Report: Diversity in teachers boosts grades, lowers dropout rate. But Virginia is falling behind.
By Davis Burroughs
July 25, 2019

When black students learn from black teachers, good things happen — attitudes toward school improve, cutting class becomes less enticing, and grades go up, according to a report from The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based think tank.

But with Virginia’s “overwhelmingly” white education workforce, many minority students rarely or never take a class with an instructor that looks like they do. That puts them at a disadvantage to their white peers, the researchers said, and to bridge the divide, Virginia needs to invest more into diversifying its teacher workforce.

Today, over three-quarters of licensed teachers in the Commonwealth are white, compared to less than half of students. Eleven percent of teachers identify as black, compared to 22% of students. And only 3% of instructors call themselves Hispanic, a far cry from the 16% share of identified Hispanic students.

Diversifying the educator pipeline would benefit all public school children, authors Michael Johnson and Chris Duncombe wrote, but black students from low-income families have the most to gain. “For black students, the presence of black teachers has been linked to improved attitudes toward their school, reductions in chronic absenteeism and school dropout rates, as well as increased levels of college enrollment.”

Johnson and Duncombe point to a 2017 study on the long-term impacts of same-race teachers published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, which found black boys in grades 3 – 5 who got to take a class with at least one black teacher were 29% less likely to drop out of high school. For black boys from “very poor” households, having just one black teacher decreased their chances of becoming a high school dropout by 39%.

The more classes students can take with teachers that look like them, the better, according to the results of the IZA study. For example, while black K-3 students with just one black teacher were 13% more likely to enroll in college than those who had none, black students that had two black teachers throughout that age range were 32% more likely to go to college.

“Having a greater number of Black instructors has also been associated with decreased suspension rates for Black students, which could help reduce the problem of Black students being suspended at nearly 5 times the rate of Hispanic and white students in Virginia,” Johnson and Duncombe said.

The Commonwealth Institute researchers argued that while there was no “quick fix” to make Virginia teachers more closely mirror the demographics of Virginia public school students, investing more into historically black colleges and universities would be a good first step.

Virginia Department of Education data, however, suggests the Commonwealth is headed in the opposite direction. Deterred by low teacher salaries and soaring tuition costs, the number of teachers completing teacher preparation programs at HBCUs has dipped by almost 50% since 2011, the TCI authors found.

To reverse course, the authors suggest pumping more money into HBCUs and putting more energy into building partnerships between them and local school districts to build “Grow Your Own” teacher preparation programs.

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