Diversifying the Teaching Profession

By David Lariviere

For many Baby Boomer boys coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the common response to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “I want to be an astronaut” because of the vast interest in the space program after the historic moon landing in the summer of 1969.

Children naturally want to follow in the footsteps of their heroes, which is a quandary when the important subject of diversifying the teacher pipeline in the U.S. is raised today.

Travis Rodgers, a Strategic Advisor for ETS, thinks he knows why. “It’s really hard to become something if you can’t see yourself in that position.  If you don’t see someone like you reflected in the classroom, why would you be drawn to the profession?” Rodgers says. “That is a problem.”

It’s a problem many states are now recognizing and taking steps to fix. “It’s born out of the concern from states that there is a significant gap in the diversity between the student population in the classroom and the teachers that teach these students,” states Rodgers.

Amplifying the concern is growing evidence that minority students perform better when taught by a teacher of color. In a study led by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, researchers examined approximately 100,000 black students who enrolled in third grade in North Carolina’s public schools between 2001 and 2005. They found that the dropout risk for black students decreased by 29 percent if they had at least one black teacher in the third through fifth grades. For persistently low-income black boys, the risk dropped by 39 percent.

Two main reasons have been cited for the improved academic performance. One is that often expectations by teachers of color are higher for minority students. A 2016 study called “Who Believes in Me? The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic Match on Teacher Expectations” showed that “non-black teachers of black students have significantly lower expectations than do black teachers. These effects are larger for black male students and math teachers.”

The second factor is decreased chances of disciplinary action. In 2017, a study called “Exposure to Same-Race Teachers and Student Disciplinary Outcomes for Black Students in North Carolina” was published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Researchers discovered “consistent evidence that exposure to same-race teachers is associated with reduced rates of exclusionary discipline for black students.” The conclusion was found to be true across all grade levels and for males and females.

For the last year and a half, Rodgers has been helping a variety of groups in developing diversity strategies at the state level, providing test support for organizations who work directly with teachers of color, and assisting educator-prep programs (EPPs) to recruit candidates.

Rodgers says a big part of his job is fighting common misconceptions. “There’s a notion that gets floated out there that I find insulting — that quality and diversity cannot be wed together,” Rodgers explains. “It’s illogical to me that a segment of people think we have to lower our standards to diversify. I don’t think that’s the case at all. If we provide students with learning opportunities, they can succeed.”

Rodgers says early recruitment is essential. “EPPs have reported some success in recruiting teachers of color by growing their own workforce through teaching academies. As early as middle school, but mostly in high school, programs have begun to recruit males and people of color to go into teaching,” he suggests. “EPPs can assist students of color by providing candidates with quality assessments and diagnostics of students when they arrive at a university, to figure out where there are knowledge and skill gaps and then provide proper services for those people.” Furthermore, ETS’s engagement with EPPs suggests that candidates receiving the right mentorship and guidance through the EPPs can help them navigate their way through.” Rodgers calls it “intrusive mentorship.”

An attractive selling point to millennials, according to Rodgers, is the social impact aspect of the profession. “Giving back to the community and giving back to society is important to them, so you can push on that aspect of being impactful in the classroom,” explains Rodgers. Millennials appear to place an emphasis on having a positive impact on society; the teaching profession affords them the opportunity to have a positive impact on future generations.  Another draw is “to be the teacher you didn’t have the opportunity to have,” adds Rodgers.

Many minority teachers, according to Rodgers, come to the profession from alternate certification programs like Teach for America, Relay, Call Me Mister, and NYC Men Teach. Some begin as paraprofessionals assisting teachers and get identified as someone who should pursue a teaching degree. Rodgers works with Relay in Connecticut to help candidates prepare for the Praxis test.

A major accomplishment Rodgers is proud of is that he’s been able to work with educational organizations that advocate for equity to understand that pushing for diversity in the pipeline does not mean standards need to be lowered. “Often, the first response from advocates is that the licensure test is a barrier. The tests are designed to be a gateway for candidates to demonstrate that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to be a qualified teacher in the classroom.  However, many have come to understand that the perceived barrier is a result of inequities in a candidate’s K-12 experience,” Rodgers explains.

“The ETS brand does give us great cache. Departments of Education and policy makers know we do a great deal of research on education, are familiar with bias reviews and they know we want more people of color at the table,” says Rodgers. “Where we need to focus is identifying as many mitigating factors as possible that promote high-quality candidates of color to matriculate through the pipeline.”