This back-to-school season marks a historic first for U.S. public schools: More than half of our students are students of color. The demographics of our teaching force, however, do not reflect the changing face of our nation’s student body.
Our public school students are 49.8 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black and 5 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders. Multiracial and Native American students make up a smaller share.
Our public school teachers are 84 percent white, 7 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Four percent identify with other ethnicities.
This teacher diversity gap raises concerns for the way we teach and support our students of color as well as our white students. All children deserve to see someone at the front of the classroom who looks like them, just as all students benefit when they can look up to someone who does not.
That’s what makes the numbers released by Teach For America (TFA) earlier this month so encouraging: Half of the organization’s 2014 corps of 5,300 new teachers identify as people of color, and nearly half of those as African American. Forty-seven percent come from low-income backgrounds, and a third are first-generation college graduates. Efforts to recruit a more diverse crop of new teachers yielded even higher results in some regions. In Los Angeles, for example, 70 percent of TFA’ers identify as people of color, including 10 with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.
The first school year that more than half of our public school students are students of color is also the year that half of new TFA teachers identify as people of color. What other organization or school of education can report such gains in closing the teacher diversity gap?
Don’t get ahead of myself, you say? Too soon to give TFA the “best in diversity” award? After all, isn’t TFA—along with Starbucks, Thai restaurants and bike lanes—a harbinger of gentrification so insidious it can look like progressive “reform,” yet will flip a neighborhood school before you can say, “AYP”?
In the eyes of many community members and teachers, the face of TFA is still very much white, female, young, privileged and “not from here.” This is not just perception. It’s real. I know because in 1998 it was my reality.
I am a ’98 TFA Newark alum, and back then I was one of only two white teachers in a school where 98 percent of the students were African American. Back then it was not uncommon to be the only TFA teacher assigned to a school. I was surrounded by mid-career and seasoned black teachers, whom I spent my early years observing and learning from as I grew into the teacher I would become.
The TFA training I received was not obsessed with data tracking and “achievement.” I was introduced to the work of Sonia Nieto, Linda Darling-Hammond and Lisa Delpit. We took Harvard’s implicit bias test, participated in affinity groups and talked explicitly about race and culture with our cohort. I think there was a general awareness that TFA teachers weren’t diverse enough, but we were having critical conversations about those issues and how our identities impacted our place within school communities.
Twelve years later, I took a job mentoring new teachers and was disheartened by what I saw becoming the norm. Two-thirds of the teachers I mentored came through alternative certification programs like TFA or DC Teaching Fellows, rather than schools of education. Eighty-five percent of the teachers on my roster were white and 75 percent were women. None were men of color. All were hindered by a lack of cultural competence, yet taught in a district where 88 percent of the students were students of color. This discrepancy is just one example of the teacher diversity gap—a gap that persists and deserves our attention.
More recently, TFA has focused on diversity and made deliberate changes to its recruiting techniques. First on their “who we look for” list as characteristic of successful teachers and desirable in applicants is “[a] deep belief in the potential of all kids and a commitment to do whatever it takes to expand opportunities for students, often informed by experience in low-income communities and an understanding of the systemic challenges of poverty and racism.” This statement sends an important message that extends beyond recruiting teachers of color to teachers of conscience.
Nevertheless, TFA has been criticized for failing to meet the needs of communities of color, and some argue that the organization’s presence in those communities is part and parcel of the “systemic challenges of poverty and racism.” But if the 2014 corps is any indication, we could see a sea change.
While maybe not the recipient of “best in diversity” award, TFA certainly deserves a BIG shout-out for “most improved.” TFA taught me the importance of high expectations, and in return I encourage the organization to work harder to support and retain this year’s teachers so students can look up to them for years to come.
Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist at Teaching Tolerance.