If we need more teachers of color, stop saying we need diversity


The state of public education in Minnesota is not looking good. According to data provided by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), in 2014 and 2015 more than half of 11th graders were not at grade level in math or reading. For those same years, the Minneapolis Public School District (MPS) showed no more than a third of 11th graders performed at grade level for either subject. For students of color, the numbers are even worse, giving Minnesota one of the largest achievement gaps nationally between students of color and their white peers.

There are many factors affecting why Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American kids don’t perform well here. But one key contributor is a belief gap that follows them into their classrooms, where they are viewed by predominantly white teachers as having less academic potential than their white peers.

A recent John Hopkins study, titled “Who Will Believe in Me?”, showed white teachers had lower expectations for the current and future success of black students compared to black teachers when rating the same student. Other studies have shown that white students are more likely to be labeled as gifted than Black students–even with comparable test scores.

This implicit racial bias also manifests itself in a disproportionate number of behavior and discipline referrals and higher rates of Special Education referrals for students of color. In 2013, the number of black students in Minnesota identified as having emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) was “more than 3 times the national average for black students and higher than any other state,” with even higher rates for Minneapolis and St. Paul where the majority of black students reside.

Black students in Minnesota are more likely to be removed from classrooms, suspended and placed in less rigorous curriculums, followed by Latino and Native American students. The combined effect of missed instruction days and misplacement in Special Education curriculums makes it difficult for students of color to remain on track academically and graduate high school on time. These biases and policies also feed the cradle to prison pipeline resulting in tangible emotional, physical and financial costs for students of color, their families, and their communities. While there are many efforts underway to close Minnesota’s achievement or belief gap, such as former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s GenNext program, increasing the number of teachers of color among Minnesota’s ranks warrants imminent action.

Since the mid-1990s, Minnesota’s student demographics have changed drastically, with the state now home to a more racially diverse and international student body.

In comparison, Minnesota’s teachers have remained mostly white and female. According to Education Minnesota’s most recent report on teacher recruitment and retention, “In 2014, 29 percent of Minnesota’s schoolchildren were Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander, African American or Hispanic. In contrast, roughly 3 percent of Minnesota’s teachers were people of color.”


Cultural disconnect between white women and African American boys

First grade teacher and Vietnamese-American Maria Le served as an adviser on Education Minnesota’s report and teaches in the Roseville School District. Having grown up in Minnesota, Le recalled that she “never encountered a teacher of color” throughout her entire K-12 education, “with the exception of one Japanese exchange student teacher–but even that was only for a few weeks.”

Her experience as a young student is one of the reasons that Le decided to become a teacher.

“Because representation matters,” Le said.

Le, one of 11 finalists for the 2016 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, is particularly concerned with racial inequity for African American and Latino students who she says, “have not been achieving well. The only students [of color] who appear to be doing well are Asians; but even here, Asians are broadly lumped together and the data needs to be further desegregated.”


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First graders at Central Park Elementary. Photo by Kayla Steinberg.


The teaching field, Le noted, “is a white female dominated society and if we’re concerned about the discipline of things like African American boys and then looking at high incarceration rates for them, we have to admit that there’s a cultural disconnect between white women and African American boys.”

LaTasha Gandy, executive director of Students for Education Reform (SFER) MN and parent to school-aged children echoed Le’s observations on the cultural disconnect between white teachers and students of color on issues such as discipline.

“In terms of disciplinary disparities, we need more teachers of color in those seats because some of the behaviors our children are displaying, are not–in their minds–signs of disrespect. It’s a cultural-specific way of dealing with something. It’s only when you have teachers of color or teachers from those experiences that they’re able to see that and not see it as something a kid needs to be disciplined or punished for,” Gandy said.

Gandy also believes that having teachers who reflect the student population, particularly in urban districts, increases learning and can help “quiet some of that outside noise” students bring into the classroom when they are dealing with issues such as intergenerational poverty or homelessness. While in high school, Gandy benefited from having a female teacher of color who helped her explore her biracial identity through creative writing. Outside the classroom, the same teacher supported Gandy when she had trouble at home, something she thinks a white teacher may have felt uncomfortable with.

“She understood that I was more than just a student in her classroom, she knew that building a relationship with me also helped my learning.”


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Teachers who share a culture with students are also able to provide more culturally relevant teaching, Gandy notes. For many students of color, the subject matter covered in learning materials may not always be recognizable to them.

“Even standardized tests ask questions about foods our kids don’t eat, trips our kids don’t go on, different sporting things that our kids would never understand. When you have a teacher of color in the classroom that’s not going to be something that’s overlooked.”

Ternesha Burroughs who teaches ninth grade math in the Osseo School District supports Gandy’s sentiments that having teachers of color has a positive effect on the curriculum for students of color. With a push towards a more cooperative style of learning in classrooms, more teachers are having to work in teams. Having a teacher of color on such a team can help ensure that content is culturally relevant during lesson planning while accommodating for different learning styles. Lesson plans are what guide learning and establish how a student’s performance is measured and graded. Creating lesson plans that work for all students in the classroom is crucial to improving the performance of students of color.  The value of this is significant as lesson plans provide the metrics for understanding that ultimately affect how students’ performance is rated.

Burroughs, like Le, works in a racially isolated school within her district; all the surrounding schools serve a predominantly white student body. At the school where Burroughs teaches, 78 percent of students are non-white and at Le’s school, non-white students make up 82 percent. Both teachers feel frustrated with the pace of change for the student populations they serve.

