Skip to content

On the Importance of Teacher Diversity: What the Research Says


Further to my blog on closing the teacher diversity gap, it is worth looking at what some of the research on the question of teacher diversity says. Most of the research comes from the United States, since studies on diversity tend to be more developed in Northern America (and the United Kingdom) than elsewhere, and it is focused on questions of the social construct of race, notably division between White people and Black people. Although this is quite specific, some broad conclusions can be drawn from these studies to inform reflection on the international scene and questions of teacher diversity in general.

Studies on Race and Learning

According to The New Teachers Project, teachers of colour generally have higher expectations for students of colour and this often leads to higher achievement and fewer discipline issues for students of colour.

Hughes et al. (2020) looked at associated reductions in racial and ethnic suspension disparities and whether more teacher diversity “interacts with the size of the racial and ethnic student population to influence suspension disparities.” Findings from the study suggest that “racial and ethnic diversity in positions of authority in the school setting fosters a more equitable approach to the administration of student punishment” (abstract).

Dee (2004) showed that having a teacher of the same race has the potential to create an impact on student test scores. Analysing data from Tennessee’s Project STAR in which students were randomly assigned to teachers, he points out that students who were taught by a teacher of the same race scored 0.11 standard deviations higher in math and 0.06 standard deviations higher in reading when compared with similar students who were assigned to a teacher of a different race. The effects were largest when Black students were assigned to a Black teacher. Even though the effects might not be massive, they give pause for thought.

Gershenson et al. (2017), in a study run through the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, found that Black male students who came from economically troubled homes and who had at least one Black teacher during third, fourth, or fifth grade had a higher chance of graduating from high school. The researchers believe that having a teacher of the same race during the formative elementary years would reduce the probability of dropping out of high school for low-income Black males by 39%. They were also more likely to pursue a postsecondary degree.

This study is important because it looks at the long-term effects of teacher diversity. Many of the other studies conducted in this area focus on short-term gains, such as attendance, suspensions, and performance on standardised tests. The researchers who conducted the study reviewed information on around 100,000 Black students in North Carolina who were in third grade between 2001 and 2005. They tracked the progress of these students throughout elementary and secondary school.

Gershenson et al. also found that White teachers were 40% less likely to believe Black students would graduate from high school. The implicit bias could also play a role in suspensions, as mentioned earlier.

Therefore, while on the one hand, teacher diversity stimulates overall production, exchange, open-mindedness and more accurately reflects the world we are living in, it also strengthens the chances of same-race students, notably those who have been victims of discrimination historically.

But is Teacher Diversity Increasing?

Over the course of the last several decades, it may seem like the workforce of teachers has become more diverse. According to a study by Ingersoll & Merrill (2017), the number of teachers of colour In the USA has risen—doubling between 1987 and 2012. A study from 2016 found that the percentage of nonwhite teachers was at 20%, which is higher than it has ever been.

However, there is still serious underrepresentation of teachers of colour. A study by Putman & Walsh (2016) projected an estimated breakdown of teachers and students to the year 2060. The study estimated that the student diversity demographics will increase at a faster rate than teacher diversity demographics. Therefore, underrepresentation could grow even more.

Dilworth’s much acclaimed 2018 book Millennial Teachers of Color points out the troublesome irony of this forecast:

Millennial teachers are actually less diverse than their baby boomer and Generation X peers. In particular, the share of white teachers among millennial teachers is noticeably higher than the white share among prior generations, and the most notable declines observed across generations are among black teachers (based on data from the 2012 Schools and Staffing Survey). The irony here is that millennials are well documented to be the most diverse of these generations that preceded them into the workforce. (Hansen, 2019)

Why is it that despite all the noise about diversity that has been echoing in American universities for at least the last 40 years, things might actually be getting worse?

Broken Pipeline Report

A report released by the New Teachers Project illustrates the lack of diversity in teacher preparation programs. The report, “A Broken Pipeline”, highlights the diversity gaps that are present in each state in the United States. Students of colour make up 53% of the population in schools in the US, but 80% of the teachers are white. Out of all the public schools in the country, 40% of them do not have a single teacher of colour. According to the New Teachers Project, there needs to be an added one million teachers of colour to better match the student body. In 43 states, the diversity gap is 10% or higher. It’s 20% or more in 21 states. In Washington, D.C., Mississippi, and Louisiana, the gap is up to 30% according to the report.

Teacher preparation programs are overwhelmingly white. The report mentions that during the 2017 to 2018 school year, 455 programs had more than 90% white enrollees. When it comes to teacher prep programs, two choices are available: one requires an advanced degree, the other involves attaining teacher credentials outside of the classroom through various programmes. Those who take the path to get a degree are 69.6% white, whereas only 46.8% choose the alternative certification programs.

Hence, the well-meaning discourses on teacher professionalism and high standards have led to a closed circuit whereby the advantaged are able to benefit more whereas those who have been historically handicapped through lack of access find themselves in front of ever higher hurdles.

Why Is There a Lack of Teacher Diversity?

The children of teachers are more likely to become teachers. Studies show that when compared with other children, those whose parents are teachers, are more than twice as likely to become teachers themselves. This has been shown to be true for the sons and daughters of White teachers, and the daughters of Black teachers and Hispanic teachers. The sons of Black teachers do not follow their parents into teaching as often.

Because there are currently more White teachers, it stands to reason that their children will be more likely to follow in their footsteps as they get older. Even if the children of teachers of colour choose to become teachers, it would still mean the White teachers would be more prevalent.

It may also be that people of colour have had bad experiences with teachers at school, and they don’t want to go into the field to become a part of the system that may not have been there for them or that treated them poorly. The reflections of bell hooks on how this might change are worthy of consideration.

Ways to Improve Diversity in Teaching

What can be done to increase teacher diversity? It will take a concerted effort by recruiters at all levels.

The Progress 2050 programme, focused on strategies to increase teacher diversity in the USA, recommend targeted recruitment campaigns, extra support for teacher candidates and scholarship programmes to incentivise diverse candidates. The North Carolina General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division argues for an opening of teacher qualification protocols, allowing for residency licences that allow teaching to start while certification is being completed. This loosening of qualification steps does not necessarily put quality at risk since studies have shown, somewhat paradoxically and even worryingly, that when it comes to certification and other forms of formal qualification “there is little evidence that these factors improve teacher quality or raise student achievement” (Stroop, 2020).

At the end of the day, teacher diversity is a question of opportunity and mindset. If Heads of School are serious about diversifying their staff, much research explains that it will improve the chances of more students.