Diversifying Massachusetts’ overwhelmingly white teaching force will be no simple task. But there are some intriguing efforts here and around the country that policy makers should seriously consider replicating or expanding.
As the Globe’s Matt Rocheleau reported last week, minorities account for 37 percent of the state’s public school students, but just 7 percent of its teaching staff — a troublesome mismatch that, research shows, can harm minority student performance.
“I think if we’re serious about closing achievement gaps, then we’ve got to treat this like it’s a crisis,” said Kim Janey, senior project director for the nonprofit Massachusetts Advocates for Children.
Building a more diverse teacher corps will require some big cultural shifts that could take years to effect; deep-seated racial and gender dynamics steer huge numbers of white women into the profession, and not so many black men. But in the short run, policy can make a real difference.
In Boston, for instance, the school district has used a once-obscure provision in the teacher contract to hire more candidates from outside the system. A report by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-backed think tank, shows the move has led to a better-qualified and more diverse pool of new hires.
As negotiations for a new teacher contract drag on, the school district and the union must work to keep this hiring flexibility in place. And other districts around the state should press for similar autonomies.
The Boston schools have also launched a small program aimed at encouraging a diverse pool of high school students to become future teachers. Twenty-one students are enrolled so far this year. It’s a fine start, but the state could do much more. Models include a New York program called “Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers,” and South Carolina’s “Teacher Cadet” program, which dates back to 1985 and has trained more than 60,000 students.
Change will also be required at the colleges and universities that produce so many of the region’s new teachers. They can start by building more diverse faculties; that’s crucial if they want to attract and retain a more diverse group of teacher candidates.
But while colleges and universities will continue to train most Massachusetts teachers, they aren’t the end-all, be-all. Alternative teacher certification programs run by school districts and nonprofits offer cheaper, hands-on training and have a better record of attracting candidates of color.
There are programs around the country that train paraprofessionals, many of them multilingual minorities, to become full teachers. And there are efforts to help mid-career professionals in business, medicine, and other fields make a transition into teaching.
A state trust fund that once helped pay for these kinds of initiatives dried up years ago. If lawmakers are serious about building a diverse teacher corps, they should consider rebuilding the fund.
Better recruitment of teacher candidates is just one part of the solution, though. Retaining teachers of color, once they’ve been hired, is also critical.
Travis Bristol, an education professor at Boston University, helped create a program in the Boston schools that allows minority teachers to network with one another and discuss the challenges of navigating a white-dominated system. Some find their ideas aren’t taken seriously by their colleagues, Bristol said. Many face the classroom difficulties that any teacher faces in a tough urban school. Talking these problems through can help teachers of color improve — and stay in the job. A similar effort in Philadelphia, called “The Fellowship,” could offer some lessons for improving the Boston program and spreading the idea across the state, Bristol said.
Getting this right matters. A powerful connection between a teacher and a student can lift a child out of poverty like little else. And building a more diverse teacher corps is crucial to fostering that connection.