Last year, I attended a gathering of education leaders and advocates working to improve schools for low-income and minority students. The conversation was impassioned, and everyone was clearly committed to the kids they serve. Yet I was dismayed to find that I was one of only two non-white people in attendance.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case: Eighty percent of teachers and school leaders are white, and just 6 percent of superintendents are people of color. This is true even though children of color comprise a majority of our nation’s kindergarteners.
Such a lack of diversity is an urgent problem. Research has long shown that students of color benefit when taught by teachers with similar backgrounds. Now, a study from the W.E. Upjohn Institute finds that when evaluating the same black students, black teachers are 30 percent more likely than non-black educators to believe those students will graduate from college. Given the evidence that perception of ability affects actual performance, this is alarming.
Recruiting Educators of Color
The good news is that there is much we can do to diversify our education workforce as we also work to strengthen it. Teach For America, the Urban Teacher Enhancement Program in Alabama, and Teach Tomorrow Oakland, for example, are successfully recruiting increasing numbers of high-quality teachers of color. Organizations like my own, New Leaders, are preparing a diverse group of highly effective school leaders.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education convened some of these organizations to share what works in developing outstanding educators of color. Not surprisingly, the attendees with a record of success employ similar strategies: early outreach, targeted recruitment and careful cultivation.
Our work at New Leaders is illustrative.
We seek out and train educators who hold a deep belief that every child can excel, a mindset that experience has taught us is foundational to successful school leadership.
We have learned that educators sharing a background with their minority students tend to be particularly steadfast in this conviction and that, unfortunately, districts and schools often overlook such high-potential candidates for leadership positions.
A Principal That Understands
Because of our research-based selection criteria, New Leaders alumni are exceptionally diverse: three quarters are people of color. Many of these leaders are driven by a sense of urgency informed by a shared background with students and are unusually committed.
While half of all principals leave within three years, 8 in 10 New Leaders principals stay beyond that point. Most importantly, they get results: a RAND Corporation evaluation found that students at New Leaders-led schools outperformed peers at comparable schools by a statistically significant margin.
Rodney Rowan, for example, is an African-American principal at Cherokee Elementary School in Memphis. Inspired by his own upbringing there, Rowan sent a clear message that all students can achieve at a high level, even if facing tough challenges at home. Through meticulous use of data and robust support for teachers, Rowan quadrupled student proficiency in math, and doubled it in reading. Last year, the school—failing when Rowan took over—was among the top 5 percent in the state for academic progress.
Or Claudia Aguirre, a Mexican-American who excelled in high school but found she had not been well prepared for college. She did not want her students at Dual Language Middle School in New York City to suffer a similar experience; she focused on ensuring that teachers delivered rigorous instruction and held students to high standards. Over her decade-long tenure, Aguirre dramatically lifted the school’s proficiency rates.
These principals exemplify the potential impact of minority educators who understand the challenges their students face, but reject lower standards. As organizations like mine have also observed, such leaders can mitigate racial disparities in their schools and districts by prioritizing recruitment and retention of talented teachers of color and building a diverse group of future school leaders.
So how can we spread these successes more widely?
- Instead of passively relying on informal recruitment networks for school leadership positions, districts should proactively identify a diverse group of teachers with strong instructional practices, providing opportunities for them to build key leadership skills.
- Leadership development programs must eradicate barriers that keep talented educators out of the pipeline. This starts with refocusing selection to emphasize attributes that actually predict future success—including a conviction that all students can excel, strong classroom results and the disposition to lead other adults effectively.
- All educational leaders need quality training and ongoing support related to equity and diversity. All of us have biases, regardless of our race and principals must be able to recognize and remedy their own and help teachers do the same.
The meeting held by the U.S. Department of Education brought needed attention to the progress some organizations have made in recruiting and preparing outstanding educators of color. Their success makes clear that with purpose and intention, we can identify many more talented educators who reflect the communities they serve.
Now we must apply these lessons broadly, and thus expand the ranks of educators who are exceptionally well positioned to recognize and nurture the potential within every child.