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The Shortage of Teachers of Color Is a Civil Rights Crisis

By Lynne Hamer, Ph.D.
Guest Column

We have a shortage of teachers of color and we all need to get serious about fixing it.  Research in education and the social sciences makes a strong case for the need for an ethnically and racially diverse teaching force.  Having diverse teachers is important both for children of color, concentrated in urban public schools, and for all children (Berchini, 2016; Boser, 2011; Gasman, 2016).

 The Shanker Institute (2015) has characterized our national lack of teachers of color as a civil rights issue.  They noted significant research showing that children of color often learn better and receive more appropriate discipline from teachers of color than from white teachers.

Urban, suburban, and rural school districts all lack diversity among their faculties to make student learning most effective and to appropriately represent—and prepare students to contribute to—the diverse, democratic society of the U.S.  In addition, all districts continue to suffer from high teacher attrition; thus, the market for well-educated, licensed teachers of color remains strong (Ingersoll & May, 2011; Sutcher et al., 2016).

Popular thought and academic research alike tend to emphasize the need for children of color to have teachers who look like them and know their culture.  However, current racial and ethnic tensions in the broader society strongly suggest the need for white, non-Hispanic children to grow up knowing adults of color who are loved and respected, and who hold positions of authority.  For a child, the most important role model outside their family is often their teacher.

A first step in addressing the problem is to recognize the critical shortage of teachers of color is real and is a crisis (Sleeter & Carmona, 2017). The National Center for Education Statistics states that in 2011-2012 (the most recent data collected), nationally 82 percent of all K-12 teachers were white, non-Hispanic; Ohio in that year had 92.6 percent white, non-Hispanic teachers (https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass1112_2013314_t1s_001.asp

A second step in addressing the problem is to admit that the lack of diversity among teachers disadvantages all students, but especially students of color. In general, as reported by the Research Policy Institute (2018), teachers of color help close achievement gaps for students of color and are highly rated by students of all races.

Specific research studies show that students of color need teachers of color in order to have a fair and equitable education. Toldson (2008) found that African-American students attending schools with a large percentage of African-American teachers were less likely to expelled, suspended, or placed in special education, and more likely to be recommended for gifted education and to graduate from high school.

Villegas & Irvine (2010) documented that teachers of color are more likely than are white teachers to recognize abilities of children of color and to assure that they receive opportunities to excel.  Villagas et al. (2012) found that teachers of color serve as critical role models for all children, and that teachers of color are particularly suited to teaching students of color because of their experiential knowledge.

One problem, as Gallagher (2003) explains, is that white teachers often believe that they can be “color blind,” which research shows no one in the race-based U.S. can be.  That claim of “color-blindness” serves only to maintain white privilege.

Educator LaRon Scott (2016) noted that in special education, the shortage of black male teachers is particularly problematic when we consider the disproportionately high number of black male children enrolled in special education.  He argues—and supports his argument with dozens of research studies—that this means that “Black male children must navigate learning, behavioral, and social issues without culturally experienced minority role models” and that this “has significant consequences” including:

·         evaluation of children using racially biased assessments;

·         assessment and service of children by white teachers who are not prepared to recognize these biases and are not prepared to provide culturally relevant pedagogy;

·         children of color being denied access to the guidance and understanding that a teacher of color who had experienced racism and could be a role model would provide;

·         Children of color experiencing a less supportive educational environment and thus having lower academic and social outcomes that could otherwise be achieved (Scott, 2016, pp. 42-43)

Finally, a team of Yale researchers (Gilliam et al., 2016) undertook an extensive study to understand “underlying causes” behind “preschool expulsions and the disproportionate expulsion of Black boys” (p. 2).  They found that despite their best intentions, preschool teachers’ implicit biases about sex and race meant they believed boys of color would have more challenging behaviors. 

The researchers found that preschool teachers observed black boys more closely, and noted that this might contribute to disproportional referral for disciplinary problems.  They also noted that the nature of implicit biases appeared to be related to race of educator.  They found that educators tended to be more empathetic with students of own race, as indicated by decrease in their rating of severity of behavior.  But they also found that the biases were related to higher or lower expectations for children in the classroom—even when discipline was not an issue (pp. 11-12).  

