Sep 1, 2022 - News

Understanding Tennessee's teacher diversity problem

Illustration of a green apple surrounded by red apples.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Tennessee teachers are not as diverse as the students they teach, and researchers at Vanderbilt University want to figure out why.

  • A four-year, $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund a study into the state's teacher pipeline to determine what parts of it might drive away teachers of color.

Why it matters: Studies show that having a teacher of color can be incredibly beneficial, especially for students of color.

  • Having a teacher of the same race can improve test scores, attendance and graduation rates for students of color, among other benefits.

By the numbers: A 2018 state report found 37% of Tennessee students are people of color but only 13% of the state's teachers are.

Driving the news: The Tennessee Department of Education is pushing to improve racial diversity among teachers statewide and has partnered with Vanderbilt for this research.

  • The goal of the study will be to recommend fixes that could get more teachers of color into the classroom.

What they're saying: "Tennessee teachers have an incredible impact on their students' success, and our state is already innovating and investing to help recruit teachers to serve in our classrooms," state education commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement.

  • "We can benefit from additional research that helps inform both policy and practice and supports our state and school districts in recruiting the teacher workforce we need to set all students on a path to success."

How it works: Researchers — working with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College — will interview teacher candidates, leaders of teacher prep programs, school district leaders and early-career teachers as part of their work.

  • "We really want to understand from the point of view of people on the ground," Vanderbilt professor and principal investigator Jason Grissom tells Axios.

Yes, and: In addition to studying teacher recruitment efforts, the Vanderbilt researchers have also looked into teacher retention and outcomes in partnership with the state.

What's next: Grissom says he hopes to begin reporting on the team's early findings after about a year.

The bottom line: "There's a lot of hunger in the system for trying to ensure that there's equity of opportunity," Grissom says.

  • "We want to have a high-quality teacher workforce, and a dimension of quality is diversity. And I think people across the state recognize that."

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