Retaining Teachers of Color in Public Schools

By Emily McCaffrey

“I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s words, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” I do not want my self-preservation to come from leaving the profession. I want to be there for my Black students, and for all of my students, for as long as I can so that I can continue to bond with them, influence them and carry them forward. For that to happen, I need a coach of my own.”

Francis Pina, math teacher at Charlestown High School, Boston Public Schools

My former college classmate, Francis, is exceptional in many ways. His identity makes him a rarity in the teaching force and his life experience, brilliance, and dedication to his students make him uniquely qualified and effective at teaching. We need teachers like Francis to continue to change students’ lives. But currently, only 2% of teachers nationwide are, like Francis, black men.

We’ve become more than aware of the gaps in educational attainment of students of color in our country. Increasing the number of teachers and administrators of color is an important aspect of improving educational outcomes for students of color, particularly in urban, high-need schools. Research shows that teachers of color are more effective at engaging students of similar backgrounds and increasing academic achievement. Having a teacher that reflects one’s racial identity has been shown to improve culturally based instruction, increase student expectations, and serve to counter negative stereotypes. An ancillary benefit: white students rate teachers of color very highly and a teacher of color can help to erase negative stereotypes held by any student.

But estimates peg the share of the national teaching workforce that is white at 82%, while almost half of all public-school students are non-white. It is not hard to understand the historical explanation behind this disparity in teaching-force representation, given what we know about the history of segregation in U.S. public education. Much like the student population, the teaching force was segregated prior to the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. History (debatably) remembers this case as the end of de jure school segregation, but it was only the beginning of much of the conflict that has laid the foundation for where we are today.  The impact of this case on black teachers often goes unexplored, but in the years following the Brown decision, black teachers across the country lost their jobs as integration closed black schools. In the years following, systematic discrimination led to the exclusion of blacks from the teaching force. Oakley, Stowell, and Logan (2009) suggest that the “legacy of mandated desegregation may have created broader institutional conditions in which black and other minority teachers remain underrepresented in the teaching force.” The personal experiences of many teachers certainly confirm this idea.

The center of what is often ranked the country’s best state education system, Boston Public Schools (BPS) currently serves over 55,000 students. Over 86% are students of color, while BPS’ teaching and school counselor staff are 38% non-white. Similarly, estimates from the 2017-18 school year suggest that while 90% of Chicago Public Schools are students of color, 50% of the teaching force and 36% of principals are white. The Bay Area is no exception: Oakland Unified School District has a teaching force that is 54% white and enrollment that is just over 90% students of color.

It is promising that the number of minority teachers entering the profession has increased in recent years. Since the 1980s, the number of elementary and secondary teachers of color has more than doubled, steadily growing to represent a larger share of the total teacher population. But research suggests that focusing on the recruitment and hiring of teachers of color is not enough to sustainably keep teachers of color in the profession. Studies show that teachers of color are more likely to leave the profession than white teachers, partially due to the fact that teachers of color are two to three times more likely to teach in hard-to-staff schools (urban schools serving high levels of students in poverty) than white teachers.

In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), for example, African-American teachers are overrepresented in the highest poverty schools. Additionally, district layoffs due to the controversial “Turnaround Schools” strategy employed by CPS over the last decade disproportionately impacted teachers of color, whose jobs were largely re-filled by white teachers.

Stability in the teaching force has been shown to matter in school culture and ultimately student performance. In the study, schools with higher percentages of students qualifying for free-or-reduced priced lunch and lower academic performance experienced the highest levels of teacher turnover. Additionally, the high levels of teacher turnover pose an immense financial cost to the district: one study found that teacher turnover cost CPS $86.5 million in one year, almost $18,000 per departed teacher.

Focusing on teacher turnover will address much of the instability in schools that have the greatest concentration of teachers of color and the greatest need for those teachers to stay. Improving teacher pay is consistently cited as a solution and although teachers should be paid more, there are mixed results regarding whether higher pay has a significant effect on teacher retention. Diversifying the teaching force requires a commitment to teacher retention through investment in teacher preparation and training, mentorship, and effective leadership.

What can districts do to better retain teachers of color?

Hire Leaders Who Demonstrate Commitment to Development of Teachers of Color

Teachers prefer having greater classroom decision-making and autonomy, as well as collective faculty decision-making influence and positive working relationships with colleagues. Districts should prioritize identifying and hiring leaders who embody this belief and have demonstrated success in increasing teacher autonomy in decision making. Further, school leadership roles should go to those who have shown an ability to provide support to teachers of color. Including equity metrics in hiring, promotion, and tenure decision-making is important in this process, but requires greater data collection of racial representation in the workforce, both for teachers and administrators in evaluations. Training current teachers of color for future administrative roles may pay off as well: investments can be made in teachers of color as they develop professionally through pipeline leadership programs.

Invest in New Teacher Development and Mentorship

Greater mentoring, support, and professional development opportunities improve working conditions. Hiring or promoting experienced teachers of color who have an official responsibility to mentor new teachers will help retention rates in the particularly difficult first couple of years. New research suggests differentiated, targeted professional development for male teachers of color, as well as gender and racial awareness trainings for administration are also areas of potential investment.There is clear evidence that investing in teacher development provides economic returns in reducing teacher turnover, particularly for minority teachers. When making those investment decisions, states and districts should prioritize the hardest-to-staff schools to provide the benefit where it is needed most.

Invest in Teacher Residency Programs

Evidence suggests that “residency” programs, such as Teach Tomorrow in Oakland and NYC Teaching Fellows, are effective at training more racially diverse candidates who show greater success in high-need schools. Residency programs also provide intensive coaching and mentorship for the first year, which can positively affect retention efforts for young teachers. Studies of teacher residency programs show that even after several years in the profession, graduate retention rates are 80–90% in the same district after three years and 70–80% after five years, which are significantly better than estimates of the national rate. Expanding this idea to specifically address retention would include lengthening the time of “residency,” meaning the time during which new teachers receive supports such as co-teachers or mentors. Additionally, identifying potential leaders of color early in their career and intentionally developing their skills through similar administrative residency programs will help to improve representation at all levels of education institutions.

Our history of discriminatory policies and practices laid the foundation for racial disparities in the teaching force long before current teachers and students came into our public schools. But high levels of teacher turnover are perpetuating those disparities, particularly in the hardest-to-staff schools. Teachers of color are highly valuable to student achievement and by focusing on teacher retention, districts can mitigate the underrepresentation of minority races. Teachers of color are not only more effective at teaching students of color, but any basic consideration of equity in the face of historical discrimination generates a clear imperative to improve representation in the teaching force. By investing in better working conditions and effective induction and mentorship strategies, districts can reduce the high levels of teacher attrition, save costs, promote racial equity, hold on to teachers like Francis, and ultimately improve student outcomes.

Emily McCaffrey is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.