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Teacher diversity and student success: Why racial representation matters in the classroom

Past Event

Event summary by Nicolas Zerbino on Friday, April 23, 2021

Diversifying the teaching force could be a key step to closing student achievement gaps and moving schools closer to equity goals. In their new book, “Teacher Diversity and Student Success: Why Racial Representation Matters in the Classroom,” Seth Gershenson, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael Hansen, and Constance Lindsay present nuanced policy recommendations to increase teacher diversity in classrooms and promote more inclusive schools.

The authors address the historic and contemporary factors that have kept people of color out of teaching, synthesize the research showing the benefits of same-race teacher exposure, and argue that policies focused on improving teacher quality should take race explicitly into consideration.

On April 19, the Brown Center for Education Policy at Brookings hosted a webinar to discuss the book and the importance of diversifying the teacher workforce. The authors were joined by Brookings Senior Fellow Andre Perry as moderator and Patricia Alvarez McHatton of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity for a conversation on the mechanics behind increasing teacher diversity, policy recommendations to address inequalities, and how the change could benefit students.

The webinar began with the authors delivering a brief presentation summarizing the book’s most important lessons. Seth Gershenson, associate professor at American University, motivated the discussion by highlighting the disconnect between the nonwhite representation of students (50%) versus teachers (80%), arguing one of the ways to close the longstanding race-based achievement gaps is to expose more students to teachers who look like them. Gershenson highlighted a robust literature on the subject, indicating that access to same-race teachers improves not only test scores but also increases chances of high school graduation and referrals to gifted and talented programs, and lowers absenteeism, among many other positive outcomes.

Constance Lindsay, assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill, continued by putting the current situation into context and describing ways in which the education system has been historically used as a “vehicle of assimilation into white American culture.” Lindsay stressed that following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Black teachers were either “not integrated” or “tools [were] developed to exclude them from classrooms,” reducing the Black teacher workforce over time. This situation is not unique to Black teachers, she said, as Native American, Asian, and Hispanic communities across the country have also had experiences of exclusion from and segregation in public schools, likewise hindering the development of a qualified teaching force. With this context in mind, Lindsay invited us to think about the development path one must go through to become a teacher, and the different “leaks” that surface at multiple points in the pipeline for people of color, observing “at its heart, this question of teacher diversity is a college access issue.”

Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, concluded the presentation with a focus on strategic policy actions to promote teacher diversity. Hansen argued that the book’s message “teacher diversity is teacher quality” may be provocative, but it is a necessary position to take. This idea is operationally useful, Hansen continued, with the evidence of diversity being a critical element of a quality education, and it can be strategically useful to “unify different interest groups within the education reform and advocacy space around a common objective.” “To be clear we do not mean … to give the impression that a teacher’s racial or ethnic background is what makes a quality teacher, rather we want states and districts to consider a teacher’s race as one of many useful and relevant predictors of quality alongside other metrics,” Hansen stated.

Patricia Alvarez McHatton, senior vice president at Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, commented on the authors’ presentation and expressed appreciation for the multifaceted approach to teacher diversity in the book. She highlighted the specificity of the policy recommendations presented by the authors and how the book is clear, “there are no quick fixes or silver bullets.” Alvarez McHatton finished her commentary on the presentation with a question for the audience: “My question to us today regarding the diversification of the teacher workforce is: How bad do we want it? Because [the] time is past due.”

After Alvarez McHatton’s comments and the conclusion of the authors’ presentation, Andre Perry opened the floor for discussion. The panelists touched on the positive effects teachers of color can have not only on students of color but also on white students and teachers. Looking ahead, the experts discussed the policy opportunity presented by new funding available to schools for learning recovery through the American Rescue Plan. The authors stressed the importance of being creative when staffing tutoring, summer school, and after-school programs with educators and paraprofessionals of color to start closing the representation gap and increase the quality of education for everyone.


The book, “Teacher Diversity and Student Success” is available for purchase here. Use code “TDSS21” to receive a discount at checkout.

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