Schools Are More Diverse, but America’s Teachers Probably Won’t Be

Low pay and a lack of respect for the profession are turning off large numbers of black and Latino college students.
(Photo: BFG Images/Getty Images)
Aug 24, 2016· 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.

In the darkest days of racial segregation, it used to be said that a professionally dressed, well-respected African American strolling through the neighborhood wearing a suit and tie, or a dress with pearls, must be a doctor—or a teacher.

At a time when blacks and Latinos make up the majority of America’s public school students, however, a new study produced by Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy shows teachers of color are vanishing from the nation’s classrooms at an alarming rate, with surprisingly few college students willing to replace them.

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What’s triggering the exodus? Relatively low pay, little autonomy, the profession’s low social status in the community, and scant institutional support for those teachers who need it most. Unless policy makers take immediate, drastic action to plug “a leaky pipeline,” the study argues, teaching will quickly become a whites-only profession.

“Making serious progress toward a teacher workforce which is as diverse as the students it serves will require exceptionally ambitious patches” to fix the brain drain, according to the study, titled High Hopes and Harsh Realities: The Real Challenge to Building a Diverse Workforce. The path toward reaching a diverse teacher workforce, it says, “is much steeper than anyone has acknowledged to date.”

Education analyst Kimberly Quick told TakePart that the bleak assessment in the report isn’t surprising. She said leaks in the teacher workforce pipeline occur well before aspiring educators call their first classroom roll.

“We know that minority students are already not graduating from high school and not transitioning into postsecondary education at the same rate as their white, higher-income counterparts,” Quick said. As a result, “there are even fewer lower-income, minority college students entering in [graduate school] teaching programs.”

Meanwhile, unlike previous generations in which it was an esteemed career choice, teaching for blacks and Latinos “has not been held up as the most attractive profession,” Quick said. Other careers have better pay for the same levels of education, Quick added, and teachers “don’t always get the respect they think they should.”

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Despite being a policy most school administrators support—studies show minority kids achieve at a greater rate when taught by someone who looks like them—the numbers in the report paint a grim picture of a broad and growing “diversity gap” between white and minority teachers, at multiple junctions of the workforce pipeline.

According to the report, 95 percent of white college graduates who majored in education said they want to become full-time teachers, compared with 76 percent of black graduates.

If they make it to the classroom, 93 percent of white teachers stay there, a rate slightly higher than that of their minority colleagues—90 percent for African American teachers and 92 percent among Latino teachers. Though they seem relatively small, the report’s authors wrote, “these gaps are statistically significant” and are expected to grow even wider in the near future.

According to projections included in the study, the diversity gap between black teachers and black students—currently at 9 percentage points—will hold steady through 2060. The gap between Latino teachers and Latino students, however, will skyrocket to 22 percentage points over the same time frame, the report states.

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Quick said there are myriad reasons for the gap, including inadequate support for younger teachers, too many bureaucratic demands on veterans, and quality teaching prospects being lured from the schoolhouse to better-paying, higher-profile professions, including jobs in the tech sector.

But the central factors include placing minority teachers in under-resourced, marginalized, “racially isolated” schools in poor neighborhoods—tough, high-turnover assignments that have high attrition rates for white, African American, and Latino teachers.

“There is survey data that shows minority teachers oftentimes go to minority schools because they’re inspired to work with children that remind them of themselves. They want to make an impact in the black community, the Latino community, the low-income school,” she said. When they get there, however, “they’re not supported, and they’re not paid enough to, say, buy school supplies for their students”—or they’re not trained to handle challenging behavior problems.

At the same time, “the schools don’t have the resources to pay them [well] or to train them or to develop them,” Quick said.

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Closing the diversity gap will require bold steps, Quick said: Hike teacher pay, offer financial incentives for teachers willing to work in struggling, majority-minority schools, give all educators a voice at policy discussions, and overhaul district recruiting guidelines to bring in more black and Latino candidates.

Perhaps the most important step, she said, is active and sustained efforts against the resegregation of the nation’s schools, which benefits teachers as much as it does students.

“Integrated schools, socially and economically, do retain their teachers longer,” Quick said.