Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Ending the Revolving Door of Minority Teachers

December 5, 2017
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Ending the Revolving Door of Minority Teachers
Education advocates have found success recruiting male teachers of color, but the next step is creating a working environment that encourages them to stick around. Photo by Ariel Skelley/Getty Images
It's not enough to recruit a diverse teacher population; you've got to retain them, too.

New York might be one of America’s most racially diverse cities, but its teacher pool is decidedly not.

In a city where 85 percent of the public school students are racial minorities, 60 percent of the teachers serving them are not. Only a quarter are male, and of that group, less than 8 percent are men of color — a concern because, as multiple studies have shown, the more diverse the teaching population, the better the outcome for minority students. In one such study, for example, black teachers were more likely to have higher expectations of black students compared to white teachers.

To help remedy that stark disparity in student-teacher demographics, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration launched the NYC Men Teach initiative in 2015, vowing to put an additional 1,000 men of color on course to become teachers over three years.

But the city may be focusing too much on recruitment rather than retention, some education advocates say.

On the surface, the initiative has come close to achieving its goal. According to WYNC, Men Teach has recruited some 900 non-white men to the profession, with 350 of them currently employed in the school system. The problem? There is little proof that they will remain in those jobs for the long haul.

“Historically, financing has gone to initiatives that focus on recruitment, and there has been little focus on keeping teachers of color in the field once we get them there,” says Cassandra Herring, executive director and CEO of BranchEd, a new organization that works with minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, on analyzing recruitment and retention practices.

Herring points to a landmark 1983 report by the U.S. Department of Education, called A Nation At Risk, that boldly outlined the problems within America’s school system, including the lack of diversity among teachers. In the wake of the report’s publication, programs that recruited minority candidates surged, resulting in a 104 percent increase in teachers of color between the 1987 and 2011 school years. Those numbers have since have dropped.

Source: National Center for Education StatisticsLeslie White

Similarly in New York, which counts 75,000 teachers and 1.1 million students in the district, the number of male minority teachers had been steadily ticking upward until recently. By 2015, the number of black male teachers had shrunk to less than 4 percent, a drop of one percentage point since 2004. The ranks of male Asian and Latino teachers, meanwhile, have held steady at around 3 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively. But during the same period the city has seen a surge in the city’s Hispanic population, according to data collected by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

“I remember I asked a principal, ‘What is your graduation rate?’ and she answered, ‘Well, a lot of our students come from the housing projects,’” said former U.S. Secretary of Education John King in a panel discussion last year at the University of Southern California. “People just give up on these kids because of their backgrounds.”

In October of 2016, the Obama administration tried to address the issue by revising federal regulations to make it easier to be accepted into teacher preparedness programs. The hope was that doing so would attract more diverse talent, but to critics it was a slap in the face.

“It’s such a tremendously insulting move to African Americans and Latinos to say, ‘We want you to come into the profession so badly, and the only way we can make that happen is if we have no standards.’ I can’t imagine what that does to someone’s psyche,” Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told the Hechinger Report. “We do a tremendous disservice to think that the way to diversify the teaching profession is to lower the bar.”

By focusing solely on attracting minorities to teaching, the government and outside organizations do a disservice to the ones who are already in the classroom, argue critics. The numbers bear this out: Black and Latino teachers leave their jobs at higher rates than their white coworkers.

One reason could be the conditions in which minority teachers find themselves. A report by the Brookings Institution found that these teachers are siphoned into schools with more curriculum problems and poor funding, resulting in longer hours compared to white teachers in more well-funded schools. Take Teach for America, for example; turnover among its participants has been a consistent problem for the nonprofit, which trains and places high-performing college graduates into some of America’s most problematic schools.

The good news is that some programs, like BranchEd where Herring works, are starting to direct efforts at keeping minorities in the profession by exposing prospective teachers to other aspects of the job, such as what it’s like working with poverty-stricken kids in underfunded schools. In addition, BranchEd partners with educator-training programs that enroll the most non-white candidates, such as historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions.

The black, Latino and Asian teachers that graduate from MSIs, says Herring, are staying in their jobs longer than their traditionally educated peers. She credits the success of these institutions to a “special sauce” that emphasizes student outcomes and supporting students’ emotional integrity rather than focusing solely on course and curriculum development. Through BranchEd, Herring is sharing that recipe of success with other organizations, which includes giving candidates a trial-by-fire lesson in teaching a class and then getting feedback — a model she calls “learning by doing.”

“The problem [of hiring and retaining minority teachers] is a bit gargantuan, and every program and school is trying to address it by taking different approaches, but we need to become more unified,” she says. “We see success in what we’re doing at BranchEd, which is hoping to simplify the MSI model for other institutions to learn from.”

But despite the efforts of organizations like NYC Men Teach and BranchEd, advocates are worried that the progress that’s being made won’t be enough, at least in the immediate future.

“We think of the work of transforming the field of education as generational; it’s not a shift that happens within a year or five years,” says Peter Fishman, vice president of strategy with Deans for Impact. “It takes 10, 15, 30 years before you see the true impact.”

Nonetheless, he says, there is hope that current teachers of color will at least spark aspiring students to continue in the career path of their favorite teacher. “When you achieve [teacher diversity], you’re impacting one student of color and then inspiring them to do the same, and so forth. It becomes a bit of a virtuous cycle.”

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