Magazine Feature

Closing the Diversity Gap

New research sheds light on how to inspire, recruit and retain teachers of color.
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Illustration by K.L. Ricks

Stacey McAdoo was nearly in tears, though she knew the move was for the best. She’d been excited to find her seventh-grade English teacher, one of the few Black teachers at her school, taking an interest in her—noticing that she was smart and motivated. But McAdoo needed more advanced work; she was soon transferred out of the class. “I was devastated,” she says. “I hated having to leave.”

“I can count on one hand the number of Black teachers I had in K–12,” says McAdoo, now an award-winning teacher herself. “Every single one of them had a profound effect on me. They had a way of seeing me like no others could. They made me feel brilliant and empowered.” Her experiences confirm stacks of research produced over the last three decades exploring how a diverse faculty can motivate students of color, and more recent work showing how it benefits the whole school community.

Recently, the Brookings Institution published a series of reports confirming the benefits of a diverse teaching staff for students of color. And a researcher at Princeton University recently surveyed more than 50,000 Black and Hispanic students, finding those with teachers whose identities matched their own “report significantly better experiences than their non-matched peers.”

Jayne Ellspermann, a veteran teacher and principal and former president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, explains how a diverse staff can increase family and community engagement in a school. “A parent, for instance, who doesn’t speak English feels more welcome when they are greeted by someone who speaks their language and can help them navigate the school,” she says. “It also provides the unexpected benefit of giving parents and community members the opportunity to interact with adults who represent the diversity of the school, which can help break down barriers.”

Even so, there is a sizable gap between the number of people of color behind the teacher’s desk and those in front of it. About half of all U.S. students are white, but white people account for four of every five teachers. This imbalance—what some researchers refer to as the “diversity gap”—is exacerbated by a nationwide teacher shortage that tends to disproportionately affect communities of color.


What Now?

Experts say that the diversity gap begins early, using the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline”—the path through education, recruitment, hiring and continued support—to explain how we begin with a diverse student body full of potential teachers but end up with a workforce that’s overwhelmingly female and white.

Lisette Partelow, director of K–12 strategic initiatives at the Center for American Progress and author of several studies on the topic, says that focusing on hiring and supporting teachers of color isn’t enough. “District-level hiring strategies alone won’t successfully close the diversity gap,” she says, noting that the degree to which faculty and student identity align varies widely from region to region.

Many of Partelow’s conclusions are supported by a series of reports from the Brookings Institution identifying “four key moments along the teacher pipeline” to address. Each represents a crossroad for potential teachers: Will they complete college? Will they choose a career in teaching? Will they be hired? Will they remain in the profession? At each point, the pipeline leaks, and the pool of future teachers becomes less diverse. “Making serious progress toward a teacher workforce which is as diverse as the students it serves will require exceptionally ambitious patches,” Brookings researchers write. “The path toward reaching a diverse teacher workforce is much steeper than anyone has acknowledged.”


The Leaky Pipeline

While it’s tempting to begin with teacher recruitment, research suggests that repairs to the pipeline need to begin even earlier, with increased opportunities and support for college students of color. Constance Lindsay, an expert on teacher diversity at the Urban Institute, offers a statistic illustrating the need for an early start. “Even if all Black college graduates became teachers,” she says, “the number of Black teachers would only barely exceed the number of white teachers.”

Increasing the diversity of the average graduating class may patch an early point of weakness in the pipeline, but it’s only the first step. Another crucial moment arrives when students or graduates choose a career. Here, again, the potential workforce becomes less diverse. Partelow doesn’t mince words: “We are simply losing minority students in those college years at too high a rate,” she explains.

Lindsay suggests we look beyond traditional training programs. Paraeducators, she notes, tend to be a more diverse group than teachers, and may have an interest in teaching but not the resources for a degree. And some alternative certification programs, like Teach for America, produce a more diverse pool of applicants than traditional pathways to the classroom.

But Partelow believes teacher training programs can do a better job recruiting and supporting teachers of color, suggesting that programs report on—and be held publically accountable for—their efforts to recruit students of color. She says schools of education need to be innovative in their approaches, recommending more face-to-face recruitment efforts, more Black and Latinx young people in recruiting and more sophisticated prospect-tracking tools focused on students of color.

To invite a wider range of future teachers into the field, she also proposes highly competitive scholarships, with money for living expenses. And she recommends higher levels of compensation, along with other incentives like paying off student loans. These programs would benefit all future teachers, of course, but they would also make teaching a more viable option for some students of color. According to the Brookings Institution, student debt for Black college graduates is $7,400 higher on average than for their white classmates.

“Improved pay will be most effective as a recruitment lever for high-achieving, diverse candidates,” Partelow explains, “if it is coupled with the kinds of working conditions that such candidates can expect in other professional fields, such as high-quality onboarding or induction, relevant professional learning opportunities, opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and opportunities to advance within the profession.”


