Breaking Systemic Barriers to Careers in Teaching Post-COVID

Despite decades of school reform initiatives focused on closing the racialized achievement gap, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students continue to experience systemic barriers to a high quality education.  Students of color are disproportionately placed in special education programs, more likely to attend a re-segregated and under-resourced school, denied access to upper level courses, and subject to disciplinary infractions at higher rates than their white counterparts (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016; US Department of Education, 2014a & 2014b; Williams, Davis, & Butler, 2020).  Much attention has focused on the need to increase teachers and principals of color.  Schools with highly qualified principals of color have reported positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for students and staff.  For instance, principals of color are more likely to attract, hire, and retain teachers of color (Bartanen & Grissom, 2019). These teachers report higher levels of support, autonomy, and appreciation than their counterparts with White principals (Grissom & Keiser, 2011); more importantly, this translates to greater student outcomes.

When Latinx and Black students are taught by a teacher who shares their ethnic or racial identity (race congruence), this increases their social-emotional well-being and academic performance.  Additionally, they are more likely to be enrolled in gifted, advancement placement, and International Baccalaureate programs (Bristol & Martin-Fernandez, 2019).  The impact of a race congruent teacher extends beyond the time in which students spend with the teacher.  Utilizing data from a statewide initiative on the impact of class size in elementary schools, Gershenson et. al. (2021) uncovered that if a Black student experiences at least one Black teacher between kindergarten and third grade, it increases the likelihood of the student graduating from high school by 13% and enrolling in college by 19%.  Similarly, Latinx students taught by a Latinx teacher are more likely to complete two-year college degrees.

Evidence clearly illuminates the need for more educators of color.  Nevertheless, nearly 70 years after the desegregation mandates from Brown versus the Board of Education, the majority of K-12 educators – just over 70% – remain White, which is largely non representative of the 49% of the student population that identifies as students of color (McFarland et al., 2018).  As articulated by Welton & Zamani-Gallaher (2018), “the ultimate outcome for racial equity is “full participation” for those who historically have been excluded from education and society as a whole” (p. 3).  We argue that the enormous lack of progress toward full participation of non-White people as educators this many years post-desgregation legislation underscores systemic racism within the field of education. To understand and subsequently address the complexities of systemic racism, we suggest that stakeholders devise and evaluate new approaches to diversifying the demographics of teachers and administrators.

Last year the world simultaneously grappled with understanding the complexities of a highly infectious virus, witnessed the final moments of George Floyd’s life, and experienced Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. For the first time in our lives, we witnessed organizations at every level from local to international openly broadcast statements in support of equity, anti-racism, anti-discrimination, gender equality, and overall inclusion. We proudly observed educational institutions follow suit with statements and promises of internal examinations of their policies, practices, and systems. While an optimistic start towards educational equity, sustainable change requires transforming the sociocultural makeup of the education workforce. We believe this shift needs to start with the programs that train pre-service educators.

Although alternative licensure programs have grown substantially over the past ten years, the vast majority of educators – over 80% – enter the field after completing a traditional educator preparation program (EPP) (McFarland et al., 2018).  Thus, these programs are well positioned to broaden and extend multiple on-ramps into the field of education. Expanding access, however, requires shifting the demographics of higher education faculty and teacher candidates to more accurately reflect the increasing racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the student population that candidates will serve.  Currently, 82% of teacher candidates identify as White females (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 2013). Likewise, the percentage of postsecondary faculty of color have remained stagnant and disproportionately low. For instance, the proportion of Black faculty at colleges and universities has only increased from 5% to 6% within a twenty year time span (Davis & Fry, 2019). As scholar-practitioners, we encourage EPP leaders to investigate race-driven questions in their research, assessment, and progress towards educational equity. For example:

  • Are there barriers to entry into education majors that disproportionately impact teacher candidates of color?
  • Are there culturally responsive faculty available to serve as mentors and role models for teacher candidates of color?
  • Are there practices in place within classrooms, offices, and programs that further marginalize teacher candidates of color?
  • Are there policies that covertly or overtly push teacher candidates of color out of the major?
  • Are there systems at play that create an overall unwelcoming or unsupportive environment for teacher candidates of color?

Such questions – and related queries – would further examine the root causes of why educators of colors represent a disproportionately small segment of the teacher force, and what institutional work might EPPs employ to reconcile the disparity. We hypothesize that this approach would also be catalytic, as the increase of teacher candidates of color matriculating from EPPs will inevitably lead to diversifying the education workforce. This could be the impetus needed to expeditiously close achievement gaps to advance the educational and life outcomes for students of color.