Classrooms are becoming more diverse, but the people leading them remain predominantly white.
More than 80 percent of the bachelor's degrees in education awarded during the 2009-10 school year were to non-Latino white students, according to a new study by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). Three-quarters went to women, and only 4.2 percent went to Latinos.
At the same time, the racial and ethnic makeup of the country's student body has become less monolithic over the years. Nearly half of all children under five right now are minorities, and no racial or ethnic group will constitute a true majority in the United States by 2050, according to Census data.
The racial and ethnic makeup of the teaching profession doesn't reflect that shift. "While more diverse teachers have entered the profession in recent years, their numbers have not kept pace with the PK–12 population shift," the AACTE study said. "An analysis of the National Center for Education Statistics (2012) data showed that students of color made up more than 45% of the PK–12 population, whereas teachers of color made up only 17.5% of the educator workforce."
Part of the reason is that there are more white people in college than minorities, but it's also because minorities aren't choosing to pursue teaching careers.
Few minorities, especially men, think about becoming teachers. Many have simply never had minority teachers themselves, and so they don't identify with the idea, said Paul Beare, dean of California State University-Fresno's Kremen School of Education.
His school has made diversity a priority in recent years, and with a good deal of success. Kremen, which Beare said is about 65 percent minority students, is more diverse than most. That number, however, still needs to grow to reflect the diversity of the surrounding community. Nearby Sanger Unified School District has an 82 percent minority population, for instance, with a quarter of all students being English-language learners.
Fresno State has worked to increase the diversity of its student teachers by offering them financial incentives and fellowships and partnering with local school districts.
Classroom teachers and student teachers work side-by-side in a co-teaching model instead of having a student teacher take over for a period of time, which gives children access to more educators and allows student teachers a chance to see how classrooms really work. Fresno State students also receive instruction from their professors on-site.
The results have been encouraging, in part because of the partnership with Fresno State, university officials say. In the last eight years, student test scores at Sanger have improved and the percentage of teachers who quit has dropped from around 40 percent to less than five percent.
Beare has also worked on making education professors at Fresno State more diverse. About 58 percent are minorities. It's not perfect or reflective of the student body yet, but it's something Beare says he continues to prioritize.
Getting teachers, especially minorities, into STEM classrooms needs to be a focus for programs looking to increase diversity, Beare said. Unlike other professions that graduate far more workers than the labor market needs, there are shortages of teachers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, which are the ones currently hiring the most workers.
Attracting Hispanic teachers in particular could also have a marked difference on English-language learning in schools. There is currently a shortage of qualified English-language teachers, and studies conducted by Fresno State have shown that their Hispanic student teachers are the most effective at connecting with English-language learners.
But programs need to be able to identify and target people they think might make good teachers beginning at a young age. The school is talking about starting a sort of "pipeline" with local high schools to identify and work with students who might make good teachers.
Another area for improvement is financial assistance.
Many students, particularly minorities, are trying to work two or three jobs while they attend school to support siblings and parents at home, which contributes to the higher attrition rate among minorities. Beare said tuition assistance isn't the true barrier at Fresno State, as most students receive enough aid to cover their degrees, but money does play a role.
To address the issue, the school is trying to increase the number of teaching-fellow positions it offers. Such positions allow people to earn money in the teaching field, and fellows are less likely to drop out because the fellowship program is sensitive to the fact that people have classes and works around that.
Like many other teaching programs, Fresno State has struggled to attract minority men, and the great majority of students in the education program continue to be female.
Clemson University in South Carolina has focused specifically on the issue of getting more minority men, specifically black men, into classrooms.
The university introduced an initiative in 2000 to increase the diversity of available teachers, especially for the lowest-performing elementary schools--and it's working. The program estimates that it has increased the number of black male teachers at elementary schools in South Carolina by 40 percent since the program started.
Dr. Roy Jones is the director of the Call Me MISTER program, which offers tuition assistance through scholarships and loan forgiveness to students who pursue specific education courses at more than a dozen colleges, including Clemson. The program also offers its students, who are mostly from poor communities, both academic and peer mentoring.
"You just have to make it a priority," he said. "It's not hard recruiting black athletes...and if you put a premium and a value on recruiting master teachers, then it won't be hard to recruit black males who want to teach."
He said recruitment has to go beyond traditional assessments such as GPA and test scores. A 4.0 student is not necessarily going to make a great teacher, but a kid who grew up in a family similar to the families of young students, a guy who's helped raise his younger siblings or tutored them, is much more likely to not only succeed at teaching, but to see it as a calling and not just a job.
According to Jones, increasing teacher diversity allows schools to attract educators who are uniquely situated to deal with increasingly diverse student bodies.
"Too often educators aren't well-prepared or equipped with how to deal with the challenges and nuances of the people who come into their classrooms that are not as well-prepared academically, socially, intellectually and emotionally as they should be," he said. "So having teachers that are culturally sensitive and that have similar backgrounds has always been viewed as value added to any school situation."