One day during his first week teaching fourth grade in San Antonio’s largely Hispanic Bonham Academy, David Nungaray -- a Teach for America teacher whose parents emigrated from Mexico -- posed a question:
"How many of you think you may want to go to college?" Nungaray asked.
Within seconds, almost every student had his or her hand in the air. Except one.
"I’m going to go to jail," the student said.
When Nungaray probed further, the student responded that his father had gone to jail. Why wouldn’t he?
From that point on, Nungaray emphasized college attainment to all of his students, but paid extra attention to the one who said he was jail-bound. He explained, "I told him every day, 'Good morning. You’re smart, you’re creative, you’re intelligent. You can do this.'"
A few weeks later, after a day spent wearing Nungaray’s Chapman University fraternity paraphernalia, the student had updated his goal sheet, saying he wanted to attend Chapman like Nungaray, who was a first-generation college student himself. By year's end, the student updated his goal sheet again: he was aiming for Yale.
But this student was lucky. His chances of having a teacher like Nungaray were very slim. According to recent census data, 22 percent of all public school students are Latino, but only seven percent of teachers are. And only two percent of teachers are, like Nungaray, black or Latino males.
"I know there’s an added impact with shared background at an elementary school level," said Nungaray, who even had his fourth graders filling out mock college applications by the end of the year. "I talk about my family and my background. This is a going-back-to-my-roots experience -- I teach in a setting that reminds me of where I grew up. The impact I’ve had can be attributed to this shared background with my students."
While there’s little definitive research linking student performance to teacher ethnicity, the sense that shared cultural backgrounds is a bellwether for classroom motivation is making the U.S. government and influential education organizations seriously examine the disparity between the exploding number of Latino students in classrooms and the small number of Latino teachers leading them.
"We know that students benefit when they can learn from teachers who look like them and who can be strong role models," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told The Huffington Post. "That’s why recruiting more Latino teachers is part of our overall effort to strengthen the teaching profession and ensure that students are learning from a diverse group of great teachers."
Education officials and policymakers are engaged in a polarized, ideological debate about teacher quality and the ability of teachers to help overcome poverty. As those thoughts are translated into state laws, a generation of teachers prepares to retire, providing what Duncan and the Department of Education with what they see as an opportunity to create a new breed of teacher.
One piece of that puzzle is recruiting enough minority and Latino teachers so that the people standing in front of the classroom begin to look like their students.
"No one believes that only Latino teachers can teach Latino kids, but there's no getting around it: Latino teachers can play a really important role model role," said Juan Sepúlveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. "If there are Latinos in front of the classroom that share a common culture, they can understand what students are going through."
Experts attribute the incongruence between the number of Latino students and their teachers to the small pool of college-educated Latino professionals. For example, the achievement gap between Latino and white students in math at grades 4 and 8 is 20 points on the National Association for Educational Progress exam. Only thirteen percent of Latinos have Bachelor's degrees.
That circular problem is what Nungaray sought to address with his students. When he spoke to the mother of the allegedly jail-bound student, he said, her goals and expectations for him were lower to begin with. "She said she never thought her child would be remotely speaking about going to college," Nungaray said. "She thought it wouldn’t be a possibility. She had given into expectations that others had set."
"There’s so few of us in general in the educational pipeline, so the pool is really small," said Enrique Murillo, a professor of education at California State University, San Bernardino, commissioner of the California Student Aid Commission and executive director of Latino Education & Advocacy Days. "It stems from the overall crisis in Latino education. The main crux here is that there’s a mismatch between school and home, and Latino educators are bridge builders that help close that mismatch."
The disparity "has created a cultural and linguistic gulf," he said, that particularly hurts students who take English as a second language.
According to Angela Valenzuela, an education professor at University of Texas at Austin, a growing pool of research ties Latino role models to learning. A 2003 report found a few studies on the correlation of Latino teachers and student achievement based on non-test factors concluded that students of color perform better when taught by teachers similar origin. Another study found that minority teachers have higher expectations for students from the same ethnic group.
While researchers continue to assess the depth of the problem, government and non-government organizations work to reach a solution.
Forty percent of Teach for America's students, said Amanda Fernandez, the organization's vice president for diversity and inclusiveness, are Latino. "We need to have the best representation that we can," she said. To that end, TFA is partnering with groups like New Futuro to help find more Latino teachers. TFA also recruits in universities with high Latino populations, and will have 700 Latino teachers in its 9200-member corps next year. That representation has grown ten percent annually since the 2006-2007 academic year, hopefully leading up to a goal of having ten percent of all TFA teachers be Latino by 2015.
Sepúlveda said that the government is trying to address the shortage by recruiting teachers through the online portal teach.gov.
"We can project that our best bet is that in the next five to six years, there will be another million teachers at the other end of the baby boom generation who will be retiring," he said. "It's a window of opportunity for us as a country to help create the next generation of teachers. From the Obama administration side, we said, 'Let's get prepared for that, let's target efforts to young students in general -- particularly minority groups with large numbers in public schools.'"
That's what Nungaray is hoping for. "I created my own definition of success as a male who’s Latino and first-generation on my own because there was no one really, not even my parents with the best intentions, who could necessarily guide me there," he said.