There are more nonwhite teachers than there used to be. But the nation's teaching force still doesn't look like America. One former education school dean is out to change that.
New research shows that the number of K-12 teachers who belong to minority groups has doubled since the 1980s, growing at a faster rate than the profession as a whole. But big gaps persist, with around 80 percent of teachers identifying as white.
Meanwhile, the need for minority teachers is especially glaring since people of color now make up about half of enrollment in public schools. And a growing body of research suggests that these students benefit greatly from the "role-model effect" of having teachers who look like them.
Cassandra Herring first confronted this issue as the dean of the school of education at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. She left that position, and the security of academia, to found a new nonprofit that has just launched, called The Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity or BranchED. They are aiming programming at the 253 educator-preparation programs at federally-designated colleges and universities that serve African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.
BranchED's mission is to get more people from these groups to consider teaching as a career.
Herring says candidly that the future wasn't always so rosy for would-be teachers at Hampton.
"When I became dean, the program was struggling. Enrollment was dropping, students were disengaged, and our partners weren't really partners ... we needed to go beyond 'please take our student teachers.' "
She began a reinvention that started with understanding what motivates students from diverse backgrounds to choose teaching as a profession.
To generalize: While white education students may be more likely to talk about that one great teacher who inspired them, Herring explains, black students are often passionate about "righting a wrong ... being the teacher that they never had."
Hispanic students, she adds, often talk about education as a privilege and a way to give back to their communities and lift others up. While, for Native Americans, becoming a teacher for students like themselves can be a path toward preserving their culture.
Beyond changing the marketing and messaging, Herring says, minority serving institutions may need to update their curricula.
BranchED is offering programming to help programs focus more on hands-on classroom practice, and on the use of data. They are partnering with nonprofits like TeachingWorks at the University of Michigan. They are also offering professional development to the faculty who teach teachers.
The third "branch" of BranchED is an effort to help minority serving programs form stronger, "mutually beneficial" partnerships with school districts. At Hampton, Herring forged a relationship with a district in far-off Milwaukee, Wis., that recruited students to come to the college, and return to their school district as teachers.
Two major factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of minorities in teaching are working conditions and pay. A study just out from the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute shows higher turnover rates for minority teachers. And, in surveys, these teachers were more likely to cite, as a reason for leaving the profession, management, leadership and tough organizational conditions, especially at less-resourced schools.
Herring says that education schools can get involved in improving retention by offering ways for alumni to connect and build mutual support among teachers who "may otherwise feel isolated."
Meanwhile, national data shows that teachers continue to earn less and less, when compared with similarly educated professionals.
This may be of particular concern, Herring admits, for graduates of private institutions like Hampton. Talking about "the value proposition" of an education degree, "was a conversation that we had often." In response, she adds, "we emphasize some of the intrinsic rewards and opportunities to help the community."