On the Ed Beat: How diverse are the teachers at your school?

The lowdown: Teachers of color at high schools

A report by the Albert Shanker Institute released in September found that nine major urban school districts have lost many black teachers, some of them by a disproportionate number, since the early 2000s. 

Stephen Sawchuk, who covers the teaching workforce for Education Week, summarized the research in a brief item for the newspaper. He wrote that the research raises questions about whether districts are doing enough to hold onto minority teachers, who often work in higher-poverty schools. 

The research has implications for students since all public schools are growing more diverse, Sawchuk said. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 50 percent of public school students are non-white, but fewer than 20 percent of teachers are, he said. 

“This matters for a variety of reasons,” Sawchuk said. “Although the research is far from settled in this area, there is some evidence that, especially for black children, having a teacher of the same race can boost their academic performance. There’s the less-quantifiable benefit for students of color of having a teacher who looks like them, who shares some kind of cultural identity and who could ostensibly serve as a role model. And frankly, there’s a philosophical question worth asking: What message does it send to students of color when they go through K-12 and have nothing but white women as teachers?” 

The teaching profession has been predominately white and female since at least the 1960s, Sawchuk said. Over the past 20 years, scholars have  found that almost every state has launched programs to recruit teachers of color to schools, Sawchuk said.

Those programs have been successful in recruiting more non-white teachers — but the disparity is still wide at the national level, he said.

“One problem is that teachers of color tend not to stay as long in the profession, probably because they have tended to work in schools with more academic challenges or schools where there’s less staffing stability and less good working conditions,” Sawchuk said, pointing to pay, funding and teacher autonomy as important working conditions. 

Read Stephen Sawchuk’s blog on teacher policy, “Teacher Beat.” Read the report here.

Think about it

  • How many teachers have you had throughout your education who share the same demographics as you? Do you think your education would have benefitted from having more or less of those teachers? 
  • Do teachers’ cultural backgrounds and personal identities carry over to their teaching? What value does that bring to the classroom?

  • Are your school’s teacher demographics easily accessible to the public? How does it compare with accessing student demographics? Why should that be public information?

  • Does your state have a recruitment program for teachers of color? Did any teachers at your school participate in it?

  • Many college newspapers are reevaluating their coverage to enhance diversity — for example, trying to talk to students and teachers from all demographics rather than interviewing people of similar backgrounds as the reporters (who often happen to be white). Do you think that is an issue in your school newspaper’s coverage? How can that be addressed?

Own the story

While the original research that Sawchuk summarized pertained to only nine urban school districts, he said he thinks that trend might be reflected across the country. You can find out if it’s reflected at your school by requesting at least 10 years of teacher demographics to see how the demographics have changed over time and what the breakdown is.

Districts and states have to keep track of student demographics at the school level to meet federal requirements, he said.

“It’s less clear, though, the extent to which they are tracking the teacher demographics at each school,” Sawchuk said, adding that in small schools, tracking could raise privacy concerns. “This information ought to be considered a matter of public record and student journalists should feel free to explore what districts and states publish on their website, to request anything they can’t find from [public information officers], and ultimately to file open-records requests if the agencies aren’t cooperating.” 

Compare the student demographics to the teacher demographics to see if there’s a drastic imbalance in both gender and race. And don’t rely on those numbers alone, Sawchuk advised. 

“Be sure to examine the data through the lens of proportionality, as well as hard numbers of teachers,” he said. “Things like student enrollment patterns, gentrification and so on can affect both the student and teacher population.”

Sawchuk recommends you talk to students, parents and district officials, including the school board, superintendent and those who work in the district’s human relations departments to ask about recruitment and hiring strategies.

Also talk to teachers of all backgrounds at your school — what have their experiences been like? If they are not white and female (the norm), what are some challenges they have faced?

Tips from a pro

Sawchuk said one of the most important elements of this story will come from talking to students.

“We have a tendency as education reporters to focus on the adults — the superintendents, the teachers, the administrators, the policymakers — who make decisions about how schools are staffed and run,” he said. “We don’t always think to talk to the end users who are in classrooms every day and who are best positioned to talk about their experiences.” 

But that’s where you come in — high school reporters are best positioned to tell the unique story of what it’s like inside the classroom and how education trends actually affect students.
You can get a more inside look at the story that professional reporters can’t get. Your relationship with your teachers may also help your reporting. 

The personal anecdotes and experiences from students and teachers will make your story compelling, but remember to get data to back up what your sources tell you. To make the records-request process easier, use the Student Press Law Center’s Public Records Letter Generator.

Read Stephen Sawchuk’s blog on teacher policy, “Teacher Beat.”