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Trainee math teacher Shaw from Teach for America program teaches class at George Washington Carver Middle School in Los Angeles
Brown Center Chalkboard

Retaining minority teachers in schools where most of their colleagues are white

Steven Bednar and Dora Gicheva

Minorities continue to be largely underrepresented among elementary and secondary teachers relative to the racial and ethnic composition of the nation’s student body, and tend to be concentrated in urban, high-minority schools. This means that many nonwhite or Hispanic students who attend schools with few minority teachers lack valuable role models. Many studies find that minority students experience greater test score gains across a variety of contexts if they are taught by a minority instructor (primary school, community colleges, even law school). Moreover, students of all races were found to have more favorable perceptions of their teachers of color. It is also concerning that minority teachers are more likely than their white colleagues to change schools over a given period, and teacher turnover has been linked to lower student test scores.

In a new study, we strive to identify practices that are successful in retaining minority teachers, particularly in schools where they are underrepresented. Social identity theory and theories of isolation postulate that individuals are less content when they are part of a group in which they are a numerical minority. In other words, teachers are predictably more likely to seek employment elsewhere when there is a pronounced mismatch between their race or ethnicity and the racial or ethnic composition of the rest of the school’s staff. Since a supportive school administration has been shown to be one of the most important factors to boost retention for all teachers, we investigate whether having a supportive principal can be particularly helpful in making minority teachers in schools with few other minority teachers feel part of the group and less likely to leave.

We analyze four cycles of data from the large, nationally representative Schools and Staffing Survey administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the Department of Education. We focus on teachers who stay in the profession, and examine the role of principal support in teachers’ decisions to stay at their current school or move to a different school.

The Schools and Staffing Survey asks all teachers to indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree with a series of statements describing their perceptions of working conditions, such as:

  • The school administration’s behavior toward the staff is supportive and encouraging.
  • My principal enforces school rules for student conduct and backs me up when I need it.
  • The principal knows what kind of school he or she wants and has communicated it to the staff.
  • In this school, staff members are recognized for a job well done.

One year after the initial interview, principals are asked if the surveyed teachers are still teaching at the same school, if they are teaching elsewhere, or if they have left the profession. Because most observations in the data come from schools where multiple teachers are interviewed, we can compare teachers’ perceptions to the responses of their colleagues. We observe that minority teachers tend to report similar or even slightly higher levels of support compared to their white colleagues in the same school. An encouraging, if somewhat surprising, finding.

Yet, the main question we address is whether support matters for retention differentially by teacher race. We first confirm the established result that once we account for other school characteristics such as size and composition of the student body, more administrative support—both in absolute terms and relative to the school’s average—is associated with a lower likelihood of moving to a different school for teachers of any demographic background. In addition, we find that the relationship is especially pronounced for nonwhite or Hispanic teachers at schools where 10 percent or fewer of all teachers are also nonwhite or Hispanic.

Focusing on teachers who are new to the profession and are thus more likely to feel isolated—and generally more prone to leave—strengthens the result even more. Support is more likely to matter for minority teachers in schools with predominantly white staff located in small towns or rural areas compared to minority teachers at other types of schools or to white teachers anywhere. We also observe that the ratio of total minority students of any race or ethnicity per nonwhite or Hispanic teacher tends to be higher in schools with mostly white teachers. While it is important to retain any one of 10 minority teachers in a school with 300 nonwhite or Hispanic students, it may be even more critical to keep the only minority teacher in a school with only 50 minority students (a situation which is common in our sample).

The objective of our research project is to help inform policy on the differential role that support plays for the retention of minority teachers. In order to sustain or increase diversity among public school teachers, it is important to prevent those who are hired from leaving, especially in schools where few other teachers are of racial or ethnic minority. An important yet missing piece of our study is guidance on specific administrative practices that are effective in fostering a supportive environment. It is important for future research to help understand whether supportive principals help retain minority teachers in schools with mostly white teachers through improving teaching effectiveness, promoting a more accepting climate, or doing something relatively simple but shown effective in other education settings, such as ensuring that the physical environment within the school excludes race-related stereotypes.

Authors

S

Steven Bednar

Assistant Professor, Department of Economics - Elon University

D

Dora Gicheva

Assistant Professor, Department of Economics - University of North Carolina-Greensboro

The Brown Center Chalkboard launched in January 2013 as a weekly series of new analyses of policy, research, and practice relevant to U.S. education.

In July 2015, the Chalkboard was re-launched as a Brookings blog in order to offer more frequent, timely, and diverse content. Contributors to both the original paper series and current blog are committed to bringing evidence to bear on the debates around education policy in America.

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