José Luis Vilson spends his days teaching math to middle schoolers in Washington Heights, a lower-income neighborhood in Manhattan.
But his path to the classroom was anything but obvious. As a computer science major at Syracuse University, a teaching career was far from the Afro-Latino’s mind. Then, a stint in his latter college years as a community organizer of mentorship workshops brought him in contact with minority middle school kids and helped him realize, he said, that “I thought I could teach math better than what I saw growing up.”
A master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York followed and the rest is history.
But Vilson’s story is all too unique.
Today’s students are increasingly diverse, but the nation’s teachers remain largely Caucasian.
According to a new report from the Center for American Progress, more than 80 percent of public school teachers are white. But around 48 percent of students are non-white, a figure that is only expected to grow in the coming years.
That’s a problem because studies and anecdotal evidence have repeatedly shown that kids often connect best with people who look and sound like them. That’s not to say that a white male teacher cannot transform the life of, say, a Hispanic girl, but she’s more likely to connect with a Hispanic teacher whose life and struggles mirror her own.
“There are additional benefits to teachers who are diverse and understand diverse backgrounds,” Farah Ahmad, one of the report’s lead authors, said during a phone interview, “who can be cultural brokers for students who don’t necessarily have role models in their lives.”
That connection isn’t just warm-fuzzy; it can drive measurable student improvement. Black and Hispanic students lag their white peers on national tests and graduation rates. And while increasing teacher diversity is not a cure-all, studies have shown that diversifying teachers can improve student performance by several percentage points.
A black male teacher isn’t an abstract idea to the boys at Vilson’s school. He’s standing in front of them, a willing mentor.
“It’s not so much that I think teachers of color ought to teach children of color,” he said. “But there is something to be said for a diversity of adults to match the diversity of children we’re seeing.”
Before Brown v. Board of Education, when schools were blatantly segregated, African-American schools had African-American teachers while white schools had white teachers. But when schools integrated, the report notes, often by busing black students to white neighborhoods, many African-American teachers lost their jobs.
Since then, the teacher pool has been largely white. To diversify, we’d have to convince more minority students to pursue and maintain teaching careers, and the report indicates that may be no easy task.
Right now, according to the report, students of color choose majors outside education because of meager pay and what they say is a lack of respect for teachers. Those who do enroll score lower on average than their non-minority peers on licensure exams that serve as a gateway to teaching careers. They are also more likely to carry student loan debt and to struggle financially to afford the fifth year of higher education that many teaching credential programs require.
“People of color who are coming into these professions don’t always have that monetary foundation to be able to say, ‘I want to take on teaching,’” Vilson said.
Compound the financial and student debt struggles these students face with cultural pressure from parents to become doctors and lawyers, Vilson said, then add in the fact that many minorities experienced negative teacher interaction growing up, and it’s no wonder that getting minorities into teaching is a struggle.
For those that do make it to the classroom, teachers of color are disproportionately likely to teach in poor urban schools where funding is tighter and support can be harder to come by. The report cites National Center for Education Statistics data that shows a teacher salary discrepancy of up to $16,000 between high- and low-poverty districts.
It’s no surprise then, that minority teachers are disproportionately likely to ditch the profession for another career path.
“What stuck out to me as I was looking at this is the retention piece,” Ahmad said. “While there is a relatively small number of people of color going into teaching, those who do are not being retained in the teacher profession. We need to actually be thinking through how to provide more support to more teachers already in the profession.”
As the report notes, these obstacles may all sound dire, but the good news is that there are steps the nation can take to diversify its teachers - we just need to make it a priority.
The report suggests a few ideas to help address the problem, including paying for teacher training for young underrepresented minorities, improving teacher pay, and giving grants to teaching programs at historically black and Hispanic colleges. Smoothing the currently bumpy pathway from community colleges, where there is the highest proportion of minority students, to four-year schools with education programs could also help.
Increasing teacher pay could help, as could offering more emotional support and professional development classes for such teachers.
“A lot of it has to do with mentoring,” Vilson said.
Ahmad added that, when it comes to attracting teachers in the first place, “We need to think through how we can meet people where they are.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.