Recruit, train, and retain teachers who reflect the full spectrum of their students

To the Editor:
Recent announcements in Bethlehem, Guilderland, and South Colonie schools have caught my attention — for all the right reasons.

I want to publicly, and proudly, give kudos to the Bethlehem Central School District for hiring its first diversity, equity and inclusion officer; Latisha Ellis-Williams will begin her important DEI work this summer.

Guilderland Central School District also deserves praise for recruiting its first DEI director in Matthew Pinchinat for the just-concluded school year, as does South Colonie for reaffirming its commitment to DEI initiatives with the appointment of Timothy Fowler.

For many K-12 public school students, teachers and administrators serve as a first introduction to a world outside their homes. Young students often spend more waking time around their teachers than they do any other adult role models. Fostering environments where students feel secure and can identify with an educator is vital to helping learners gain necessary skills and envision their potential for life-long success.

Children struggle to thrive and reach their full potential in classrooms when they don’t feel that their race is seen or valued, or where diversity is lacking. Learning from racially diverse educators provides tangible, relatable, aspirational examples for students.

Research by the Learning Policy Institute clearly demonstrates the benefits of developing and sustaining a diverse teaching workforce, including increased academic performance by students of color as measured by: improved reading and math test scores; higher graduation rates; and increased aspirations to attend college. The same research also found that students of color and white students reported having positive perceptions of their teachers of color — including feeling cared for and academically challenged.

However, the Pew Research Center paints a concerning picture — America’s public school teachers are far less racially and ethnically diverse than their students. A 2019 report by the New York State Education Department notes that in 2017 just 20 percent of New York state’s teachers were persons of color, compared to approximately 56 percent of the student population.

And while urban, suburban, and rural schools are all welcoming an increasingly more diverse student community, the makeup of New York’s teacher population has remained constant. 

The Learning Policy Institute cites numerous barriers to recruitment and retention for teachers of color, including inadequate teacher preparation when teachers enter through alternative routes, teacher licensure exams that disproportionately exclude teacher candidates of color due to racial bias in the assessment items, poor working conditions and low salaries, as well as displacement from the high-need schools where accountability strategies have often resulted in staff reconstitution or closing schools rather than designing, implementing, and measuring the impact of improvements.

Also cited is a lack of ongoing support for new teachers, which speaks to the inclusion component of DEI that can be addressed at the district level and is supported through the New York state mentor teacher-internship program.

It is imperative that K-12 schools and educator preparation programs in colleges and universities work together to make the nation’s learning environments intentionally inclusive and more reflective of the communities we serve. Competency-based education — which measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom — is one relatively new approach that has proven successful.

Committed to strengthening diversity in the educator talent pipeline, Western Governors University’s Teachers College is in the top 1 percent for granting degrees for Black and Hispanic/Latinx educators at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. It is second in the nation for combined graduate and undergraduate degrees and credentials for students of color, according to the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

If we want to expand college accessibility to a more diverse population interested in, and passionate about, a career in education, higher education providers, policy makers, and students must recognize the benefits of models that value skills-based mastery. The online, competency-based model is just one approach. The key is flexibility — offering options that provide access regardless of childcare status, location, or wherever the hands happen to be on the clock.

Teachers are essential to the learning and development of all our children and youth. To assure that all learners benefit from the richness of racially diverse educators, we must be intentional in designing and implementing strategies to recruit, train, and retain quality teachers who reflect the full spectrum of the race, ethnicity, and life experiences of the students they serve and the communities they call home.

As we focus on the teacher pipeline, it’s heartening to know that local school districts — such as Bethlehem, Guilderland, and South Colonie — are doing crucial DEI work on the ground. The efforts of Latisha Ellis-Williams, Matthew Pinchinat, and Timothy Fowler will make an impact on curriculum, recruitment, retention, and most importantly, the lives of students in their communities.

Rebecca Watts, Ph.D.

Northeast Vice President

Western Governors University

Editor’s note: Western Governors University is a not-for-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning with 3,100 students and 5,500 alumni in New York.

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