Why a diverse teaching force is a better teaching force

Students of all races benefit from having teachers of all races. In a diverse society, that’s how it should be.

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Students head to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on Nov. 1, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Walk into a Chicago Public Schools classroom and you’ll quickly see the disconnect: Half of classroom teachers are white, but the overwhelming number of students are black or brown.

The numbers tell the story: 52% of CPS teachers are white, 21% are African American and 20% Latino, while the student population is 90% black, Latino and other children of color.

The Illinois School Report Card shows those numbers have barely budged in the last decade. The exception is for black teachers, who made up 30% of the teaching force in 2010.

The story is much the same in the rest of Illinois, too: 83% of the state’s public school teachers are white, 6% are black and 7% Hispanic. Meanwhile, the increasingly diverse student population is now 46% white, 27% black and 18% Latino.

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Reflecting society’s diversity

It’s easy to think, “Why does it matter? If a teacher is good, his or her race isn’t important.”

We agree with that perspective, up to a point. Children of course should have the absolute best teachers, regardless of race or ethnicity. Investing in top-notch teachers and good schools would go a long way to encourage families and businesses to stay in Illinois rather than flee.

But no workforce of the 21st century, whether a school or a Fortune 500 company, should be overwhelmingly of one race or ethnicity. That’s not an accurate reflection of society.

And education research strongly suggests teacher diversity matters, especially when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap between African American and white children.

One of the best-known studies found that black children who had at least one black teacher in the elementary grades were less likely to drop out and more likely to go to college. For that study, published in 2017 by the Institute for Labor Economics, researchers followed 106,000 North Carolina students.

Another study from 2018 offered similar findings: Black students from Tennessee elementary schools who had at least one black teacher between kindergarten and third grade were more likely to finish high school and go on to college.

It’s about role models

Why? The role model effect, as dozens of educators have pointed out over the years.

Black teachers are potent examples of success for black students who might otherwise not see educated, accomplished adults in their communities on a daily basis.

“Role model effects help to explain why black teachers increase the educational attainment of black students,” the researchers wrote in the 2018 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Students of all races, as it turns out, benefit from having non-white teachers. In fact, New York University researchers were surprised to find that students of all races had more positive views of black and Latino teachers than of white teachers.

The 2016 study of sixth through ninth-grade teachers from 300 schools across the country examined students’ perceptions of their teachers’ empathy, classroom management skills, and teaching ability. Consistently, black and Latino teachers fared better than whites.

A shrinking pipeline

CPS officials say they’re committed to increasing teacher diversity, made worse in recent years by mass school closings that left hundreds of mostly black educators without a job.

The district has set an ambitious five-year goal: Hiring an additional 3,000 black and Latino teachers — 600 a year — by 2024.

So far this school year, the district has hired 512.

Meanwhile, the pipeline is shrinking dramatically: In Illinois, the number of black college students earning a teaching degree has fallen by 54% since 2010. Among Latino college students, the number fell by 28%.

Education, to our country’s detriment, rarely appeals to the best and brightest as a career option anymore. Smart students of all races now aspire to become doctors, engineers, business moguls or tech titans, not school teachers.

If they do choose teaching, they’re not likely to stay on the job. Nationally, about half of teachers report that they don’t feel valued and have considered leaving the profession.

Think about it: Have you ever encouraged your math-whiz son or daughter, niece or nephew, to become a high school algebra teacher instead of an engineer?

If more people did, the pipeline might expand.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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