Almost 80% of teachers in public K12 schools are white. Nearly 50% of students are not. Despite state and district initiatives to hire more minority teachers, there is still a predominantly homogeneous teacher workforce. Why?
At first, the response is to double down on recruiting measures: get more university students of color in education degrees, offer streamlined licensing, and promote minority classified staff (para-educators and teacher aides) from within. While these attempts are noble and, in the case of in-house promotions, a good idea, they will not solve the underlying reason why diversity among teachers is still lacking.
To draw more talented, educated, and ambitious minorities to teaching, we need to make the profession more attractive. While seen as a “noble” profession, teaching is undervalued in our country. Compared to other similar graduates, those entering teaching pay a penalty economically. Increasing pay overall is one step in the right direction.
Although raising salaries can help recruit teachers, the problem often lies with what happens to minority teachers after hiring. Consistently, black and Hispanic teachers are more likely to work in low-income schools. There are two reasons for this.
First, districts work on the assumption that students learn more when their teacher is of the same race. Therefore, school districts try to place minority teachers in schools with high percentages of minority students. But, these schools are also more likely to have high rates of students living in poverty, lower test scores, and fewer resources than majority white schools.¹
Another cause is the use of in-house promotion strategies. In the case of Hispanic para-professionals, many work in schools with large percentages of English language learning students. The ability to translate and speak two languages shuttles these employees to areas that will take advantage of this skill. Districts with “grow your own” programs hire paras in schools where they have had the most experience and know the administrators doing the hiring. The result is minority teachers more often work in low-income neighborhood schools with lower test scores and fewer resources.
Given this, think about a minority university student who may be the first in their family to attend college. Consider a student whose family has little generational wealth and a smaller financial cushion to fall on if they don’t succeed after college. Consider a bright, ambitious, knowledgeable student who wants to raise their status financially and professionally. Now reflect on the working conditions such students would likely encounter if they went into teaching.
Although many teachers work for intrinsic reasons — forsaking wealth and job prestige for meaningful work, not all recent graduates can afford such employment. Teaching is a stressful, underappreciated job that pays little for the time and money required to get a degree. Education policy makers shouldn’t expect graduates to sacrifice their economic and professional ambitions in order to teach, especially those students who shoulder historic discrimination’s financial and social repercussions.
If districts want to attract more minority hires, they need to not only raise salaries; they need to make their working conditions better. Teachers in low-income neighborhood schools often have more pressure to raise test scores and, consequently, less professional autonomy. By and large, teachers in these schools make less money. In addition, high-poverty schools experience higher administrator turnover, struggle more with finding substitute teachers, and hire more novice teachers, forcing other more experienced teachers to fill in the gaps. Students in these schools deal with issues outside of school that compound daily struggles in the classroom, making teaching more challenging. All these factors can dramatically affect staff morale, leaving teachers at these schools frustrated, exhausted, and underpaid. If this is the everyday experience of minority teachers, why would they want to go into, or even stay, in teaching?
By primarily focusing on standard recruitment strategies, school districts are missing an essential piece of the puzzle. What matters is what happens after hiring. Research shows that while new hires tend to be more diverse, this diversity doesn’t last. As teachers gain experience, the percentage of minority teachers decreases.
Frequent turnover of minority staff thus contributes to inconsistencies in high-poverty schools, making working conditions even more difficult. If this cycle is not interrupted, no amount of “diversity hiring initiatives” will make a difference.
One way to improve the working conditions of high-poverty schools is to make entry into teaching more difficult, not less.² Although this seems antithetical to maximized recruitment, studies have shown that teachers who graduate from demanding teacher preparatory programs improve the quality of K12 education tremendously. As outcomes improve, the quality of the work environment improves as well. In countries where teaching is highly regarded (and well paid), there is a higher bar of entry into the profession and better working conditions. It makes sense to assume that if the bar is raised, pay must be raised. Districts can be more selective, and attract those students who wish to have not only a solid financial future, but a well-respected profession with satisfying working conditions. Currently, it may be unlikely that such change can occur in the United States; nevertheless, it can be a worthy goal that will improve not only schools but the quality and diversity of teachers.
“The root cause of the problem is a longstanding overall lack of respect for teachers and their craft, which is reflected by decades of low pay hyperscrutiny and poor working conditions.” — How Did We Get Here? The Decay of the Teaching Profession
If public schools want to make their teaching staff more inclusive, districts need to focus on four things:
- Focus on improving working conditions in high-poverty schools.
- Refrain from grouping minority teachers in high-poverty struggling schools.
- Raise the status of the teaching profession by elevating the standards for entry, not lowering them.
- Pay teachers commensurate with other professional salaries.
In other words, if we make teaching a more attractive profession in which one can achieve a good standard of living and professional dignity, we will attract and keep minority teachers.
¹ Not all majority-white schools are privileged. Students in rural schools (no matter their racial makeup) suffer from a lack of resources, lower test scores, less qualified staff, and fewer post-graduate opportunities. This fact is often overlooked and underreported. See Little School on the Prairie: The Overlooked Plight of Rural Education.
² The current trend of “reducing barriers to entry” for new teachers not only isn’t effective in retaining minorities, it fails to address the source of the problem, which is pay and work conditions. (Ironically, this practice may also lead to more underqualified teachers working in predominantly minority schools.) This is summed up by the authors of How Did We Get Here? The Decay of the Teaching Profession, “The root cause of the problem is a longstanding overall lack of respect for teachers and their craft, which is reflected by decades of low pay hyperscrutiny and poor working conditions.”