August 17, 2017
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Why retaining teachers of color benefits all students

Research shows how teacher diversity is good for students, but how can schools retain and recruit more minority educators?

Nonprofits like Profound Gentlemen provide mentorship and support to teachers of color. Photo courtesy of Profound Gentlemen

Recent research has shown that minority students benefit from the presence of minority teachers. But on account of factors ranging from demographic trends to school-closing policies, minority teachers have been leaving the profession at a greater rate than their white peers.

One recent study has identified a way to stem this trend. “Workplace Support and Diversity in the Market for Public School Teachers,” a paper published by Steven Bednar of Elon University and Dora Gicheva of University of North Carolina at Greensboro, analyzed data on teacher turnover and school working conditions. Looking at the data, Bednar and Gicheva found a positive relationship between administrative support for minority teachers and minority teachers—especially new teachers—staying in their jobs.

The researchers based their analysis on data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). The survey polls teachers on whether they agree or disagree with statements about their working conditions, such as “The school administration’s behavior toward the staff is supportive and encouraging,” and “In this school, staff members are recognized for a job well done.” Bednar and Gicheva then cross-referenced the results of four years of SASS surveys with data on whether those same teachers were still employed by the school one year later.

What they found from looking at four waves of data—1999-2000, 2003-04, 2007-08, and 2011-12—was that across the board, teachers were less likely to leave their jobs if they found their work environment supportive. “The relationship is especially pronounced for nonwhite or Hispanic teachers at schools where 10 percent or fewer of all teachers are also nonwhite or Hispanic,” write Bednar and Gicheva.

Research has shown that teacher diversity benefits students. “Exposure to at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 … increases the likelihood that persistently low-income students of both sexes aspire to attend a four-year college,” concludes one study from researchers at American University; University of California, Davis; and Johns Hopkins.

David Jackson, a ninth-grade teacher in New York, echoed this sentiment in an op-ed for the New York Times. “The fact that my skin color matches that of my students doesn’t give me any superpowers as an educator,” he wrote. “But it does give me the ability to see them in a way that’s untarnished by the stereotypes, biases and cultural disconnects that fuel inequality and injustice.”

A 2016 study from New York University professors found that middle school students of all races rated their teachers of color to be more supportive and motivating than their white counterparts. “Kids are struggling with their own identities and how to come to terms with their own difference and development. I think these middle school teachers can use their own identities and experience to bridge that relationship with all types of students,” study author Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng told the Huffington Post.

In 2014, the number of non-white public school students exceeded 50 percent—and the trend is likely to continue. As the number of minority students in public schools increases, so too does the need for teachers like Jackson.

Despite this, there’s a large gap between minority representation in the student body and among teaching staff. Even more alarming is the fact that the profession is hemorrhaging minority teachers, especially in urban school districts. According to research compiled by the Alfred Shanker Institute, between 2002 and 2012, the number of black teachers declined by 15.1 percent in New York City, by 33.2 percent in Los Angeles, and by 62.3 percent in New Orleans.

This is why the findings of the Bednar and Gicheva study is so relevant—retaining teachers of color should be a priority for educators, and it starts with a stronger support system for teachers. That support will trickle down to students.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.