Jan 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Most teachers are white. Most students aren't

Percentage of public school <span style="background-color:#054f9f; color: white; padding: 2px;"> teachers</span> and <span style="background-color:#68c9ff; color: white; padding: 2px;">students</span> , by race
Data: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

The nation's 6.6 million teacher workforce has grown more racially and ethnically diverse over the past three decades — but not nearly fast enough to keep pace with a student population that's nearing majority-minority in public schools, two new reports show.

Why it matters: The disparities are especially acute between Hispanic students and teachers, and in schools with 90% or higher non-white student populations.

  • Recruitment is only part of the problem; experts tell Axios teachers of color are leaving the profession faster than their white counterparts.

The big picture: The gaps are widening as school districts become political lightning rods in U.S. elections.

  • The backlash by social conservatives to a national reckoning over structural racism is playing out in contested school board races, book bans and legislative efforts to block curriculum around diversity or the role of racism historically in shaping U.S. laws and institutions.
  • Andrea Gosfield, an attorney and Black parent in the Lower Merion School District outside of Philadelphia, tells Axios that the lack of diversity among educators makes it more difficult for students of color and their families to express themselves during heated debates about what should be taught in schools because "we may not feel safe."

By the numbers: 79% of U.S. public school teachers identified as white, non-Hispanic, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released late last year, based on data from the 2017-18 school year, the latest compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • Fewer than one in 10 teachers was Black (7%), Hispanic (9%) or Asian American (2%).
  • Compare that with the latest available comparable NCES student data from 2018-2019: 47% of all public elementary and secondary school students in the U.S. were white, 27% were Latino, 15% were Black and 5% were Asian American.
  • Between fall 2009 and fall 2018, the percentage of public school students who were Hispanic increased from 22% to 27%.
  • The percentage of public school students who were white decreased from 54% to 47% and the percentage of students who were Black decreased from 17% to 15%, National Center for Education Statistics found.
  • U.S. Census Bureau data released this month examining the 2014-2018 Equal Employment Opportunity Tabulation was similar to the Pew findings: it showed that about three in four teachers were white while nearly half of all public school students from preschool to high school were students of color.

Details: In swiftly diversifying Houston, the census analyzed 2014-2018 data and found that only 15% of high school students — but about 47% of city teachers — were white.

  • Nationally, in schools where at least 90% were students of color, white teachers were the plurality at 43%, Pew found; 28% of teachers at those schools were Hispanic, 20% were Black and 5% were Asian American.

What they're saying: "People are entering the front door and exiting the side door pretty rapidly," Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, told Axios.

  • "We see diverse teachers are leaving earlier. Those attrition rates will never be able to accelerate the diversity or even attempt to keep pace with a growing diverse student population."
  • El-Mekki said school districts and states need to look at aggressive recruiting programs, apprenticeship opportunities and look at retention incentives for needed areas like the Mississippi Delta and the Navajo Nation.

Between the lines: Gosfield said students of color need to see teachers of color but so do white students.

  • "There is research that shows that all students benefit from having a diverse teacher population," Gosfield said. "It teaches you to engage with everyone, with people who look different from you."

Don't forget: School segregation between Black and white students has returned to 1968 levels, even as the nation — and classrooms — diversify.

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