November 13, 2017

Front of classroom diversity — and its impact on students of color

Teacher Andreina Velasco instructs young students at Earl Boyles Elementary School's Early Works program, an initiative launched by the Children's Institute in partnership with Meyer and other funders.

This year, Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio commissioned a literature review highlighting 11 dimensions of educational equity. Each of the 11 “chapters” serves as a resource for deepening educators’ and community-based organizations’ grounding in what research tells us about educational equity. Chapter 2, entitled “Teachers of Color in Classrooms and the Impact on Students of Color,” highlights the lack of racial diversity within Oregon’s K-12 teacher workforce — and why it matters.

Attached here is a virtual copy of the second chapter, which draws correlations between that lack of racial diversity and Oregon’s achievement gap for students of color, and suggests that increasing the number of teachers of color in classrooms across the state is imperative to reducing the achievement gap.

Meyer supports this work: 2017 grantee Portland State University’s Graduate School of Education Leadership for Equity and Diversity (LEAD) program plans to recruit, prepare and support educators of color through relationships with community-based organizations. This chapter also suggests providing teachers with cultural competency training based on behaviors of teachers of color, ensuring a heightened awareness of their own biases, could elevate academic achievement for students of color. Another education portfolio grantee, KairosPDX, a culturally based education nonprofit founded and directed by three women of color, will soon be training teachers across the state in equity, inclusion and trauma-informed practices to eliminate the achievement gap for our most vulnerable students.

The issue has long been identified as an area for increased support.

In a report released in 2004, “Assessment of Diversity in America’s Teaching Force: A Call to Action,” the National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force stated: “Additional research is needed, but time is passing quickly and action is vital. We cannot continue to wait as more children of color fail to reach their potential and as fewer teachers of color join and remain in the education community.” Thirteen years later, the call reverberates as academic achievement gaps widen for students of color as compared with their white peers.

As a teacher of color working in a school with a predominantly non-white student population, I often heard exasperated white teachers refer to ”these kids” when referencing students of color. That statement always made me simultaneously cringe and ache, feeling inherently connected to the students given my own background. It expressed, seemingly without the speaker’s knowledge, that they felt the minority kids they were teaching were different from them — other, less civilized than the “good” kids. The statement “these kids” was often followed by “don’t have any respect,” “behave like animals” or “just aren’t getting it.” I would think to myself, “These teachers have B.A. and master’s degrees, right? They are ‘highly qualified’... right?” But having those credentials in no way guarantees that a white teacher will have the cultural competency skills needed to effectively reach students of color, skills often inherent for teachers of color.

When No Child Left Behind was instituted in 2001, it demanded that all children be educated by a “highly qualified” teacher, but it defined this without a racial or cultural competency lens. Although the intention of eliminating achievement disparities was good, policy-makers didn’t take into account the needs of students, especially students of color. A growing body of evidence makes clear that students of color or underrepresented students do better when they see themselves in those leading their educational experience.

Almost 90 percent of Oregon’s K-12 public education teachers are white, while almost 40 percent are students of color. Consequently, this means in Oregon students of color often go their whole school experience without seeing someone educating them that matches their racial background. Tyler White, a high school student in Portland, recently wrote a guest column describing his experience as a black student with mostly white teachers and the struggles he’s encountered because of this disconnect. Tyler White is not the only student of color feeling the effects of nonreflective teachers. National Public Radio’s article “If Your Teacher Looks Like You, You May Do Better In School” spotlights recent research echoing White’s experiences.

Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio knows growing and retaining the pool of teachers of color in Oregon is essential to addressing inequitable outcomes experienced by our most vulnerable students — vulnerable to systemic racism, to teacher biases, to unjust disciplinary actions, to inequitable access to advanced educational experiences (e.g. TAG and Advance Placement courses) and surveillance. We aim to promote the success of all Oregon’s students by bringing awareness to issues affecting equitable access to educational attainment and advancement to college and career with the goal of realizing a flourishing and equitable Oregon.

— Bekah