems to be a whitening of the teaching force," said Weingarten. The Shanker Institute report shows a declining number of black teachers in many cities, including Washington, D.C., where the percentage of black teachers decreased by 28 percent between 2002 and 2012.

"It is a pipeline issue," Weingarten said. "But mostly, it's a working conditions issue." She described poorly resourced schools plagued by overtesting and disciplinary challenges that are complicated by a lack of social services staff. "What teacher is going to want to go to a school that is all about testing and expulsion?" she asked. "We need to keep African-American teachers, Latino and Native American teachers. We need to support them and lift them up."

Preston, who teaches engineering in Baltimore, said one challenge is the "tax" on African-American teachers whose time is swallowed up when they become the only source of a diversity perspective, serving on committees, as mentors, and as resources for policymakers and administrators. Representing just 2 percent of the teaching force, black male teachers are in high demand. "Everybody needs us because we carry the entire race on our shoulders as soon as we walk in the door," said Preston. "Our job is to make sure kids are getting the opportunities they need. I cannot fall short on that job."

Preston's participation in his local union and in the BTU's Teacher Leaders Program has allowed him to encourage and support other black teachers to help fill that need, he said. He considers his participation in Teach for America as complementing his union work: "These two organizations working together have changed the lives of children," he said.

That's the idea, said Weingarten—to take action and make schools better for children. She urged King to have the Department of Education collect more data on teacher diversity, but she made it clear that discussing and analyzing are not ends in themselves. "You have our commitment as the American Federation of Teachers not just to shine a spotlight on a problem, but to actually do something about it," she told the panel and full audience at Howard.

The Shanker report, "The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education," provides an overview of the state of teacher diversity in the United States, studies nine cities in depth and probes statistics as well as the reasons teachers of color leave the profession in larger numbers than their white colleagues. It also analyzes eight programs designed to recruit and retain minority teachers.

[Virginia Myers]