The Shortage of
Teachers of Color Is a Civil Rights Crisis
By Lynne Hamer, Ph.D.
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
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
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
“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.
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
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.
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
Berchini, C. “We don’t have a ‘diversity’ problem in
education.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education (October 19,
Boser, U. Teacher diversity matters: A state-by-state
analysis of teachers of color. Project 2050 of the
Center for American Progress, 2011. Download
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.
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
Rizga, Kristina. (2016,
Oct./Nov.) Black Teachers Matter. Mother Jones.
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.
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
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),
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),
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
firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the website
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
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.