Missing RepresentationThe Problems with America's Majority-White Teaching Work Force
Vivett Dukes always knew the importance of education, even from a young age.
“My mother said you have two strikes against you: You’re black, and you’re a girl,” Dukes recalled. “Education is the one thing no one can dispute.”
Dukes is a first-generation American. Both her parents are Jamaican. She has light-brown woven braids that curl around her head and drape down the right side of her face. Her smile is radiant, her lips glistening with freshly applied gloss.
She grew up in Elmont, on Long Island. From kindergarten through twelfth grade, she recalled, she went through school seeing hardly any teachers who looked like her.
“I missed out. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying I’m fine with it,” she said. “I missed out.”
She often thinks about how all her teachers were white. Years later, it still upsets her, which becomes apparent when she speaks about how, to this day, few minority teachers lead classrooms. Her voice alternates between calm and soft and forceful and loud. She doesn’t yell, but her passion flows freely.
“I write about what I see now as a teacher, that black children are in a very bad way. At every turn they are being set up to fail,” she said. “I’m the outlier. I had examples in my own family of black women and black men who were high achieving doing wonderful things.”
Those members of her family were role models who showed her that success as a black woman was possible. But, she explained, many of her minority students today lack the same exposure to role models that she had.
Dukes teaches in New York City, and her classroom is unlike the majority of classrooms across the United States. A person of color is the teacher.
Four out of every five teachers in the U.S. are white, according to a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. New York State mirrors that percentage, but Long Island’s teaching corps is whiter than the state and nation.
Minorities still struggle to break into the educator workforce. They face many barriers when trying to become teachers.
Knowledge gaps hinder people of color’s future success from a young age. Most aspiring teachers must go back to school for more education, a difficult and expensive process. On top of all that, minority educators lack access to teaching or administrative jobs because of low teacher turnover and other barriers like unconscious racial bias.
The over-representation of white teachers in the American education system creates issues for all students, advocates say.
Teachers of color dismantle false perceptions of race. They show minority and white students alike what can be achieved by people of color.
Constance Evelyn, a veteran educator and the superintendent of Valley Stream 13 School District on Long Island, argued that a lack of exposure to nonwhite role models hurts all children’s job opportunities. Future jobs will require successful collaboration with diverse people, she said. Without diverse educators, white children in particular lose the chance to learn about multiple cultures and perspectives.
“If you’re just managing those relationships for the first time as an adult, you are less likely to be successful in that kind of environment,” she said. “Part of why we continue to have to struggle with race relations in this country is because of the miseducation of the dominant culture.”
Teachers of color are also powerful role models for nonwhite students.
“[They] encourage young people of color to dream to want to become a principal or a judge or something that is not normally diverse,” Gwen Samuel, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, an organization that advocates for equitable access to education, said.
Nearly 90 percent of the teachers in Nassau County are white, and more than 90 percent of Suffolk County teachers are white, according to 2018 data from the New York State Education Department. Around 80 percent of teachers around the state and the nation are white.
The students in schools are far more diverse than the teachers. The New York State Education Department reported that just over 50 percent of elementary, middle and high school students on Long Island were white in the 2016-17 school year.
Across New York State at that time, only 45 percent of K-12 students were white while black and Hispanic students represented 40 percent of the state’s students.
Classroom demographics in New York State mirror the national picture. The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed 49 percent of students were white and 40 percent were either black or Hispanic in 2014.
The number of minority students in America’s classrooms will only grow. White students outnumbered all other racial minorities combined a decade ago, but the center predicts the percentage of black and Hispanic students will equal the percentage of white students by 2026.
Minority students are less successful when they only have white teachers. The National Center for Education Statistics reports fewer black and Latino graduate high school each year compared to white and Asian students. But a 2017 study from Johns Hopkins University found that black students are more likely to graduate from high school if they have had at least one black teacher.
“That’s what teachers are to a lot of black children,” Dukes said. “They may be the one or two few examples of excellence who is not a rapper, a basketball player, any other stereotypical image of what you can be in America as a black person.”
The same holds true for Hispanic students. For white and Asian students, professional role models are in ample supply.
Minority students miss out when their teachers don’t look like them. White teachers sometimes fail to present topics in ways that minorities can relate to.
“Often in the classroom, that teacher presents certain sensitive topics from a white European perspective rather than a more global perspective and the child sitting in that classroom often feels uneasy or sometimes angry or perplexed,” Brandy Scott, a former teacher and assistant superintendent who has taught across Long Island, said. She’s a consultant now and the president of the Long Island Black Educators Association.
Scott said Thanksgiving is one example where white teachers often fail to incorporate nonwhite perspectives. She explained that many teachers forget to talk about the Native American harvest and how it has influenced the Thanksgiving holiday. Those stories help students of color because they focus on ethnic groups outside white Americans.
