Measuring Teacher ‘Diversity’ in a Segregated School System

Michelle Chen

Kids do most of their growing up in school, but our schools aren’t growing to meet the changing needs of their communities. And the disconnect between the education system’s capacities and the aspirations of the kids they serve subtly illustrates the roots of the so-called achievement gap.”

Among the litany of failures” that politicians have identified in public education, the debate has increasingly affixed on the issue of who is teaching your kids and how they influence student achievement. A new study says one metric that reflects the divide between students’ unmet needs and the human resources of the education system is teacher diversity.” The centrist think tank Center for American Progress argues:

At the national level, students of color make up more than 40 percent of the public school population. In contrast, teachers of color — teachers who are not non-Hispanic white — are only 17 percent of the teaching force.

This is a problem for students, schools, and the public at large. Teachers of color serve as role models for students, giving them a clear and concrete sense of what diversity in education — and in our society — looks like. A recent review of empirical studies also shows that students of color do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they’re taught by teachers of color. …

The overarching critique seems straightforward enough: Kids benefit from an educational experience that is socially and culturally reaffirming. This should include teachers they identify with.

But is statistical diversity” really the objective? Yes, demographics matter if you want schools to be a part of, and an asset for, the community they serve. Social divides within a school amplify the social barriers outside of it. And if teachers and school administrators are isolated from the day-to-day realities students deal with, from economic hardship to violence in the home to limited English-speaking ability, school will become a pretty unwelcoming place for youth.

Real diversity” in the teaching workforce isn’t about mere statistics; there’s nothing magical about having X percentage of Black or Latino teachers per class. It’s about representation – for the kids and the grown-ups.

A classroom in an underserved community encapsulates countless obstacles and missed opportunities. Teachers should understand and empathize with the community they work in, but not simply because kids do better when they have role models” in school. Diversity means little when children can’t form relationships with teachers who are being laid off and shuffled from school to school every semester, or when their entire school is threatened constantly with being shut down for low performance.”

In a troubled school, the social bond between students and teachers matters because it could buffer against the racism and class privilege that besiege them: the constant cycle of drilling and testing, dilapidated facilities, ethnocentric curricula that neither speak to nor inspire kids growing up in communities of color, security patrols that make them feel like trespassers in their own school. In an institution fraught with alienation, hiring a few more black, Latino or Asian teachers is diversity” that doesn’t make a difference.

This structural inequity affects teachers themselves. Demographic imbalances are symptoms of a system that militates against the very diversity that is supposed to be integral to educational democracy. According to the CAP report:

Only 37 percent of African-American teachers and 46 percent of Hispanic teachers were satisfied with their pay. In contrast, 52 percent of white teachers are satisfied with the amount of money that they earn….

Part of the issue is that teachers of color are more likely to teach in public schools in urban, high-poverty communities, which often receive less than their fair share of school dollars….

Teachers of color also are far less satisfied than white teachers with the way in which their school is run. Only 70 percent of African-American teachers are satisfied with the way that their school is run, 8 percentage points lower than white teachers. Hispanic teachers as well as Asian and Pacific Islander teachers are also less likely than white teachers to say that they liked how their school was run.

So here we have a rather warped vision of diversity” in public schools. The Center for American Progress calls for various fixes to recruit more teachers of color, particularly programs like Teach for America that aim to funnel high-achieving, ambitious young people into the nation’s most troubled classrooms. But do we need more diversity in the personnel, or do we need a system that values true diversity – not just in the demographics, but in the cultural, intellectual and social dimensions of the educational ecosystem?

The recent culture war over ethnic studies in Arizona is a case in point: When progressive educators, in partnership with Latino communities, sought diversity in their school programming, they were threatened by a political establishment that favored curricula that imposed conformity, leaving little room for global perspectives on culture and history.

Education activist James Horn of Schools Matter says that the fast-track teacher programs like Teach for America are short-sighted stopgap solutions, which reflect the missionary zeal and unexamined arrogance” of reformers, who confuse tokenism with representation of communities of color in education. And the elephant in the room” that Washington wonks tend to gloss over, he told In These Times, is plain old poverty. 

Privileged temporary missionaries, either white, brown, or green ones, are not going to be able to breathe the empathic understanding required to educate poor children well. Especially since they are learning to teach on poor people’s children. And any reform… that does not see education reform as part of a larger community reform effort that addresses housing, jobs, health, safety, food, medical and dental and eye care AND school facilities and programs, will continue to fail, all the while blaming schools and teachers for not accomplishing what teachers and schools alone can never accomplish.

Kids know when their teacher is committed to their development, when their institution wants to see them thrive. And they’re wise enough to know when the education system is rigged to stifle critical thinking. They shouldn’t have to take lessons in diversity” from those who tend to view difference as a pretext for segregation.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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