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The Need for More Ethnic Teachers: Addressing the Critical Shortage in American Public Schools

by Olaf Jorgenson - September 13, 2000

Strategies for attracting more minority teachers for the public schools

If we accept the notion that teachers shape the future of our country, then it follows that the needs of an increasingly diverse democratic society will best be met by a teaching force that is proportionately, or at least representatively, diverse. Teachers in the American public school system have traditionally been mostly white, mostly female; and ethnic minorities have always been underrepresented in our public teaching force. Currently, as ethnic college students elect more lucrative and appealing fields over careers in education, and as many minority children continue to encounter significant socioeconomic and demographic obstacles to higher education in the first place, American public schools are in the midst of a worsening shortage of minority educators.


The Minority Teacher Shortage

Minority teachers are not being recruited and selected in sufficient numbers for U.S. public schools. While in 1997 minority students comprised approximately 16% of the public school population, only about 9% of America's public school teachers were minorities (Calef, 1998). Considerable research confirms that school districts across the United States confront an "urgent" shortage of minority educators, while the number of minority students in the public schools steadily increases (Wise & Shaver, 1992). This imbalance is expected to worsen. Mays and Pollard (1993) observed that twenty-six of the nation's largest school districts have minority-majority populations; and by the year 2010, some 40% of the total student body in American public schools will be minorities. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (1994), minority teachers will represent less than 5% of all U.S. teachers in the year 2000, less than one-fifth of the representative proportion of projected minority students.

The reasons for the minority teacher shortage are complex and multifaceted. One dimension is the decreasing proportion of minority college students entering the teacher supply pipeline (e.g. Rennie-Hill, 1995). Most minorities in universities are pursuing degrees in business, engineering, and social science, and choosing occupations that promise greater financial rewards, opportunities for advancement, and better working conditions. Studies by Johnson (1995) and R.D. Gordon (1992) indicated that a number of factors contribute to the problems of access to and the attraction of teaching for minorities: poor salaries, failure to qualify (especially competency testing), poor working conditions, crowded classrooms, and students' lack of respect for teachers. Pesek (1993) argued in broader terms that the lack of cultural and social support groups for minorities in many communities, in part, accounts for the absence of minorities in their schools, universities and colleges.

Minorities cite the lack of prestige associated with teaching as a deterrent to becoming a teacher. In King (1992) noted that some explained that teaching does not offer the recognition and prestige of other professions; their perceptions were that teaching is largely thankless and they did not want to subject themselves to the abuses of the job, which many said they witnessed firsthand in impoverished urban school settings.

Budd-Jackson (1995) pointed out that many urban schools most in need of minority teachers are least able to attract them for the reasons given above. Researchers such as Haberman (1988) have attributed the minority teacher shortage to basic inadequacies in elementary and secondary schools that serve most minority students, particularly those in urban venues:

The shortage of minority teachers can be traced to the failure of traditional education to provide teachers for the urban poor. And now that the urban poor have become a majority of minorities, this failure has been compounded by the urban growth and concentrations of minority children and youth. Having too few minority teachers is merely one manifestation of undereducating minority children and youth in inadequate elementary and secondary schools (p. 39).

According to Zakariya (1998), urban schools contain 43% of this country's minority children, and 35% of its poor children. This researcher noted that "poor, mostly minority children enter urban high schools with such poor skills that teachers doubt whether many of these students can make it into college" (p. 8). Evidence of the gross inequities confronting minorities in impoverished urban schools is pervasive in the literature, as illustrated by Barth (1998):

Only one in 12 African-American fourth-graders in Virginia was reading at the proficient level or better on the National Assessment of Education Progress [NAEP] test, and only one in 20 low-income eighth-graders reached NAEP proficiency in math (p. 41).

Mays and Pollard (1993) asserted that "if minority students do not receive a high quality education, they are not likely to consider higher education or teaching as an option (p. 12).

Brooks (1987) pointed to the root of the minority teacher shortage: poverty.

If we are to achieve equity for minorities in education, we will have to do something with the unfair economic situation in our country. The disproportionate number of minorities living in poverty renders it unreasonable to expect major changes in the number of minority children who will be outstanding in school (p. 240).

The disproportionate and growing numbers of minority children living in poverty, particularly in urban venues, underscores the magnitude of the minority teacher shortage. Meanwhile, most recent efforts at bolstering teacher preparation requirements are aimed at enacting stricter standards, rather than addressing problems of equity (Budd-Jackson, 1995, et. al).

