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Diversity Pays in the Teaching Profession

James Paterson

A staff that reflects the student body brings results and can be achieved.

There is abundant research about why it is important to have a diverse staff of teaching professionals in schools, but Stacey McAdoo has a simple, convincing story to tell.

McAdoo, who teaches at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was recently named Teacher of the Year in Arkansas, was starting 7th grade and was happy to find her English teacher was, like her, African American, and one of the most popular teachers in the school. She quickly was indicating that she thought McAdoo was smart and motivated.

“I really felt it was going to be a good year. But then my schedule changed and I had to transfer to a different class. I was devastated.”

McAdoo says she vividly remembers how that felt, and she says throughout her K-12 education, she then could “Count on one hand” the number of black teachers she had. She says while she knows she had other good instructors in the teaching profession, the connection to that first teacher and then others of her race was different.

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“Every single one of them had a profound effect on me. They had a way of seeing me like no others could. They made me feel brilliant and empowered.”

While McAdoo was bright and engaged and prone to like educators, other people from minority groups often have experiences like hers. And the issue becomes more important as minorities grow to become a bigger portion of the student body in schools and the number of minority teachers lags.

Michael Williams, head of the history department at John F. Kennedy High School in Wheaton, Maryland, says he had one male black teacher throughout school.

“There was a lot of comfort in knowing he may have experienced what I had and would have something to share with me that would be different,” says Williams, now a leader in two groups advocating for minority students in K-12 and male teachers of color called the Bond Project.

He says that he now believes having minority teachers not only benefited him, but also his white classmates, who were exposed to a person of color in a leadership role, which they might not otherwise experience. It can perhaps change their thinking and cause them to confront their biases before they become even more firmly embedded.

Their experiences confirm stacks of research over the last three decades about how teacher diversity motivates young black and Hispanic students. But experts increasingly believe, as Williams suggests, diversity helps the whole school community.

Beyond that, researchers who are examining ways to make the teaching staff more diverse show simply hiring more minority teachers (or even figuring out ways to retain them since they leave at a faster pace than others) – is not the only solution. They say educators need to fix a “Leaky pipeline” of minority teachers that doesn’t interest, encourage and train enough of them, nor support them well when they are in the classroom.

Those leaks, according to the Department of Education, mean that while about 50% of American students are from minorities, their instructors comprise just 18% of the teacher workforce. Hispanic students make up about one-quarter of all K-12 students — but under 10% of all teachers. In a recent series of articles, the Brookings Institute also showed that the “Diversity gap” is very evident in more than just urban schools and that it is considerably larger among Hispanics.

How Diversity Pays Off in the Teaching Profession

Brookings experts in another recent study reviewed research showing that diversity benefits schools in three primary ways:

  • Minority teachers can be role models. Students with matching teachers can imagine themselves in professional positions and strive for them. At the same time they are less likely to be limited by the stigma of succeeding and “Acting white”, a circumstance where studious black students are criticized by peers for success.
  • Minority teachers might have higher expectations for their students of color, which can lead them to have greater success.
  • There might be greater cultural connections between a teacher and student of the same background, meaning there is less chance of bias, greater interpersonal relations and increased prospects for the teaching material to offer a perspective the student will appreciate.

In their research, Brookings experts paid closest attention to that third theory: “Students assigned to demographically similar teachers say their teachers notice if they don’t understand a topic and explain it another way. Also, difficult material is explained clearly, and teachers take the time to provide feedback on students’ written work so they can understand how to do better in the future.”

Other recent research at Princeton using 56,000 student surveys indicated that “Matched black and Hispanic students report significantly better experiences than their non-matched peers.”

“Some of our tough to teach and reach students really need positive relationships in order to get the most out of school,” says Susan Zinkil, principal at Creekland Middle School in Canton, Georgia. “Establishing these bonds comes much easier when there is an adult with whom you have similarities. Your staff profile should resemble your student profile when at all possible.”

Research in the past also has shown that students perform better academically, do better on tests, and gain advantages in a number of other ways when there is a diverse teaching team.

“There are a number of advantages to putting together a staff that includes all sorts of people – those with different ethnic and racial backgrounds, but even those who have various other strengths or personalities – who may be analytical, or caring, or strict, or have another different approach to teaching,” says Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District and a veteran administrator with 33 years in education.

Poore’s district has worked hard to find educators that reflect its students’ diversity (a majority are now from minority families, and a quickly growing number are Asian) and has succeeded in having a higher percentage of administrators of color than students, but is still trying to match the number of teachers.

Next year they hope to improve the balance with a plan to retain good teachers (see below), which he and research suggest is hardest at the more challenging urban schools where well-intentioned new teachers too often become overwhelmed or disillusioned and don’t stay.

“It’s a challenge for schools, and it involves hiring carefully,” says Poore. “But it’s also key to support and keep the talented people that you have.”       

And Why Not?

Researchers have shown there could be a number of reasons why more minority teachers aren’t hired, but Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling and psychology at Howard University and author of the new book “No BS (Bad Stats): Black People Need People Who Believe in Black People Enough Not to Believe Every Bad Thing They Hear about Black People,”says that it comes down to bias.

"Usually, when we have these conversations, we assume black teachers aren't applying,” he says. “Based on my experience, we have fewer black teachers because they're not getting hired."

Toldson’s research concerns how assumptions we make about minorities are often wrong but are perpetrated and seep into even hiring decisions, where they can outweigh even qualifications for a position or the important goal of having a more diverse staff.

Lisette Partelow, director of K-12 strategic initiatives at the Center for American Progress who has authored several studies on the topic, says the debate about teacher diversity has often centered around the issue of whether to hire the “Best person for the job,” or a person who fills the need for diversity.

