A black or Hispanic boy in North Carolina could easily spend 13 years in public schools — if he lasts that long — without having a teacher who looks like him. That matters.
What WRAL-TV News in Raleigh found when it took a good look at the lack of diversity in North Carolina’s public schools is troubling for reasons that go beyond the stark statistics. Across the state, less than half — 48% — of the students in traditional public schools are white, but 80% of teachers are white. (In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, there are eight white students for every white teacher versus 21 black students for every black teacher.)
Gender diversity statewide is no better — 80% of the state’s teachers are women.
That’s a problem not because white women aren’t good teachers or because white women can’t teach black or Hispanic students effectively. Plenty of them do a great job. It’s a problem because of the long-term effects it can have if a child feels like an outsider who doesn’t belong at school and shouldn’t expect to succeed. The WRAL reporting brings the stories behind the numbers to life, stories of children who felt alone, unappreciated and stereotyped because of their race.
It’s a problem that’s likely to get worse as the number of minority students grows faster than the number of minority teachers. Research shows that students behave better, learn more and are more likely to stay in school and go to college when they have teachers they identify with. Black and Hispanic students need such role models, and they need teachers who understand their background.
The scarcity of such teachers could be part of the reason black students in North Carolina are disproportionately more likely than white students to be suspended or sent to court. Studies suggest that the problem isn’t so much that black children are more likely to misbehave as that white teachers react differently when they do.
And if black students are more likely to act out, couldn’t that be related to their feeling alienated? It’s a knotty problem.
WRAL also looked at how North Carolina is dealing with teacher diversity through recruitment and higher education. There are many reasons minority students, especially boys, aren’t likely to consider going into teaching. Minority students don’t see teachers who look like them, so they don’t imagine becoming teachers. Boys may not view teaching, especially in elementary grades, as something men do.
Children need to be shown from an early age that teaching can be a good job for minorities and males, too. Many minority students need help paying for college, and they know teaching doesn’t pay as well as professions requiring similar preparation. The state needs to improve teacher pay and conditions, and step up marketing of teaching jobs, especially to minorities.
Numbers at the state’s colleges of education are woeful: In 2016-17, only 2% of their undergraduate students were black men, and only 0.4% were Hispanic men. Colleges should intensify efforts to attract, keep and prepare minorities to teach in public schools.
The newly revived N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship program should figure out a way to promote diversity, including working with some of the historically black colleges.
Some conservatives say that “student outcomes” are what matters, not diversity. Student outcomes, though, have to do with more than standardized test scores. Helping every student feel included, to succeed, to stay out of trouble and envision a good future — that’s what matters. If children have a teacher or two they can identify with, that can make a big difference.