Other obstacles exist for many aspiring minority teachers, including preservice testing. As Webb, Montello, and Norton (1994) stated, "in most instances where tests have been used in employment decisions, their use has disqualified proportionally more minorities than non-minorities" (pp. 255-256). For example, the Pre-Professional Skills Test (PPST) was challenged in Buffalo, N.Y., where 74.4% of minority teaching applicants failed the exam (Morehead & Lyman, 1988). Zimpher and Yessayan (1987) included data demonstrating racially disproportionate outcomes in three states which base licensure on teacher testing: In Florida, 90% of white candidates passed the test, but only 38% of Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and other minority candidates passed. In Louisiana, 78% of white candidates passed as opposed to 10% of minorities; and in Texas 63% of whites, 20% of Hispanics and 12% of Blacks passed. In Kentucky, the failure rate was four Blacks to each white on the National Teacher Examination. The authors concluded that teacher testing has definitely reduced the number of minority candidates able to enter the teaching profession.

Other impediments discouraging minorities from becoming teachers are deeply institutionalized in American society. Because the vast majority of American public school teachers are white, it is understandable that minorities see themselves as outsiders in a predominantly-white profession.

This sense of not belonging shapes their institutional experience and reflects their larger position in mainstream American society (Rennie-Hill, 1995).

The shortage scenario is exacerbated because minority teachers intend to leave or are leaving the profession in disproportionately greater numbers than their white counterparts, for reasons including increased opportunities in other professional fields for people of color (Lewis, 1996).


The Need for Minority Teachers

The need for minority teachers in American public schools is well-established in the literature. Currently, the vast majority of teachers and students in teacher preparation programs are white, middle-class, and female (Snyder & Hoffman, 1994). Meanwhile, Natale (1998) stated "that many of America's inner-city school districts now are almost entirely made up of African-American or Latino students . . . attributed not only to the courts' retreat on desegregation, but to a surge in immigrant populations and white flight to suburban schools" (p. 18). Castro and Ingle (1991) noted that the increase in minority students reaches its greatest proportions at the most rapid rate in urban areas.

Considering the implications of this profound imbalance, Brooks (1987) asked the fundamental question:

Can we have excellence in education without minority teachers? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. The children in our schools deserve better than what they are now getting. The world they are preparing to enter is not going to be dominated by middle class Anglo Saxon, American businessmen. Two-thirds of the world population are people of color who are beginning to have increasing influence on world politics and America's future (pp. 238-239).

One of the most prevalent arguments for addressing the shortage centers on the role models that teachers of color provide for minority students. Numerous studies including Gonzales (1993) observed that the increasing numbers of nonwhite children in the U.S. will have fewer ethnic role models among their teachers than previous generations. In the absence of positive educational role models, minority youth are more likely to develop diminished aspirations and motivation to achieve (e.g. Martinez, 1991). "Today, in a global society, it is imperative that all children are exposed to educators of all races and nationalities . . . In a multiethnic society, multicultural education is not a frill" (West, 1994, p. 5). As Brooks (1987) stated,

Without positive role models to pattern their lives after, these children often are influenced by society's losers. Lacking positive influences, they are less likely to do well in early school activities, leading to exposure to the less challenging educational program offerings that do little to prepare them for college or work after high school (p. 240).

Michael-Bandele (1993) asserted that diversity is more than a racial or ethnic issue, but the foundation of free thinking. Kennedy (1992) continued that "diversity among teachers may increase both the students' and the teachers' knowledge and understanding of different cultural groups, thereby enhancing the abilities of all involved to interact with different cultural groups" (p. 84).

For reasons such as this, Brooks (1987) explained that "the minority teacher shortage results in more than just a lack of role models for [ethnic] students. It also creates a severe limitation of crosscultural exposure for majority students . . . It is unconscionable to deny any student as many cross-cultural experiences as possible, in preparation for living and working in [our] multi-ethnic world . . . " (p. 239). Numerous studies support the argument that culturally-diverse educators provide role models for mainstream as well as minority students, in that constructive engagement of culturally diverse teachers with all students helps develop among them a sense of tolerance toward differences. "Ethnic role modeling [for nonminority students] is important because it may assist in breaking down negative stereotypes [nonminority students] may have with people different from themselves" (West, 1994, p. 7). Castro and Ingle (1991) observed that in the absence of minority representation among elementary and secondary teachers, "cultural isolation" will bring to classrooms "unparalleled racial, linguistic, economic, and social conflicts, and as a result, the nation as a whole will suffer" (p. 1).

Haberman (1993) and other researchers have addressed the moral dimension of minority teacher selection, and point to the formative nature of teacher role models for minority and majority students. The "race, gender, and background of teachers tell [students] something about authority and power in contemporary society" (Mays & Pollard, 1993, p. 15). Such indoctrination, however subtle, surely influences children's attitudes toward school, academic success, their self-worth, and their aspirations.

