Raven Foster, during her first year teaching at KIPP Central City Academy, got the kind of compliment from kids in her classroom that every teacher would like to hear. The students in her class told her she was their favorite teacher. But not for her excellent teaching skills — they told her that it was because she was black.
When Foster started teaching in this New Orleans charter school in 2012, she knew she would be one of a very few black instructors. Although the student bodies were predominantly black, almost two-thirds of the faculties were white when she began teaching in the city.
Slate's Alexandria Neason reports that the 2012 academic year was filled with home visits, lesson planning, and a schoolwide move to a new location, so Foster had no time to be concerned about the staffs' racial makeup. But then she realized that it was being noticed by students. The kids wanted more teachers who looked like them.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, teachers were more likely to be white than teachers in traditional schools pre-Katrina. Charter leaders in the city are working diligently to hire more black and local educators and to convince experienced teachers that they are a necessary part of the school-reform movement.
Between 2004 and 2014, the number of black teachers in the city plummeted from 71% to 49%. But also, fewer teachers who were raised in New Orleans were working in schools, which resulted in wide cultural gaps between teachers and their mostly black and native New Orleans pupils.
KIPP and other charter school officials recruited among Teach for America corps members who at the time were mostly white, young, and new arrivals to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Schools' graduation rates and test scores improved, but students were not as happy in their classrooms because schools were not as securely attached to the community as they once had been.
The reconstruction of the New Orleans school system, following Katrina, resulted in changing traditional schools to mostly charter schools. These actions have been a topic of conversation since reform began. The diversity of teachers, or lack thereof, in New Orleans' schools over the past years, has been one of the most discussed issues.
The reformation of the city's schools was the cause of the loss of diversity in classrooms. In some years, 70% of all teacher positions filled were white, reports Nicole Gorman of Education World.
Foster said the students were affected by not having teachers who were the same color they were. She explained that white teachers were often not giving their students what they needed.
"They often missed nuances in language and behavior. They became overly punitive when stressed. She remembers one white teacher screaming at a student for not having the right supplies—hardly a major classroom lapse."
The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss writes that government estimates show the majority of students in US public schools are now students of color, but this is not true for teachers of color. Strauss adds that it is critical for the nation to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching force.
Travis J. Bristol, who is a former high school English teacher in New York City public schools and a teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program, is currently a research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. His studies focus on strategies to support teacher and pupil learning, enable quality teacher workplace experiences, and increase the retention rates of educators. He recently examined how black male teachers' experiences in their school environments affected their satisfaction in the workplace and their decisions to stay in or leave the education profession.
Bristol says that the makeup of US schools' teaching force does not mirror the diversity of its students. And one result of this fact is that students of color are not getting the encouragement they are more likely to get from a teacher who is their same race.
"However, the data around this "added value" should create a renewed focus on increasing the racial/ethnic diversity of our country's teachers," said Bristol.
He continued by explaining that teacher education may want to match the school-based experiences of each racial/ethnic subgroup. Also, professional development should be tailored to respond to the experiences faced by teachers of color.
He adds that there must be policy changes to increase, support, and retain teachers of color. The cost of attaining certification must be reduced. He also feels that teachers of color should be allowed to choose alternative certification routes, such as teacher residency programs, which would be less costly.
The Latin Post reports that Latino millennials and the generation behind them are the largest part of the demographic trend in this country. Hispanic students and other students of color are now the majority of US public school students. But few teachers from underrepresented backgrounds are being hired.
"There is a troubling trend in education that is not getting enough attention: the growth of Latino teachers has not kept pace with the rising Latino student population — and the number of black teachers is shrinking," wrote Bristol in Sunday's Washington Post.
There has not been a drop in the rate of Latino teachers, but the ratio of Latino teachers to Latino students in American classrooms has declined. Meanwhile, the number of Latino students in public schools is booming.
Bristol says the education system can improve by increasing teacher diversity so that the process of public education results in the American ideal of "out of many, one."