Many schools lack diversity with no Black teachers in sight

Jeffrey Lee, a Black male English teacher, stands out as the sole one at his school, serving approximately 815 students northwest of Philadelphia.

“It can be isolating. I sometimes feel like the last remnants of a bygone era,” Lee expressed. “Students have told me, ‘You’re the first African American or male teacher of color I’ve encountered.”

Seventy years post a groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished segregation in public schools, Lee’s situation underscores a persistent imbalance in schools nationwide: Although students of color now represent nearly half of America’s student population, the number of teachers and administrators of color has not kept pace.

A state-by-state data analysis by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming education to serve students of color and those in poverty, revealed that on the majority of U.S. campuses, nearly 25% of public schools lacked a teacher of color. Simultaneously, students of color constituted the majority in public schools.

Teacher composition lags behind, with about one-fourth of the nation’s educators being people of color, as per the nonprofit’s assessment. Various studies have highlighted that this disparity hinders learning, especially among students of color, who thrive academically when taught by educators from diverse backgrounds.

The causes of these disparities are multifaceted, as per education experts who informed USA TODAY that the imbalance is a residual effect of the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

How Brown v. Board Contributed to Teacher Diversity Imbalance

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was intrinsically unequal and violated the Equal Protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

While the ban on school segregation marked a triumph for the civil rights movement, it provoked ire from Southern white leaders, school officials, parents, and others.

Prior to the Brown v. Board verdict, Black teachers comprised 35 to 50% of the workforce in the 17 states with segregated school systems, as reported by Education Week. Subsequent to the ruling, numerous Black schools shuttered, thousands of Black educators were ousted, and less-qualified white teachers replaced them, according to Leslie Fenwick, the dean emerita of the Howard University School of Education.

Activists organized by By Any Means Necessary rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to mark the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision May 15, 2004, in Washington, D.C.

The drastic decline in the number of Black educators following the ruling was an unintended consequence, noted Tequilla Brownie, CEO of The New Teacher Project.

“The current lack of educator diversity in our nation is directly tied to Brown (v. Board),” Brownie remarked. “It not only affected the school environment and demographics but also impacted Black communities and families. Educators of color played a crucial role in fostering the middle class within communities.”

The deficiency of diversity in the workforce additionally hampered opportunities for Latino educators post the 1947 Mendez vs. Westminster ruling. This judgment, which deemed the forced desegregation among Mexican American and white students unconstitutional, set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education, per the Zinn Education Project, a collaboration of historical content from Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

The repercussions of these cases would resonate for years to come.

Tequilla Brownie, CEO of The New Teacher Project, says educators of color have been "the lynchpin to creating the middle class in communities."

Numerous Factors Fueling Teacher Diversity Imbalance

In addition to key historical events, several factors have impeded access to the teaching profession for educators of color, making their careers challenging or forcing them out of the field, as per experts interviewed by USA TODAY. These factors encompass:

  • Teacher layoffs: School districts are laying off teachers in large numbers in preparation for the cessation of COVID-19 funding. Many schools employed educators of color in recent times, primarily in schools with “last in, first out” policies that prioritize layoffs based on most recent hires. These financial ramifications are expected to disproportionately impact students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, as per research by the Brookings Institution.
  • Burnout and frustration: Over recent years, some teachers of color have made the tough decision to leave the profession, citing burnout, low morale, pandemic-related stresses, and a hostile environment amid political attacks on schools. Sharhonda Bossier, CEO of Education Leaders of Color, highlighted concerns raised by educators and education leaders of color regarding school safety issues like shootings and escalating misbehavior among students.
  • Financial concerns: Challenges such as low pay, pricey teacher training programs, and demanding licensing exams have deterred people of color interested in entering the teaching profession, as highlighted by education experts.
  • Lack of representation in leadership roles: Jean Desravines, CEO of New Leaders, a charitable organization devoted to cultivating “transformational, equity-minded” school leaders, underlined a pipeline issue in U.S. schools. Teachers of color encounter barriers to leadership positions, inhibiting their ability to elevate others, Desravines stated.
  • Cuts to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs: Legislators have passed directives mandating the elimination of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in schools, resulting in educators of color losing their roles.

Strategies for Closing the Gap

To bridge the divide, American schools would need to recruit about 1 million educators of color and 30,000 leaders of color, based on an analysis of federal data from the 2017-2018 school year. This analysis was detailed in a publication by the One Million Teachers of Color Campaign, a collective of education organizations striving to boost teacher diversity.

Educational experts have delineated several methods through which the federal government, states, and schools can collaborate to enhance access for educators of color.

One suggested approach is reconfiguring the process of layoffs in schools: Some advocate for eliminating “last in, first out” layoff policies to prevent the dismissal of recently hired teachers of color when funds dwindle.

States can also support programs aimed at recruiting educators of color, such as “grow your own” initiatives that incentivize paraprofessionals to transition into teaching within their current school environments. Additionally, districts could fund teacher residencies enabling individuals with bachelor’s degrees to teach while pursuing certification or participating in fellowships and apprenticeships.

Enhanced compensation for teachers would also play a role in ameliorating the imbalance. Concerns persist among individuals of color that enticing youths into a low-paying teaching profession could widen the racial income disparity, as voiced by Sharhonda Bossier. Bossier recounted that during her teaching tenure, she had to wait tables to supplement her income.

Sharhonda Bossier, CEO at Education Leaders of Color, had to wait tables to supplement her income when she was teaching. She worries that young people of color who enter teaching with continue to face a wealth gap.

Furthermore, investing in the recruitment, training, and hiring of school leaders of color, who are more likely to advocate for, promote, and foster educators reflective of their student demographics, would prove beneficial, Desravines asserted.

According to Education Department Secretary Miguel Cardona, abundant funding sources are available for this purpose. He has repeatedly urged states to allocate COVID-19 relief funds toward enhancing teacher diversity. Several states have already initiated investments in bolstering the teacher pipeline in recent years. However, the impending depletion of these funds raises uncertainties regarding the trajectory of progress.

A Successful Approach in Action

California’s investment in teacher residency programs has borne fruit through initiatives like Peter Watts’ Village Initiative program. This program supports Black male teachers in Los Angeles by providing housing, guidance, and resources to teach in their resident communities, fostering meaningful connections with students without financial constraints.

One program participant teaches U.S. history at a charter school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, facilitated by the financial and mentorship assistance from the Village Initiative, as per Watts.

Fontae Smith attributed his decision to pursue this role to the influence of Black male teachers from his formative academic years. Today, he stands as one of the few Black male educators at his school, analogous to Lee’s situation at the middle school in Pennsylvania.

Fontae Smith is part of the Watts Power Foundation's Village Initiative. He teaches U.S. history at a charter school in Los Angeles.

Smith and Lee acknowledged encountering uncomfortable remarks or comments about their race from students within their classrooms. Nevertheless, they find fulfillment in their roles, believing they offer children exposure to admired Black male leaders. Both Smith and Lee were inspired by Black teachers to enter the teaching profession.

“You have to understand that it’s more significant than just yourself,” Smith emphasized. Knowing he has the potential to inspire up to 150 students annually and influence others keeps him motivated.

“It’s like a spark that spreads,” Smith concluded.

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