As part of our U.S. history unit on the Progressive Era, my co-teacher and I have included a project called “Be the Change.” Through this, we ask students to tackle some of the major issues facing young people in our nation, including environmental problems, economic disadvantages and racial inequities.
The students read articles, watch videos and listen to podcasts to educate themselves about the problem. They then develop a plan to “be the change,” modeling their actions after activists from the progressive era.
As I curated sources for the project a couple years ago, this article struck me. It highlights the utter lack of diversity when it comes to teachers in the U.S. And sharing it with my students, many of whom are from the very races and ethnicities that are so underrepresented in teaching, prompted some powerful discussions. So when I read the League’s recent report on the state budget as a tool for racial equity, I was not surprised to see the statistics on teacher diversity, but I was again troubled.
In Michigan, students of color made up 33% of the population of public schools in 2015-2016. But 91% of teachers are White. Study after study after study has shown that having at least one teacher of the same race increases the likelihood of school success for children of color. But that’s not happening in Michigan.
I care deeply about this issue and want to learn more about its roots. But I am a white female high school teacher. Part of being an effective teacher or an effective advocate is knowing what you don’t know, and being open to learn from others’ experience and expertise, so I sought answers from people working more closely on diversity in teaching.
I first went to Dr. Terry K. Flennaugh at Michigan State University. Flennaugh is an Assistant Professor of race, culture and equity in education and the coordinator of urban education initiatives at the university.
“We know that greater diversity is better for all students, not just students of color. The folks who help usher in learning shouldn’t look like just one person,” Flennaugh said.
Why do teachers look the way they do? As with most issues involving race, place and ethnicity, it’s complicated, says Flennaugh.
He made clear that the problem is caused by things beyond the scope of academics—that people from underrepresented backgrounds face many barriers. But he did pin down some issues that crop up at the university level.
“Teaching is a highly regulated profession—it has to be. But we’re held to all these standards, and some of the accreditation requirements have disproportionately negatively impacted communities of color,” Flennaugh said.
The biggest requirement that falls into this category is the standardized test. Right now, the state of Michigan uses the SAT as its “test of basic skills.” In order to begin student teaching, it’s required that a student meet or exceed the career and college readiness benchmark on that exam.
Leah Breen, Director of Educator Services with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), agrees that the test is not an ideal measurement.
“We know that standardized tests are going to show racial bias—any standardized test shows a disparity between White students and students of color. We also don’t have any research that definitively shows that success on these tests indicates that someone is going to be a successful teacher,” Breen said.
Breen’s department, which oversees teacher preparation, is well aware of the lack of teachers of color entering the teaching profession.
According to Breen, MDE consistently examines its internal policies and procedures to see what might be creating barriers to anyone who might want to teach but feels disenfranchised.
“Michigan’s stats mirror the nation’s stats when it comes to diversity in the workplace, and that’s an issue,” Breen said. “We’re working every day to make this profession more desirable for young people.”
One approach they’re taking involves the standardized test.
“One benefit of the SAT is that all students in Michigan are able to take it free of charge during their junior year of high school. So that means one less hurdle for students as they try to begin their student teaching program.”
Another way the department is using the standardized test to its advantage is through a campaign to reach out to high school students.
“We’re implementing a plan to send letters home to any student who earns the ‘career and college’ readiness cut score on the test their junior year. The letter will congratulate them and let them know they’ve already met a benchmark…that their path to becoming a teacher has already begun. We do feel like this is a way to reach out to a wider body of candidates.”
Of course, only 10% of African-American students and 19% of Latino students in Michigan met or exceeded the SAT benchmark for college readiness in 2015-16. So we can’t depend on these measures to increase diversity among teachers.
“We can’t just blame a screening test, though,” said Flennaugh. “Students who have positive experiences with a profession tend to go into those fields. Black students don’t always have those positive experiences with teachers.”
There’s also the practical side of the issue, says Flennaugh. Teaching is not a moneymaker, so students who come from a disadvantaged background and want to rise up don’t see a teacher prep program, with its four years of classes and fifth year unpaid internship, as a lucrative option. Plus, the starting salary is less than desirable for someone looking to find a way up the economic ladder.
“We also have asked universities to increase clinical experiences in urban areas—giving future teachers the opportunity to work with more racially diverse students and perhaps provide better access for student teachers of color,” Breen said of the state’s motion toward greater diversity.
But, Breen adds, teacher diversity can’t come from one department. It’s got to come from the districts. And the universities. And the Legislature. And the communities.
“This is a systemic problem. We’re not going to solve it by tweaking something only at the university level,” he said.
And as students in districts around the state become more diverse, the problem will only become more conspicuous.
Both Breen and Flennaugh realize there’s no quick fix toward increasing teacher diversity; they also agree that more must be done to improve lives of people of color beyond the scope of academics.
Viewing the state budget through a racial equity lens would go a long way in identifying gaps early on, giving our students a much better chance of seeing a teacher who looks like them. It’s something I’m working on in my job at the League that could inform my job as a teacher, even as a white woman.
A dictum of many teachers is “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” and it has always been true in my case. When it comes to diversity, it seems applicable, as well.
One of Flennaugh’s biggest points was this: “I worry about the idea that representation alone will solve the problem. The teacher, regardless of whether he looks like me, needs to make an attempt to understand me,” Flennaugh said.
As a secondary teacher, I am committed to understanding my students better each day. But I think our broader commitment should be to do what we can to make sure our students look to the front of the class and see teachers who better reflect our society.
The League will continue to work on identifying racial disparities in Michigan, including the lack of diversity in teaching, and how we can change public policy to address them. And I personally will continue to do my part to support my students, my school and my profession, including exploring some of the solutions that experts have developed to recruit and retain teachers of color.
— Laura Millard Ross, Communications Associate