Will More Minority Teachers Make a Difference?

Will more minority teachers make a difference in the performance gap between white students and their minority classmates or will we have to close the performance gap in order to get more minority teachers?

On Monday, May 5th and article was released by the Associated Press and published by newspapers throughout the U.S. The article, about diversity among teachers, is interesting not only because the data is revealing but also because it gives us an opportunity to broaden the dialogue about the performance gap in education between white and minority students. This performance gap is the single most glaring fact in all of education and yet it is rarely discussed in any depth other than to make passing reference to it. Then, it is explained away with a series of clichés that have evolved from unverified assumptions that are influenced more by our prejudices than by reasoned observation and research.

We will not have solved the problems of public education until the performance gap has been significantly closed and ultimately eliminated and we cannot close the performance gap until we examine it scientifically and unapologetically.

Yes, it makes sense that it would be a good thing if more students “can look and see someone who looks just like them, that they can relate to,” as suggested by Kevin Gilbert, in the Associated Press article. It seems somewhat of a stretch, however, to conclude, as Gilbert does, that “Nothing can help motivate our students more than to see success standing right in front of them.”

If Gilbert, a professional educator in Mississippi and board member of the National Education Association, was correct we would expect that minority students would perform at a high level whenever they found themselves in a classroom with a teacher of the same race or ethnic background as themselves.

There is little documented evidence to support Gilbert’s assertion and we can only speculate what would be the impact on the “performance gap” if we could somehow increase the number of minority teachers in American public school classrooms.

My daughter’s experience, teaching in an all-black elementary school in Washington DC provides an example. Other than my daughter, every other teacher in the school was African-American. Her school was one of the lowest performing schools in one of our nation’s lowest-performing school districts. The racial makeup of the collective faculty had no appreciable effect on a reality in which only a handful of students were motivated to learn and where the parents of those few students appeared to be the only parents who cared or accepted even a modicum of responsibility for the success of their sons and daughters.

The teachers whom my daughter came to know and be inspired by were not drawn from the bottom of the barrel of qualified teachers, they were dedicated men and women who gave their all to help as many students as they could in the midst of one of the most dreadful teaching environments in the U.S.

Irrespective of race or ethnicity, what almost any teacher working in a public school classroom will tell you is that the overwhelming majority of their students could be successful if only they cared and if only they would try. These same teachers would add that without the support of parents it is incredibly difficult to break through the indifference.

For those readers who will be quick to suggest that it is the teachers who do not care, unless they have walked in the shoes of their children’s teachers they know not of what they speak. The overwhelming majority of our public school teachers care very much, even in the face of years of frustration and disillusionment.

Putting more minority teachers in American public school classrooms may or may not have an impact on the performance gap but, clearly, if only we could close the performance gap between white students and their minority counterparts there would be many more minority teachers to fill those classrooms. We can also say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of public school districts would love to have more minority candidates from which to choose when attempting to fill teaching vacancies.

Below are a few facts from the National Center for Educational Statistics about both the performance gap in education and also about the number of minority students who go on to college; the population from which future teachers can be recruited.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures the percentage of 8th grade American students earning an assessment level of “proficient and above” in math and reading. The NAEP defines “proficient” as having “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” Since it is vital that the knowledge and skills a student acquires transfers to life as an adult, the phrase “application of such knowledge to real-world situations” is particularly noteworthy.

In 2012, of the students in 8th grade math, 44 percent of white students were assessed as “proficient or above,” compared to only 13 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students. In reading, the scores were similar as 43 percent of white students were assessed at “proficient or above,” compared to 15 and 19 percent of black and Hispanic students, respectively. Clearly the performance gap is as real as it is ominous. That we would consider 44 percent to be an acceptable level of achievement is sad commentary on American education.

When looking at students enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities in the same year, 59 percent were white, 15 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic. I suspect it is not a coincidence that the numbers are similar to the percentage of students assessed at “proficient or above” on the NAEP Assessments.

When looking at students earning bachelor degrees in the 2011-12 school year, 70 percent of the graduates were white while only 10.7 were African-American students, and 9.8 percent Hispanic. Clearly, not as many minority students are making it through to graduation compared to their white classmates.

Given that not every college graduate chooses a career in education, we should not be surprised that minority teachers are under-represented in American public school classrooms. It is a reality that can only be altered by closing the performance gap and this is where we must place our focus. Everything else is a diversion that obstructs our progress.

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