Is there a minority teacher shortage?

When two University of Pennsylvania researchers set out to study whether efforts to recruit more minority teachers had been successful, they found a surprising thing.

Those efforts have largely worked.

Conventional wisdom holds that though American students have becoming more diverse over the years, their teachers have not.  

(The researchers “didn’t focus on the contentious question of whether minority teachers are better at teaching minority students.”  That’s not meant to be the subject of this post, either.)

Government agencies and nonprofits have pumped a lot of money into programs that prepare and recruit minority teachers. School folks often talk about hiring more teachers of color as a strategy to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students, a gap that schools across the country still struggle with.

These days, over half of U.S. states now have minority teacher recruitment policies or programs in place, according to the research, completed recently by Richard Ingersoll and Henry May, both of Penn's Graduate School of Education.

But after studying two decades worth of U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Education data, Ingersoll and May concluded that the teaching force is actually much more diverse than it was 20 years ago.  In many ways, the minority teacher recruitment push has been successful.

Overall, the researchers found, growth in the number of minority teachers was much greater than the growth in the number of non-minority teachers — there was a 41 percent growth rate of white teachers, and a 96 percent growth rate of minority teachers.

The number of minority teachers has surged to 642,000 from 325,000 since the late 1980s.

Still, make no mistake — a gap persists between the percentage of minority students and the percentage of minority teachers. In the 2008-09 school year, 41 percent of elementary and secondary students were minority, but just 16.5 percent of elementary and secondary teachers were minority.

So what’s the problem?

Turnover has been a major issue for minority teachers, more than their white counterparts.  We know that teacher turnover is a huge issue in education in general, but it is especially pronounced for teachers of color.

In 2003-04, for instance, 47,600 minority teachers entered the profession, but by the next school year, 56,000 had left teaching.  

“These data convey an image of a revolving door: too many going in one door and out another,” Ingersoll and Rand wrote.

Minority teachers most often work in city public schools that educate mostly poor and minority children — schools that are traditionally the toughest to staff.

And while these conditions often factor into minority teachers’ decisions to work at the schools in the first place, they don’t much factor into their decisions to leave them.  

Poor working conditions are often what drive teachers out of these schools.

There is a fix, Ingersoll and May point out. “The data suggest that poor, high-minority urban schools that improve these working conditions will be far more able to retain their minority teachers and to address their shortages.”

Easier said than done, of course, but the improvements don’t necessarily have to cost cash-strapped districts money.  Teachers want autonomy in their classrooms, input in schoolwide decisions.  They want to feel like valued professionals — and that doesn’t cost a dime.