Why Teacher Diversity is Important

Written by Jenn Zukowski

What is Diversity in the Classroom?

Diversity in the classroom is one of the most important issues facing education today. Not only is giving a diverse population of students the same opportunities to succeed in a vital practice, but educator diversity itself is an equally important issue for student success that needs to be addressed.

What is diversity? It's a word that's been bandied about a lot recently, but the core of what diversity means centers on a wide range of people with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds comprising a group. In a classroom, this looks like a class full of students who have a wide range of economic and cultural environments that make them different from each other. The problem arises when the teachers heading these classrooms don't look like the populations of students that they teach. Issues such as overly harsh discipline, favoritism, and even future student dropout rates all depend on whether a student can look up to their teacher as a role model; in particular, a role model that looks like them.

For example: During the decade from 2003 to 2012, the number of Black teachers decreased, and while the number of Latin American teachers increased, it didn't increase nearly as much as the Latin American student population did. As recently as 2015, around 50 percent of U.S. K-12 students were white, while almost 80 percent of K-12 teachers were. Black students of this age range are only around 13 percent of the whole, while Latin American children are at nearly 24 percent; but their educators only rank at 8 and 9 percent, respectively. This means that educators in U.S. classrooms are often not representative of the populations of students found in their own classrooms.

Not only is the issue of representation, or students experiencing teachers who look like them, important but it has also been shown that middle-class white students tend to do better in school when they have a wider range of diverse educators from varying backgrounds teaching them.

Diverse Educators For Diverse Classrooms

Improved educator diversity means that teachers more often look like and have backgrounds similar to the students that they teach. Currently, the majority of K-12 teachers are white, which does not match the diverse classroom. In his article, 'The importance of a diverse teaching force,' David Figlio cites a recent study that brings to light some specifics in two United States cities, to illustrate the educator diversity issue. The study looked at Fort Lauderdale and Milwaukee and their populations of Black students and teachers as well as Latin American students and teachers. In Fort Lauderdale, Black K-12 students comprise 34 percent of all students of that age range, while Black teachers are at 22 percent. The diversity gap in Milwaukee is even wider, with 36 percent of Black students contrasting to only 8 percent of Black teachers. Similarly, Fort Lauderdale's Latin American students are at 30 percent while Latin American teachers hold 18 percent, while Milwaukee's Latin American student-to-teacher ratio is 22 percent to only 5 percent (Figlio).

Fort Lauderdale Milwaukee
Black Students 34% 36%
Black Teachers 22% 8%
Latin American Students 30% 22%
Latin American Teachers 22% 5%

"Source: *The Importance of a Diverse Teaching Force, David Figlio."

Educator Diversity Makes a Difference

When looking at test scores, behavior, class retention, and graduation rates it is clear that educator diversity makes a big impact on how well students perform in the classroom.

Students of color will often be held to higher standards when their teacher is of the same ethnicity as them. This may be due to instructor bias and prejudice when it comes to racial stereotyping. Behavior issues can also be alleviated when the teacher can relate more closely to the student. Goldhaber, Theobald, and Tan discuss this in their findings. They show that often an educator can have deeper insights into behavioral issues in BIPOC students (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) when they can meet the students where they are when it comes to cultural context. For example, studies have found that Black students, in particular, are much more likely to be given disciplinary treatment, such as suspension, than their white counterparts when their instructor is white (Goldhaber, Theobald, and Tan).

  • Discipline: because of systemic prejudice and other forms of negative stereotyping, Black students are more likely to be suspended and otherwise punished for behavioral issues when all their teachers are white (Goldhaber, Theobald, and Tan).
  • Black male students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to stay in high school and graduate if they have at least one Black teacher in elementary school (Figlio).
  • When the other variables are the same, BIPOC students score higher in both math and reading tests when assigned a teacher of the same race, some by a difference of several points (Goldhaber, Theobald, and Tan).
  • Black teachers often hold Black students to a higher standard both academically and behaviorally than White teachers, because of a deeper understanding of cultural narratives and a lack of negative stereotyping (Figlio).
  • Having at least one academic role model of the same race will make a BIPOC student more likely to follow in their footsteps - i.e., a student of color will more likely also go to college and even pursue a teaching degree when they've had at least one teacher of their same racial or ethnic background (Figlio).

Another benefit to educator diversity in the classroom is the academic success of the diverse student body when they have a teacher population that more closely represents themselves. Students of color are more likely to get higher test scores and to graduate if they have teachers that represent them. They're more likely to go to college if they have role models of color that demonstrate how a high standard of academic success is possible without having to be (or act) white. And this effect lasts long beyond the particular grade level or year that these representative teachers are present in students' lives. Goldhaber, Theobald, and Tan discuss several statistics showing this positive difference in having teacher diversity, including this telling fact: that a Black 3rd through 5th-grade boy in a low-income area is 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if he has at least one Black teacher throughout those academic years. That's a huge percentage, with seemingly a simple solution.

How to Get There: Teacher Diversity Begins in Professional Training

Improving teacher diversity isn't quite as easy as it might sound, though. While it is true that there are more educators of color now than there have been in the past, the number of teachers of color has yet to meet the number of students of color.

Students of Color Teachers of Color
1990 30% 13%
2015 51% 20%

"Source: *A Diverse and Capable Teacher Workforce Benefits All Students, Drake, G., et. al."