Learning about other American cultures helps combat the bias in American society that takes root early. Psychology research from 2008 found that children as young as kindergarten understand the social and racial hierarchy in the U.S.
Most children of color learn early how the world is stacked against them and become skeptical that education can actually help them succeed.
“You gotta break through the shell before you can even try to educate them because the wall is already up,” Risheema Slader said. She is black and an 18-year veteran English teacher in Longwood School District, where 42 percent of students are black or Latino.
Slader said she helps minority students when she can. “You do find yourself gravitating toward the students of color because they don’t have the same support at home that the other kids do,” she explained.
She often advises the students of color she has in her study hall. Slader explained she pushes them to research their options beyond high school graduation, like college.
“They are not my students,” she said. “I don’t teach them, but I do feel an obligation to help out.”
Minorities of all ages face prejudice regularly and have to break past society’s ingrained stereotypes of them.
“We’re constantly told that we’re not good enough by the media,” Dukes said. “We’re constantly portrayed as criminally minded and just horrific, demonic people.”
Those relentless negative characterizations hurt students of color.
“They’re jaded already,” Slader said. “Now you’re fighting the battle of trying to educate them and to try to show them that you don’t have to be so hard, so bitter, so tough.”
Changing society's ingrained perceptions of race is difficult, especially in a profession that minorities still struggle to break into.
“It is about access,” Evelyn said. “It has always been about access to these positions.”
In this case, access means a few different things. It does mean direct access to teaching and administrative jobs. But it also has to do with the pipeline teachers follow into schools.
Aspiring teachers of color face barriers even before they think of applying to teaching jobs. Knowledge gaps for minority students form early.
“We know that young children, particularly young children of color, are not acquiring all the knowledge they need to be successful,” Rebecca Good, the dean of the Relay Graduate School of Education in Connecticut, said.
Relay Graduate School of Education is a higher education institution network, with campuses across the country, that offers affordable and flexible ways for people to earn their teaching credentials. Good helped found Connecticut’s school in 2016, and she said the majority of those who have enrolled are people of color.
Content gaps start early for minorities. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2017 that white and Asian students consistently outperformed black and Latino students on math and reading tests. These achievement gaps form as early as fourth grade and never close.
Knowledge gaps affect how nonwhite students perform on standardized tests, Good said.
Standardized tests often ask questions about content that minority students consistently do not know the answer to, Good explained. They might ask questions about activities like sailing or golfing that not every racial group has experience with.
The hurdles do not stop at content gaps. Aspiring teachers of any race often need more education even if they have an undergraduate degree. But going back to school is difficult and time-consuming for people who already have full-time jobs.
“If you don’t have the time or the finances to afford to become a teacher, that is a barrier into getting into the profession,” Good said. “For our aspiring educators of color, that is a key barrier.”
Clear the first two hurdles, but more still pop up. Jobs aren’t easy to come by even when minorities have the proper certifications.
Remember how teachers of color can break down misconceptions of race? Those same misconceptions act as another barrier minorities have to clear when becoming a teacher.
Brandy Scott said all-white school boards and interview committees unconsciously hire white teachers over teachers of color because of their implicit biases—subconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect people’s actions and decisions. It’s something she experienced first-hand as an administrator.
“I know from being on the other side of the table,” she explained. In her experience, people on interview committees—without even realizing it—reacted negatively to nonwhite candidates.
“You can see by the body actions, their reaction...” She trails off, clenching her hands and arching her back to mimic their discomfort.
Adding diversity to a teaching staff is no trivial task.
“It’s a profession that hasn’t integrated as much as others just because of how long people stay in the profession,” Good said.
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that more than 60 percent of all teachers in the US had more than 10 years of teaching experience in 2017 and more than 50 percent of all teachers were older than 40. Good said a lot of teachers stay in the same job until retirement, which limits the number of open teaching positions.
To top it off, there is confusion over what individuals can do to diversify teaching staffs. That lack of clarity has led to inaction, Good said, adding that different stakeholders—parents, teachers, administrators, lawmakers, boards of education and more—need to understand how they can individually and collectively affect change.
“There is not just one entity that can turn on a switch and it’s going to diversity our workforce,” Good said. “People want a quick fix. It’s not a quick fix because we are trying to close gaps that were established over decades and decades.”
For New York specifically, Evelyn said, the leaders in the education system, like the state education commissioner and the state school board association, need to prioritize diversity to make it happen.
But for now, change is theoretical.
“All of this right now is just talk, and it is research and it looks great on paper,” Dukes said.
She hopes it will turn into something more than just an academic exercise.
© Eric Schmid 2018