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Mirror, Mirror

Note: Raegen Miller, the vice president for research partnerships at Teach For America, is guest posting this week.

Nationally, about half of the students attending public schools are students of color while non-white teachers represent 18 percent of the teaching workforce. Corresponding proportions for states or counties can easily paint a starker picture of demographic mismatch. In Oregon, where I live, students of color account for more than a third of the K-12 population, but less than a tenth of the teacher workforce is non-white. In Jefferson County, two-thirds of the students are Latino or Native American, yet not even one in ten teachers shares this background.

So there's little doubt that country's teacher workforce is a poor reflection--in terms of race or ethnicity--of the students in our schools, but just how and why does this matter? I'm not asking this to stir the pot or because I inhabit some sort of post-racial wonderland. I'm asking because the demographic mismatch, which has gotten measurably worse in recent years, is not likely to remedy itself. It's going to require action from many individuals and groups pushing in the same direction. This kind of push calls for a solid research base, but the literature on the question of how and why the teacher workforce should mirror students is a little patchy.

While highlighting the demographic mismatch is easy, what constitutes adequate "mirroring" isn't obvious. Measures of race/ethnicity typically available to researchers and advocates tend not to respect the complexity of the underlying constructs, and there's currently no consensus on what specific ideas should underpin a framework for monitoring progress on how the teacher workforce resembles our students in terms of race/ethnicity.

And things aren't much better on the question of why it should do so. Extant research centers on three main theories:

  • The first is that racial/ethnic parity is important because teachers serve as role models for children. Depriving Latino students, for example, of Latino role models is simply unjust.
  • The second theory goes further, suggesting that such deprivation actively hinders students from attaining the education they need. The reason is that teachers who share racial or ethnic backgrounds with students are more likely to have cultural insight or other knowledge crucial to instructional success.
  • Finally, the last theory suggests that shared backgrounds affect teachers as well as students, translating into more intense or sustained professional commitment.

Each of the theories has merit, but they're all very difficult to test. Much of the evidence to date centers on teachers' subjective perceptions of students' behavior or performance, and a compelling bottom line remains a long way off.

The research community needs to dig in aggressively to bolster clarity about how and why the teacher workforce should resemble our students. I've highlighted just one dimension of diversity, race/ethnicity, but a parallel argument applies to gender and other protected classes. It suffices to say that we're talking about a complex and difficult program of research. Really cracking into it will require potent new partnerships, and it's part of my job to foster Teach For America's involvement in them. The organization is deeply committed to building a diverse pool of talent serving the field of education, and this commitment makes it a potentially valuable lens for studying the question of how and why the teacher workforce should mirror its students.

--Raegen Miller

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