Public Schools Are Getting More Diverse—but Where Are the Teachers of Color?

Nearly half of public school kids are black, Latino, or Asian, but 82 percent of their teachers are white.

(Photo: LWA/Getty Images)

May 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

If you attended public school and most of your teachers shared your racial background, go ahead and open your knapsack of privilege. According to a new report from the Center for American Progress, although 48 percent of public school students were kids of color in 2013, those pupils didn’t usually see people who looked like them at the head of the class. That’s because 82 percent of teachers are white.

This racial divide between teachers and students is up 1 percent from 2012, and it’s worse in some states than others. In California, which officially became a majority minority state this spring, the report notes that 73 percent of students are nonwhite. However, only about 29 percent of teachers are nonwhite.

Instead of seeing learning as a color-blind experience, the report’s authors write that it’s critical to acknowledge how “teachers of color can serve as role models for students of color.” Seeing a teacher who shares a student’s racial or ethnic background, the report’s authors write, also helps kids view school as a more welcoming place.

Veteran education activist and New York City math teacher José Vilson knows a little something about what that experience is like. In his just-released book, This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, Vilson details how before he headed off to college, he only had one black male teacher, a 12th-grade computer applications instructor named Mr. Wingate.

Most educators “think that they can just create a society that's color-blind, but color blindness has been proven time and again to be not only useless but also untrue,” Vilson says via email. “If anything, it creates the idea that folks’ cultures don’t exist and that the white culture is, by default, the winner.”

Vilson says that it’s not that many of his white teachers weren’t excellent, but for students of color, having a teacher who shares their background is an added self-esteem boost.

Indeed, the report’s authors note that plenty of education experts have found that when students of color are taught by minority teachers, the “similar life experiences and cultural backgrounds” help those educators make their lessons more relatable. It also helps ensure that a school becomes a hub of community activity.

“So often teachers of color have served as conduits for schools and the communities they serve, especially if the staff is culturally different than those in the neighborhood,” says Vilson. “Having a teacher of color—or multiple teachers of color—helps schools create better relationships and get a better understanding of the students we serve, because they’ve sat in those seats.”

It’s not only kids of color that benefit from a diverse teaching force. White kids need black, Latino, and Asian teachers too. The report notes that in order to equip kids to function in a global society, “it is important for all students to interact with people who look and act differently than they do in order to build social trust and create a wider sense of community.”

Part of the solution, the report’s authors say, is boosting the number of people of color graduating from high school and going to college—after all, you can’t become a teacher without a bachelor’s degree. The good news? High school graduation rates have skyrocketed in recent years. The report also recommends that states and individual school districts step up to explicitly address the issue by offering incentives and support for people to become teachers.

Vilson, who opted out of working as a programmer in favor of becoming a significantly less well-compensated teacher, says programs that give college scholarships to people of color who commit to becoming teachers and staying in the classroom could also help. Above all, he says, no matter what background you come from, take the job seriously: “If you happen to get on the path toward becoming an educator yourself, then please be the best educator possible. We only have one or two shots to get it right” for kids.