Opinion

Unless we change the candidate pool, we’ll never break the vicious cycle of low teacher diversity

New study explores a series of solutions

Michael Hansen

A multipronged approach is the best — and perhaps only — way to resolve the lack of teacher diversity in America’s public schools.

That’s what my co-authors and I found in our assessment of the current state of the nation’s workforce and the flows of teachers moving in and out of it.

We have all seen the headlines about the diversity of public school students, now at 50 percent, juxtaposed against the mostly white (82 percent) teacher workforce.

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Though many states and districts have initiated strategies attempting to get more teachers of color into the classroom, my co-authors and I were skeptical that these efforts based in Human Resources offices were actually making much of a difference overall.

Given the scale of current diversity gaps, we would need nearly a million new minority teachers to achieve equal representation. And with the diversification of the U.S. population only expected to continue over time, we would need to replenish the workforce with even more minorities than we lose over time.

Those familiar with the research on public school teachers recognize this is a tall order. Hiring more minority teachers addresses just one point in a teacher pipeline riddled with leaks — and from each of those leaks, we lose a disproportionate number of minority teachers and teacher candidates.

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For example, disproportionately fewer young minority adults graduate with a bachelor’s or master’s degree than white adults, and disproportionately fewer minorities major in education or otherwise show an interest in the teaching profession.

And even after they’ve entered the classroom, schools tend to lose more minority teachers than white teachers.

In other words, the cards are stacked against public schools ever having a truly diverse teacher workforce. And unless we find a way to plug these leaks — all of them — we will make little headway toward closing our diversity gaps in the decades ahead.

This brings me back to the value of increased minority hiring in school districts. While commendable, this strategy turns out to be focused on the one point in the pipeline where the fewest minority teachers are lost, based on our calculations.

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Moreover, one district hiring relatively more minorities from a pool of already qualified teacher candidates likely means that there will be fewer minority candidates for a neighboring district to choose from.

If we actually want more minority teachers overall, we need to focus on changing the pool of qualified teacher candidates, which means ensuring more minority college graduates and persuading more of those minority graduates to pursue teaching as a career.

Otherwise, as my co-authors and I write in our report, we will be stuck “in the same vicious cycle in which low teacher diversity contributes in a myriad of ways to low minority student success in K-12 and college, which results once again in low teacher diversity.”

Dr. Michael Hansen is a senior fellow and the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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Michael Hansen

Dr. Michael Hansen is a senior fellow and the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. See Archive

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