Students Pay the Price When Teachers of Color Exit

Black teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and new research confirms that students of color are paying the highest price for this disparity.

This is the conclusion of an article in the April/May 2018 issue of The article focuses on Jason Dunning, a black teacher of science at a virtually all-black middle school in Birmingham, Alabama.

“For a lot of (my students), me standing there wearing bow tie and a lab coat is a big deal,” Mr. Dunning says. “For many, I’m the first black man they’ve ever seen as a teacher, outside of P.E. or as a coach.”

And his presence is having an impact. As Principal Davida Hill Johnson says, “So many of them want to be scientists now.”

One of them is seventh grader J’layah Shepherd, who says connecting with Dunning has inspired her to attend college and pursue a science career.

“I didn’t really know what to expect, having a black man as a science teacher, but it’s been great,” she says. “He’s like one of us, and there’s more connection there.”

Statistics suggest that it is increasingly rare for African-American students like Shepherd to have teachers who look like them. Now, for the first time, there are more students of color (51 percent) enrolled in public schools than white students. But teachers of color represent only about 20 percent of the nation’s elementary and secondary school teaching force. And more than 40 percent of public schools don’t have a single teacher of color, according to the National Education Association (NEA).

(In Connecticut, although more than 40 percent of public school students are students of color, only about seven percent of teachers are persons of color.)

Studies have shown that a lack of teacher diversity tends to adversely affect students from underrepresented groups, especially students of color.

“Students of color learn better when they see a teacher of color in the classroom, and they’re more likely to stay in school and graduate,” says Lisette Partelow, director of K-12 strategic initiatives for the Center for American Progress (CAP). “So the impact is very measurable. We also believe a diverse teacher workforce can help students develop a more realistic and inclusive worldview. All students benefit from a more diverse teacher workforce.”

For decades, the positive effects of same-race teacher exposure were almost exclusively anecdotal. But recent research affirms that outcomes, such as test scores, attendance and suspension rates, are affected by who is doing the teaching. Experts say diverse teachers serve as role models for students of color, and they have been shown to have higher expectations and a better cultural understanding of those students.

In fact, an April 2017 study by the Institute of Labor Economics (ILE) found that having just one black teacher in third, forth or fifth grade reduced a low-income black boy’s probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent. And if a black male or female student from a low-income household had a black teacher, the ILE  found that the student was more likely to plan to attend a four-year college.

However, in numerous studies and surveys from school districts nationwide, black teachers have reported high levels of job dissatisfaction. They have expressed widespread concerns about job security and concerns about implicit bias directed toward them and students of color, too.

As a result, teachers of color are leaving the profession in droves. Contributing to the problem is that research confirms that black teachers are more likely than their white counterparts to be clustered in high-need, economically disadvantaged urban schools with limited resources. And many of those who do land jobs at more affluent or well-resourced suburban districts often report feeling isolated.

Jerry Washington, one of two other black, male teachers at Dunning’s school, believes that increasing teacher pay is at the heart of fixing the leaky diverse teacher pipeline. “The fact that people feel that teachers don’t get paid enough is a big part of the problem,” he says. “I think that if the salaries were raised, more people would be willing to consider education.”

Many cities and states have implemented initiatives to recruit and retain more teaches of color. In New York City, for example, the NYC Men Teach program aims to put 1,000 additional men of color on course to become teachers over three years.

Mr. Dunning believes that the black teacher shortage will turn around when the black community makes it a priority. “We have to make that sacrifice because, for so many of our students, we are the only positive role models that they’ll et to see,” he says. “If we don’t educate and inspire our youth to become the very best, nobody else will.”