There is a demographic mismatch between teachers and students across California’s public schools. The most recent data from the California Department of Education indicated that while 77% of students are Asian American, Black, Latino, and/or Native American, only 39% of their teachers are.
Why should we care about teachers of color in our California classrooms? A compelling body of research continues to highlight the positive impact teachers of color have on all students. One study found that Asian American, Black, and Latino students were less likely to receive an out-of-school suspension in years that they had a teacher of the same racial/ethnic identity. Another study found that all students, regardless of race, reported feeling both academically challenged and cared for by their teachers of color. While parity is not the ultimate goal, the public should seek to redress a disparity whenever it is seen in the public sector.
For the past year, I have been working with a group of California teachers, administrators and faculty in teacher and leader preparation programs as well as nonprofit education leaders and representatives from the California Department of Education and the Commission on Teacher Credentialing on the department’s educator diversity advisory group. We consulted extensively with the educators closest to the problem — including holding four virtual convenings with more than 100 teachers and administrators from across the state and meetings with educators from rural counties such as Lassen and Kern, suburban spaces like Marin, and urban centers such as Los Angeles and Oakland.
This is what we learned: Extensive work is happening within our county offices of education and local school districts to recruit, support and retain educators of color.
We learned that one county office of education had developed an initiative to support assistant teachers to gain their certification to become lead teachers. Another school district had developed high school programs to assist students to become teachers. However, this work was often happening with counties and districts working in isolation, which meant they were sometimes reinventing the wheel or missing out on opportunities to share resources and learning. Across place and space, California county and district leaders wanted more opportunities to be in community with each other to learn and share best practices for diversifying the educator workforce.
We also learned that the crippling costs associated with becoming a teacher or principal has discouraged people of color from pursuing these positions because they often have more college debt than their white peers. Some of these costs include earning certification, exam fees, unpaid student teaching and lack of access to high-quality and culturally responsive mentoring for aspiring principals. The ebb and flow of state fiscal support for becoming a teacher or a school leader in our highest-need schools limited the impact of district efforts to diversify the educator workforce.
So, what is to be done? Here are some of the major takeaways of our recommendations to the department:
First, the California Department of Education should work to break down the siloed educator diversity work happening across counties and districts by creating learning communities to facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas to deepen the capacity of these system leaders to recruit, support and retain teachers and principals of color.
Second, the department, working with the California Legislature and governor, must ensure that there is sustainable base funding, over no less than five years, on programs focused on recruiting, supporting, and retaining educators of color. One model for such a program is the state’s $250 million National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification Incentive Program, which has earmarked funds for five years.
Given the use of public funds, the department should establish state-led research and advisory board to study ongoing diversity efforts with the goal of producing an annual brief on accomplishments and areas for continuous improvement. Moreover, the department should provide guidance to county offices of education on how to support school districts to incorporate educator diversity into their Local Control Accountability Plans.
Finally, the department should launch a public awareness campaign to inspire the next generation of teachers. Given that California is the epicenter of the world’s entertainment industry, we should enlist members of the Hollywood community as well as current classroom educators to talk about how and why becoming a teacher can change the world.
There are record investments in education from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan and another year of a state surplus in the world’s fifth-largest economy. Public comments from Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, and State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond have noted the importance of a racially/ethnically diverse educator workforce.
We have the resources and the support from top policymakers to reshape our educator workforce to better represent and reflect our students. In so doing, the Golden State can set the gold standard for recruiting, supporting and retaining teachers of color.
The challenge of recruiting and retaining a more diverse educator workforce is not one of resources. The real challenge is one of will.
Travis J. Bristol, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Berkeley and chairs the California Department of Education’s educator diversity advisory group. He is also the chair of the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
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