This Is the Moment to Tackle Teacher Diversity

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In a new report, the Education Trust calls on the nation’s schools to broaden their hiring practices to include more diverse teachers. In “The State of Black Teachers and School Leaders,” a new report from the Education Trust, researchers examined the ratio of black teachers in schools and state education agencies, and found that the number of black teachers has decreased dramatically in the last 30 years. Whereas black teachers made up 12% of the overall teacher workforce in 1987, by 2013, that number had dropped to 8%. The Education Trust, a nonprofit that aims to increase educational opportunities for all students regardless of race, income, or background, is working to close this gap by calling on school systems to do more to attract and retain diverse teachers.

For diverse students in American schools, seeing teachers who look like them can be a powerful motivator to stay in school. That idea is at the heart of a national campaign to increase the number of teachers of color. But it’s not an easy fix.

President Biden has turned the spotlight on our nation’s education system, recently announcing plans for massive investments in education from kindergarten through college, in addition to the looming arrival of billions of dollars in federal aid for COVID, which will require districts to quickly implement massive hiring and staffing policies.

Shall we use this moment to continue complaining about the unjust policies of the past? Or can we take this opportunity to dismantle the historical practices that have kept teachers of color out of the classroom?

The Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, is himself a colored teacher. He expressed a desire to support diversity among teachers and educators. He must now take the lead in creating a diverse and representative teacher corps that more closely resembles the students they serve.

It has been proven that all students benefit from diversity among teachers. Although our public schools have a majority of students of color, nearly 80% of their teachers are white. Meanwhile, research is growing that shows the undeniable benefits of teachers of color in the classroom – especially for black students.

There will be pressure to wait with this issue. Although President Biden’s plan for American families includes $9 billion for teacher training, they will say that the leaks in the education system that keep people of color, especially black people, out of the teaching profession should be shelved while we deal with the education problems associated with the pandemic.

But the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated these leaks. Before the pandemic, we were already losing black boys before they finished high school – now we’re going to lose even more. Before the pandemic, first-generation college students were already struggling to survive – now they’re having an even harder time. Before the pandemic, graduates in debt refused to teach. Can more people say no now?

I remember a phrase my parents used when they were members of the Black Panther Party: Make the most of your time.

That’s why I, along with more than 50 education justice organizations and thousands of advocates and educators, am calling on Dr. Cardona to make teacher diversity a central part of the plan to rebuild our schools after the pandemic. The reasons for the shortage of highly qualified black and other teachers of color are complex, historically determined, and persistent. Our response must be equally comprehensive and coherent. We need to start early in the lives of our young people, build on what we know works and use data to account for outcomes.

As Minister Cardona said, diversity is already present in our classrooms, but we need to show the next generation that teaching is a desirable career choice. It starts with high school students. States and districts may offer career and technical education programs and dual enrollment opportunities in education, school leadership, and school social work. There is no better time to inspire our young people to choose careers than when they are surrounded by educational role models.

Higher education can also do more. Graduate students interested in teaching may be encouraged to pursue a dual degree or even a specialization in education while pursuing other knowledge. Colleges and universities can also provide a seamless transition for students entering a community college. It is all too common for aspiring educators to transfer to a four-year university and find that their credits do not count toward their teaching degree.

We need to promote pathways that enable teachers to acquire solid content knowledge while instilling a mindset for culturally responsive practices and pedagogical skills. We also need to make teacher education more affordable by offering financial aid in the form of scholarships, expanding eligibility for TEACH scholarships, and offering more generous loans. Let’s make it easy for interested students to enter the profession. Once they are in, we must make the pathway to education financially attractive and intellectually and culturally safe for black and brown students and other marginalized communities.

Stimulus funds provide an excellent opportunity to begin scaling up the best of our current practices. We can expand Title II to include teachers in training and teachers in education. We can invest in successful teacher residency programs to attract and retain non-traditional teachers.

Secretary Cardona can also use his megaphone to strengthen an already rich educational tradition in communities of color. For example, programs like the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy and the Liberation Academy, which are run by my organization, the Center for Black Educator Development, are based on the strong practices developed by anti-racist teacher-learners in public programs like the Children’s Defense Fund and the Freedom Schools of Philadelphia. These traditions are not new, but they are not widespread. It’s time to change that.

We must also be firm. Minister Cardona spoke about the importance of data and transparency to ensure that the new policy delivers on its promise. Collecting, sharing, and analyzing information about who teaches in America’s classrooms is a key responsibility of his department, and I applaud his determination to hold states and districts accountable for recruiting and retaining more black and brown teachers.

So don’t make us wait. This is a good time to address the issue of teacher diversity. Let’s take the chance.

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About the Author: Prateek

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