Teacher Diversity Matters

Critical Care

Recruitment, retention are part of the complex solution

Story by Del Stover

Urban school boards have struggled for years to improve the diversity of their teaching staffs, so students will have at least some teachers who look like them.

Yet, such efforts don’t seem to have helped all that much. Although the number of students of color increases year after year, the number of minority teachers fails to keep pace.

Why is that?

The simple answer is that there aren’t enough minorities entering the teaching profession. Although teacher recruitment initiatives have doubled the number of minority teachers nationally in recent decades, minorities still account for only 18 percent of today’s teachers.

Those numbers mean it’s nearly impossible for school districts to raise their minority teacher ranks to a level comparable to their students of color, who account for 52 percent of students nationwide—and 80 percent or more of students in the nation’s largest districts.

Yet, this demographic data is not the whole story. Many school districts still could see some improvement in their teacher diversity—if they were smarter and more aggressive in their efforts.

Research shows that many districts make poor strategic decisions in their hiring practices. As serious a concern is the fact that many urban schools also aren’t doing enough to keep the teachers they hire. 

As it stands today, teachers of color are 24 percent more likely to leave the teaching profession than their white counterparts, according to research by Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been studying the issue. That figure is on top of the high turnover rates seen in urban schools nationally.

“The problem isn’t just recruitment for schools,” he says. “It’s a retention problem.”

Strategic hiring

Say what you will about your district’s recruitment efforts, a close look is likely to reveal that efforts to hire teachers of color are not as aggressive—or as strategic—as they could be.

That’s the conclusion that can be drawn from a national study of district hiring practices by the Center for American Progress (CAP), which reported in a 2016 blog that many districts “have not kept pace with the human capital innovations and best practices of other fields.” 

A major failure of school districts is that they “do not strategically recruit diverse candidates for consideration,” CAP argues. Districts fail to develop a close relationship with state teacher colleges, particularly historically black colleges. They don’t travel to enough job fairs or other events that could put them in contact with minority job hunters.

Many districts also are lax about posting job openings on social media, reaching out to potential job applicants in other states, and pursuing other proactive means of recruiting.

“Most districts use hyperlocal and passive recruitment strategies, meaning that they do not actively seek out new candidates from across the country,” the report says.

It seems hard to believe that any urban district would make such missteps, but the reality is that bureaucratic hurdles, cuts in recruitment staff and budgets, staff turnover, and a lack of strategic focus at the top can easily sabotage initiatives to attract teachers of color.

That’s not to say that hard work and smarter decisions will magically solve the problem. After years of making teacher diversity a priority, the Boston Public Schools can point to a teaching staff that’s 41 percent teachers of color—a solid improvement but still far from representative of a student population that’s 86 percent minority.

To reach its level of diversity, the 57,000-student school district has developed a close relationship with teacher colleges in the state. By serving as a training ground for college students who require classroom experience as a condition for graduation, the district also has built an effective pipeline for convincing future graduates to come to the city.

Many urban school districts do the same, but what’s important is that Boston takes full advantage of its efforts. “Boston hires 49 percent of black teacher graduates and 24 percent of Latino educators” who come out of the state’s teacher colleges, says Ceronne Daly, the district’s managing director of recruitment, cultivation, and diversity programs.

Growing your own

Another key strategy that’s helping Boston is the timing of its hiring. In 2009, the district hired 23 percent of its teachers in the two weeks prior to the start of school, and another 13 percent were hired after the first day of the school year. Such late hiring meant that many sought-after minority teachers already had left the job market.

A few years ago, however, Boston revamped its hiring priorities and began offering jobs to hard-to-find teachers, such as those certified in math, science, and special education—as well a minority job candidates. District recruiters, who realized that state colleges weren’t producing enough minority graduates to meet demand, also began attending more out-of-state job fairs.

In Tennessee, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools have embraced similar strategies—and gone a step farther when it comes to early hiring. It has begun to make job offers as early as November, primarily to student teachers working in the district and expecting to graduate in the spring, says Amber Tyus, the district’s director of talent acquisition.

Yet, as teacher colleges, Teach for America, and alternative certification programs are not producing enough minority teachers to meet the needs of urban schools, district leaders are experimenting with local “grow your own” programs to bolster their teaching ranks.

In Aurora, Colorado, for example, school officials initiated a program that provides financial support and a mentor to noncertified staff, with an emphasis on minorities, who wish to enter a teacher preparation program and make the shift to the classroom.

