President Biden has put our nation’s education system front and center, recently announcing plans for enormous investments in education from pre-K through college, in addition to the imminent arrival of billions of dollars in federal COVID relief that is forcing districts to quickly implement hiring and personnel policies at scale.
Will we use this moment to further bake in the inequitable policies of the past? Or can we seize this opportunity to disrupt historic practices that have served to bar teachers of color from the classroom?
Education Secretary Dr. Miguel Cardona is himself a teacher of color. He has expressed his desire to support teacher and educator diversity. We now need him to lead the work of creating a diverse, representative corps of educators who look more like the students they serve.
Evidence indicates that all students benefit from having diverse educators. Though our public schools serve mostly students of color, nearly 80% of their teachers are white. Meanwhile, research accumulates showing the undeniable benefits that teachers of color bring to the classroom—especially for Black students.
There will be pressure to let this issue wait. Even as President Biden’s American Families Plan includes $9 billion for teacher training, people will say that the leaks in the pipeline that keep people of color out of teaching—most especially Black men—must be put on hold while we meet the educational challenges of the pandemic.
But the pandemic has exposed and worsened those leaks. Before the pandemic, we lost Black boys before they graduated from high school—we will lose more now. Before the pandemic, first-generation college students struggled to make it through—they are struggling harder now. Before the pandemic, college graduates burdened by debt said no to teaching. Will more say no now?
It recalls for me a phrase that my parents used to use as members of the Black Panther Party: “Seize the time.”
This is why I have joined with more than 50 educational justice organizations and thousands of advocates and educators to urge Dr. Cardona to make teacher diversity a core tenet of the plan to build back our schools from the pandemic. The reasons for the lack of highly qualified Black and other educators of color are complex, historical and stubborn. Our response must be equally comprehensive and sustained. We must start early in our young people’s lives, build on what we know works and use data to hold ourselves accountable for results.
As Secretary Cardona has said, we have the diversity already in our classrooms, but we must show this next generation that becoming an educator is a desirable career option. This starts with high school students. States and districts can offer career and technical education programs and dual-enrollment opportunities in teaching, school leadership and school-based social work. There’s no better time to inspire our young people to join the profession than when they are surrounded by educator role models.
Higher education can also do more. Undergraduates interested in teaching could be encouraged to double-major, or even to minor in education, while pursuing other studies. Colleges and universities can also create seamless transitions for students who start in community college. Too often, prospective educators transfer to a four-year institution only to find their credits won’t count toward an education degree.
We must encourage pathways where teachers in training develop strong content knowledge, while simultaneously adopting the mindsets of culturally-responsive practices and the pedagogical skills to teach. We must also make teacher training more affordable, by front-loading financial assistance through scholarships, expanding TEACH grant eligibility and offering more generous loan forgiveness. Let’s make sure interested students can easily get a foot in the door. Once they enter, let’s make the path to teaching financially attractive and intellectually and culturally safe for Black and brown students and those from other marginalized communities.
The stimulus funds present a perfect opportunity to start scaling the best of our current practices. We can expand Title II to include teacher pre-apprentices and apprentices. We can invest in teacher residency programs with strong track records of recruiting and retaining non-traditional teachers.
Secretary Cardona can also use his megaphone to lift up the already rich pedagogical traditions in communities of color. For instance, grow-your-own programs such as the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy and Liberation Academy, run by my organization, the Center for Black Educator Development, are modeled after the strong practices developed by learner-ready and anti-racist teachers in community-based programming like the Children’s Defense Fund and the Philadelphia Freedom Schools. These traditions are not new, but they are not widely spread. Now is the time to change that.
We must also hold ourselves accountable. Secretary Cardona has spoken of the importance of using data and transparency to ensure new policies deliver on their promise. Collecting, sharing and analyzing who is attending and who is teaching in America’s classrooms is a critical charge of his department, and I applaud his determination to hold states and districts accountable for hiring and retaining more Black and brown teachers.
So let’s not wait. Now is the moment to tackle the issue of teacher diversity. Let’s seize the time.
Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of
the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a ...