If the minority teacher shortage is not reversed, it is conceivable that large numbers of children may complete their entire education, from kindergarten to graduation, without ever having been taught by a minority teacher. "The absence of a representative number of minority teachers and administrators in a pluralistic society is damaging because it distorts social reality for children" (West, 1994, p. 8). According to Banks, the selection process must ensure "that teachers and administrators are a racially mixed group so that 'all students within the schools can see themselves mirrored in the school's power structure'" (quoted in Natale, 1998, p. 23).


The Dimensions of the Shortage

The task of reversing the minority teacher shortage is daunting given the scope and magnitude of the problem. In the face of diminishing numbers of prospective minority teaching applicants and a growing proportion of ethnic teachers leaving the profession, along with the increasing population of minority students, what is needed is a radical, unprecedented increase in teachers of color. As Raths (1989) stated, at the time of his study it would have required the hiring of roughly 130,000 minority teachers to proportionally represent the national K-12 student population, a goal he termed "practically out of reach" (p. 266). Fernandez (1993) projected that more than 600,000 minority teachers will have to be teaching by 2010 to proportionally represent the minority student population at that time. Mays and Pollard (1993) also observed that considerable difficulty is inherent in bringing about systemic change to address the minority teacher shortage: "The sheer number of political entities, agencies, and organizations confounds an already complex change process" (p. 16).

Given the urgent need for increased selection of minority teachers in the face of such staggering odds, the immense social proportions of the ethnic teacher shortage become evident. The minority teacher shortage is not becoming a crisis; it is a crisis.


Racism and Teacher Selection in America’s Schools

The minority teacher shortage has troubling sociopolitical implications in contemporary American society. Delpit (1993) observed that "those with power are frequently least aware of--or least willing to acknowledge--its existence. Those with less power are often most aware of its existence" (p. 123). This perspective is illustrated by the work of Scott (1997), whose national survey found that public school stakeholders attribute social structures including wealth and poverty to individual character traits, such as effort, thrift, and talent. This and similarly uninformed popular viewpoints underscore the anti-equity attitudes--racism--confronting teacher selection reform efforts. Surely, the attitude holds, if ethnic minorities truly aspire to the teaching profession, they have the same chance to succeed as any nonminority.

Foster (1993) illustrated the effects of historical institutional racism toward African American teachers:

Despite the fact that the teaching profession was open to Blacks, historians have amply documented that the careers of Black teachers have, nonetheless, been sharply circumscribed by racism. Over the years, Black teachers were paid less than white teachers, rarely hired except to instruct Black pupils, discriminated against by largely white unions, dismissed in large numbers following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and denied access to teaching positions by legal and extralegal means (p. 275).

Foster interviewed minority teachers who, her dialogues demonstrated, actively resisted racism while attempting to instill in children of color "the individual and collective resources needed for group advancement and self-fulfillment as they continue living in an unjust and racist society"

(p. 287). The teachers expressed that this task is made more difficult because American society is "masked by a rhetoric of equal opportunity" (p. 287). Wise (1990) suggested that it will be necessary to change the organizational culture, reducing "tokenism" and prejudice, to significantly improve minority teacher recruitment.

A first step in addressing racism as it contributes to the ethnic teacher shortage involves the acknowledgment of racism and its institutional manifestations, in order to understand how racism impairs the selection of minority teachers. Moody (1988) asserted that the pipeline of minority teachers begins in the elementary schools, and not at the undergraduate and graduate levels; further, that higher education has the obligation to increase the quality of the educational experience minority students receive in the K-12 school systems. A serious issue, Moody contended, is the inability of some "to admit the existence of racism . . . and to address it forthrightly" (p. 79).


How K-12 School Systems Can Improve the Teacher Selection Process for Minorities

In his thorough review of the teacher selection literature, Troisi (1995) concluded that the districts he surveyed still employ the sorts of hiring practices consistent with those described in the literature of the 1970s and 1980s. This is directly relevant to the concerns surrounding the minority teacher shortage, which clearly has not benefited from (and arguably has been worsened by) prevalent teacher selection practices that largely fail to locate, attract, and retain teachers of color.

