The paradox of minority teacher recruitment

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Walk into any classroom in America today, and odds are 4-to-1 that the teacher will be a white female. And that’s not changing any time soon. According to the National Center for Education Information, minority teachers make up about 17 percent of the teacher workforce, up from just seven percent 20 years ago. This gain, however, does not match the 40 percent of students in the public school system that come from minority backgrounds. This disparity is likely affecting student achievement.
A Martinez Fellow works with students in his classroom.

Kevin Takisaki works with students in his classroom. (Photo credit: Martinez Foundation)

Research shows that the performance of K-12 minority students is significantly positively affected when their teachers also come from a minority background. These effects manifest in many different ways in the classroom, including higher graduation rates, higher scores on state assessments, and decreased incidences of absenteeism, suspension and expulsion.  It specifically affects STEM disciplines as well – for example, Dr. Kristin Klopfenstein, now director of the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado, found in a 2005 study that increasing a school’s percentage of black math teachers had a significant effect on the number of black students that subsequently enrolled in rigorous math courses. These positive effects are generally attributed to a set of behaviors exhibited by such teachers. These include having high expectations of their students, using culturally relevant teaching practices, developing relationships with students, confronting racism through teaching, and serving as advocates and cultural brokers for minority students. Barriers to recruitment Klopfenstein noted that there are many challenges to recruiting minority individuals to teaching as a profession, but puts particular emphasis on the importance of those students’ own experiences in K-12 education. “If you don’t have a good experience in school yourself,” she said,  “why in the world would you go into that professionally?” Dr. Emily Bonner, assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching at UT-San Antonio, agrees. “In talking to my minority pre-service teachers, a lot of them had an important teacher, or a transformative educational experience, that pushed them to teaching,” Bonner said. “If students of color, or students from more diverse backgrounds, are not succeeding in school, the likelihood that they’re going to want to stay in the educational system is lessened.” Other problems with recruitment in teaching are attributed to teacher salaries, or the lack of prestige afforded to teaching as a profession. This problem may be exacerbated in minority communities, especially when the student in question is the first in their family to attend college. If parents had an unsatisfactory or incomplete schooling experience, they might see teaching as a low status profession. According to Klopfenstein, the attitude then becomes, “‘If my kid is going to go to college, they’re not going to be a teacher, they’re going to go into business, or law.’ This is a problem for kids from all demographics, but especially for a first generation student whose community may well be pressuring them to be something ‘bigger than a teacher.’ Teachers don’t drive the nicest cars in the parking lot. I think that’s a very real factor.”
(Photo credit: Martinez Foundation.)

Marina Pita engages with her students. The presence of minority teachers can significantly positively affect minority student achievement. (Photo credit: Martinez Foundation.)

Strategies to change classrooms With the proportion of minority students in public schools rising each year, many educators and researchers are highlighting the need for classrooms that more effectively meet the needs of minority students. One approach is through teacher professional development programs focusing on ‘culturally responsive teaching’ practices. Bonner describes this teaching philosophy as “using students’ cultural knowledge to make learning more accessible.” Alternatively called ‘culturally relevant teaching’, or CRT, this form of instruction emphasizes best practices in terms of classroom management, teaching styles, and ways of delivering and reinforcing curriculum different from traditional teaching methods that reflect students’ cultural backgrounds. “Right now the dominant way of teaching is not parallel to the cultural experiences of our diverse student population,” said Bonner. “The dominant perspective in education is white and middle class.” CRT programs differ greatly in their scope and implementation, but there is a significant body of literature indicating that appropriate CRT training for teachers contributes to positive student learning outcomes for culturally diverse students. Finding minority teachers – and keeping them Paradoxically, the second way to improve the classroom experience of minority students and perhaps push them to consider education as a profession is to give them a role model – that is, to put them in a classroom with a minority teacher. Given that minority teacher recruitment is so closely linked to the experiences that potential teachers have in the K-12 education system, part of the strategy here is to improve retention of existing minority teachers in the hope that, slowly but steadily, the demographics of the teaching workforce will begin to change. Although the number of minority teachers has grown, they are also more likely to leave the profession, with a 24 percent higher turnover rate as compared to their white counterparts in 2009. In a 2011 study, Ingersoll and May at the University of Pennsylvania attribute this to the disproportionate placement of minority teachers in schools with mostly disadvantaged students. Although most minority teachers are in schools like these, they are still not the majority demographic of teachers in those schools, and may still lack a community of support. The Ingersoll-May study notes most teachers leave because “these same schools tend to be less desirable as workplaces.” This trend could undermine any gains in teacher recruitment.
A group picture of a class of Martinez Fellows.

Martinez Fellows value the sense of community created by the program. (Photo credit: Martinez Foundation)

Retention of minority teachers requires community Ian Adair is executive director at the Martinez Foundation, which works to address the problems that minority teachers face once they start teaching. Martinez Fellows all study education at one of six partner universities in Washington. Along with financial assistance, they have access to professional development opportunities, networking, and, what Adair said Fellows value above all, “a community of support.” Somewhere between 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Adair noted that “a lot of people in the general public probably think it’s salary, because that’s all you hear about. That’s usually not even in the top four or five. Teachers feel isolated, they lack resources and professional development, and they struggle with classroom management.” This isolation is exacerbated for minority teachers, who might often be the only teachers of color in their department or even their entire school. This disparity is even more evident in STEM classes. Fewer minority students complete the appropriate coursework in science and mathematics, and therefore fewer apply to teach those subjects as compared to white students. Adair said, “Our fellows that are in science and math need us the most. We probably have the fewest fellows in those areas because we get the fewest fellows applying from that background, and it’s a concern.” Yet the Martinez Fellows who do teach in science and math play an essential role in getting their students interested in STEM fields. “They hear all the time that students of color aren’t attracted to these areas. [Fellows] want to be available to say no, you want to be attracted to these areas, you can learn great things, it’s exciting, there are great career possibilities,” Adair said. “They’re champions of those areas for students of color because it’s hard to get excited about something when you’re never seeing a teacher that looks like you in that content area. “ Increasing student achievement and interest in STEM States like California and Texas already have a public school population that is over 50 percent minority students; this is expected to be a national phenomenon within the next 10 to 12 years. The best balance between teacher training and more effective teacher recruitment and retention is a chicken-and-egg debate without any clear answers. It is likely, however, that both approaches will be necessary to create effective learning environments, especially those that encourage achievement in STEM for minority students. These students, in turn, might be more likely to pursue teaching as a career. “It’s such a closed system. Until we have a lot of first-generation kids having a positive experience in STEM early on in their career, it’s going to be hard to get teachers who look like those kids,” said Klopfenstein. “But having teachers who look like those kids would enhance the probability that they would have a positive experience. So we’re in this cycle that’s really hard to break.”