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Perspective | Where are all of the teachers of color?

I began my formal education attending a predominantly white elementary school. It was considered one of the better elementary schools in my city, which is why my parents moved our family to this specific neighborhood — but we didn’t stay more than a few years. When I was in fourth grade, my sister and I began attending a school that had a more diverse student population and staff but was not considered to be one of the better schools in the district.

While on paper the transition to this new, seemingly less academically competitive school might have foretold a poor outcome for my sister and me, in reality, the experience changed our academic trajectory for the better. It was at this school that my sister and I had our first teachers of color who saw and nurtured our academic abilities and positive attributes in ways that the teachers at our previous, predominantly white school had not.

Unfortunately, many students in North Carolina may never have a teacher of color in their entire K-12 experience. The vast majority — approximately 80% — of the teacher workforce in our state is white, while students of color make up 52% of the increasingly racially and ethnically diverse public school student population.1

This discrepancy in the demographic representation between students and teachers is referred to as the diversity gap, and it is projected to grow in coming decades — especially for Latinx students2 — despite the fact that research has shown that educators of color bring diverse experiences, expectations and teaching practices to classrooms that enhance the academic performance of students of color.

One study, for instance, found that black students who had black teachers in elementary school scored 3 to 6 percentage points higher on reading and math standardized tests than those who did not, and test score gains increased every additional year that students were paired with same-race teachers.3 Access to teachers of color also leads to long-term academic benefits for students of color including decreased dropout rates and increased likelihood of attending college.4 Moreover, research has shown that the lack of teachers of color in the United States is disadvantageous for all students, not just students of color.5 It is critically important that all students experience a racially and ethnically diverse teaching force that provides sincere and diverse representation of the ideas and abilities that have contributed to the development of this country.

How do we increase the number of teachers of color in the teacher pipeline? We must address the myriad barriers to entry into the profession, beginning with two key obstacles: educator preparation program requirements and the teacher licensure process.

Entrance exams

The Praxis I Core basic skills exam serves as a significant barrier that teacher candidates of color must overcome in order to begin on a path toward becoming a teacher. First-time passing rates of black test takers between 2005 and 2009 on the Praxis I Basic Skills exam were approximately half of that of white test takers.6 Hispanic candidates were about 20% less likely to pass the exam and gaps have also been seen between Asian American and Native American test takers when compared to white candidates.7 This is the case even when controlling for other variables such as household income, grade point average, and parents’ educational attainment level.8

While the passage rates for white candidates should not be held as the desired standard for candidates of color, this is a key piece in understanding why the percentage of teachers of color is so low across the nation. It is incumbent on the education community to study what elements of these exams serve as barriers to entry for prospective teachers of color and how we can remove them so that more qualified candidates can begin the journey toward becoming teachers.

Teacher licensure

Teacher candidates who have completed their education are able to enter the classroom with an Initial Professional License (IPL), but in order to stay in a classroom in North Carolina, they must obtain a Continuing Professional License (CPL) by the end of their third teaching year, which requires candidates to pass multiple licensure exams. Although the purpose of these exams is to screen out candidates who do not have the minimum skills necessary to succeed in the profession, research has shown little to no evidence that licensure tests have an impact on teacher quality and student achievement.9 Findings also show that the validity of these tests as a measure of teacher effectiveness varies depending on the teacher’s race, and thus may be less effective at predicting teacher quality among teachers of color than among white teachers.10

Enforcing strict cutoffs for tests that are questionable as measures of teacher quality, especially for teachers of color, is likely to be a substantial barrier to increasing workforce diversity and may not actually lead to increased student achievement.11 In fact, research on the positive impact of teachers of color on student outcomes appears to be much more conclusive. Given this, policymakers should rethink the licensure process so that all teacher candidates, including those of color, can navigate a pathway toward obtaining licensure that does a better job of assessing a candidate’s pedagogical skills.

High standards for entering the teaching profession are critical, but equally paramount is that we use  appropriate metrics and instruments for assessing the quality of teachers entering the classroom. We must ask: Is the licensing system currently in place actually assessing the talent and skills of teacher candidates of color, or is it perpetuating systemic racial inequities in education?

 The academic trajectory for my sister and me took a positive turn at the elementary school that employed teachers who looked like us. At our previous school, my sister had been mistakenly labeled as a struggling reader and was falling behind her peers and while I was not seen as a “bad” student, I was also never considered to be “gifted.”

Our new teachers — women of color — did not accept the stereotypical narratives about children of color, instead recognizing and understanding that our unique talents and abilities needed to be nurtured and supported. Within a couple of months at our new school with teachers who saw our potential, my sister began reading above grade level and my teacher recommended that I be placed on a gifted track. Enacting policies to recruit and retain more teachers of color is one step toward ensuring that all students will have access to strong role models who look like them and are able to recognize their skills and intelligence as well as their skin color.

The Public School Forum of NC will release a series of reports focusing on the structure of the current teacher licensure system, research on the connections between licensure test scores and teacher effectiveness, and implications for the lack of diversity in the North Carolina teacher workforce in early 2020. 

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Kelly Hinchcliffe. “NC’s Teacher Diversity Gap: Where are all the Black and Brown Teachers?” WRAL. (2019).
  2. Putman, Hannah, Michael Hansen, Kate Walsh and Diana Quintero. “High Hopes and Harsh Realities: The Real Challenges to Building a Diverse Workforce. Brookings Institution (August 2016) 1-22.
  3. Carver-Thomas, Desiree. “Diversifying the Teaching Profession: How to Recruit and Retain Teachers of Color.” Learning Policy Institute (April 2018) 1-54.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Lash, Martha, and Monica Ratcliffe. “The journey of an African American teacher before and after Brown v. Board of Education.” The Journal of Negro Education 83, no. 3 (2014): 327-337.
  6. Petchauer, Emery. “Teacher licensure exams and Black teacher candidates: Toward new theory and promising practice.” The Journal of Negro Education 81, no. 3 (2012): 252-267.
  7. Barnum, M. “Certification rules and tests are keeping would-be teachers of color out of America’s classrooms. Here’s how.” Chalkbeat.(2017)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Angrist, Joshua D., and Jonathan Guryan. “Does teacher testing raise teacher quality? Evidence from state certification requirements.” Economics of Education Review 27, no. 5 (2008): 483-503.
  10. Goldhaber, Dan, and Michael Hansen. “Race, Gender, and Teacher Testing: How Informative a Tool Is Teacher Licensure Testing?” American Educational Research Journal 47, no. 1 (March 2010): 218–51; Angrist, Joshua D., and Jonathan Guryan. “Does teacher testing raise teacher quality? Evidence from state certification requirements.” Economics of Education Review 27, no. 5 (2008): 483-503.
  11. Ibid.
Ashley Kazouh

Ashley Kazouh Ashley is the associate director for the Dudley Flood Center for Educational Equity and Opportunity at the Public School Forum of North Carolina.