Why Teaching Isn’t Diverse Enough, And What We Can Do About It

We all know that a teacher’s instructional skills matter for students. But a growing body of research shows that their background and life experience matter, too. This is especially important for students of color: while all kids are more likely to thrive with diverse teachers, students of color with teachers of the same race are less likely to be suspended, more likely to be referred to gifted programs, and more likely to complete high school and go on to college. Our own research has found that teachers of color have higher expectations for students of color—and that those higher expectations correlate with more learning.

Yet in most states, there is a huge diversity gap between students and teachers. Nationally, 53% of students are people of color, yet 80% of teachers are white. And 40% of all public schools don’t have a single teacher of color. In my case, the first teacher I had who looked like me—Ms. Blue in 7th grade—was also the last.

This trend is likely to continue thanks to the lack of diversity in teacher preparation programs—especially traditional schools of education. Data from the U.S. Education Department shows that almost three-quarters of teacher candidates in traditional education schools are white. Colleges and universities are frankly not doing enough to recruit and support students of color who aspire to be the educators students of color deserve. I spent one semester in my college’s school of education, but left because I didn’t feel a connection: I didn’t see anyone that looked like me and I didn’t think I’d graduate.

Even before research studies and conference presentations highlighted the impact of teachers of color, many of us in school leadership positions were doing whatever we could to hire teachers and other staff in our schools that looked like our students—because it just made sense.  At TNTP, we’ve prioritized diversity in our own training programs: 60 percent of our Fellows identify as people of color, compared to 20 percent of teachers nationally. We’ve also been outspoken advocates for teacher diversity.

But diversifying the teaching profession isn’t just about recruitment—it’s about removing structural barriers that both keep prospective teachers out of the classroom and push them out of the profession.

That’s why, in the coming weeks, we will be publishing a series of blog posts that explore some of these barriers and what can be done to overcome them. We’re excited to share what we’ve learned about the issue from our work in classrooms, schools, and school systems over the past two decades, and to elevate the voices of educators and other experts who’ve experienced these barriers first hand. We’ll focus on:

  • State certification requirements. In far too many states, teacher certification requirements disproportionately block out prospective teachers of color, despite having little correlation to effective teaching. By basing certification on actual teaching ability instead of proxies, states can create a more diverse and stronger teacher workforce—without lowering standards. Many states are already taking steps toward doing just that.
  • Cost. The price of higher education is out of reach for too many people, and a teaching credential is no exception. Teacher preparation program tuition, as well as the price of other requirements like background checks and certification exams, create additional hurdles for teachers of color to enter the profession. Offering high-quality, lower-cost pathways into the teaching profession is a critical part of boosting diversity in teacher preparation programs—and in the profession as a whole.
  • School culture. Increasing teacher diversity isn’t just about hiring more teachers of color; it’s about retaining them. That can’t happen unless teachers of color feel supported and valued within their schools. We’ll spotlight schools and organizations that have tackled this challenge head on.

We hope that these pieces can help refocus the conversation about teacher diversity from just naming the problem to highlighting the policies and practices that will help solve it. In the meantime, if you have a story or idea to share about how to diversify the teaching profession, let us know. After all, to solve a challenge this big, we need to work together.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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