There is a growing body of evidence that Black students perform better when they have a Black teacher. It is a problem, then, that only 6 percent of teachers in Illinois are Black, while 17 percent of students are. As such, recruiting more Black educators should be one way for the state to close its large Black-White achievement gap.
Undermining that effort, however, are recent findings that Black educators face significant barriers to enter the profession. They are more likely to be placed in high-poverty schools, which have higher turnover rates. This is true in Illinois as well. Given their more difficult placements, the 10-year retention rate for Black educators in Illinois is 5 percentage points lower than it is for White educators.
So on the one hand, Illinois needs more Black people to become educators, but the K-12 system may inadvertently make it more difficult for Black teachers to start and progress through a career in education.
Getting the Promotion
In a new report for Bellwether Education Partners, we studied the salaries and pension benefits of educators in Illinois, with a special focus on how compensation intersected with race and gender. In addition to the disparities outlined above, we also found that Black educators get their master’s degrees and are promoted much later in their careers than White educators. That is, Black teachers and principals face barriers to advancement even once they’re in the education profession.
Getting promoted more quickly has an obvious immediate and positive impact on someone’s salary. But the benefits continue year after year as pay increases build on that higher salary. In other words, a Black educator who is promoted later in her career needs to work longer to earn as much in the aggregate as her colleague who became an administrator a few years earlier. Earning master’s degrees early on has a similar effect since most school districts provide a significant pay bump for earning additional credentials.
Our analysis mainly looked at statewide trends, and it’s possible that some of the disparities could be due to inter-district differences. In other words, is there any self-sorting of educators into particularly high- or low-paying districts within the state of Illinois? That could be happening, but it does not explain why these patterns exist even within a single district.
Consider Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the largest school district in the state and one which employs more than 60 percent of the Black educators in the state. Across the city, Black educators are slightly more likely to have master’s degrees than their White colleagues. But, White educators earn their master’s degree an average of 3.5 years sooner than their Black colleagues. Worse, the average White administrator is promoted to his or her position with five years less experience than the average Black administrator.
Both of these trends add up to higher salaries, at earlier ages, and greater lifetime earnings for White teachers and administrators.
The Good News
We did find one small piece of good news in our results. Black educators tend to work longer and earn master’s degrees at higher rates (despite getting them later in their careers), so the state’s maligned pension system works in their favor. This is because pension benefits are a function of years of experience and final salary. As such, the cadre of Black educators, particularly Black women, who overcome the many hurdles and persist in the Illinois K-12 system earn a slightly greater reward in the form of higher annual retirement benefits.
But that may be small consolation knowing they had to suffer through years of lower salaries and more difficult advancement opportunities. Many Black educators leave the profession without working long enough or earning the requisite credentials to make-up for the early career inequities.
This research makes clear that despite uniform salary schedules, and even in districts employing mostly people of color, financial inequities can manifest in other ways. To fix this problem and ensure employees are treated fairly, state and district education systems should consider several steps.
They should examine their salary and tenure data closely and identify any race- or gender-based discrepancies. They need to consider carefully their hiring and promotion practices to ensure equal opportunity for promotion and advancement.
Educators of color are critical to improving the quality of education provided to students of color. Paying these teachers and administrators less is unfair, self-defeating, and ultimately harmful to students.