How did we come to be in this situation?  Research shows that the national and local shortage of teachers of color is not an accident and is not the result of a lack of interest on the part of people of color in becoming teachers. Rather, the shortage is rooted in the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, when school boards fired their teachers of color rather than placing them in integrated classrooms where they would teach white children. 

Educational researchers Linda Tillman (2004) and Gloria Ladson-Billings (2004) provide detailed histories of this moment.  Historical evidence shows that the issue leading to the firing was that the white school boards and white parents did not want a person of color to have authority over white children.

We as a society created this problem through intentional policies and practices aimed at maintaining white supremacy in the face of desegregation.  Now, we need to solve it. 

First, we need to admit that it is a problem: Plenty of research says that it is.  Second, we need to realize that the problem constitutes a civil rights violation.  Civil rights are commonly understood as the rights of citizens both to freedom (political and social) and to equality.  Having equal access to equal success in schooling is key to being able to realize one’s freedom.  The research on access to school success tells us we need to prioritize recruiting, supporting, and retaining teachers of color for our classrooms, nationally and locally.


Albert Shanker Institute. (2015). The state of teacher diversity in American education. Download http://www.shankerinstitute.org/sites/shanker/files/The%20State%20of%20Teacher%20Diversity%20(3)_0.pdf

Berchini, C. “We don’t have a ‘diversity’ problem in education.”  Diverse Issues in Higher Education (October 19, 2016). Download http://diverseeducation.com/article/88359/?utm_campaign=DIV1610%20DAILY%20NEWSLETTER%20OCT20&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua

Boser, U. Teacher diversity matters: A state-by-state analysis of teachers of color.  Project 2050 of the Center for American Progress, 2011. Download https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2011/11/pdf/teacher_diversity.pdf

Gilliam, W., et al. (2016). Do early educators’ implicit biases regarding sex and race relate to behavior expectations and recommendations of preschool expulsions and suspensions? New Haven, CT: Yale Child Study Center.

Ingersoll, Richard, and Henry May. “The Minority Teacher Shortage: Fact or Fable?” Phi Delta Kappan 93.1 (Sept. 2011): 62-65.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Landing on the Wrong Note: The Price We Paid for Brown.” Educational Researcher 33.7 (2004): 3–13. 

Rizga, Kristina. (2016, Oct./Nov.)  Black Teachers Matter. Mother Jones. Download http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/black-teachers-public-schools-education-system-philadelphia

Scott, L. (2016). Where are all the black male special education teachers? Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 13, (1), 42-48.

Sleeter, C., & Carmona, J. (2016). Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sutcher, L., Darling-Hammond, L., and Carver-Thomas, D. (2016, Sept. 15). A Coming Crisis in Teaching? Teacher Supply, Demand, and Shortages in the U.S. Learning Policy Institute, Download https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/coming-crisis-teaching

Tillman, L. (2004). “(UN)INTENDED CONSEQUENCES: The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on the Employment Status of Black Educators.” Education and Urban Society, 36(3), 280-303.

Toldson, I. (2008). Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path for Academic Success among School-Age African-American Males. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.

Villegas, A., & Irvine, J. (2010). Diversifying the teaching force: An examination of the major arguments. The Urban Review, 42 (3), 175-192.

Vilson, J. (2015). “The Need for More Teachers of Color.” American Educator.

The author is coordinator of Teach Toledo, a collaboration between the University of Toledo and Toledo Public Schools designed to recruit and provide academic support for future teachers of color. UT’s Teach Toledo is recruiting for Cohort II, with May 31 being the deadline for application. Requirements are a GED or a high school diploma, and all ages are welcome.  Classes will begin in August.  Contact Hamer at 419-283-8288 or lynne.hamer@utoledo.edu, or go to the website at www.utoledo.edu/education/teachtoledo to apply for admission on line.  Dr. Hamer is happy to send readers PDFs of the research referenced in this article; contact her via email.

This article is part II of a three part series: Part I reported the graduation of eight Teach Toledo studuents, and part III will offer an assessment of Teach Toledo’s progress in addressing the crisis of the shortage of teachers of color.



Copyright © 2019 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 05/16/19 00:07:30 -0400.

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