The Classroom Racial Gap Hits an All-Time High

Minority students became the majority this year, but most teachers are still white. Policymakers are seeking for ways to get and keep more minority teachers.
by | March 2015

When Aliyah Cook was in the third grade, she wrote a letter to the principal of her suburban Denver school, asking why the school had no black teachers. Now a junior high student, Cook is getting a response -- only this time it’s from state lawmakers.

The Colorado Legislature last year passed Aliyah’s Law, which called for a study of diversity in the state’s education workforce. What the newly released report found was that while 43 percent of Colorado schoolkids are minorities, only 10 percent of the state’s teachers are. That’s a problem, according to the report: “A major challenge in the U.S. education system, including Colorado’s education system, is the mismatch between the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation’s overall student population and that of the teacher workforce.”

The law’s sponsors plan to submit legislation this session aimed at improving recruitment of minority educators starting in middle school, and providing financial aid for minorities who want to teach. Other potential steps could involve mentorship programs and incentives for district leaders to develop their own retention plans for hanging on to existing minority educators. “The people doing the hiring have to be invested,” says Rep. Dan Pabon, the House speaker pro tem.

The gap between the racial makeup of America’s public schools and the people who lead their classrooms hasn’t gone unnoticed. But in recent years it’s drawn increasing attention. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this school year marks the first time ever that the student population of the nation’s schools will be majority minority. But only 18.1 percent of American teachers are minorities, the Colorado report says. Research has shown a number of benefits from promoting diversity among educators, from higher academic gains to better graduation rates.

There are less-tangible advantages, too. Students with a diverse set of teachers may better appreciate and understand different racial and ethnic perspectives. And minority educators can serve as mentors for minority students.

The overall growth of the number of minority teachers has actually outpaced that of white educators over the past two decades, but they’re also leaving at a much faster rate, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers. For that reason, retention is key, says Esther Quintero, a senior fellow at the education-focused Albert Shanker Institute. Minority teachers may face tougher working conditions, lower pay and a self-reinforcing sense of isolation. But the real reasons behind the low retention rates aren’t fully known, Quintero says. “We need a better understanding of why teachers of color are leaving and then policies and programs that address those specific reasons. There are very few of those.”

Making inroads can be very hard. Illinois, for example, has funded a multimillion-dollar teacher diversity program for a decade but has little to show for it. The state has spent about $20 million while retaining about 80 graduates, a recent Chicago Tribune investigation found. It’s a problem that state higher education officials are trying to solve by improving the candidates entering the program while also improving the supports those teachers receive once they’re in the classroom. The state board of higher education has broadened the pool of applicants for the program, including accepting mid-career professionals who may not have a background in education.

The real problem seems to be scale. A diversity program that may work in one school or one district is much harder to implement on a statewide level, says Erika Hunt, a researcher and project director for the Illinois State Action for Education Leadership Project. “A lot of colleges have scholarships, so a lot of these pieces are in place. And you can see a lot of places that are already doing this work on a smaller scale that are effective. But the question is how we do it bigger.”