Across the United States, as the growth of the minority student population outpaces that of the white student population, classrooms are becoming more and more diverse. While nonwhite students are now the majority in today’s classroom, this is far from true of the teaching profession. As of the 2011-2012 school year (the most recent data available), minority teachers made up just 17% of all elementary and secondary teachers. New evidence from the Learning Policy Institute suggests that in order to meet increasing demands for minority teachers, school leaders will need to focus their efforts on retention in addition to recruitment.
Emphasizing a teacher workforce that is more representative of the increasingly nonwhite student population is more than diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, current research shows that students benefit in a variety of ways from a minority teacher. When minority students and teachers share the same race, students report an environment of increased expectations and enhanced cultural understanding, and may benefit from interacting with a role model that is demographically similar to themselves. Evidence even suggests that there may be a positive academic effect for students, with a same-race teacher boosting test scores by up to the equivalent of one school year.
As the impacts of minority teachers have become more widely recognized, much emphasis has been placed on the recruitment of minority teachers to ensure that their population is more reflective of today’s student population. LPI has found that these recruitment efforts have been rather successful, with the number of minority teachers nationally more than doubling between the 1980s and 2012. However, today’s minority teacher population still lags significantly behind the minority student population, with the proportion of minority teachers in the national teacher workforce increasing from about 12% to just over 17% in the same time period. A report out this month from the Learning Policy Institute decodes this puzzle, and suggests that districts need to look beyond recruitment efforts and toward retention in order to erase the minority teacher gap.
The research finds that minority teachers— particularly male minority teachers— are significantly more likely to change schools or leave the profession entirely, and that the high rate at which these teachers leave is undoing any positive gains made in minority teacher recruitment each year. LPI points to a particularly significant example of this problem: during the 2003-2004 school year, 47,600 minority teachers entered the classroom for the first time. However, by the following school year, 56,000 minority teachers had left teaching entirely— a full 20 percent more than had entered the profession in the previous year. With attrition rates so high, it is critical to examine what may be causing such a pattern.
Though it is true, as commonly stated, that minority teachers are more likely to teach in the most underserved communities, the teachers themselves pointed to a very different set of problems driving their departure. LPI found that the topics least correlated with high minority teacher attrition included issues like salary level, quality of professional development, and availability of classroom resources. Instead, the evidence points most strongly to poor working conditions: minority teachers report issues like the level of influence they feel over decision making in the school and degree of autonomy in the classroom as the main drivers in their decision to leave.
Fostering a workplace environment that respects the professionalism and autonomy of minority teachers appears to be key to retaining them for the future. Evidence also shows that, particularly in schools where most staff is white, support from administrators may also play a strong role in retaining minority teachers. As we find ourselves already settling into the school year, consider: in what ways are issues like influence over decision making, classroom autonomy, and administrator support emphasized? How should the workplace look this year in order to ensure retention of minority teachers next year?