a black male teacher stands near his desk and smiles at the camera

Photo credit: MIX AND MATCH STUDIO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

When Ceronne Daly returned to Boston Public Schools in 2012, she was tasked with developing a program to recruit and retain minority teachers and administrators. In a state where 93 percent of all teachers are white and competition for teachers of color is intense, the task was immense.

“We don’t have a challenge in recruiting staff for the district,” says Daly, the director of diversity programs in the district’s human resources office. “Our interest is in recruiting and cultivating a racially diverse workforce. That is where our challenge lies and what all of our strategy is focused on.”

Today, more than 40 percent of Boston’s teachers are minorities: 22 percent Black and 17 percent Latino or Asian. But the twin challenge Daly faces—not just recruiting but also retaining qualified teachers of color—is felt in school districts across the nation.

Developing a racially diverse workforce has long been cited as crucial to improving student performance, especially among Black and Latino youth. Studies show all students benefit when they have access to teachers of color, but this is especially true for minority children. They have better academic performance, improved graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college when taught by teachers of color.

Now, as districts grapple with the prospect of student learning loss in the wake of COVID-19, especially among minorities whose lives have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, the need for more teachers of color is more acute than ever.

“We can’t afford to lose ground on some of the significant steps that states and districts have made since the last recession to invest in some high-retention pathways into teaching and to increase the diversity of the teacher workforce,” says Tara Kini, chief of staff and director of state policy for the Learning Policy Institute. “Trying not to backslide is an important consideration for districts, especially in the wake of the pandemic and in the heightened awareness around racial justice issues that have affected students of color.”

A long way to go

Since 1990, the number of teachers of color has doubled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but the needle still has a long way to move. While more than half of public school students are nonwhite, only 18 percent of teachers are. Fewer college students are pursuing careers in education. The number of education degrees earned dropped 15 percent from 2008 to 2015, according to a 2019 study by the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, the turnover rate for teachers of color remains 20 percent to 30 percent higher than for whites.

“As a country, we’ve been increasing the percentage of teachers of color over time, but we’re not necessarily reaping the benefits of that because the turnover rate is so high,” says Kini, co-author of a 2018 study on diversifying the teacher workforce. “You have to focus not only on recruiting but on retention, and really supporting them so they want to stay.”

Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, spent a year on the road talking to students and educators across the U.S. He returned from the experience believing that minority recruitment and retention should be a state and national priority. But doing so, he notes, will require policymakers at all levels to ask some tough questions about how students and staff are treated.

“So many things work against teachers of color,” says Robinson, who has led minority recruitment and retention efforts for Virginia’s Richmond Public Schools since August. “It doesn’t matter if you recruit more, if you’re still losing teachers of color, you’re pouring water into a bucket that has a hole in it.”

In Richmond, 90 percent of the 24,000 students are children of color and 70 percent are Black. Just over 10 percent of the district’s 2,200 teachers are Black males. Robinson, a history teacher who was working at a juvenile justice center when he won the national award, says the district needs to provide more professional development and opportunities for advancement and stop “overburdening men of color with security-type details” within schools.

In terms of recruitment, Robinson says districts should look at the experiences of minority students now in school, offer more scholarship money for those who go into education, and make a commitment to review every policy with an unbiased eye.

“Let’s start with how they were treated in the classroom as students and go from there,” he says. “For many students of color, their worst experiences were in school, so we’re asking them, ‘Why don’t you come and work in a place that traumatized you?’”

At the same time, Robinson notes, students interested in teaching become disenchanted by the cost of college and the loans many will face when they finish school. He also points to tests such as the SAT, ACT, and Praxis that he believes have “cultural biases” that prevent minority students from seeking higher education or a teaching career.

“Going into teaching is not a smart financial move for many of these kids, and we’ve got to find a way to incentivize them,” he says. “There’s an invisible tax that goes along with being a teacher of color because we don’t understand what so many of these kids are up against, or how they are afraid that when they come into a school, they will be the only minority teacher there.”

Grow your own

Katie Clymer went into education on the reformer track. An alumna of Teach for America, she took part in a Broad Foundation residency before moving into her current position as the director of talent acquisition for Denver Public Schools.

“I’m not pointing fingers by any means, but the reform movement quite frankly has villainized teachers,” says Clymer, who has been in her position for five years. “The belief was the key to increase student achievement was to hold teachers more accountable, with the implication being that they were not held accountable or not doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

The result, she says, was low morale and frustration among teachers “who feel like they’re being held accountable for all of society’s ills.” That, in part, was the reason Denver went through a contentious teacher strike in early 2019.

“Holding people accountable is a really fine line, and I don’t know in education that we’ve walked that line very well. More and more and more is being placed on schools, and the funding to do that has not necessarily been following it,” Clymer says. “It’s exhausting for teachers, and who would want to go into that to get paid next to nothing?”

