Despite persistent testing gaps between white and non-white students, and years of evidence that students of color benefit from having people who look like them leading classrooms, America’s teacher diversity is very low. Fixing the disparity — and closing the persistent racial achievement gap in education — requires action at the federal, state, and school district level, according to a new report on “America’s Leaky Pipeline for Teachers of Color” from the Center for American Progress (CAP).
But according to Rush Limbaugh, promoting teacher diversity is akin to re-segregating the public schools. Limbaugh blasted the CAP suggestions on his radio show Monday while making a hash of the core point about teacher diversity. “It’s a great idea, and while we’re at it let’s go back to segregated schools as well as all-boys and all-girls schools, why don’t we, if that’s what they’re saying,” Limbaugh said. “If only blacks can learn from other blacks, and if only women can learn from other women, only men can learn from male teachers, only whites can learn from whites, then why do we — let’s just segregate, go back to the way it was.”
But teacher diversity benefits students of all backgrounds, as CAP’s Ulrich Boser pointed out. “Even white students in North Dakota need to see people who look differently than them. We’re all going out into a diverse world,” Boser, a co-author of the “Leaky Pipeline” report and a separate state-by-state analysis of teacher diversity, said. Evidence suggests that higher educational diversity does no harm to white students’ test scores while also offering white students various “non-cognitive benefits” such as an improved ability to make social connections with people who are unlike them.
White students are barely a majority of public school students today, and demographic projections suggest students of color will soon be the majority nationwide. People of color are more likely than whites to pursue teaching as a career. Yet 82 percent of public schoolteachers are white, in part because so many more white people obtain college degrees and other credentials.
A key leak in the teacher pipeline is at the community college level. “Because communities of color disproportionately enroll in community college and are less likely than whites to transfer to four-year institutions, students of color have reduced chances of earning a bachelor’s degree in teaching,” CAP’s experts write. On top of the disparity in bachelor’s degrees, teacher certification exams reflect similar scoring gaps to those present in student achievement metrics. And for teachers of color who clear these hurdles, the job itself is so poorly compensated, micromanaged, and constrained by insufficient educational resources that many eventually quit to pursue other paths.
There are years of robust evidence that students of color achieve at higher levels when taught by people of color, but the students of color who would ideally become tomorrow’s teachers of color face substantial challenges compared to their white peers. To conquer those hurdles, the report argues for various interventions in the current teacher recruitment, training, and certification process. One major proposal is a federal program to “create a national teacher corps” modeled on other programs that encourage public service through stipends, scholarships, group support networks, and proactive recruiting of underrepresented groups. Paying teachers better, giving students financial incentives to consider teaching as a career, and targeting efforts like these to people of color would help repair the mismatch between student and teacher life experiences.
That mismatch persists far beyond elementary school, as prizewinning fiction author Junot Diaz noted in a recent essay for The New Yorker. Diaz’s graduate degree program in fiction writing was dominated by white people disinterested in even discussing race and the disparate experiences that come with racial differences in America. While the student body in Diaz’s program was racially diverse, there were “no faculty of color in the fiction program — like none — and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem.” While it may provoke anxiety in white readers to hear criticism of the “whiteness” of academic spaces, Diaz points out that the tacit exclusion of teachers of color led to the active exclusion of ideas about color: “my workshop reproduced the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism,” he writes, and struggling against that blindness daily ultimately caused friends of his to give up on their writing and the program.
Fixing faculty diversity problems of the sort Diaz describes in the academic stratosphere of an Ivy League graduate degree program is in some ways easier than addressing the primary school teacher diversity question. But Diaz’s ultimate response — creating an organization to foster the exact kinds of educational experiences for writers that his program failed to furnish — isn’t too far from one of the things CAP recommends. The report lauds mentorship programs such as Call Me Mister in South Carolina, Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, and Howard University’s Ready to Teach system identify both college students and people without degrees who would make strong teacher candidates.
But these programs aren’t likely to be enough on their own, and the CAP report emphasizes the need to make teaching pay better, not only through higher salaries but also with scholarships and stipends during the training and certification process. And in order to better retain teachers, the federal and local education funding system must furnish more and better classroom resources.