Teacher selection is a complex process, and little agreement exists among researchers or practitioners with regard to "what works," though much research exists detailing the faults of current conventional recruitment and selection procedures (e.g. interviews, letters of recommendation, preservice competency testing, etc.). Selecting excellent teachers, minority or majority, from both traditional and non-traditional recruitment sources, poses a significant challenge for school districts across the United States. And in addition to the difficulties inherent in any teacher selection process, there are a number of special problems involved in employing minority educators. Castetter (1996) explained:

These problems include ways of increasing employment opportunities [for minority educators] . . . [while] balancing recruitment efforts so as not to treat any segment of the population unjustly and using criteria for selection, promotion, and separation that do not violate the civil rights of individuals . . . Moreover, the educational institution as employer has moral, legal, and social responsibilities to be considered in employing members of special groups, in assimilating them into other groups, and in integrating them into the total system (p. 119).

Among problems with the selection process identified in the literature, a serious concern is the absence of social and cultural support for persons of color in districts and communities. Harris et al. (1985) have concluded that the best way to attract capable candidates is to make the school system appealing to them. When a district recognizes the important role played by its minority educators, and affords these individuals commensurate rewards and respect, the authors suggest, "the word gets around" (p. 107).

Numerous strategies have been proposed for school districts to improve the selection process for ethnic minority teachers. A comprehensive review of the literature on minority teacher selection suggests the following conclusions relevant to effective programs and strategies that may be instituted in public school districts nationwide:

1. Paraprofessional-to-teacher programs offer funding and guidance to enable classified school employees, including many minorities, an opportunity to earn college degrees and teacher certification. Such programs hold considerable potential as a source of increased recruitment, training, and placement for teachers of color (Steinberg, 1998; Johnson, 1995).

2. A number of nontraditional strategies for recruitment have been shown by research to be effective for increasing minority teacher selection:

a. Advertising in publications that are resources for prospective or potential minority teachers, or for others who might help facilitate their entry to the profession (Martindale, 1990; Pesek, 1993). One such example is The Black Collegian, a brochure which is sent to approximately 500 university career placement centers across the country, and which has an internet site as well.

b. Recruiting at colleges and universities with a high proportion of minority students (Pierczynski, 1994; Niklos & Brown, 1989).

c. Recruiting through campus minority organizations, including fraternities and sororities (e.g. Martindale, 1990; Pesek, 1993).

d. Including minorities on the recruitment and screening teams (e.g. King, 1992; Pierczynski, 1994).

3. School districts and their larger communities should focus on developing structures of social and cultural support for persons of color to improve the recruitment and retention of minority teachers (e.g. Pesek, 1993).

4. School districts should implement interviewer training programs, which may benefit minority teacher selection by focusing on the unique assets minority candidates offer, as well as nontraditional strategies for evaluating candidates which compensate for "standards" which might cause a teacher of color to be overlooked or disqualified (e.g. Jones, 1993).

5. School districts should implement mentoring programs collaboratively with colleges of education, targeting ethnic elementary and secondary children to get them interested in the teaching profession at a young age (Summerhill, 1995; Slack, 1992; King, 1992).


Other Strategies to Address the Minority Teacher Shortage

The enormous concerns underlying the minority teacher shortage have inspired numerous studies offering strategies to address it, beyond the actions school systems should consider. Much of the literature targets improvements and fundamental changes to be addressed by higher education in America. Many studies call for restructuring teacher education, such as adding multicultural courses to the curricula, or increasing the number of ethnically-diverse teacher education faculty members (Hatton, 1988; Gonzales, 1993).

The literature addresses this problem, and studies suggest that higher education review its stance toward "standards" with regard to minority teacher candidates. Many minority students are talented but unprepared for university study; others are crippled by past academic performance which may not indicate their potential. Brooks (1987) argued that we must not deny minorities "an opportunity to overcome their past" by ignoring "potential" in favor of established (i.e. largely academic) teacher preparation program admissions criteria (p. 246). Brooks continued:

What is wrong with accepting persons who are good enough, and helping them to excel? . . . This should not be construed as an argument for lowering standards. We must keep in mind that history is replete with examples of minority men and women who beat the odds and rose to stardom, while it says nothing about the millions who might have made it if given a chance. We must keep the doors open to the have-nots of our society with special admissions standards if needed, but also with the support programs they need to help them excel (pp. 241-242).

Brooks also observed that "average students often turn out to be more successful teachers than their colleagues who received better grades in college" (p. 244). Various researchers have called for increased collaboration between colleges, universities, community colleges, and elementary/secondary school districts (Lewis, 1996). This strategy then is to some degree founded on concerns about elementary and secondary education for minority students, and to its relationship with college teacher training programs. Many studies advocate early intervention with minority youth to direct them toward the teaching profession, including recruitment and mentoring of elementary, junior high and high school students of color (e.g. Summerhill, 1995; Slack, 1992).