“There were times I thought I was going to lose my job because I disagreed with policies or practices and voiced this, or from burn out because I felt I couldn’t make the changes I wanted to see. I’m a social activist and I got into teaching to create change,” Le said.

For Burroughs, her frustration has to do with misguided attempts at increasing ‘diversity.’

“I’m not trying to increase the diversity of teachers in Minnesota,” she said. “I’m trying to increase the number of teachers of color.”

That distinction is key to the work. Burroughs attributes the disconnect in vocabulary to “Minnesota Nice” culture.

“For example,” Burroughs pointed out, “I was at the State Capitol [this past legislative session] watching all these senators introduce bills to increase teacher diversity and Sen. Patricia Torres Ray posed a really good question, ‘What in your bills ensures this money is going to be used for teachers of color? There was no language in there stating that.’


In teaching, encouraging “diversity” can mean more white men

In a field that is majority white women, Burroughs correctly noted that “diversity” does not necessarily mean teachers of color. When using a vague term like “diversity,” state funds meant for the recruitment of teachers of color could instead be used to recruit white male teachers who are currently underrepresented in the ranks.

“To get more teachers of color in the ranks, we need to close the achievement gap. With high school graduation and student achievement so low amongst students of color there are not enough teacher candidates in the supply line,” said Eric Mahmoud, president and CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools.

The Harvest Network has managed to create its own pipeline of teachers with many former scholars returning to teach at its schools. This year’s Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Abdul Wright, is the first black male and charter school teacher to ever receive the award. He teaches at Harvest’s Best Academy.

“Many of our alumni when they come back and visit, though they talk about the academic preparation that the school provided them, they focus more on how Harvest helped shape their identity as an African American,” Mahmoud said.

There are other efforts underway to get more teachers of color in Minnesota’s classrooms through alternative licensure programs such as MPS’ Grow Your Own. In partnership with the University of Minnesota, the program aims to help “train the district’s educator support professionals — almost half of whom are minorities — to become licensed teachers.”

In addition, South High School–the largest school in MPS–has an Emerging Educators program geared towards current students of color. Now in its second year, the program features a “curriculum designed to put students on the fast track to teaching careers with the goal of getting diverse teachers in the classroom two years after graduating high school.”


Red tape leaves teachers of color in purgatory

But even with these increased efforts at training, there are other barriers to gaining licensure that deter teachers of color. Teaching for one, is not a lucrative job in a state with Fortune 500 companies and a budding creative economy that promises better compensation.

Further, “Teacher prep programs are not culturally relevant; they’re not engaging students of color,” Gandy of SFER MN stated. “So educators don’t even see themselves in the field.”

When educators of color do make it into and through teacher preparation programs there is the financial burden of practicums that require them to student-teach for 40 hours per week for 12 weeks, unpaid.

“We are talking about communities of color who are not only supporting themselves, but often times, their family. It might not be their wife or husband or kids, it could be grandma, auntie, uncle. They can’t afford to to give 40 hours of work for free for a semester.”

Both Gandy and Burroughs said they have seen students and support staff make it through the academic portion of teacher preparation, only to find that they were unable to carve out time to complete the necessary practicum.

“So support staff end up in this purgatory, they can’t go up, they can’t go anywhere,” Burroughs said.

In her Osseo district, Burroughs said there is a program in place for existing support staff to student teach within the district while still receiving their support staff salary. Burroughs thinks more programs like these are needed to boost the numbers of teachers of color.

“Companies will offer their employees discounts, tuition reimbursements for taking classes within the field. I don’t know why we don’t do the same thing to help an education support staff who is interested in becoming a teacher when they already work in our system,” Burroughs said.


Supporting, not tokenizing, teachers of color

But even when teachers of color make it through all the pipeline barriers and into Minnesota schools, they can still lack much-needed support.

Ray Apponte, a native Puerto Rican and South High’s principal has been an educator for 30 years.

“Coming out, I was by myself, there was no one but me,” he said. “I think we need to have better systems for when we get these precious few in, how do we support them to be successful? Some of those systems are loose and informal but as a system we need to do a little better job at supporting teachers of color.”


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For teachers of color, being one of (if you’re lucky) a handful of educators of color in an entire school, can be isolating. Their environment is often not structured to support them in culturally specific ways and there are the pressures of being a lone voice on issues of race and equity.

Teachers who commented for this story reported feeling hesitant about speaking up against racially inequitable policies early in their careers; the same policies that affect the poor performance of students of color in Minnesota schools. Other practices, such as the “last in, first out”  disproportionately affect teachers of color during layoffs, most of whom are typically the newest hires and therefore the first to be let go.

Without adequate support from peers and leadership, it can be difficult for teachers of color to see themselves in the system and build buy-in, leading to lower retention. An issue that Education Minnesota identified in its report on Minnesota’s teacher shortage as “becoming the dominant problem.”

It’s apparent that there are a lot of “good intentions” out there as Burroughs stated. The result of all these concerted efforts over the past six years however hasn’t resulted in any concrete gains–and our students of color are being affected. So what is it going to take to have Minnesota’s teaching ranks reflect its changing demographics more urgently?

Brenda Johnson, a transition specialist at Stadium View High School which serves students in Hennepin County’s Juvenile Detention Center, thinks the state needs an authentic commitment to issues plaguing students of color.

“My job here and the rest of my tenure is to interrupt the cradle to prison pipeline. I have to do something. It is not only my mission, but my civic duty. We have to have the courageous conversations around race and equity. And then we have to put our foot to the pedal and get moving,” she said.