Why you should care
For student performance — and well-being — the lack of nonwhite teachers is taking a toll.
John Alcox used to wait outside his kindergarten building before the bell rang. One morning, two older White students emerged from around the corner, yelling a slur at him. “We don’t want you here,” they said. He retorted before the boys slapped his lunch box out of his hand and pushed him to the ground. As the bell rang, the two ran off, and Alcox rose, brushing the dirt off his jacket.
For years, Alcox didn’t tell anyone about this encounter. In kindergarten, he didn’t see many people at school who looked like him: He was one of three Black students in the class at the predominantly White Park Circle Elementary in North Charleston, South Carolina. Ms. Amaker, in second grade, was the only Black teacher Alcox had between kindergarten and seventh grade.
And he noticed. “I became aware [of race] at an early age,” Alcox says, after a long pause. Would he have told his teacher if she were Black? He remains quiet for several moments. “I don’t know. I didn’t even tell my mother.” She would’ve been at school the next day if she’d known, he explains.
Alcox, now 52 and a teacher himself at Carrboro High School in North Carolina, wasn’t an anomaly in having few teachers of color during his early school years. Research suggests that as the student population grows increasingly diverse, the teacher workforce isn’t keeping pace.
In the U.S., the percentage of nonwhite public elementary and secondary school students is more than double the percentage of minority teachers in those schools.
While 51 percent of public elementary and secondary school students in the U.S. were nonwhite in the 2015-16 school year, 80 percent of their teachers were White, according to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This compares to the 39 percent of all Americans who were racial or ethnic minorities that year, bearing in mind that younger Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations. But this isn’t just an American problem: Only 8 percent of teachers in British public schools were nonwhite in 2016, compared to 25 percent of primary school students. In the U.S., however, it’s gotten substantially worse. In 1987, 13 percent of public school teachers were nonwhite, compared to 30 percent of their students, according to the Pew Research Center.
What’s driving the gap? Teacher preferences could play a role, as a 2011 study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management found that teachers report higher job satisfaction and lower turnover rates when supervised by a principal of the same race. Discriminatory hiring practices could also contribute: White applicants for teaching positions were disproportionately more likely to receive a job offer than their Black counterparts, according to a 2017 report in the Harvard Educational Review. And when hired, Black teachers were more likely to be placed in schools with large populations of children of color or in poverty, or in schools classified as struggling. Meanwhile, just one-fifth of public school teachers are nonwhite in public schools, but institutions where 90 percent or more of the student body is nonwhite see that number rise to 55 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Of course, many teachers enter the profession precisely because they want to serve marginalized students. But a “fireman mentality” — particularly when teachers who are undertaking more challenging roles aren’t given adequate support systems — can contribute to burnout. A 2011 study found that turnover for minority teachers was 24 percent higher than for White teachers in the 2008-09 school year. And when there aren’t many nonwhite teachers on staff, the few Black and Latino teachers tend to be shuffled into unofficial disciplinarian roles as liaisons for Black and Latino students, says Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy.
“They have to kind of wear this mantle of being a representative of their community,” Hansen says. “They signed up to be a teacher, not necessarily a diplomat.” This leadership might benefit the students, but offering added compensation for such roles could at least acknowledge this extra labor and help alleviate burnout, he suggests.
To be sure, there’s evidence suggesting that alignment of racial and ethnic identities between students and teachers contributes to positive outcomes when it comes to test scores, disciplinary actions and teacher expectations, according to Brookings Institution research. In Alcox’s experience, he received more understanding — but also more tough love — from his Black teachers, whereas White teachers tended to write him off more quickly.
Still, unintended consequences could play out: With teachers of color underrepresented in the workforce, minority students disproportionately benefit from teacher diversity. As a result, one could conclude that minority students should be clustered with minority teachers. However, this neglects evidence that teachers of color benefit White students, and leaves nonwhite students in predominantly White schools with limited exposure to nonwhite teachers.
More broadly, it could perpetuate a cycle of school segregation. Brookings research found that in 2010 the average White student was just as exposed to Black students as they were in 1980, while the average Black student was actually less exposed to White students than they were 30 years before. In particular regions, like Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, the student-teacher alignment gap has accelerated due to rapid growth in the nonwhite youth population, according to another Brookings report.
In terms of solutions, Hansen raises the possibility of affirmative action in teacher hiring, compensating disciplinary roles and thinking critically about administrator diversity and distribution. And Alcox points to micro-level actions within schools, like ensuring that groups ranging from sports teams to quiz bowls reflect the student body.
Small interventions can make a big impact. One night when Alcox was leaving Sanford, North Carolina, he stopped for a quick bite at Applebee’s. He was shocked to bump into Andy, a Black student Alcox hadn’t seen since he coached him in eighth-grade basketball seven years earlier. Back then, Andy had been angry and difficult to manage.
But Alcox had invested in helping Andy stay the course. Now in his 30s, Andy has earned his college degree and gotten married. He’s even become a coach himself. The two still keep in touch.
And Andy made his gratitude clear: I know I was a knucklehead growing up, he told Alcox, but thank you for your patience.