The Next Einstein Project: Close the Black & Latino teachers gap

black-latino-teachers-gapIn order to build the pipeline of Black and Hispanic talent, as a society we also need to bring more Black and Hispanic Americans into the teaching profession. Why is that so crucial?

As explained in this piece by José Luis Vilson, the vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust and a teacher of color himself, it’s not because White teachers can’t teach students of color. In fact, he notes that many of his own White teachers were excellent. Indeed, as he reiterates, “teachers of all races, backgrounds, sexes, and ages have proven to be effective educators.”

The issue is that the dearth of diversity in the K-12 teaching profession matters, especially given America’s changing demographics. The diversity of teacher workforce is far from reflecting the diversity of the children being taught—with real consequences. For one thing, Vilson explains the impact of diverse role models on children—of all races and ethnicities:

…when our students see more black or Latino sports figures populating a multimillion-dollar basketball court or football field, yet see only one black or Latino teacher in their whole grade, or two or three in their whole school, then they’re probably less inspired to take their own education, inside and outside the classroom, seriously.

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Just as integration by socioeconomic status can promote racial diversity while narrowing the achievement gap between low-income and more-affluent students, increasing the percentage of teachers of color would narrow what I call the vision gap—the gap that can arise in how low-income and more-affluent students view themselves as future professionals.

After all, children can’t be what they can’t see. By hiring more teachers of color (in particular, those who grew up economically challenged, like I did), students of color can form relationships with professionals who may share their cultural background and possess powerful narratives for success.

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Educators of color can also make a positive impact on white students. Often, the onus of developing cultural competence falls solely on teachers of color. A more diverse teaching population can help white students interact with and understand people of different races and cultures. It would also enable them to see people of color in positions of authority. Exposure to peers and adults with different experiences and worldviews helps all children develop empathy for others and assess their own humanity.

Empirical research studies also tell us that teacher expectations matter because the background of the teacher interacts with the student’s in subtle but powerful ways. As The Washington Post reminded, “Black students, for example, are more likely to be identified as gifted if they are taught by black teachers. Black teachers are more likely to believe that a black student will graduate from high school and go to college than white teachers evaluating the very same black student.” By reducing teacher turnover, which drains millions of dollars from large urban school district every year, diversity in the teaching workforce benefits teachers and school districts as well.

Unfortunately, the shortage of Black and Latinos in the teaching profession is stark: students of color comprise half of all public school students, but fewer than 1 in 5 teachers belong to a racial minority group.

What can we do about it? Recruiting more Black and Hispanic Americans to become teachers is a start, but in a recent report, the Brookings Institution estimated that merely stepping up hiring won’t be enough to close the teacher workforce diversity gap. As educators of color are disproportionately pushed out due to low pay and job stress, those leaks in the teacher pipeline need to be plugged as well. That is, a dramatic and sustained movement is needed. The good news is that promising efforts such as Chicago’s “Grow Your Own Teachers” initiative show that such investments can pay off.

For more information, see “We cannot simply hire our way to a more diverse teacher workforce,” Brookings Institution (2016); “The troubling shortage of Latino and black teachers — and what to do about it,” The Washington Post (2016); “Why so many people are worried about teacher diversity, in two charts,” The Washington Post (2016); “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” Albert Shanker Institute (2015); “The Need For More Teachers of Color,” American Educator (2015); and “Why Teachers of Color Quit,” The Atlantic (2013).