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Children of color make up 45 percent of public K-12 students in the United States, but the teaching workforce doesn’t reflect that diversity. In fact, 83 percent of teachers are white. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) says it’s time to close that significant diversity gap.

Saying schools should be reflective of the diversity that we have in our communities, Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, believes it’s critical to hire and retain teachers with diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.

“It’s important for children to see people who look like them in their classrooms,” she says. “It’s a positive exposure to role modeling, it reduces stereotypes, it reduces implicit bias.”

Weingarten says it’s equally important for white students to see teachers of color because it debunks stereotypes, reduces implicit bias, and increases understanding.

Benefits

Children who experience diversity in school perform better academically, emotionally, and socially.

Research shows students in integrated classrooms have better test scores than peers in non-integrated classrooms. For example, in a 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress math test of fourth-graders, low-income students attending wealthier schools scored about two years ahead of low-income students attending high-poverty schools.

Another study, which was published in the journal “Child Development,” reported middle school students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds feel safer, less lonely, and less bullied if they attend diverse schools. The same study, of diverse schools with many ethnic groups of relatively equal size, found there was less prejudice and more tolerance of students of differing ethnicities. Researchers believed teachers treat all students equally and more fairly in diverse schools.

Additionally, research suggests diverse classroom environments promote creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. 

Challenges

Weingarten says teachers often feel a lack of respect. They want better wages too.

Another issue is the underfunding of historically black colleges and historically Latinx colleges, which traditionally have been the pipeline for diverse teachers.

“You basically have a pipeline scarcity and you have competition from other fields. All of that creates this diversity gap,” says Weingarten. “We need to be really intentional in how we attract and keep a diverse workforce and in teaching.”

Retention

It’s important to retain teachers of diverse backgrounds. According to a report from the Learning Policy Institute, teachers of color move schools or leave teaching at an annual rate of 19 percent, compared to 15 percent of their white peers.

In a federal teacher follow-up survey, teachers of color said they left for various reasons, including concerns about compensation tied to student performance, lack of administrative support, lack of classroom autonomy and school influence, as well as poor teaching conditions, and other factors.

Advocacy

AFT, which represents teachers, paraprofessionals, and school-related personnel, advocates for being deliberate about keeping pace with the changing student demographics. They’re creating support among educators, including mentorship programs.

They’re also preparing teachers to take certification exams. It’s especially important because bias has been found against candidates of color taking the exams. AFT is working with testing companies to diversify the board on which teachers sit and develop and vet test items. Test-takers are often required to pass exams that are outside of their specialization.

There appears to be a racial disparity in test results as well: on one testing company’s exam, 92 percent of white test-takers pass the test’s reading portion compared to 68 percent of African American test-takers. In math, 72 percent of white test-takers passed, compared with 36 percent of African American test-takers. AFT is working with that testing company and others to ensure there’s no testing bias.

Additionally, AFT is focused on intentionally creating more diversity pipeline programs through “Grow Your Own” initiatives across the country. For example, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers engaged high school students interested in education to go into that field and then return to teach in Pittsburgh public schools.

These efforts and more can help increase diversity inside and outside the classroom.

“We need to strengthen our public schools, so that every neighborhood and every school is some place the parents want to send their children to, educators want to work, and kids have a welcoming and safe, and an academically enriching environment in which they thrive,” says Weingarten.

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