She has done research suggesting that schools can develop strategies that create a diverse staff while improving the quality of teachers in a number of ways.

“For 30 years those concerns have dominated the national conversation about the teaching workforce. While these two issues are portrayed as being in conflict, that really isn’t the case. States and preparation programs can make changes to selectivity without adversely affecting diversity.”

Retention and More 

Richard Ingersoll, an education professor and researcher at University of Pennsylvania, also has shown that while recruitment campaigns have doubled the number of nonwhite teachers in schools, minority teachers are 24 percent more likely to leave the profession,

“The research shows the strongest factor related to minority teacher turnover is a decrease in classroom autonomy and discretion,” Ingersoll says. “The increase in standardized curricula and teaching to the test are also big factors.” He notes they also are more likely to work in more challenging schools.

Partelow agrees, but believes that just focusing on hiring and retaining minority teachers won’t do enough to close the gap, which varies widely from region to region, making it a difficult issue to resolve with a single strategy. She believes our teacher training programs are not selective or rigorous enough and recruitment efforts are not effective.

“These district-level hiring strategies alone won’t successfully close the diversity gap. More is needed at several levels,” she says.        

Many of her views are supported by a recent series of reports, (including in a paper entitled “We cannot simply hire our way to a more diverse teacher workforce), from Brookings, which suggests repairs are needed at “Four key moments along the teacher pipeline:” College attendance and completion, choice of teaching as a career, hiring practices and retention. At each stage the pipeline for minority students persistently leaks.

“Making serious progress toward a teacher workforce which is as diverse as the students it serves will require exceptionally ambitious patches to fix the pipeline into the teaching profession,” Brookings researchers write. “The path toward reaching a diverse teacher workforce is much steeper than anyone has acknowledged to date.”

First, Partelow notes, there will not be much improvement unless more talented minority students are encouraged to become teachers and get training at four-year, high-quality schools based on good information about program value and financial aid.

Colleges should be innovative in their approaches to recruiting from high-minority high schools and use more face to face recruitment efforts, more black and Hispanic young people in recruiting and more sophisticated prospect-tracking tools focused on those students.

Lindsay, notes, however, that while minority college enrollment rates nearly mirror the breakdown in the population generally, about half of all white students earn a bachelor’s degree, compared with only 28% of blacks and 20% of Hispanics. And even fewer minority students express an interest in teaching.

“Even if all black college graduates became teachers, the number of black teachers would only barely exceed the number of white teachers,” she says.

Paretelow also says teacher training programs should provide public reporting of their efforts with minority students and be held to high, research-based standards for admitting them and training them, and should offer challenging, well-supported opportunities for field work. Highly competitive scholarships with money for living expenses should be offered to top students.

“We are simply losing minority students in those college years at too high a rate,” she says.

On the Job, Too

Partelow says school districts must make more specific, effective efforts to recruit teachers of color. Her research shows 40% of districts consider “Contribution to workforce diversity minimally or not at all” when hiring teachers, and 80% do not provide any specific supports geared toward inducting teachers of color.

She says higher levels of compensation and other incentives like paying off student loans will attract financially strapped minority students.

“Improved pay will be most effective as a recruitment lever for high-achieving, diverse candidates, especially if it is coupled with the kinds of working conditions that such candidates can expect in other professional fields, such as high-quality onboarding or induction, relevant professional learning opportunities, opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, and opportunities to advance within the profession,” she says.

Lindsay says she believes some other creative approaches may succeed, including residency programs much like those in the medical field where education students work in a school and have close supervision and mentorships. In other cases, officials are helping with housing for recruits.

She suggests that schools also look to train existing para-educators as teachers. They tend to be more diverse and may have an interest in teaching but not the resources for a degree. She also recommends looking for candidates among students working in service programs such as AmeriCorps or City Year, who may be more diverse, be comfortable with environments where minority teachers are needed and also interested in teaching.

What Schools Can Do

Toldson recommends that schools look closely at their hiring practices and try to identify biases, while having administrators and school staffs participate in cultural competency training.

“We need to underscore the role of the principals in cultivating an environment for teachers to develop cultural competence and enhance empathy and respect, eliminate biases, stereotypes and misinformation from school staff, and operate under the philosophy that all students of color are capable of the highest levels of academic achievement.”

Here are some other tips:

  • Plan for it. Set hiring goals and consider diversity when you are thinking about hiring process. Discuss it with team involved in interviews and with minority members of your staff.        
  • Recruit more broadly. The Center for American Progress has found that teacher recruitment efforts are lacking, and experts suggest administrators be more thorough and seek candidates through institutions and communities where minority teachers could be found, including networks of existing teachers. Use social media.
  • Keep an open mind. Too often, experts say, principals have a preconceived notion about the type of person they want for a position and may bypass someone who somehow presents differently. Go into interviews expecting to be surprised by candidates.
  • Look at your brand. What message does your school, the description of the position, the recruitment process and contact with prospects say about your real interest in diversity?
  • Grow your own. Connect at a local college or through your staff with young people training to be educators who would add diversity, assist them, and encourage them to apply for positions at your school.
  • Advance them. Look for ways to provide leadership opportunities to minority staff persons – to increase their job satisfaction and encourage others who reflect a different type of teacher.
  • Retain them. Research shows retention of teachers is as important as hiring when it comes to diversity. Consider the many ways you can make the work place more attractive and meet the needs of a new minority teacher or one with a disability or distinct personality type. Little Rock schools are planning a program that would help new teachers get more support and training in their schools or course work toward a master’s degree through a relationship with a local college. Others offer assistance with housing, education, summer jobs or even child care.

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