By Rebecca L. Watts
“The educator shortage [in Pennsylvania] is a crisis.”
That’s the chilling assessment by Richard Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), speaking at a recent hearing of the Pennsylvania Senate’s Education Committee. Though the situation is difficult, I applaud both Askey and the committee for this frank discussion and for identifying issues that exacerbate the educator staffing crisis.
One factor cited by Askey is the lack of teachers of color, a problem he called “even uglier” than the cost and barriers to entering the profession. The PSEA leader noted that students of color make up 36 percent of Pennsylvania’s public school student population, yet only six percent of all public school educators are people of color.
The benefits of a diverse teacher workforce are clear.
Research by the Learning Policy Institute found that students of color and white students reported having positive perceptions of their teachers of color — including feeling cared for and academically challenged. Learning from racially diverse educators has the potential to provide tangible, relatable role models and positive outcomes for students, such as improved reading and math test scores; higher graduation rates; and increased aspirations to attend college.
While research shows that teachers of color help close race-based achievement gaps and are highly rated by students of all ethnicities, data from the National Center for Education Statistics, shows racial and ethnic minorities accounted for just 21% of all public elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States during the 2017-18 school year.
In contrast, the latest data shows more than 50% of all public elementary and secondary school students in the U.S. are nonwhite minorities.
In his testimony Askey cited research that starkly illustrates the extent of the issue. For example, from school years 2013-14 to 2019-20, the percentage of students of color in Pennsylvania increased by more than 30%.
Yet over that same period, the percentage of teachers of color in the state grew only by about 5.5%. Even more telling, 22 schools in Pennsylvania with at least 80% students of color employed no teacher of color, and 138 of the state’s 499 school districts had no teachers of color over the past seven school years. Zero.
There are many barriers to recruitment and retention for teachers of color, including inadequate teacher preparation and support, teacher licensure exams that disproportionately exclude candidates of color, poor working conditions and low salaries.
If Pennsylvania hopes to close its diversity gap, it is imperative that K-12 schools and educator preparation programs in colleges and universities work together to make the commonwealth’s learning environments intentionally inclusive and more reflective of the communities we serve.
Western Governors University’s Teachers College is in the top 1% for granting degrees for Black and Latino educators at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and is second in the nation for combined graduate and undergraduate degrees and credentials for students of color, according to the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The university is also working with other organizations to create a virtual Coalition for Healthy Learning.
Through the support of the Trellis Foundation, the coalition has brought together historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions, community colleges, access-focused universities and public-school districts that are all committed to this work. The founding group collaborates on programmatic strategy, develop policy frameworks, share key learnings, and pose questions for further exploration and research in each of the five focus areas.
If we want our K-12 classrooms to meet the needs of all children more effectively, it is vital that we prioritize creating learning environments that enable all Pennsylvania students to benefit from the experience of having racially and ethnically representative educators.
We must be intentional in our efforts to develop and implement teacher recruitment, training, and retention strategies that respect and account for the diverse life experiences of the students we aim to serve, while providing an affordable and accessible career pathway for all adults with the skill-mastery and passion necessary to become educators.
Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 2,800 students and 5,800 graduates in Pennsylvania. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University, and degrees in communication, including a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Springfield, a bachelor’s degree from Sangamon State University, Ill., and an associate degree from Lincoln Land Community College, Ill.
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