Morris (1990) recommended that colleges and secondary schools collaborate to provide financial aid nights for parents of minority junior high school and high school students as one means for supporting increased college aspirations and teacher preparation program admissions. This and other attempts to reverse the negative perceptions of the profession are crucial.

Donndellinger (1997) found that minority teachers were significantly more dissatisfied with their jobs than non-minorities, and consequently planned to leave the teaching profession in proportionally-greater numbers. This phenomenon reflects (and may contribute to) the perception of the teaching profession held by minorities, and certainly impacts the shortage.

A considerable portion of the literature examines the gatekeeper role of state and federal sources of funding and policy for teacher education. Funding is an overriding concern in the research, and studies present a series of funding strategies to help address the minority teacher shortage (beyond salary concerns which constitute one deterrent for prospective minority teachers). As Castro and Ingle (1991) observed, loans, loan forgiveness, scholarships, fellowships and student employment opportunities can help underprivileged minority college students to live and study without "the debilitating emotional stress of financial inadequacy" (p. 5). Pierczynski (1994) and others have held that state legislatures need to appropriate significantly more minority scholarship funds for teacher education candidates.

Other researchers including Lewis (1996) have continued this call for increased financial aid specifically for minority teacher education candidates (tuition waivers, loan forgiveness, scholarships). One such example of this is the program proposed by the Clinton administration in the summer of 1997 designed to provide scholarships and aid to colleges for teachers willing to serve in poor urban and rural classrooms (Calef, 1998).

With regard to educational policymaking, and especially to teacher certification requirements (such as competency testing), several researchers have asserted that certification reform can overcome the bias inherent in current teacher testing procedures. As Hatton (1988) pointed out, "Colleges and universities are demonstrating every day that students can be trained to pass an unfair test, but the institutions should not have to do this" (p. 68). Tests such as the National Teacher Examinations (NTE) constitute an inequitable hurdle to many potential minority educators, as has been illustrated previously. Tests and assessment procedures for teachers should not be eliminated, Hatton continued, but "neither should these tests be allowed to become barriers . . . We need to employ early identification and support strategies in order to help potential minority teachers overcome these barriers" (p. 68). Support strategies may include weighted student teaching and substitute teaching recommendations (to counter low test scores) for minority candidate screening, as was proposed by Nicklos and Brown (1989).

McCarthy (1993) argued that testing companies should collaborate with state agencies and educational institutions not merely to identify the knowledge and skills requisite to effective teaching, but also to design support programs aimed at helping minority teacher candidates to overcome the obstacle presented by standardized testing. McCarthy observed that some of the testing agencies, including Educational Testing Service (ETS) and National Evaluation Systems (NES), have begun work in this direction and suggested that the goal of teacher certification is "to facilitate, not deny, access to the profession" (p. 95).

A project examining the minority teacher shortage in Maryland found, as research already cited substantiates, that "a disproportionate number of minority candidates do not attain qualifying scores" on the NTE (Maryland, 1988, p. 17). This study's authors proposed extending provisional certification to teachers, including minorities, who enter the work force having met all certification requirements except the NTE; and further suggested that local school districts should develop assistance programs for such provisionally-certified teachers to meet qualifying scores on the NTE.

McCarthy (1993) concluded that a more comprehensive teacher certification process would be a major step toward improving minority access to the teaching profession. This process would include multiple assessment methods, diagnostic feedback, test preparation and review sessions, test follow-up and remediation, and induction programs which provide ongoing support to new teachers (including a mentor system). Reviewing many such innovative programs identified in a study of minority teacher recruitment in the Southwest, however, Castro and Ingle (1991) observed that little or no evaluation information exists on their effectiveness. In some cases, the programs are too new to be accurately assessed.


Conclusions and Implications

Any movement to address the worsening shortage of minority teachers must recognize the link between schooling and issues of historical, political, economic, and social justice. Whether or not educational leaders and policy makers can influence practitioners to reorient their priorities toward the urgency of the minority teacher shortage remains to be seen, and would amount to a revolutionary institutional change. But given the social, political, and economic trends in America, which contribute to increasing disenfranchisement of a growing strata in our society, the institutional priorities which prevail in practice amount to a form of complacency toward the minority teacher shortage, which promises devastating consequences for our children, our schools, and our society. The unchecked absence of minority teachers will eventually, incrementally, deliver another sort of revolution to American public education and to our society's power structures.



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Olaf Jorgenson is the Principal of The American School in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10551, Date Accessed: 3/6/2022 6:47:38 AM

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  • Olaf Jorgenson
    The American School, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
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    Olaf Jorgenson is the Principal of the American School in Tegucigalpa, Honduras
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