Today, Clymer says she struggles with a “targeted teacher shortage” that has the district continually looking for experienced math, science, special education, and bilingual educators. The district’s student population is 75 percent minority, compared to 25 percent of the teaching staff.

a little girl outside smiles at the camera

A middle school teacher listens as her students rehearse. Photo credit: Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

The district’s low starting pay makes the challenge of recruiting teachers of color even more difficult, Clymer says, but Denver has had success with a Grow Your Educator Program that others are using as well. Denver also has developed pipeline programs for paraprofessionals and volunteers who are interested in teaching. An equity team leads teachers through a monthly independent study to allow teachers of color to engage and learn from their colleagues.

“We’re smarter about where we’re spending our money, more strategic. We were going outside the state to recruit folks to come to Denver, but we found it wasn’t an easy sell to get people to leave a community they were deeply entrenched in,” she says. “Relocating was expensive and leaving something they know to go somewhere new and different wasn’t that appealing. So, we’ve made a shift, looking within our ranks, and now we’re working to help our students and families become the lead teachers in our classrooms.”

All the way through the pipeline

Since 1974, Boston has been under a federal court order requiring its teaching force to be at least 25 percent Black, a threshold the district has never met. At the time the order was issued, the district’s student body was 60 percent white, a number that has fallen to 14 percent in 2020-21.

Today, Boston employs 47 percent of all Black teachers in Massachusetts, as well as 23 percent of those who are Asian and Latino. But Daly is quick to say the district “can’t recruit our way into increasing” more minority teachers.

Instead, Daly says, Boston has opted for a multitiered approach that includes nine programs that focus on developing a more diverse workforce. The programs concentrate on three primary areas: recruitment, cultivation, and diversity.

“Our approach is not either/or. It’s both/and,” Daly says. “We don’t shy away from claiming we’re interested in workforce diversity. We don’t think it’s a bad thing. Your students know that there’s not diversity of teachers. Your staff knows it. The question is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Boston has partnered with the top three teacher preparation programs in the state, and candidates of color “are made aware that we are interested in their peers and them,” Daly says. The district also has programs that support paraprofessionals and community members who want to become certified teachers, with free study groups led by current staff. A High School to Teacher program identifies youth as early as seventh grade and provides support for the students through college; anyone who graduates from the program will receive a job offer from the district.

“The pipeline for diverse educators is not a graduate school challenge only,” she says. “It’s all the way through the pipeline.”

a black female music teacher smiles at her students out of frame

Denise Pearson, who recently finished a five-year Project Pipeline Repair study for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, agrees. She says districts must work with colleges and universities to develop dual enrollment programs that promote education as a career.

“We tend to separate it out. Higher education is over here, and K-12 is over here,” Pearson says. “But you’ve got the same students funneling through these respective silos. We should look at what it takes to become a teacher using an equity lens. If we believe the playing field is not level for students in communities of color and that they don’t have access to the same quality of teachers, what’s the likelihood that they will graduate college-ready? And if they are college-ready, what’s the likelihood they will be successful in a teacher prep program?”

Lean in to solutions

What can your school districts do to bring in more teachers of color, and more importantly, keep them? Kini points to residency programs in which a teacher has a mentor for a full year. Districts also can provide financial support for paraprofessionals and others who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, as long as the person commits to teaching in the district.

“These types of ‘grow-your-own’ programs are being used in many states, and they’re something school boards and districts can lean into,” Kini says. “So many teachers of color are coming into the profession through alternative certification, so strong mentoring and induction programs are also necessary.”

Kini says districts also should review their hiring practices with an eye toward “the climate you’ve created in your district and how supportive it is for students of color.” Districts that partner with outside groups to promote equity and diversity also are finding success in recruitment and retention.

Daly says one of the most effective programs in Boston is also one of the least expensive. The district has affinity groups for all staff of color. The monthly meetings, which were held at local restaurants (and since the pandemic started, over Zoom), are informal spaces without agendas.

“The space is theirs to discuss whatever they want,” Daly says, noting prospective employees are invited to attend. “This work is about relationships. People need to know who they’re coming to work with and for, and these groups give you an opportunity to experience that.”

Some districts may be cautious about meetings without agendas, but Daly says bringing people together—especially those who may feel isolated in their schools—is more important. She notes that creating a bond among your teachers will help keep them in your district.

“Convening teachers and being authentic about your goals and what you’re trying to do is needed now more than ever,” she says. “Our strategy can’t be that we don’t want anyone to leave. Our strategy is focused on why you stay. You stay because these groups are real. You stay because you are being heard and respected and treated professionally. That’s all anyone wants.”

Around NSBA

a boy being tutored at a desk

Black Students in the Condition of Education 2020

The Center for Public Education selected relevant data from the Condition of Education to help school leaders not only monitor the educational progress of Black students, but also rethink what public schools can do better for Black students.