When America's teachers look out at their classrooms, the students are ever more racially and culturally diverse.
But when those students look back at their teachers, they see a group that remains surprisingly unchanged.
Minority students today make up 37 percent of all elementary and secondary school enrollments. Nine out of 10 teachers, meanwhile, are white. The disparity will soon be even more pronounced. African-Americans, Hispanics, and native Americans are projected to make up 44 percent of school children by 2020 and 54 percent by 2040, according to the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education in Washington.
That growth is focusing new attention on minority students' performance. Tougher curriculum standards and tests that students must pass to graduate are highlighting - in some cases, dramatically - the achievement gap between whites and minorities. And while schools are responding with strategies from tutoring to having low-performers repeat a grade, some educators are also asking if the presence of more minority teachers could help minority kids achieve the standards increasingly expected of them.
There is no hard evidence that a shortage of minority teachers hurts the performance of minority students. But a number of educators say that - much the way girls have benefited from knowing women in positions of authority - minority students gain from having adult role models of their own backgrounds. They argue, too, that children respond better to teachers who have a fuller understanding of their families, neighborhoods, and general culture.
Minority students need exposure to teachers "who enjoy the same music, worship in the same way, eat the same food, live in the same way," says Evelyn Dandy, director of Pathways to Teaching Careers, a minority recruitment effort at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga.
The benefit cuts both ways, however, says Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in San Antonio, Texas.
"We're not providing our future leaders with a complete picture of what America is all about," he says, unless they see minorities in roles of authority.
Racism kept blacks from teaching
For some minority educators, it's ironic to be actively sought after. Racism was definitely a factor in keeping blacks out of the classroom for many decades, says John Skief, an African-American educator who is today chief administrative officer of the Philadelphia Harambee Institute, a charter school. In 1970 when he began his career as a history teacher in a Philadelphia high school, he had no black colleagues.
For the most part, he says, "those jobs were never offered to black applicants."
Mr. Skief says he's been gratified to see an increase in the number of black teachers and administrators in the school system. But he's not convinced that the racial composition of the teaching staff is what strengthens education for children.
More important, he says, is determining what makes a good teacher, and whether teachers are truly sensitive to the needs of the communities they work in. Black teachers who live in the suburbs, he notes, don't necessarily relate to inner-city students. "Just color does not make the difference," he says.
James Kauffman, a professor of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, agrees. He calls the effort to recruit more minority teachers "a worthy goal." But he'd rather see a focus on providing children with role models who possess "the virtues we generally agree make a good person." These would include "confidence, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, and the quality of caring about the student" - regardless of ethnicity.
It's essential that children learn to recognize and value such qualities without associating them with any racial or ethnic background or gender, Professor Kauffman says. If they can't, "we have no hope of ever achieving an equitable society."
But even if all parties agree that getting more minority teachers into schools is a worthy goal, a daunting challenge remains: recruitment. The barriers to attracting more minority teachers may be the same ones keeping talented people of all backgrounds out of the classroom.
With a tight labor market, workplaces are in keen competition for talent. In addition, as the corporate world sets an increasingly high premium on a diverse workforce, minorities have a wider range of options - many of which pay far better salaries than teaching. Until the low pay and low value placed on teaching are corrected, some education advocates argue, the profession will fail to draw the best-prepared of any group.
"The problem with minority recruitment is now the same as the problem with nonminority recruitment," says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia. Incentives to teach are so few that "the only people likely to go into it are the ones who are emotionally committed to it."
But there are additional concerns when it comes to boosting representation in the teaching force. Some argue that the increasing emphasis on having prospective teachers pass standardized tests - which have been accused of having cultural biases - can adversely affect minorities, denying them certification at higher rates than whites. Proposals to remedy this include a greater emphasis on alternative assessments, such as portfolios and group projects. "African-Americans do not generally test well," says Mr. Skief of the Harambee Institute. "White females test the best."
It's precisely because teachers of all sorts are badly needed that it's now become crucial to focus more attentively on potential pools of minority teaching talent, some argue. The Alliance for Equity in Higher Education urges the federal government to invest at least $100 million to strengthen teacher programs at minority-serving colleges and universities.
Business groups should also take an interest in finding ways to increase the number of minority teachers, says Jamie Merisotis, president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, which coordinates the activities of the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education.
A shared responsibility
"It's not simply a responsibility of the federal government," says Mr. Merisotis. "It's a responsibility of everyone who cares about improving the status of teaching and the quality of education for our children."
Elijah West Jr., a black fourth-grade teacher in a Savannah, Ga., public school, entered the teaching profession through a program specially designed to bring in minorities. He feels strongly about the difference he's been able to make in the classroom because he understands the cultural nuances that shape the world of his students. In his view, minority teacher recruitment should be "a No. 1 priority."
Mr. West agrees it's possible for caring teachers of different backgrounds to effectively reach minority students, provided they make an effort to really learn something about their neighborhoods, styles of communication, and cultural underpinnings. "But with all the burdens put on teachers today," he asks, "who has the time to go out and do those extras?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society