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Glenda L. Partee

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Should African Americans Care about the Racial Composition of the Teacher Workforce?

Posted: 11/18/11 12:18 PM ET

Our country faces a population shift that has major implications for the teacher workforce. The proportion of teachers of color is out of step with the increasing racial diversity of our public school students.

African Americans can accept this imbalance as the result of a post-racial society and do nothing. Or we can decide it's to the benefit of our children to have strong educators and role models that look like them. If so, we can work to address this imbalance.

Nationally, students of color make up 40 percent of the public school population, but teachers of color represent only about 17 percent of the workforce. These imbalances are greater in some parts of the country. In California, for instance, 72 percent of public school students are students of color, but teachers of color make up only 27 percent of the teacher workforce. In Nashville, where the majority of students are nonwhite, white teachers account for about 60 percent of the teaching force.

So why should African Americans care if the composition of the teaching workforce does not reflect the students in the classroom? The more basic concern should be whether the teacher knows her subject and is effective in ensuring that our children learn and achieve. Effective teachers are a premium no matter their race or ethnicity. Every parent and community member should demand nothing less. However, African American students derive an additional value from a more representative teacher workforce.

Teachers of color are more likely to teach in public schools in urban, high-poverty communities -- if we lose them, we lose this commitment. They provide examples of teaching as a viable career. Education has been a traditional pathway for black Americans to bootstrap into the mainstream. We need to build on and perfect this tradition, not abandon it. Research shows that some students of color do better in a variety of academic outcomes if they are taught by a teacher of their own background.

Given the sorry state of achievement among African American students -- whether the gauge is fourth-grade reading proficiency or high school graduation rates -- we need to activate all the levers at hand to engineer the best outcomes for our kids. This is not something we can walk away from.

I believe that with will and focus, we can address this imbalance. Doing so will benefit all of us. It is doable and some (but not enough) efforts are in progress to increase the pool of African American or minority teachers. For example, Call Me Mister, a statewide initiative in South Carolina, links black male graduates of area colleges with high-minority, high-poverty schools in the state. The city of Oakland, California has implemented a grow-your-own model, Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, which draws on residents of the community with college degrees and those without degrees who can be molded into effective teachers.

With the integration of the workforce, many of our best and brightest young people moved into higher-paying, higher-status careers. The profession of teaching, once the standard bearer of the black middle class, lost its luster. Those "advances" to other professions, without a comparable increase in the size of the pipeline of qualified candidates of color, have resulted in a mismatch between the demographics of the student population and those of the teachers. It is time to rethink our commitment to this pipeline.

We live in a world of different races and cultures, and diversity should be part of the fabric of all our institutions, including our schools. A significant difference between the racial or ethnic composition of the student body and that of the teaching staff bears watching. It's time to intervene.