America’s Public School Students Are Less White, So Why Aren’t Teachers?

A new study reveals that boosting recruitment efforts helps, but it’s not the only solution needed.

Michelle Pfeiffer as a teacher in the 1995 film 'Dangerous Minds.' (Photo: Handout/Getty Images)

Sep 24, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s been more than six decades since the Supreme Court ended school segregation—and in 2014, minorities outnumbered whites in public schools for the first time. Now, a major new study urges education officials to tackle a racial divide in the classroom that’s getting wider each year—especially in taxpayer-funded charter schools.

The study from the Albert L. Shanker Institute says the “diversity gap” between students of color and their teachers is drastic, with 44.1 percent of all public-school students identified as minorities in 2012, compared with only 17.3 percent of teachers. The gap, the study found, is largest for African American and Latino students, it’s set to grow unless districts and city leaders take action to address it, and it should be considered a national civil-rights issue.

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While some contend that a good teacher can be effective regardless of skin color, the diversity gap “denies many children from minority communities classroom role models who may have more sensitivity to some cultural issues and nuances,” said Christopher Lubienski, a University of Illinois education professor specializing in education policy, organization, and leadership.

“There are likely multiple causes for these patterns, some of which are beyond our control,” Lubienski said. “But there are some policy factors that have played into these patterns,” and it will take focused policy decisions, along with pressure from educators and students’ families, to reverse the trend, he added.

The lack of diversity in teaching isn’t a new issue; several recent studies have sounded the alarm bell after showing minority teachers are leaving the profession at a much higher rate than whites. However, other studies have shown minority kids learn best—and the achievement gap with whites narrows—when an educator who looks like them, and understands their culture, is leading instruction.

The Shanker Institute study analyzed the teacher corps in nine cities—Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and San Francisco—using data collected from 2002 to 2012.

The ranks of teachers of color nationally increased from 12 to 17 percent from 1987 to 2012, according to the study, yet they’re “underrepresented in these urban workforces, with substantial representation gaps between minority teachers and minority students.” Black male teachers are barely visible, according to the report, even in mostly minority schools.

However, diversifying the teaching workforce has become both a recruitment and retention challenge. “Nationally, minority teachers of color are being hired at a proportionately higher rate” than whites, according to the study. But districts are having a hard time keeping those educators on the job. The reason is simple, according to the study: Teachers of color tend to get assigned to majority-minority, high-poverty schools with relatively poor working conditions. Once there, they don’t get much independence or help from administrators.

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“The strongest complaints of minority teachers relates to a lack of a collective voice in educational decisions and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom,” the report’s authors wrote.

That mirrors the long-standing criticisms of teachers at charter schools, who say administrators and charter boards don’t give them the freedom they need to be effective in the classroom. It’s also behind a push to unionize charter-school teachers, a move which, if successful, would give them negotiating power to improve their working conditions.

Lubienski isn’t surprised by the Shanker Institute’s findings and points to unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“The downside of desegregation, for all the good that it has done, meant that many teachers in African American schools lost their jobs. Teaching represented a solid, middle-class career, so this was a significant blow to African Americans in teaching positions,” he said.

At the same time, “teaching has become less of a stable career as teachers are losing autonomy to testing mandates and job security is threatened by attacks on teacher tenure,” Lubienski said, pointing to the “mass firing” of public school teachers in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans as city leaders installed an all-charter school district.

“Also,” he added, “teaching credentials are usually earned through university programs, but college-going rates differ between African Americans and other groups.”

There are bright spots, according to the survey: As the national Latino population surges, the number of Latino teachers is rising too, though not fast enough to keep up with the increase in students. And some mentoring and support programs for new teachers in Los Angeles and San Francisco have made impressive gains, the Shanker Institute report says.

“While there is reason to believe that black, Hispanic and American Indian students would be the greatest beneficiaries of a diverse teaching force, there is evidence that all students, and our democracy at large, would benefit from a teaching force that reflects the full diversity of the U.S. population,” reads the report.

But the parents of public school students have to demand it, Lubienski said.

Education policy makers “won’t really respond until pushed to do so by parents, opinion-shapers, and funders,” he said. “This is a double-edged sword, though, because it could mean diversifying the teaching force while resegregating schools even more. So it’s also a question of how teachers are assigned to different schools and classrooms.”