Reading “A Root Cause of the Teacher-Diversity Problem”

Check it out here, it’s great.

So far the main effect of having a second kid in the house has been to make me, in pretty much every way, a little bit dumber. You know what I mean by dumber: not as clever, etc.

Anyway, one of the ways in which I’m dumber is that I’m a worse reader with worse impulse control. So last night I found myself reading an article right before bed (another mistake) and having trouble understanding a perfectly clear article by Melinda D. Anderson (the one I mentioned). And then I had the questionable decision to tweet the author my questions.

I really feel for journalists on Twitter. How do you know when to engage, when someone is worth talking to? Melinda was very generous in helping me understand what she wrote, as was Grace Chen, so I figured I’d write a bit explaining what I understood, out of thanks.


About 15% of public school students are Black:

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About 16% of public school students were Black in 2012, but only 7% of teachers were Black.

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(Figures and sources from this NCES report.)

So even as Black people make up about 12% of the general population in the US and even as that share of the population is modestly rising, the percentage of Black teachers is not increasing. A disproportionate percentage of the teaching population is not Black.

The question is, why? There are roughly two sorts of answers.

Supply-side: The issue is in the pipeline. This is mostly what people talk about, and it takes myriad forms: Black people graduate high school and college at lower rates, and hence are less available for teaching positions. Black people are disproportionately uninterested in becoming teachers, for whatever reasons.

Indeed, that NCES report that I linked to focuses on the pipeline:

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But there’s another set of factors to look at: what if the teachers are there, but schools just won’t hire Black teachers?

Demand-side: Districts are biased, either implicitly or explicitly, against Black teachers. For reasons rooted in stereotype or false-associations, Black candidates are less appealing to schools, so they don’t get hired.

That’s what Melinda wrote about in the Atlantic piece. She wrote about districts that were sued for being biased against Black teachers, and the court agreed. (Or, rather, one district was issued a decision by a court to stop discriminating against Black teachers, and another took action after they got spooked by a suit that was in the works.)

One thing I was wondering is whether it’s really possible to disentangle supply and demand considerations. If Black teachers experience bias in school hirings then they’ll be less likely to pursue careers in schooling. If you start with a dearth of Black teachers in the pipeline, biases will creep up. These factors might not be possible to truly separate.

My own school has disproportionately few non-White teachers (and students). Is the issue supply-side or demand-side? Both, probably, though I suppose it only matters to the extent that this helps a school decide what to do. As Grace points out, most in education prefer to frame this as a “won’t somebody think about the children” issue, i.e. it helps kids to have Black teachers. I’m not saying I’m skeptical of that, but as Grace notes this could be a way for schools to avoid responsibility for bias — the dearth of Black teachers is then not unlike having not enough computers or too few pencils.

But how do you tell a school to stop being biased against Black job candidates? The answer for both of these schools was affirmative-action policies. Is there a stronger case for affirmative action in the presence of bias than if the problem is in the pipeline? I think so, though I feel fuzzy about how to think about this.

Many people I talk to who are otherwise strong advocates for diversity in the teaching force are uncomfortable with affirmative action. But maybe there’s an important difference to folks between affirmative action to correct a present bias vs. affirmative action to address a historical bias?

I’m confused. Melinda said at one point in our Twitter chat that she wrote the piece to provoke thinking and discussion, and it’s definitely done that for me.