Later Leaks

If districts have less control over early leaks in the pipeline, there are some simple steps they can take while hiring teachers to increase the diversity of faculty (check out “Looking for Ways to Build Diversity?”). But Partelow’s research shows that, when hiring teachers, 40 percent of districts consider “contribution to workforce diversity minimally or not at all.” In 80 percent of districts, there are no specific supports geared toward inducting teachers of color.

The absence of support leads us to the last leak in the pipeline: retention. While recruitment campaigns have been shown to double the number of teachers of color in schools, these same teachers are also 24 percent more likely than their white colleagues to change careers.

Some districts have taken steps to address this issue. The Building Our Network of Diversity (BOND) project has worked with about 350 educators in Montgomery County, Maryland, offering mentoring and support. Organizers say that one reason teachers of color may leave the profession is that they encounter problems their white colleagues don’t have to deal with. “Oftentimes the issues they face are different and more difficult—and they make staying in these important positions challenging,” says Inger Swimpson, a leader of the BOND project.

Swimpson notes that support programs need to consider the intersection of identities. She offers the example of male teachers of color who, given the demographics of the field, may feel particularly isolated. Moreover, she says, they can be burdened with expectations and responsibilities their peers don’t share. “They are often seen as the disciplinarian,” Swimpson says, “responsible for fixing every Black and Latino boy.”

At times, the leaky pipeline feels more like a feedback loop: The few teachers of color who make it all the way through are overworked, which is in part why so few teachers of color make it all the way through.

Patching the pipeline can begin before students even choose a college. Organizations like Educators Rising promote teaching as a viable and valuable professional career path by promoting education-focused learning tools, conferences, micro-credentials, and other meaningful resources and opportunities for students as early as high school.

Benefits for All

When he was a student, Michael Williams, head of the history department at John F. Kennedy High School in Wheaton, Maryland, shared McAdoo’s search for teachers who reflected his identity. “I had one male Black teacher throughout school,” he says. “There was a lot of comfort in knowing he may have experienced what I had and would have something to share with me that would be different. But, then, I also think we offer that to all the students.”

“There is this assumption that we just inspire the Black or Hispanic students,” he says. “I think my presence has an impact on all the students. White students get to see things from our perspective. And maybe they believe we offer them something different.” Experts agree. Two years ago, researchers at NYU found that—regardless of their own identities—students across the board had more favorable impressions of teachers of color.

As McAdoo explains, some of the benefits that a diverse faculty can offer to students are subtle. “Because we have matriculated through an educational system anchored in white, middle-class American values,” she says, “we understand the nuances of that culture juxtaposed against our own. We often are able to season the curriculum with our own perspective and offer it up in a much more digestible way.”

Other benefits may be more obvious, but they’re no less important. “When a teacher of color flips the existing narrative, it can be very powerful,” Williams says.

McAdoo agrees. “Our mere presence often debunks stereotypes.”

Paterson is a Lewes, Delaware-based freelance writer who covers education for a number of national publications.

Looking for Ways to Build Diversity?

Take these three steps. By Dandridge Floyd


1. Build Investment.

Ask these questions to build a community that values diversity and works to support it.

What constitutes diversity?

Consider a multitude of identities, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, ability, gender, sexual orientation and veteran status.

How does our current culture support diversity and inclusion?

Will new hires be welcomed into a space that’s accessible to all and respectful of difference?

How will building a more diverse team benefit our students and community?

Studies show the value of a diverse educational workforce. Review these studies together and discuss practical ways that a commitment to diversity will directly benefit your district and students.


2. Recruit Deliberately.

Instead of relying on job posts and word of mouth (and attracting candidates whose identities align with those of current employees), recruit strategically.

Share advertisements with diverse networks.

Fraternities and sororities, veteran job boards and professional associations like Hispanic/Latino Professionals Association, IMDiversity, Professional Diversity Network and HBCUConnect are all good places to start.

Partner with or recruit from alternative certification programs.

Teaching residency programs and alternative certification programs can provide access to a candidate pool that is more diverse than the national average.


3. Fight Bias During Screening and Interviewing.

You can counter even unconscious bias with training and careful preparation.

Acknowledge unconscious bias.

Plan facilitated discussions and trainings to challenge it.

Use blind screenings.

Remove nonessential data that can lead to biased assumptions, including name, address, college(s) attended and graduation date.

Build diverse teams for screenings and interviews.

Create a team with varied identities and experience levels.

Audit questions for bias.

Interview questions should not provide information that could bias interviewers. Instead of asking a candidate, “Tell us about yourself,” try asking, “Tell us how your experience has prepared you for this position.”

Keep interviews structured.

Using the same series of questions in all interviews ensures that each candidate has an equal opportunity to demonstrate their competencies.