by Kristina Scott, Ed. D.
Schools should acknowledge, reflect, and celebrate diversity. This ideal, however, is not indicative of what we see in our current teacher workforce. In other words, our nation’s teaching workforce does not match the changing demographics in the United States. Students of color (defined as students who are not Caucasian) make up over 52% of the public-school aged population, while only 20% of our current teaching workforce identify as teachers of color (McFarland et al. 2008). Research has shown that this is a concern and can play out in fairness in disciplinary actions, expectations of students, academic achievement levels, and drop out rates.
To provide some historical context for the disparity in our teaching workforce, we can look back to racial segregation in our country. Back when Brown vs. The Board of Education (1954) called for the desegregation of public schools 38,000 African American teachers were given no protection and were seen as unfit to teach white children, and therefore lost their job (Rosenthal, 1957). This was further enforced throughout time through other practices, such as unfair hiring and firing processes, demanding involuntary transfers, creating workplace environmental hostility, targeting specific schools for school closures, and increasing demands required through professional certification standards; all of these actions helped to ensure a shortage of Black teachers throughout the United States (Carver-Thomas, 2018; Roberts & Carter Andrews, 2013). This is a consequence that is still seen in our schools today.
In the teaching field, the call to diversify our teaching workforce is not new. It becomes a pressing issue, however, when one can look at the research and see the significance this would have in our nation’s students. In other words, representation matters, and having a teacher that looks different that the typical white middle-class Caucasian women prototype helps all students because it helps our schools enact more culturally relevant teaching and allows for more students to feel welcome (or as if they belong) in their schools (Dilworth & Coleman, 2014).
This feeling of belonging allows for greater engagement with academic content and increases social-emotional learning outcomes.
Research has shown that when students of color work with teachers of color their academic performance increases. This has been shown in the longitudinal Tennessee STAR study (which tracked K-5 students in North Carolina between 2006 and 2010) which found that having a teacher of color in grades three, four, or five improved the reading and math test scores, the high school graduation rate, and the desire to attend college for students of color (Gershenson et al., 2017). This is important because lower educational attainment is associated with increases in: unemployment, underemployment, crime, civic disengagement, and overall poor health.
It is important to have diversity in instructional leaders because learning at its core requires individuals to build on their own prior knowledge and experiences.
Teachers need to help students in this process by having an understanding of where a student is coming from, and their background knowledge—which is largely influenced by their home culture. This understanding of home culture is the framework to help students acquire new information. Having a diverse teaching workforce allows teachers to connect with a variety of students, and allows teachers to collaborate and learn from each other to benefit all the students they serve. A diverse teaching workforce allows schools to reimagine how they teach and how they provide the best education for all students.
In addition to academic achievements, the Tennessee Star study also looked at the social-emotional benefits when a student of color has a teacher of color for instruction, and found students of color had fewer absences and lower disciplinary consequences (e.g. suspensions) when taught by a teacher of color (Gershenson et al., 2017). This is an important finding because it has been found by Skiba, Michael, Nardo, and Peterson (2002) that students of color are more likely to be suspended from school than other students—even when the same misconduct is exhibited by both groups of students. This disparity in disciplinary consequences can be linked to the achievement gap (if a student is not in school due to disciplinary action, they are missing instructional learning), and future delinquency (Arcia, 2006).
Differences in disciplinary actions may, again, at its roots come down to not knowing the home culture of an individual. It may be that a teacher does not have the cultural awareness to understand the communication a certain behavior was meant to serve.
It also may come down to negative stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies based on implicit biases.
This implicit bias was seen in yet another study conducted by Gershenson, Holt, and Papageorge (2016), where they found that teachers of color, in general, have higher expectations of their students of color than their white counterparts did. The expectations that teachers have of their students often become self-fulfilling prophecies; in other words, students match the expectations that teachers have of them. If a teacher has high expectations, the student will work to meet those expectations, but the reverse of this is also true. This has huge impacts in academic achievement and educational attainment levels.
Students, in general, are inspired by role models they can relate to. Having diversity amongst the adults in a school allows students to see themselves in others and, in turn, begins to create positive perceptions of all individuals.
This diversity can prepare students and help them develop positive dispositions they will bring forth in their future jobs and involvement in the community. We, as a profession, need to start taking more concerted efforts to diversify our teaching force in how we recruit and how we retain our teachers of color.
About the Author:
Kristina Scott Quinlan is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She has eight years of K-12 special education teaching experience, and six years of teaching in higher education teacher preparation. Kristina is the State President of the New Hampshire Learning Disabilities Association. She is also the committee co-chair for the Education Committee of LDA. Kristina often presents and consults at state, regional, and national conferences and schools on topics including: social development, social and emotional learning, behavior as communication, universal design for learning, and creating smooth transitions for students as they exit the high school setting. Kristina holds a doctorate in educational leadership, a master’s in special education, and undergraduate degrees in English and exercise physiology. When not working, you can often find Kristina out running, cycling, or playing golf.
Arcia, E. (2006). Achievement and enrollment status of suspended students: Outcomes in a large,multicultural school district. Education and Urban Society, 38 (3), 359-369.
Carver-Thomas, D. (2018). Diversifying the teaching profession: How to recruit and retain teachers of color. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.
Dilworth, M. E., & Coleman, M. J. (2014). Time for a change: Diversity in teaching revisited. Washington, DC: National Education Association. Retrieved from https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/Time_for_a_Change_Diversity_in_Teaching _Revisited_(web).pdf
Gershenson, S., Holt, S.B., & Papageorge, N.W. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52, 209-224.
Gershenson, S., Hart, C.M.D., Lindsay, C.A., Papageorge, N.W. (2017). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers (IZA Discussion Papers, No. 10630). Bonn: Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Wang, X., Zhang, J., Wang, K., Rathbun, A., & Mann, F. (2018). The Condition of Education 2018 (NCES 2018-144). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018144.pdf
Roberts, T., & Carter Andrews, D. J. (2013). A critical race analysis of the gaslighting of African American teachers: Considerations for recruitment and retention (pp.69-94). In D. C.
Andrews & F. Tuitt (Eds.), Contesting the myth of a “post racial” era: The continued significance of race in U.S. education (pp. 69-94). New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Rosenthal, J. O. (1957). Negro teachers’ attitude toward desegregation. Journal of Negro Education, 26, 63-71.
Skiba, R.J., Michael, R.S., Nardo, A.C., & Peterson, R.L. (2002). The color of discipline:Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The Urban Review, 34 (4), 317-342.