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New Study Sounds the Alarm on Teacher Diversity, As Mostly White Teachers Teach Black and Brown Students

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The American public school system has a diversity problem, and a new study confirms what some have known for quite some time.  According to a study by the Albert Shanker Institute, while there has been some progress towards diversity among new teachers, these developments have not nearly kept pace with the need for more educators of color.

The report, “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” found that in the nine cities examined—Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Cleveland, Los Angeles and San Francisco—the state of diversity among teachers is dismal, marked by only a handful of success stories among a sea of utter failures.

The share of Black teachers in all nine cities fell, and in many cases dramatically. Further, although Latinos’ share of the teacher workforce has stabilized or increased slightly, the growth of the Latino student population translates into a lack of progress in closing the teacher-student representation gap.

The U.S. is experiencing a major demographic shift, with children of color constituting a majority of new births for the first time in history.  As the report notes, across the U.S., so-called minority students now comprise over half of public school students, up from 31 percent in 1993 and 41 percent in 2003.  However, the percentage of nonwhite teachers increased from 12 percent in 1987 to a mere 17 percent in 2012.

Washington, D.C. experienced the largest decline in Black teachers, from 77 to 49 percent between 2003 and 2011.  Moreover, this gap nationwide is even larger in charter schools than among public school districts.

The report attributes the problem of diversity to teacher attrition, as teachers of color are leaving due to “a lack of collective voice in decisions in their schools and a lack of professional autonomy.”

“Diversity is a key component to equality and opportunity. Where there’s a diverse teaching workforce, all kids thrive, ” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who is the Shanker Institute’s board president.  “That’s why we note with alarm the sharp decline in the population of black teachers in our cities. As a first step to turning this around, we are calling for a national summit on teacher diversity in urban areas.”

This latest study confirms that all students benefit from a diverse pool of teachers.  Other studies have bolstered the argument as well.  For example, a recent study of nearly 3 million students in Florida over a  seven-year period found that students achieve when they have teachers who look like them.  Further, the study found that although having a nonwhite teacher helps students from that teacher’s race, it does not negatively impact white students’ performance.  The implications for low performing Black and Brown students are significant, as they may not look like most teachers.

In addition, the ramifications of this racial imbalance between the teaching profession and a majority school population of color are clear.  White women are more than 80 percent of the 3.2 million public school teachers in America, which means that Black children, and particularly Black boys, will come in contact with teachers who are made uncomfortable by their presence.  This, in a nation that criminalizes Black boys and sets them up for a school-to-prison pipeline and a one-way ticket to the penitentiary.

Studies have shown that under this reality in which there is no teacher diversity and white women dominate, Black and Latino boys are susceptible to lower grades, and are less likely to be placed in gifted and talented programs, and advancement placement classes. In addition, Black boys are more likely to be placed in special education programs or labeled mentally retarded, as the NEA found that Black and Latino males are over 80 percent of special education students nationwide.

Further, Black boys are more likely to be feared, and therefore expelled and suspended, which increases their chances of becoming a dropout and a prime candidate for prison.  Finally, Black students receive inferior instruction, as where Black students increase, the best teachers leave for “whiter” pastures.  This underscores the problem of school segregation, over a half century since Brown v. Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the Shanker Institute report recommends, among other things, that the government collect data on the race and ethnicity of the teaching force; review policies to encourage more diversity; increase mentorship programs for teachers of color, and invest in high-quality teacher education programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) and public colleges and universities with large numbers of minority students.  The study also recommends that school districts maintain closer ties with colleges and universities in order to increase recruitment of a steady stream of diverse teachers.

In other words, teacher diversity matters for the future of our children.

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