Racial segregation remains a major issue for American students more than 65 years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. Racial segregation is especially prevalent in New York City, where I have worked in education research and policy for the past two decades. What we don’t always read about, though, is the racial segregation in the country’s teacher corps.
The racial imbalance between U.S. students and their teachers is stark: 80% of all K-12 teachers identify as white, while more than half of students identify as students of color. The lack of teacher diversity presents the field with an urgent problem, but one that states and districts can address right now.
The research is undeniable: Greater diversity in the teacher workforce improves education and life chances for all students, regardless of race, but particularly for Black and Hispanic students who have better attendance, reduced suspensions, and do better in school when they have opportunities to learn from Black and Hispanic teachers. White students, particularly those in rural communities, also benefit from diverse teachers who reflect the wider world.
Yet an array of formal and informal state and local policies—including racial discrimination, “first-in, last-out” policies, under-funded and outdated pension plans, and high teacher turnover rates at high-poverty schools—have impeded the development of a diverse teaching workforce. For those looking to join the profession, crippling student debt and persistently low teacher salaries further deter prospective teachers, particularly those of color.
The influx of federal COVID-19 recovery funding, now in the billions of dollars, is an opportunity for states and districts to not only create a more diverse teacher workforce, but also an environment where teachers of color can thrive and remain in the classroom. As states submit their recovery spending plans to the U.S. Department of Education, they have a chance to set this in motion, right now, through innovative recruitment and retention strategies. Here’s how.
Recruiting Teachers of Color
Districts can create “Grow Your Own” initiatives that recruit teachers from among paraprofessionals and others working in schools, providing a career ladder from those already dedicated to the district and the community. Districts can also train their current high school students as future teachers, providing college and career pathways for students, while building a future diverse teacher workforce for the community. Districts can also look to high-quality partnerships, including the Center for Black Educator Development in Philadelphia and Pathways2Teaching in Denver.
States can play a role, too, by creating programs to help potential teachers meet licensure requirements and by providing financial support for those with student debt. Critically, states can form partnerships with colleges and universities, particularly minority-serving institutions, to build a direct pipeline of new teachers. This is already happening in places like San Bernardino, California, and other parts of the country.
Retaining Teachers of Color
Recruitment is only part of the solution. Districts and states must work to retain teachers of color—creating a workplace that values, listens, and supports teachers of color who often face additional stressors from racial bias and higher performance expectations (particularly as it relates to their work with students of color).
All teachers thrive when districts and states provide opportunities to network, to mentor and be mentored, and to participate in career training. Research has shown that workplace supports like these also correlate with the retention of teachers of color, particularly in schools with a less diverse teaching staff.
If states and districts do not seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity and use federal funds to diversify their teacher workforce, the student-teacher racial imbalance will only deepen to the detriment of student growth and learning. Schools across the country have billions of dollars that can be used for urgent and long-standing issues. A lack of teacher diversity is one of those urgent and long-standing issues.
Now is the time to build a high-quality teacher corps that reflects the tapestry of America. Let’s not let this opportunity slip away.