It is important to note that educators of color often hold certifications rather than a undergraduate degree in education. In addition, within the university structure, there is often ingrained and systemic prejudice and racism present, which hinders the potential BIPOC teacher from moving forward with opportunities in the same way their white counterparts might. For example, educators of color who enter into the teaching workforce are often not recruited with career advancement opportunities. The rigorous testing process for teachers, having become more strict and biased over the years, may also be a barrier to aspiring teachers of color trying to enter the profession.

Equal Opportunity in Teacher Education

The number of college students pursuing undergraduate degrees (a requirement for most teaching positions across the grade levels) skews largely white. Solutions to the lack in educator diversity could include starting at the undergraduate level, making more opportunities for potential teachers of color, recruiting with career advancement in mind, and restructuring the testing, degree, and certification processes in the educational field. Several educational institutions and programs are working to improve this situation.

  • Increased Admission Standards: there have been studies (particularly one from 2017, from the CAP source) that show that the more demanding the admission standards, the more diverse the new teachers are that pass these admissions and take on teaching positions. It's a direct disproving of the stereotyped idea that academic rigor and diversity are in conflict with each other. Quite the opposite, it turns out.
  • MSIs (Minority Serving Institutions): Minority Serving Institutions, or MSIs, are specially equipped to provide high-level education and resources for university students of color. These institutions can help students in education degree programs be better prepared for the abovementioned admissions standards, exams, etc.
  • BranchED: the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity is a non-profit that works in alignment with MSIs to provide more resources to create a growing diverse BIPOC educator population. They provide things like: technology, added training, and funding for MSIs to help improve their education programs and educational equity in general.
  • NYC Coalition for Teacher Prep: Similar to BranchED, this coalition uses a partnership with Education First to provide similar things for education programs in New York City, in particular, helping to eradicate educational inequity and give students of color in education more potential to succeed.
  • FTCE/FELE tests: These tests are some of the most exciting teacher prep programs happening now, working toward the inclusion of diverse potential teachers. Let's learn more:

How the FTCE test Guides Diversity in the Educational Workplace

The FTCE (Florida Teacher Certification Examinations) and FELE (Florida Educational Leadership Examination) tests are examples of alternative certification programs that deliver the high standards that potential educators need, in place of a four-year degree. The FTCE is the test series designed for teacher certification in Florida, and the FELE is centered on educational leadership, which ensures that those entering administrative positions are also highly qualified educators.

The tests are rigorous and challenging, and more than half of those who successfully pass the FTCE and move on to become excellent Florida teachers. Additionally, the FTCE offers assistance programs for the FTCE test cost, aiding in the goal of increasing educator diversity.

What are the FTCE/FELE tests?

There are a few different tests, each covering different certification needs:

FTCE study guides and the tests themselves can be found on the FTCE/FELE website, along with many guides as to what realm of professional credential each test will cover, how difficult the various categories of questions will be, and how to pay for the FTCE exam or find financial assistance if needed.

Progress in Classroom Diversity

The outlook for the future shows that educator diversity is improving. In Florida, the FTCE/FELE exams are paving the way for more prospective teachers of color to excel in building the high-level credentials needed to enter the educational workplace. Degree programs in education are addressing past problems of prejudice and privilege by implementing inclusion incentives, promoting mentorships, scholarships, and other aids for first-generation students and other marginalized individuals to be able to access higher education more easily than in the past.

K-12 school administrators have begun paying more attention to the diverse populations of their classrooms and are hiring more teachers to represent these populations. Other pivotal jobs in education, such as teacher's aides, are a great stepping stone for potential teachers of color to enter the educational field.

These new possibilities and attempts at improving classroom diversity are just some of the many methods in place to increase educator diversity in the classroom to represent the students they teach more often and more closely.

Educator Diversity is Important

Educator diversity is important in order to have more successful classrooms. Having the representation of the diversity of students in the teachers of their own classrooms helps with academic success, student wellbeing, student retention, and graduation. Not only is it important for students of color to learn from highly educated and successful teachers in their classrooms who look like them, but teacher diversity is also important to white students.

Non-BIPOC students benefit greatly from having diverse educators in that they then can learn empathy and solidarity from those who come from marginalized cultures, making more white students likely to become allies and advocates for the eradication of racism and cultural oppression. It is important that we install more opportunities to welcome teachers of color into more education and leadership roles.

Though the FTCE testing and FELE exams in Florida are an excellent start in this direction, we can use their example to do more. Expanding recruiting, offering more career advancement for new teachers, and beginning a healthier cycle of educator diversity in the classroom all are essential components for making sure that the diverse range of students in U.S. classrooms is being represented, nurtured, and educated to the best of our ability.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is it important for teachers to be diverse?

    It helps with student retention as well as student wellbeing that the teachers they see in their classrooms represent themselves. If there is a disconnect between the student body and their backgrounds and the backgrounds of their teachers, it makes for a less representative educational environment, less welcoming especially to students of color. It has been shown that a diverse teacher population leads to greater success of all students, especially students of color.

  • What is teacher diversity?

    Teacher diversity means: a wide range of ethnic, economic, gender, racial, and cultural backgrounds represented by teachers. In other words, a diverse teacher population is representative of all the various backgrounds of their students.