The United States is undergoing a significant demographic transformation as communities of color continue to grow throughout the nation. Our public schools will be among the first institutions to change as a result of this increased diversity. In fact, schools are diversifying at such a rapid rate that within 10 to 12 years no clear racial or ethnic majority will exist in our public K-12 system.
A recent report from the Center for American Progress, “Teacher Diversity Matters,” highlights the wide gaps in diversity between students and teachers across the nation. Past research shows that students of color enjoy greater rates of academic success when they are taught by teachers of color, which makes it increasingly important for us to fix the teacher workforce’s low diversity as our demography evolves.
Here we outline the reasons why there is such low diversity in the teaching profession and what steps we can take to recruit and retain more teachers of color in the field.
The diversity gap
The report reveals that nearly every state experiences a significant disconnect between the diversity of the student body and the diversity of the teaching staff.
California reports the single largest discrepancy. An overwhelming 72 percent of students are of color compared with a mere 29 percent of teachers—a difference of 43 percentage points.
Unfortunately, this figure is not unusual. In fact, more that 20 states report a difference of 25 percentage points or more, with Nevada, Illinois, Arizona, and New York topping the list.
What causes the gap?
The reasons behind this inequality are complex.
Part of it can be attributed to communities of color’s generally lower rates of academic achievement. Only 58 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of African Americans earn a high school diploma within four years, compared with 78 percent of whites. This educational gap then extends to college, where communities of color experience lower graduation and certification rates. Naturally, it is impossible to become a teacher without a high school diploma and a college degree.
Other factors that contribute to the low rates of representation for teachers of color include the high cost of conventional teacher-certification programs and the expansion of career opportunities for minority college graduates. For most minority graduates, teaching simply does not offer the financial incentive necessary to offset the high costs of a college education, compelling them to seek more lucrative careers.
The paper also found that teachers of color are significantly less likely to report feeling satisfied with their rate of pay and being happy with the administration of their school.
One survey concluded that only 37 percent of African American and 46 percent of Hispanic teachers are happy with their salary, compared to 53 percent of white teachers. Similarly, African American and Hispanic teachers are less likely to feel satisfied with the way that their school is run.
To a certain extent this stems from the fact that teachers of color are statistically more likely to work in low-income and low-performing urban schools. Research also indicates that, on average, teachers of color are paid less than whites.
A two-pronged approach to bridging the gap
The teacher diversity gap is widespread and deeply rooted, and achieving an equitable representation for teachers of color will take hard work and dedication. But it is important to better serve our children so that they can be successful and our nation can thrive with an educated workforce. Based on the above findings, the report advises a two-pronged approach.
First, we must expand high-quality recruitment programs to better attract teachers of color. This includes supporting students of color in primary and secondary school so that they may attain the level of education they need to become teachers, as well as spearheading targeted recruitment efforts to attract high-performing students of color, offering federal financial-aid programs to low-income students interested in teaching, and pursuing policies on both the federal and state level that promote diversity.
This also involves giving special attention to alternative routes of teacher certification. Alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project-Fellowship Program, help college graduates and established professionals to transition into teaching without conventional teaching training and preparation.
These types of programs have proven effective instruments for recruiting promising individuals of color to the teaching profession. In fact, 25 percent of Hispanic and 27 percent of African American teachers were certified through alternative-teacher programs, in contrast to only 11 percent of whites who followed similar paths.
Second, we must work to improve the professional experience of teachers of color. In order for teachers of color to stay in the classroom and be effective teachers, it is of vital importance that they feel satisfied with both their salary and the management of the school that they are working in.
As we move toward a more diverse future it is crucial that our nation’s teachers reflect these important demographic changes. Clear and decisive action is needed to ensure a diverse and proficient teacher workforce, as well as a strong and effective school system.
Jennifer Rokosa is an intern with Ethnic Media at American Progress.