Boston has a “High School to Teacher Program” that introduces high school students to the teaching professional, gives them college prep courses, tuition assistance, and sponsors visits to teacher colleges. Eighty-seven percent of participants are black or Hispanic.

Seeking to attract more black male teachers into its preschool program, the District of Columbia school system’s Leading Men Fellowship has recruited high school graduates, ages 18 to 24, and has them working in preschools to pique their interest in pursuing a career in education. They receive professional training and a mentor, visit teacher colleges, and are provided tuition support if they enroll in a teacher college or alternative certification program.

Of the first cohort of 10 fellows, one has been hired by the district and six are pursuing early childhood degrees or considering an alternative certification program, says Jennifer Nelson, director of student empowerment and equity programs.

“Once they see the impact of working with kids, for 70 percent it has changed their minds about what they can and want to do with their lives,” she says. 

A helping hand

After all of this effort to recruit teachers, urban school leaders are well aware that they need to work just as hard to hold onto them. Yet, research makes clear that urban school districts make some critical mistakes in their efforts.

Poor working conditions play a significant role in the high turnover rate of these teachers, studies find. Too often, minority teachers are disproportionately assigned to high-poverty, low-performing schools where they must contend with challenging classroom management issues, limited resources, chronic administrator turnover, and other negative experiences.

It doesn’t help that these schools often fail to provide adequate support to new teachers, as well. Too many teachers report that they struggle with such issues as classroom management and lesson planning, yet they felt isolated and abandoned to overcome their challenges on their own, concluded “On the Path to Equity: Improving the Effectiveness of Beginning Teachers,” a 2014 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE).

“Short-term, replacement strategies,” the report says, “treat teachers like interchangeable, expendable parts rather than as young professionals meriting sustained investments in their development as part of a community of expert, experienced, teachers.”

Urban school districts are trying to respond to this problem, with many urban districts looking to offer training on classroom management, developing lesson plans, and other practical instructional issues that are particularly challenging for new teachers.

In Nashville, where teachers in their first three years account for nearly half of all teachers who leave the district, school leaders this year held a “new teacher academy” that featured inspirational talks, breakout sessions, hands-on simulations, and networking opportunities to better prepare their new hires for the year ahead.

“We also paired them with a quality mentor who touches base with them throughout the year,” Tyus says.

Research also shows that new teachers respond well to opportunities for leadership and collaboration. Inviting teachers to play a role in school decision-making, serve on an advisory group, or engage with peers through learning communities all make a difference, the AEE report recommends. 

“Teachers are likely to stay in schools where they view their colleagues as partners with them in the work of improving the whole school and the conditions are well-suited for them to have the potential to be effective.”

All of this is on the mind of school leaders in Boston, who are working to improve the training, supports, mentorship program, and more. Everyone recognizes that the city is surrounded by more affluent, suburban school districts more than happy to lure city teachers to the suburbs, Daly says.

Unique needs

Such support will go a long way to improving teacher retention rates overall, but some educators say school leaders need to recognize that teachers of color confront issues that their white peers do not. This reality should not be ignored.

As these teachers are disproportionately assigned to some of the most challenging schools, issues of classroom management and a shortage of supplies are sometimes of particular concern. Interviews conducted by the Albert Shanker Institute found that minority educators also complained about the criminalization of school disciplinary policies regarding students of color—and of colleagues falling victim to racial stereotypes in their behavior toward their minority peers.

Some black male teachers complain they are recruited to serve as de facto disciplinarians, called upon to deal with misbehaving students by colleagues or administrators.

“Support work has to be differentiated” to make an impact on minority teacher retention, says Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Education and teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency Program. 

“It can’t just be the same type of support because, just as we differentiate learning for students based on their living conditions, we also need to do that for teachers based on their unique working conditions.”

Some school districts are beginning to do just that, launching specialized programs for teachers of color. In the District of Columbia, the district’s Male Educators of Color collaborative seeks to create, Nelson says, “opportunities for fellowship, community, professional development, and the sharing of best practices among this target group.”

These efforts are likely to be welcomed—and to lead to some improvement in the recruitment and retention of minority teachers. And that may be all that can be hoped. Given today’s demographics, urban school boards, particularly those serving high-minority student populations, can only improve their teacher diversity so much.

Del Stover ( is senior editor of American School Board Journal.


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