Rod Watson: Want more teachers of color? You have to prepare them first | Education

When residents at one stop on Interim Buffalo School Superintendent Tonja Williams’ “listening tour” called for more teachers of color, it may have sounded like an echo chamber.

The fact that this demand has reverberated for years only adds to the frustration of parents and other advocates who recognize the importance of having more teachers who share the backgrounds of the students of color who make up more than three-quarters of the district’s enrollment.

But it’s not just the city of Buffalo that falls short. A new analysis by the consumer research site Smartest Dollar found that the Buffalo Niagara region as a whole has the 12th fewest minority teachers of the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas.

Using US Census Bureau data, the study found that while 34% of the region’s students are nonwhite, only 12.3% of the instructors are teachers of color. But while Buffalo Niagara may be near the bottom in terms of raw numbers, its 21.7 percentage point “teacher diversity gap” is identical to the gap facing the nation as a whole, according to this analysis.

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Why does this gap matter?

Because research has long shown that having more teachers of color – especially in heavily Black and Hispanic districts like Buffalo – can improve everything from achievement levels to special education placements to suspension rates.

For instance, a 2017 American Educational Research Association study found “consistent evidence” that having more teachers of the same race as students results in “reduced rates of exclusionary discipline for Black students.”

Similarly, a 2012 analysis in Research & Reviews cited the “cultural mismatch that hinders the effectiveness of teachers” as a key factor contributing to disparities in educational outcomes.

Buffalo school officials – pressed by parent advocates – have long been mindful of the impact of such gaps, but can cite little actual improvement. Asked on the We The Parents of WNY radio show recently, Williams said the district has tried recruiting at conferences and Black colleges and universities, but that she has come to believe in “growing our own” by creating a pipeline that channels current Buffalo students into teaching.

However, a 2017 analysis cited in the new study indicates it may not be that easy.

The Urban Institute found that the problem is “not as simple as people of color choosing not to become teachers.” In fact, Black and Hispanic college graduates become teachers at almost the same rates as their white peers. According to the institute, 10.8% of white college graduates were teachers in 2015, compared to 9.4% of Hispanic and 8.6% of Black graduates.

Rather, the problem starts much sooner. Proportionately fewer Blacks and Hispanics earn high school diplomas than whites, and that gap becomes a chasm by the time college degrees are handed out. The Urban Institute study found, for instance, that “while 40% of white adults and 65% of Asian adults had college degrees in 2015, only 21% of Black adults and 16% of Hispanic adults had earned such a credential.” That college graduation disparity creates a much smaller pool of potential Black and Hispanic teachers.

Paired with the research showing the impact teachers of color can have on minority students, those numbers mean society is creating a self-perpetuating cycle of educational inequality: Fewer teachers of color contributes to disparities in achievement that result in fewer Black and Hispanic students qualifying for college, which then results in fewer minority graduates who can become teachers to help the next cohort of students.

Despite the recent emphasis on alternative credentialing programs to increase the number of minority teachers, the Urban Institute concludes that “the most important first step is getting people of color through college.”

Efforts like those of Say Yes Buffalo will definitely help. But it still will not be easy in the face of conservatives’ lawsuits and US Supreme Court hostility to college affirmative action programs. Yet it’s essential – and not just for minority students. White kids, too, benefit from seeing people of color in positions of authority at the head of a classroom as well as from the perspectives they bring in preparing students for a diverse work world.

Teachers of color who share the backgrounds of many of their students may also have new approaches for getting buy-in from parents who – whether they or teachers like it or not – are essential educational partners. Yet despite their critical role in signaling to kids the importance of education, many either do not get involved or take the wrong tack in responding to issues their children face.

However, it’s one thing for schools to complain about parents who are AWOL or who make things worse by creating problems themselves. It’s another for school staffs to know how to cultivate a more welcoming environment to make parents feel like actual partners rather than adversaries. Having more diverse staffs can help create that environment.

But as the combination of studies makes clear, Williams – or whoever the next permanent superintendent is – can not close that teacher diversity gap without also closing the educational achievement gap.

Bottom line: If Buffalo wants more teachers of color, it’s not enough just to encourage more minority students to think about teaching as a career. The district also has to do a better job of preparing them for that career, because the two problems go hand in hand.

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