America's Kids Are Getting More Diverse, but Its Teachers Aren't

Having an educator who shares their racial or ethnic background matters to black, Latino, and Asian American students.

(Photo: Don Mason/Getty Images)

Mar 3, 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.

When the U.S. Department of Education announced last year that minority students will outnumber white ones in the nation’s classrooms, it made big headlines, evidence that the country’s complexion is changing. Less newsworthy, however, is the reality that when black and Latino students enter the classroom, odds are a white person will be teaching them.

After decades of neglect, the lack of diversity in the teaching ranks is on the education agenda thanks to a Colorado grade-school student who was looking for a role model. While the diversity of the nation’s public school student body has exploded in the last few decades, the number of African American, Latino, and Asian teachers hasn’t kept pace—despite state and federal programs designed to draw more minorities into the profession.

At the same time, teachers of color are leaving the profession at a drastically higher rate than whites, even though studies show minority kids do better when someone who looks like them is at the whiteboard.

The issue surfaced last year in the Rocky Mountain State when the Colorado legislature passed Aliyah’s Law, named after Aliyah Cook, an African American middle school student who told lawmakers her school had no minority teachers—and it hurt.

Year after year, grade after grade, Cook testified, she yearned for “a role model I could look up to and say, ‘I want to be just like you.’ ”

Statistics back her up: Last year, a Center for American Progress survey showed 82 percent of all public school teachers nationwide are white. By contrast, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans combined made up just 17 percent of the teaching ranks.

A study the Colorado legislature commissioned after hearing from Cook reached a similar conclusion. Although 43 percent of the state’s schoolchildren are minority only about 10 percent of the state’s teachers look like them.

While most dedicated teachers care far more about their students’ minds than their skin color, “it matters for lots of reasons,” says Dr. Gary Orfield, an education law and policy professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and codirector of its Civil Rights Project.

Both white students and students of color “need to see diverse groups of adults working together,” serving not only as role models but behavior models in an integrated society, he says. Moreover, teachers of color can relate to minority students and their struggles “because they’ve lived the same background themselves.”

Ask students themselves, Orfield says, and you'll find that diversity at the chalkboard “actually matters a lot” and can boost self-esteem, which often goes hand in hand with classroom performance.

Several factors have created a majority-white teaching population, Orfield says, including the civil rights movement, which ended completely segregated classrooms and opened up more choices for educated black people. Before then, “some of the only professions open to African American college graduates were in teaching. They really didn’t have any choice,” he says.

Now the stubborn “graduation gap” between minority and white college students, coupled with tougher teacher-qualification standards and a likelihood of a demanding entry-level job, tends to block the on-ramp for minority teachers, says Orfield. A Latino college grad who beats the odds to get a bachelor’s degree still might need more book work to clear the teacher licensing exam, or might have better, higher-paying job options outside the profession.

Yet minorities who clear those hurdles confront new ones on the job, Orfield says, including union seniority rules that give tenured teachers first crack at the most desirable jobs in the best schools. Newly certified black or Latino teachers get the leftovers: positions in struggling schools that generally have fewer resources, higher expectations, students that need more services, and not much help from administrators—a frustrating situation that would test a seasoned pro.

“We send the least experienced teachers into the most challenging environments without the proper support,” Orfield says. Because of the No Child Left Behind law, which requires all schools to meet performance standards, he says, “there are tremendous sanctions on the most unprepared schools. That makes the job less desirable” and turnover more frequent.

In a high-tech era in which the best jobs require a good education—and minorities are in danger of being left behind—the lack of teacher workforce diversity should set off alarm bells at the highest levels, Orfield says. Policy makers, he adds, need a comprehensive strategy that bridges the graduation gap, recruits the best teaching prospects, overhauls retention programs, and rewards them for sticking with what can be a taxing profession.

In the era of Race to the Top and Common Core, however, Orfield acknowledges his prescription for reform is a tough one to fill. “We’re not addressing racial issues in any dimension at this point,” he says. “We’re really in a negative period.”

But he has still has hope: “Nobody in the 1950s thought there would be a civil rights movement in the 1960s.” Teaching is an investment in the future, Orfield adds, and “a matter of human capital.”