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Why Don’t America’s Schoolteachers Look Like Their Students?

Eric Schmid
Vivett Dukes at the Longwood Public Library last month. Growing up on Long Island, Dukes didn't have one minority teacher. Today, she is a teacher in New York City and also blogs about her experiences as a student, educator and mother.

Vivett Dukes always knew the importance of education, even from a young age. “My mother said you have two strikes against you: you’re black, and you’re a girl. [But] education is the one thing no one can dispute.”

Dukes is a first-generation American. Both her parents are Jamaican, and she grew up in Elmont on Long Island. Dukes went through school, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, without many teachers who looked like her.

“I missed out. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying I was fine with it. I missed out.”

Dukes is now a teacher herself, and she’s upset that this is still a problem twenty-five years later.

Teacher diversity is a challenge for school systems across the country. According to a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 80 percent of all public school teachers in the United States are white.

Credit U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education and Statistics
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education and Statistics
Percentage distribution of teachers in elementary and secondary schools, by race and ethnicity.

In our region, the number is even higher. At least 90 percent of teachers in Connecticut, the Lower Hudson Valley and on Long Island are white. At the same time, minority students in the area make up nearly half of the public school student population.

The lack of diversity in front of the classroom hurts students.

Advocates say minority teachers help Latino and black students the most because they challenge traditional racial biases.

Minority teachers “may be the one or two few examples of excellence [of someone] who is not a rapper, a basketball player, any other stereotypical image of what you can be in America as a black person,” Dukes said.

There are quantifiable benefits, as well. A 2017 study from Johns Hopkins found black students are more likely to graduate from high school if they have had at least one black teacher. The same holds true for Hispanic students.

Brandy Scott, a former Long Island teacher and assistant superintendent who is now a consultant and the president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, said, “When a young person sits in the classroom and sees someone who is like themselves, they see a reflection of themselves and it does impact on their self-esteem.”

Credit Eric Schmid / WSHU
Brandy Scott at the Community Learning Academy, an after-school program that offers tutorial services and homework help in Central Islip.

Scott says it's not just minority students who benefit from teachers of color. White students benefit, too.

Constance Evelyn, a veteran educator and the superintendent of Valley Stream-13 School District on Long Island, agrees.

“It’s important for young people, all young people, to see what is achievable by all Americans.”

So, if having more diverse teachers benefits young students so much, why aren’t there more of them?

It has always been about access to these positions.

Evelyn says it’s about access.

Access means a few different things. It means direct access to teaching and administrative jobs, but it also refers to the educator pipeline that future teacher follow, from training to the classroom to teacher retention.  

Rebecca Good is dean of the Relay Graduate School of Education in Connecticut, a higher education network that offers affordable and flexible ways to earn teaching credentials.

Good says the lack of minority teachers is systemic.

Credit U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education and Statistics
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education and Statistics
Key points along the educator pipeline.

“We know that young children, particularly young children of color in our country, are not acquiring all the knowledge that they need to be successful.”

She says minority students do not perform well in part because there are no minority teachers, and that makes it hard for students of color to become teachers themselves.

“Then when I want to become a teacher, I am provided a test that I’ve already shown throughout my life that I have gaps, and I wasn’t taught all the material to be successful.”

The hurdles don’t stop there.

Good says most aspiring teachers need more than just an undergraduate degree. They need to be certified, which can be difficult and expensive, and a key barrier for aspiring teachers of color.

Credit Courtesy of Relay Connecticut
Courtesy of Relay Connecticut
Rebecca Good, founding dean of Relay Connecticut, says minorities face numerous barriers to entry into the teaching profession.

Even with certification, jobs aren’t easy to come by for black and brown teachers.  

Brandy Scott of the Long Island Black Educators Association says school boards unconsciously hire white teachers over teachers of color.

“I know from being on the other side of the table that often people without even realizing it—when a candidate walks into the room, who may be of a different ethnic group—you can see by the body, actions, their reaction...”

She trails off with clenched hands and an arched back to mimic the discomfort of administrators. 

Adding diversity to a teaching staff is no easy task.

Rebecca Good says there is confusion over who can actually diversify teaching staffs.

People want a quick fix, right? It's not a quick fix.

“We are trying to close gaps that were established over decades and decades.”

She says the different stakeholders in education—parents, teachers, administrators, lawmakers, boards of education and more—need to understand how they can individually and collectively affect change.

But for Dukes, change is still theoretical.

“All of this right now is just talk, and it’s research and it looks great on paper.”

She hopes it turns into something more than just an academic exercise.