Why We Must Improve Teacher Diversity, and How to Get it Done

Designing an Effective Training Program July 10, 2018

Growing up in rural Nebraska, all my teachers looked like me. They also shared many of my own experiences and perspectives since they, too, came from mostly White farm communities.

Today, Nebraska is growing in diversity—with more than 120 languages spoken across its schools. Unfortunately, the teaching workforce doesn’t reflect this diversity, depriving many students of the shared camaraderie that I had with my teachers.

My home state isn’t alone. Five in 10 students enrolled in U.S. public schools are students of color—yet the ratio of minority teachers lags far behind, where just 1 in 5 teachers are of color.

As Executive Director at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), I’ve seen the critical connection between diversifying the teaching workforce and addressing the opportunity gaps that persist between students of color and their White peers. To effectively serve all students, we must create a diverse and culturally-responsive teacher pipeline to meet the demands of our changing student population.

Research shows that students’ race, ethnicity and cultural background significantly influence their achievement. Students of color benefit from seeing teachers from their own racial and ethnic group who can serve as academically successful role models and who can share greater knowledge of their heritage culture.[1]

We’ve also seen that all students benefit from being educated by teachers from different backgrounds, races and ethnic groups, and that these opportunities better prepare them to succeed in an increasingly diverse society. Despite this fact, more than 40 percent of public schools have no teacher of color on staff.[2]

Addressing the unique needs of students from different backgrounds is one of the major challenges facing public education. In addition to a shortage of teaching applicants of color, research on curriculum and instructional practices has primarily focused on White middle-class students—virtually ignoring the cultural and linguistic characteristics of a diverse population. This means that many teachers are not equipped with the relevant content knowledge, experience and training to adapt instruction to address diversity in their classrooms.

This shift in our student population necessitates that state leaders better prepare all teachers to meet the needs of all learners. System-level change is hard, but state leaders are rising to that challenge.

In 2017, state chiefs signed on to 10 actions to increase equitable outcomes for students, including a greater focus on supporting teachers to better serve students of color.

As part of this commitment, CCSSO recently launched the Diverse and Learner-Ready Teachers Initiative to build collective actions to address the structural and existential barriers that impede people of color from participating in the teaching profession and to promote culturally-responsive teaching practices among all teachers.

In joining the Initiative, nine states—Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico and New York—are creating action plans for systems-level change to diversify teacher pipelines and advance culturally-responsive practices. They’re working with experts to set goals, identify measures for success, incubate and pilot innovative strategies to solve these challenges and create a plan to sustain progress.

Each of these states has already demonstrated a commitment to attracting and retaining minority educators. For instance, Mississippi set a goal of increasing the number of minority teachers in critical shortage school districts by 25 percent to better reflect the student population.

Putting goals into action, New York State’s Teacher Opportunity Corps II is increasing the number of underrepresented individuals teaching in high-need schools[3] through scholarships to colleges to bolster teacher retention. Louisiana has awarded competitive grants to teacher preparation programs that are innovating around candidate recruitment, including community-based programs to recruit high school students.  

By providing individual support and opportunities for cross-state collaboration, CCSSO will support states to scale these types of innovative strategies so all schools in all states benefit.

Our goal is for the participating states to revise, enact or remove policies to better address specific challenges that impede a diverse and culturally-responsive workforce within two years’ time. Learning from best practices, we aim for a majority of states to do the same after four years. By year seven, we expect at least 15 states to show evidence of increased racial diversity in their teacher workforce and measure the performance of teachers who demonstrate culturally-responsive practices.

We recognize that it will take time to build a more diverse pipeline of educators that more truly represents the students in our classroom today. This initiative is a start. Beginning with a focus on culturally-responsive practice and creating a movement toward attracting more diverse candidates into the profession, we can drive our nation one step closer to providing our students what they rightfully deserve—access to equitable, excellent education.

[1] Bond, B., Quintero, E., Casey, L., & Di Carlo, M. (2015). The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education. The Albert Shanker Institute.  
[2] Ibid.
[3] The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 defines a high-needs school as “within the top quartile of elementary and secondary schools statewide, as ranked by the number of unfilled, available teacher positions; or is located in an area where at least 30 percent of students come from families with incomes below the poverty line; or an area with a high percentage of out-of-field-teachers, high teacher turnover rate, or a high percentage of teachers who are not certified or licensed.”