Though the students who make up America's classrooms are increasingly non-white, schools' teaching staff doesn't reflect that racial diversity. According to data from the 2015 American Community Survey, just under half of students ages 5-17 were racial minorities, while nearly 80% of teachers were white. The teacher population is, as a whole, less racially diverse than the overall workforce — and likely to stay that way. A 2019 study from the Center for American Progress found one-quarter fewer black and Latino teacher candidates enrolled in teacher preparation programs in 2018 than in 2010. This gap has proven difficult to narrow, even as doing so would improve minority students' educational experiences.
How Diverse Teachers Impact Student Performance
Is the lack of teacher diversity a problem? Educational researchers say yes. Evidence shows students of color score higher on standardized tests of mathematics and reading skills when taught by teachers of their race; the effects are magnified for black students taught by black teachers.
Minority teachers also contribute to positive behavioral outcomes for minority and low-income students. Racial mismatch between students and teachers has been associated with decreased attendance and increased suspensions for non-white students. A 2017 study, published as a discussion paper by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, found black students taught exclusively by black teachers were 2 to 3 percentage points less likely to be suspended or expelled from school than if they'd been taught solely by white teachers. Having a minority teacher at the head of a classroom seems to ensure more minority students remain engaged in learning.
This can have substantial effects throughout a student's learning career. Researchers found that interaction with at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 increases the probability that low-income students will aspire to attending a four-year college. That effect is even more pronounced for black boys: Being taught by a black teacher during those grades significantly reduces the probability that a black male student will later drop out of high school.
Diverse Teachers Serve As Student Role Models
Increasing teacher diversity is logical for other reasons, too. In 1998, then Secretary of Education Richard Riley stated, "Our teachers should look like America." Surely, many educators say, minority and white students alike benefit from seeing racial, ethnic and gender diversity reflected in leadership.
Ideally, a school's leadership is at least as diverse as its students. Non-white teachers serve as role models for a diverse student body, and may hold minority children to higher standards than white authority figures would. Non-white teachers are also able to apply their own cultural experiences and backgrounds when interacting with non-white students. This makes them uniquely suited to interpreting students' behavior and taking appropriate disciplinary action. Overall, they may contribute new perspectives and solutions that enrich the classroom and school.
Perils of a Cultural Disconnect
America's persistent difficulty in diversifying its teaching staff is worrisome because minority students are missing out. If American public schools want to close the achievement gap between students of different races, increasing teacher diversity can help.
The reasons for the disconnect between teachers and students of different races may be cultural and often subconscious. Research published in the Sociology of Education journal shows white teachers tend to have an implicit bias against black and Hispanic students that leads them to assume lower academic potential. Non-white teachers, sociologists found, are less susceptible to such stereotyping. Put another way, teachers with high expectations for their minority students are often themselves minorities.
Educators who want to inspire change and shape a school's mission to serve all students may benefit from earning an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership online through William Paterson University. By completing the program, they can gain the tools and cultivate the mindset to develop and retain a diverse and inclusive teaching staff that meets the needs of a changing student body.
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