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Why a Diverse Teaching Force Matters and How We Can Get There

Amid the current national reckoning on racial equity, research exploring the impact of Black teachers on the success of Black students has taken on additional importance. In his research and a forthcoming book, Teacher Diversity and Student Success, American University Associate Professor Seth Gershenson and his co-authors explore how “teacher diversity is teacher quality” and lay out steps school districts can take toward a more diverse workforce, and a workforce that’s truly effective for all students. FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan talked with Gershenson about his findings.

Your research shows that having at least one Black teacher during elementary school can make a big difference for Black students’ long-term academic success. Did you also find an impact on non-academic indicators like student attendance?

Past research has shown that having a same-race teacher boosts your test score in the year that you have that teacher.

I wanted to see if these race-match effects carry over to outcomes that we ultimately care about, like regular attendance, suspensions and college enrollment. And we found that having a same-race teacher in elementary school increases days attended, significantly reduces chronic absenteeism and suspensions, and, perhaps most importantly, has long-lasting impacts on eventual college enrollments.

Is this a matter of Black teachers serving as role models for Black students? Or are they providing better, more culturally relevant instruction that helps the students succeed?

We really don't know which mechanism is driving these results. But I think a fair reading of the results is that both of those things are happening.

Black teachers do use culturally relevant teaching practices more effectively and more often than White teachers. It leads to better relationships with students. It leads to trusting in teachers more.

The role model idea is that a student sees someone who looks like them doing something that they previously thought they couldn't do or that they thought was very hard to do. And so, whether it's the female scientist or a black teacher, the student can see that person and say, "All right. They did it. They went to college. They pursued this career. They are a professional. They are wearing a tie to work. I can do that too." And that recognition can then change a student's perception of what's possible.

Teachers expectations for students are also an important part of this equation. You looked at a data set where two teachers predicted the academic progress for each student, and then you followed up to see what happened to the students. What did you find?

We found that teachers of all backgrounds have similar expectations for White students. But for Black students, Black teachers have systematically higher expectations than White teachers do. And this turns out to be really important.

When a teacher has high expectations for you, your expectations for yourself increase, and your effort in school increases. Your attendance goes up. Your GPA goes up. Your hours spent on homework go up. And all of this makes you more likely to graduate from college. That person who has high expectations for you causes you to change your mindset and change your engagement with school.

Teachers have different expectations for how far similarly situated White students and Black students are likely to go in their education?

We’re talking about a student who has one black teacher and one white teacher, and those two teachers disagree about the student’s potential. They have different expectations for that same student. We see that systematically the disagreements happen when there's one White and one Black teacher. And it's always in the direction of the White teacher being more pessimistic about the Black student’s potential. So that’s pretty solid evidence that biases and expectations are part of the race-match effect.

These findings argue strongly for a more racially diverse teacher workforce. What steps could we take to make that happen?

The immediate thing that we can do is better support existing teachers of color. That includes not asking them to do too much. There is what I call a “minority tax” that basically asks teachers of color to do all sorts of other things on top of teaching, like be a disciplinarian, be a community liaison, try to help other teachers. That work is often not paid, is very stressful, and often comes on top of an already demanding teaching workload. We can definitely do better supporting the teachers of color we have in the classroom right now.

The other thing we can do, which I haven't seen discussed much, is to pay attention to classroom assignments. Since having even one Black teacher really matters, schools should track students’ histories and make sure that as many Black students as possible have at least one Black teacher.

Rather than maybe having one student have a Black teacher two years in a row and another student having zero, we could allocate that resource more equitably and make sure that each student has a Black teacher once. That's very easy to do and should influence classroom assignments.

Would another approach be ensuring Black teachers work in schools with high concentrations of Black students–or do you risk resegregating schools?

 We should absolutely not do that for two reasons. Students of color are in many, many schools, including majority-white schools. And Black students in those schools are less likely to be exposed to teachers of color. If anything, you'd want to try to diversify teaching forces in schools that have fewer Black students or fewer Black teachers.

It’s also hugely important that students of all races see people of color in positions of authority. Teachers are one of the first positions of authority that students encounter in their lives.

Does it have to be a classroom teacher to convey that message, to serve as a role model?

 No. We could have school assemblies or guest lecturers for a day or even a week—special-topic visitors, teachers or professionals in the community who come in and give assemblies and class lectures. That could be done at very little cost and it could be done even in districts with very small numbers of teachers of color.

There's pretty compelling evidence that these strategies would really make an immediate difference while we build a more diverse teaching force.

That’s the next step. How do you bring more Black teachers into the workforce?

