A growing problem in American classrooms is that teachers don’t resemble the students they teach. Eighty percent of the nation’s 3.8 million public school teachers are white, but over half of their students are Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and mixed races. The small slice of Black teachers has actually shrunk slightly over the past decade from 7 percent in 2011–12 to 6 percent in 2020–21, while Black students make up a much larger 15 percent share of the public school student population.
A Black teacher can make a positive difference for Black children. Research has shown that Black students are less likely to be suspended and more likely to be placed in gifted classes when they are taught by Black teachers. Studies have often found that Black students learn more from same race teachers.
There are many reasons for the paucity of Black teachers. But a June 2023 analysis of college students in Michigan highlights a particularly leaky part of the teacher pipeline: teacher preparation programs inside colleges and universities.
At the start of college, Michigan’s Black students are almost as interested in teaching as white students, the report found. But Black students are far less likely to complete teacher preparation programs and become certified teachers. There’s a surprisingly large drop in prospective Black teachers as they’re finishing their coursework and about to start teaching internships in classrooms.
“There are a lot of potentially great educators who just aren’t making it to the classroom,” said Tara Kilbride, lead author of the analysis conducted by Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), a research center at Michigan State University.
The June 2023 research report, “Tracking Progress Through Michigan’s Teacher Pipeline,” analyzed prospective teachers of all races, and found that enrollment in education courses has been declining since 2010. But two data points on Black undergraduates jumped out at me: their relatively high rates of curiosity about teaching and their extremely low completion rates in teacher certification.
Kilbride and her colleagues analyzed 12 years of college student data, from 2010-11 to 2021-22, at 15 public colleges and universities in Michigan, where the majority of Michigan’s teachers receive their training. Researchers noticed that Black undergraduates were almost as likely as white students to take a teacher education class (13 percent of Black students versus 14 percent of white students).
Only a fraction of the 34,000 Michigan students who took an initial education course progressed to student teachers, either by majoring in education or by adding a teacher preparation program to another field of study, often in the subject that they intend to teach. But the completion gap between Black and white students was large and striking. A mere 7 percent of the Black students who took a teacher education course in Michigan became student teachers, compared to 30 percent of white students who took these courses. To be sure, many students change their minds about becoming a teacher, but there’s no obvious reason why Black students would be changing their minds at such high rates.
Researchers drilled into the data to try to understand what is going on. Part of the explanation is that Black students are dropping out of college in higher numbers. But students were abandoning teacher preparation in higher rates than they were leaving school. (In other words, the decline in prospective Black teachers far exceeded the Black college dropout rate.) Many of these Black students are staying in college and earning degrees. They’re just not completing their teacher training.
The researchers next looked at the timing of Black students’ departure from the pathway to teaching. During introductory 100-level courses and intermediate 200-level courses, Black students are sticking with education at almost the same rate as white students. But as students progress to advanced coursework in 300- and 400-level courses, Black students abandon teacher training in much larger numbers. Many Black students have completed five or more semester-long courses in education at this point. It adds up to thousands of wasted hours and tuition dollars
Only 7 percent of Black undergraduates who take an initial education class make it through to student teaching, a prerequisite for becoming a certified teacher in Michigan.
Kilbride suspects that several hurdles are disproportionately impeding the progress of prospective Black teachers as they near the end of their coursework. High among them is a state requirement to complete 600 “clinical” hours of apprenticeships and student teaching, which are usually unpaid. Some university programs require more. That’s both a scheduling and financial challenge for Black students, many of whom are low-income and juggling a substantial part-time job alongside college.
“There’s also a time cost,” said Kilbride, EPIC’s assistant director of research. “Some of these programs require a fifth year for students to complete these clinical experiences. So that’s an extra year that they’re spending on their education, and not earning a wage.” Tuition alone for a fifth year of teacher preparation at Michigan State University, for example, runs $16,700.
Another obstacle is Michigan’s teacher licensure tests. The pass rates for Black students are much lower, and it’s unclear why. (Only 54 percent of Black test-takers passed the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification, compared to 90 percent, 87 percent, and 83 percent of their White, Asian, and Hispanic counterparts, respectively.) Despite completing all or nearly all of their teacher training coursework, many Black students fail the test and leave the teacher preparation program before they even start their student teaching hours.
Though the study took place only in Michigan, Kilbride says the loss of Black teacher candidates while still in college is likely a widespread phenomenon around the country. Michigan is a particularly good place to study the scarcity of Black teachers given the imbalance between the large Black population, the largest minority in the state, and the small number of Black teachers. Eighteen percent of public school students in Michigan are Black but only 7 percent of its teachers are.
Kilbride told me about several initiatives underway in Michigan to address the problems that Black prospective teachers are facing. There are new stipends–up to $9,600 a semester–to help low-income students with their bills while they are student teaching. Michigan State University recently shortened its five-year teacher preparation program to four years for all students who start in the fall of 2023. Kilbride says these and other reforms should be monitored to see if they help boost the number of Black teachers.
The good news is that Black college students who overcome all the obstacles and make it across the finish line to become certified teachers are more likely to get jobs in public schools and stay in the profession. Almost three quarters of newly certified Black teachers taught in a Michigan public school within five years of becoming certified (compared to fewer than 70 percent of white teachers), and 44 percent taught for at least five years (compared to 38 percent of white teachers).
There are many approaches to boosting the number of teachers of color in U.S. classrooms. Of course, it makes sense to focus on doing more to retain the few Black teachers who are already there. But this Michigan report points to systemic problems that hinder the development of future Black teachers. They won’t be simple or cheap to fix. Defining the obstacles – as this study does – is a good first step.
Jill Barshay is a senior reporter at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. This column was initially published by The Hechinger Report.
Tracking Progress Through Michigan’s Teacher Pipeline
EPIC, Michigan State University
Teachers Like Us: Strategies for Increasing Educator Diversity in Public Schools
In Demand: The Real Teacher Shortages and How to Solve Them
FutureEd and EducationCounsel