A Virginia school district isn’t hiring enough teachers of color — but the problem is national

A Virginia school district is trying to hire more teachers of color through a changed recruitment and hiring approach.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

Fairfax County School District in Virginia aims to improve its recruitment and hiring of teachers of color, since a recent study showed that the district discriminates against Black applicants. The George Mason University study does not mention Fairfax by name, but the Washington Post reported, based on its conversations with current and former school officials, that the unnamed district is indeed Fairfax.

According to the study, Black applicants had degrees that were more advanced than white applicants, but they had lower pass rates on a screening test. The district, where 60 percent of students enrolled last fall were students of color, said it is in the midst of improving recruitment by going to job fairs that are hosted by “institutions that are serve people of color,” according to the Post. In addition, the district will focus on retaining teachers of color and mandating that a minimum number of candidates be interviewed for teaching positions, since decisions about hiring teachers are mostly made on the individual school level.  

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Research shows that students of color benefit academically from having teachers of the same race, since teachers of color are often role models, have higher expectations for students of color, and are more likely to be culturally competent teachers. White students also benefit from greater ethnic and racial teacher diversity, because they are more likely to learn about experiences outside of their own.

The hiring and retainment of teachers of color is a national problem, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report and a 2015 Harvard Graduate School of Education paperEighty-two percent of the elementary and secondary educator workforce in public schools is white. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that as the elementary and secondary student population becomes less white, these disparities between the percentage of teachers of color and students of color will grow. The NCES also found that every state has a higher percentage of students of color than teachers of color, according to a 2013 report on projections for teacher and student ethnic and racial diversity to 2022.

Although educator diversity has increased slightly from the 1987-1988 school year to the 2011-2012 school year, it hasn’t increased for all racial categories. The share of Black teachers has fallen slightly over this period. The teacher pipeline is also incredibly white, with people of color accounting for only 25 percent of those enrolled in a teacher preparation program, according to a 2015 Department of Education report on teacher diversity.

The teacher pipeline problem for students who may become teachers begins as early as high school. Ninety percent of white and 95 percent Asian young adults had diplomas in 2015, compared to 89 percent of Black young adults and 76 percent of Hispanic adults. Twenty-one percent of Black adults and 16 percent of all Latinx adults had college degrees compared to 45 percent of white adults and 65 percent of Asian adults. Although there are multiple paths to becoming a teacher depending on the type of position, a bachelor’s degree is always necessary, so teacher diversity is limited before the application process begins. 

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Many students of color attend schools in high-poverty areas that have limited resources, which means schools are not always well-equipped to ensure that students of color graduate. According to a National Equity Atlas analysis, most Black and Latinx students in half of the largest 100 cities in the country go to schools where 75 percent of students qualify as poor or low-income. According to a 2015 Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success report on barriers to success for students of color in community college, there is a more than 20 percent difference between white and black students’ unmet financial need levels. Black students averaged $5,054 in unmet need and Latinx students averaged $4,214, compared to $3,517 in unmet need for white students. This higher level of unmet financial need affects the ability of Black and Latinx to complete programs of study and earn degrees and credentials, according to the report. 

The result is a shortage of applicants of color. Nationally, only 11 percent of school principals are black and 20 percent of administrators are people of color. And even when schools hire teachers of color, they often struggle to retain them. In 2015, Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers interviewed 142 teachers and administrators in six high-poverty schools. The principals they interviewed said that recruiting teachers of color was “an enormous challenge” and that that there was a high rate of turnover among the teachers of color they hired.

The report also noted that teachers of color may be particularly prone to inequitable treatment at their school, particularly when their supervisor is white, according to a 2011 study. The 2011 study found that white principals tend to give special benefits to white teachers, such as opportunities to earn supplemental pay and work in specialized positions. Lawsuits alleging discrimination from school districts have cropped up in recent years, with principals saying schools gave them harsher penalties than white teachers or held them more accountable for problems at the school because of their race.

In a 2013 piece for The Atlantic, titled “Why Teachers of Color Quit,” Amanda Machado explained that cultural insensitivity and ignorance of financial strain can play a part in alienating teachers of color:

Teachers from well-to-do families have the advantage of accepting a low-paying teaching position and still having money available to them through other means. They have the comfort of knowing their families could help them out in the case of an emergency, or satisfy the occasional craving for luxury when they couldn’t afford it themselves. Teachers from lower-income backgrounds do not have this same sense of security. Often, we are the ones responsible for supporting our families, instead of the other way around.

This is especially problematic when considering the fact that teachers often pay out-of-pocket for school supplies that their districts can’t cover. Although the tax deduction for teacher supplies survived the GOP tax bill that was passed last year, covering up to $250 for classroom materials, it falls short of the average of $500 a year that teachers typically spend on school supplies.

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When asked about specific biases against female teachers of color, New York educator Valencia Clay told ThinkProgress in 2016, “There are people who run from the classroom because of those same exact feelings, especially being a teacher of color. There are so few of us that we’re not supported in our role as a teacher of color. My expertise is demeaned. That is something we all have felt at one time or another and this doesn’t stem from appearance, it stems from their own fixed mindset around who should be educating whom.”