Want students to succeed? Hire more teachers who look like them, report says

It wasn’t until she was a student in a doctoral program that Sharon Augustine had a professor who wasn’t white like her.

Augustine, now the chair of teacher education at Mercer University’s Macon campus, thinks that’s a problem, and a number of recent studies back her up on the importance of diversity in the K-12 teacher workforce.

America’s student population is growing more diverse, while most teachers are white. Forty-nine percent of public elementary and secondary school students are individuals of color, compared to just 18 percent of teachers, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Since teachers of color can be positive role models for all students in breaking down negative stereotypes and in preparing students to live and work in a multiracial society, this diversity gap suggests that the U.S. public school system is not reaping the benefits we could experience if we had greater diversity in the teacher workforce,” the report says.

As a whole, the Bibb County school district bucks the national average as well as Georgia’s statistics, with an almost equal number of black and white teachers. While the staff at some county schools mirrors these demographics, there’s an overwhelming racial majority among teachers at other schools.

What’s changed and what hasn’t

The number of white students in K-12 schools in Georgia decreased from 776,763 in 1999 to 710,792 in 2016, while the number of black students increased from 540,823 to 649,322, according to data from the state Department of Education. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population skyrocketed from 56,480 to 267,498, and the Asian population grew from 30,033 to 69,456.

During that same time span, student demographics shifted noticeably in Bibb County’s public schools. The white student population decreased from 7,274 to 4,483, and the number of black students rose slightly from 16,984 to 17,364. Hispanic students increased from 144 to 1,098, and Asian students went from 152 to 432.

Georgia’s teacher population doesn’t reflect the diversity of its pupils. In 2000, about 20 percent of teachers were black, and 79 percent were white. Seventeen years later, 25 percent are black, and 71 percent are white.

The Bibb County school district, on the other hand, has an almost equal number of black and white teachers today. The number of black teachers increased from 609 to 729, while the number of white teachers decreased from 959 in 1999 to 769 in 2016. In reports for both years, only a handful of teachers were Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander.

Central High, Westside High, Howard Middle, and Union, Bernd, Lane and Veterans elementary schools had almost even percentages of black and white teachers on staff in 2016, and they also had majority black student populations. The teacher racial majority matched the student majority at all the other schools, except for Howard High; Vineville Academy; Rutland Middle and High school; Taylor, Heritage and Carter elementary; and Alexander II Magnet School.

Other schools in the district had more divided staff demographics. At Northeast High, Ballard-Hudson Middle, SOAR Academy and Riley, Bruce, Martin Luther King Jr., Williams and Hartley elementary schools, more than 75 percent of the teachers were black.

More than 75 percent of teachers were white at the Academy for Classical Education charter school, Vineville Academy, Howard High and Springdale, Carter, Heritage and Heard elementary schools.

“We would like our teaching staff to reflect our community as much as possible,” said Paige Busbee, the district’s assistant superintendent. “We talk about the importance of trying to have diverse staffs. When principals review applicants for interviews, of course, they don’t have access to race or gender or age or any of those discriminatory qualifiers. They’re calling them in based on their qualifications.”

If principals have interviewed equal candidates and have an opportunity to diversify their staff, they will, Busbee said. But they are looking for the most qualified teacher.

A benefit to all students

“There’s lots of research that does support that a more diverse teaching workforce is helpful for all students,” Augustine said. “It’s only logical that you would want to have a lot of different futures for people to imagine, that you would want to see a lot of different people.”

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said it’s important to note that this is assuming that the teachers are effective. While a diverse staff doesn’t guarantee student success, it can give underrepresented children a boost in their learning.

Teacher diversity is important, regardless of whether a school’s student population is one race or many races, said Emmanuel Little, director of Georgia College’s Call Me MISTER program, which recruits black men to the teaching profession. A diverse group of teachers can provide perspectives that children may not otherwise be exposed to.

It can help break down stereotypes that students may have for people who are similar — and different — from them, Augustine said.

“It’s important for kids who are traditionally underserved to see people in positions of authority who look like them,” Walsh said. “You need to feel like you’re not relegated to the sidelines. You need to feel you’re important.”

Students benefit from having teachers who are similar to them and can understand their culture, circumstances and struggles, Walsh and Augustine said.

That shared background can have a number of positive effects on students, including better grades, fewer suspensions and decreased dropout rates, Little said. There are fewer chances for misunderstandings between teachers and students.

When a black child has even one black teacher in elementary school, his or her chances of dropping out of school drop significantly, Little said. The argument is that teachers of color often have higher expectations for students of color, and then those children are more compelled to try to meet their standards.

Recruiting the next teachers

Early recruitment is key in diversifying the teacher pool.

Students need to be introduced to the possibility of the profession sooner in school, Little said. He’s amazed at the number of young black men he talks to for Call Me MISTER who have never even thought about the prospect of teaching — and how many have never had a black teacher.

Call Me MISTER’S Rising Mister Academy shows 10th- through 12th-graders what it’s like to be a teacher and how they could have an impact.

Teacher education programs need to be strategically involved in the college admissions process, Little said. Mercer University has recruited more diverse candidates to teach science, engineering, math and technology through a fellowship with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, Augustine said.

Students can pursue pre-engineering or pre-medicine tracks in high school, and that needs to happen for teaching too, Augustine said. Georgia’s Career, Technical and Agricultural Education programs offer teaching pathways, but they need to be better and more widely available.

Incentives — including scholarships, better pay and infrastructure — need to be offered to make the profession more attractive, especially to those who historically haven’t chosen the field, Little said. The teaching labor force is competing with a lot of businesses, and teacher salaries are about 20 percent less than other jobs of comparable abilities, Augustine said.

Teachers have the most important job in the world, Little said, and that needs to be emphasized in every way possible to people of all races.

“Part of the problem is that teaching is not always valued to the extent that it should be. That’s been a challenge, making teaching a profession that has the respect and status of other professions,” Augustine said.

Overcoming bias

“One of the things that can be lost in the teacher diversity issue is what can white teachers do,” Little said. “The piece that is missing that still needs to be addressed is making sure there is some way to deal with the implicit bias that some teachers in the workforce may have.”

Employers have to find a way to resolve that bias within the entire teaching force. Otherwise, recruiting more teachers of color isn’t enough to fix the overarching problem, Little said. Teachers have to be given the tools and awareness to do a more equitable job of teaching students of all races, Walsh said.

Right now, black and Latino students are less likely than white students to go into teaching, and they are not finishing college at the same rate as white students, Walsh said.

“There is a huge pressure on schools to solve this problem (of teacher diversity), but unfortunately, there are not enough black and Latino graduates to solve it,” Walsh said. “One of the best things we can do is to improve the education of K-12 students who have been victims of inequitable education. We’re creating a vicious cycle.”

Retention is another huge factor, and white teachers have higher retention rates, Walsh said. A lot of black teachers end up leaving the profession because of the school environment or lack of support and resources, Little said. When there aren’t many other staff members who share a teacher’s background, there’s a greater chance that he or she will feel isolated in the workplace.

Schools have to make sure teachers who are racially underrepresented are able to form community and share and reflect on their experiences, Little said. In addition, Walsh said, teachers need to be paid more to work at challenging schools and have proper support once they’re there.

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