The diversity disconnect: 6 ways schools can hire teachers who look like their students

Teacher diversity matters more than ever because students of color are now the growing majority in US public schools—but nearly 80% of teachers are white.

Teacher diversity has been called a priority by plenty of K12 leaders, but many districts have not yet put significant numbers of teachers of color into their increasingly diverse classrooms.

Students of color are now the growing majority in US public schools but nearly 80% of teachers are white. And according to a new survey, only a little more than half of teachers think their district is committed to diversifying the teaching staff. “In many states, the lack of teacher diversity means that many students attend schools and districts that do not employ a single teacher of color,” write Lynn Olson, author of “Teachers Like Us: Strategies for Increasing Educator Diversity,” a new report from the FutureEd think tank at Georgetown University.

Most education leaders are well aware of the research that shows Black students are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college when they’ve had at least one Black teacher in K12. Studies of schools in North Carolina and Tennessee have shown similar outcomes for Latino students who have been taught by Latino teachers. “Increased exposure to same-race teachers also is associated with improved course grades, attendance, grit and self-management, and the likelihood of being selected for gifted-and-talented programs,” FutureEd’s report says.

But many barriers stand in the way of comprehensive K12 teacher diversity. Overall, 3.7% of white adults aged 25-34 have earned a teaching degree compared to 1.3% and 1.1% of young Black and Latino adults. That gap has its roots in K12, where students of color are more likely to receive a lower-quality education that diminishes their chances of graduating high school and attending college, according to the FutureEd study.

Black and Latino students who’ve studied education in college also fail traditional licensure exams at much higher rates. Some studies have shown these aspiring teachers are more likely to get their licenses through performance assessments that measure lesson plans and videos of candidates teaching. Finally, teachers of color continue to face discrimination in the K12 workforce and are more likely to teach in under-resourced schools—both conditions that can lead new teachers to quit the profession, FutureEd contends.

“If the challenges to diversifying the nation’s teaching force are many, so are the solutions,” Future adds with a note of optimism. “In recent years, a number of states, school districts, and nonprofit organizations have introduced a wide range of strategies that have helped bring more teachers of color into classrooms.”

Trending toward teacher diversity

Several models are allowing district leaders to diversify their ranks. Here’s how FutureEd describes these fresh approaches, some of which superintendents and their teams can deploy on their own and others that require some lobbying and collaboration with state officials:

1. Transparency and targets: More and more states now publicize data on the retention of teachers of color and the demographic makeup of teacher training programs. The Massachusetts Department of Education posts this information on its website as the state now requires the agency to set educator diversity goals.

Tennessee districts must submit plans for hiring more teachers of color to the state’s department of education and file annual progress reports. Additionally, the state’s Educator Preparation Report Card tracks graduates of color.

2. Starting early: Leading Black educators have reported that many Black students aren’t introduced to the idea of teaching until they are graduating from college. These educators also contend that, on the other hand, white students are encouraged to consider teaching when they are still in elementary school.

The Philadelphia-based Center for Black Educator Development partners with high school administrators to launch teaching academies with a curriculum that centers on the Black experience. Students in the program, for instance, are trained by Black mentor educators to teach literacy to first through third-grade students.

Recruiting Washington Teachers is another program that provides grants to districts to start teaching academies shaped to their local needs, such as developing teachers who resemble the student population.

3. Scholarships and loan forgiveness: The federal government and many states have created scholarship and loan forgiveness programs that cover college costs for teachers willing to work in high-needs schools or teach high-demand subjects. A few states have multiple initiatives—Connecticut offers loan reimbursement and scholarships to minority teachers and mortgage assistance that focuses on teachers who graduated from HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions.

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But these types of programs have not always reached their goals, FutureEd cautions. Only 17% of the participants in a North Carolina scholarship program for prospective teachers who agree to stay in the state for four years have been Black while most of the colleges involved have been predominantly white.

4. Grow-your-own programs: FutureEd has identified at least 21 states that have recently passed laws providing support to district leaders who are launching grow-your-own teacher diversity programs. California’s Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program, for instance, gives paraprofessionals and other K12 staff $4,000 per year to earn a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. About 2,000 classified staff, nearly half of whom are Latino, have participated.

5. Teacher residencies and apprenticeships: Studies show these programs are particularly effective at attracting and retaining more teachers of color. Currently, nearly half of the nation’s teaching residents are people of color. US PREP, a Texas nonprofit, has helped created year-long residencies with nearly 30 colleges of education, most of which are minority-serving institutions.

Texas Tech University in 2014 launched the TechTeach Across Texas residency to help districts not located near colleges and universities diversify their teaching workforce. Participants with an associate’s degree can earn a B.A. in an intensive one-year teacher certification program that takes place both online and in person.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently began funding state-based registered apprenticeships in teaching. Tennessee launched the first such program in January 2022 with at least seven more states following suit. Many more states are now planning to initiate registered teaching apprenticeships.

6. Recruitment and retention: In the 2019-20 school year, 14% of the teachers in the District of Columbia Public Schools were men of color, which, FutureEd says, is three-and-a-half times the national average. The number of Latino teachers has tripled over the last 10 years. Principals of the district’s hard-to-staff schools give top teaching candidates early access to job hiring fairs along with targeted recruitment and hiring support. Educators responsible for interviewing teaching candidates also receive extensive anti-bias training.

In Chicago Public Schools, hard-to-staff buildings now receive individualized recruitment and marketing support from a team at the central office. The program, part of the Opportunity Schools initiative, has raised retention by, in part, paying “teacher ambassadors” an annual stipend of $2,500 to meet with teaching candidates. It also funds instructional coaches and mentors who support new teachers.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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