We’re not doing enough to help teachers of color stay in the profession. Here’s how to change that.


By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

Earlier this year, UnidosUS released a report that showed how simple policy measures can promote more diverse teacher representation. Last month, the Learning Policy Institute expanded on that conversation through the release of its own report, which demonstrates the benefits that teacher diversity bring to our nation’s schools.

Keep up with the latest from UnidosUS

Sign up for the weekly UnidosUS Action Network newsletter delivered every Thursday.

One positive finding from the report is that the number of teachers of color in classrooms across the country is on the rise.

“Based on a nationally representative survey, The Schools and Staffing Survey, we see that teachers of color have increased from 12% to 20% of the teaching profession between 1987 and 2015,” said Desiree Carver-Thomas, Researcher and Policy Analyst at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that produces education research.

However, even though the percentage has increased, it still falls short of being representative of people of color nationwide (40% of the population in 2016) or students of color (50% of the population in 2014).

The gap between the number of Latinx students and teachers is particularly significant. As the report notes, in 2014, 25% of students were Latinx, but in 2015 fewer than 9% of their teachers were Hispanic.

However, despite the fact that the number of teachers of color have increased, turnover remains high compared to their White counterparts.


Cassandra Herring, Founder, President, and CEO of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity explained some of the challenges the teachers of color encounter before they have set foot in the classroom.

“Candidates in our teacher prep programs have to pay for licensure exams. They have to engage in student teaching or residency, an assignment that can be anywhere from one semester all the way up to a full year. Often times, they don’t have the opportunity to work while they are engaged in those activities. But they still have to pay tuition, take care of families, and figure out their transportation to school sites.”

The Learning Policy Institute also identified the cost of college as a significant barrier to students of color who are studying to become teachers.

As the report notes, while Latinx borrowers tend to borrow as much as White borrowers, their loan default rate is about twice as high. As a result, due to their high debt burden, students of color are less likely to pursue education careers.

Khalilah Harris, Managing Director for K-12 Education Policy, noted that many of the challenges that families of color experience could affect children outside the classroom:

“When we see things like redlining, predatory lending, inadequate housing, jobs, and transportation; when we think about the racial wealth gap and the concept on Black families, Latinx families, indigenous families, different families from Asian American, Pacific Islander communities, and Alaska Native families; to ask families to take out a level of debt to achieve the American dream when there is an education debt owed to those families is very nefarious.”

Another obstacle discussed in the presentation was that of insufficient preparation. As the report notes, teachers of color are more likely to enter an alternative pathway to certification. These alternative pathways often do not adequately prepare prospective teachers for what they will encounter in the classroom. In fact, teachers who go through these programs have a 25% higher turnover rate than teachers who pursue traditional accreditation.

Another key challenge are the obstacles that exist in the classroom. Teachers cited a lack of resources as well as a lack of support, particularly from school administrators. Poor working conditions—in addition to low salaries—also compound the challenges that teachers of color encounter in their careers.


“They want to get into education in order to change the status quo. They have experienced systemic racism, they have experienced racial animus, they have experienced prejudice that goes along with that. And so they want to make a better reality for students in the future,” said LeNea Austin, English Teacher/GATE Coordinator, Humanities and Arts Academy of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Teach Plus Policy Fellow.

Learning Policy’s findings support this observation. As the report notes, teachers of color often feel called to teach in hard-to-staff schools in low-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color. In fact, three in four teachers of color work in schools that serve a majority of children of color.

The benefits for children of color can be enormous. As the report notes, if a Black student has a Black teacher for just one year, the effects can last for years—making them both less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to attend college.

Photo: Hyde Square Task Force


“In reference to TEACH grants, they can only be used to offset tuition. So while the combination of TEACH grants and Pell grants is promising for candidates, such support needs to be seen in light of these expanded costs of what it takes to become a teacher,” said Cassandra Herring, Founder, President, and CEO of the Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity.

Carver-Thomas also explained that the TEACH grant has also remained constant at $4,000 since the grant’s inception. However, the value of that grant has decreased over time.

“That $4,000 award has not kept up with inflation, and—because of budget cuts—that $4,000 award hasn’t always been available. In fact, in some years, eligible candidates have received hundreds of dollars less than the $4,000 amount,” Carver-Thomas said.

However, a few policy practices were identified by the Learning Policy Institute that could be helpful to boosting retention for teachers of color. One potential practice is service scholarship and loan forgiveness programs, which could help offset the cost of a college degree in education.

Other options are teacher residencies, which are partnerships between districts and universities that help teachers get better prepared to teach in high-need schools; and partnering with local teacher placement programs to vet students before they graduate from their programs.

Dr. Mark Teoh, Senior National Director of Research and Knowledge at Teach Plus, encouraged attendees who were interested in learning more about the subject to visit their state education agency’s website and see if they kept track of teacher retention data. “Think about what school district and state leaders could learn if they had a robust system to collect school climate survey data, exit interviews, and surveys, and state and district reports on school retention,” he suggested.

He also noted that it’s possible for change to occur on a national level.

“Today, Congress has the unique opportunity to directly support a well-prepared and diverse education workforce through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act,” he said.