This takes time. Being a teacher requires a college degree; having a college degree requires enrolling in college; and enrolling in college requires a high school diploma. And there are racial gaps at all of those checkpoints. And so, in some sense, there's a chicken-and-egg problem: having more Black teachers would improve these college-going outcomes that would lead to more Black teachers down the road.

But schools and districts should not offer one-off incentives to get new teachers of color quickly. They end up just poaching teachers of color from different districts and you're just shifting the lack of diversity from one district to another. We don’t want to just trade teachers across districts. We want to recruit new people into teaching.

What’s the best approach to that?

There are a few ways to do this. One is through grow-your-own programs that recruit college-educated professionals interested in a career change into teacher-training programs that operate evenings and on weekends to accommodate work schedules. Districts can partner with local community colleges or universities and give some sort of tuition subsidy or rebate if the teacher signs on to teach in that district.

Another idea we propose is to leverage the non-teaching staff already working in our schools and school districts. Teacher aides are already familiar with schools. They're already familiar with students. But they generally don't have that college credential necessary to be a full-time classroom teacher. And teacher aides tend to be more diverse than the pool of teachers. So another thing we could do is provide opportunities for teacher aides and teaching assistants to earn their credentials while they're working so that they can seamlessly transition into teaching in the school.

[Read More: In Schools, Black Girls Confront Both Racial and Gender Bias]

And again, with some cooperation and strategic planning with local community colleges and universities, we can offer the courses in the evening. We can offer the courses over the weekend or intensive executive courses during the winter break.

Another strategy would be to target high school students or early college students to get them interested in teaching. Money is an issue here. So we can provide scholarships that are tied to teaching when they get out. A lot of districts in Maryland and a few other states have programs like this, where there's an agreement between local colleges and high schools and school districts that are trying to get people interested in teaching and build a pipeline.

What role does the teacher certification process—and the tests that many teachers are required to pass—play in limiting or expanding the pipeline of diverse teachers?

A lot of certification tests actually have their origins in trying to exclude non-Whites from teaching. The testing was actually adopted in many Southern states following the Brown v. Board decision because it became illegal to differentially pay Black and White teachers on the basis of race. And some of these districts and states in the post-Brown South managed to find a way to objectively pay White teachers more in an effort to drive the Black teachers out of the newly de-segregated schools.

The tests from that period are no longer used. But there are lingering questions: Are today’s tests racially biased? And do the tests even predict good teaching? The answer to the latter question is no, the thresholds used to determine certification are basically meaningless because those who score just above the threshold are no more effective in the classroom than those who score just below the threshold. Only very high and very low scores are meaningful signals of teacher quality. However, and this is where the bias seeps in, Black teacher candidates are much more likely to score below the threshold and thus be screened out of the classroom, even though they’d be more effective educators of Black students than the white teachers who score just above the threshold.

So rethinking the importance of those certification tests is definitely something we propose and could be an important policy lever for increasing teacher diversity.

So did desegregation effectively remove some talented Black teachers from the workforce?

That's one of the great unintended consequences of the Brown v. Board ruling. That happened all across the South: Tens of thousands of Black teachers who were working in Black schools, segregated Black schools, were never rehired in desegregated schools

When we think about school quality, we think about new textbooks or shiny new desks, and Brown v. Board rightly decided that those types of resources were lacking in segregated schools. But the teachers in those schools were very good. When we think about how we reward teachers and what we look for in recruiting teachers, yes, we should look at teaching ability and experience. But we should also look at socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds. Teacher diversity is teacher quality— that’s the central argument of our book.

In addition to bringing more Black teachers into schools, what should we do to make sure that the existing teacher workforce, which is predominantly White, has high expectations for Black students and uses instructional methods that support them?

We can provide more low-stakes opportunities for White teachers to work in diverse classrooms. Providing student-teaching opportunities in classrooms that are going to look like the classrooms that teachers are eventually going to lead is an obvious policy change. One of the keys to any implicit bias training is to provide more practice and experience working with students in relatively low-stakes situations.

[Read More: Teacher Mindsets: How Educators Perspectives Shape Student Success]

Similarly, we could use summer school or guest lectures to trade teachers across classrooms or across schools, as a way to both increase students’ exposure to diverse teachers and provide low-stakes opportunities for teachers to work with students of different backgrounds.

Then there’s providing better training in culturally relevant pedagogy, better training in student discipline, and training in the importance of high expectations and implicit biases.

One of the most promising trainings here is empathic discipline. A 20-minute workshop on empathizing with students and de-escalating potential misbehavior incidents not only changed teachers' attitudes, but it actually changed student outcomes. There were fewer suspensions and higher test scores in schools that got empathic-discipline workshops.

Teacher Diversity and Student Success by Seth Gershenson, Michael Hansen, and Constance A. Lindsay is currently available for pre-order and will be released early next year.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action