By Martha Lopez, WATG Board
As a Mexican-American educator in Wisconsin, I bring a unique perspective to the topic of why teachers of color matter. They matter to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) families.
For twelve years, I was a bilingual educator teaching brilliant 1st- 4th grade bilingual students in the largest public school district in Wisconsin. Then I taught advanced English Language Arts to academically gifted 6th-8th grade students statewide. The majority of those students were BIPOC. Today, I am one of two licensed Bilingual Gifted & Talented Program Coordinators in the state. Every year, students and parents remark, “how lucky I am to have you as my teacher.” And I feel lucky to be one of the 1.2% of Latina educators in Wisconsin. Allow me explain.
Across the nation, a Washington Post analysis of school district data from 46 states and the District of Columbia found that only one-tenth of 1% of Latino students attend a school system where the portion of Latino teachers equals or exceeds the percentage of Latino students. It’s only slightly better for Black students. That is, 7% were enrolled in a district where the percentage of black teachers matched or exceeded the percentage for students. Among Asian students, it was 4.5%. Meanwhile, 99.7% of White students attended a district where the teachers were as White as the student body.
On a positive note, according to federal data, the share of teachers of color has grown. For example, in 1988, 87% of public school teachers were White, and by 2016, 80% were White.
Nevertheless, the racial gap between teachers and students has widened as the population of younger BIPOC enrollments have increased throughout the US. In 1994, two-thirds of public school students were White, while in 2019 it was less than half.
Some of the challenge is demographic: Latinos are younger, as a group, so they make up a greater share of the student population than the adult population. Teachers may stay in the profession for decades, so it takes time for the workforce to transform.
And yet researchers have found significant positive results when students of color have teachers of their race or ethnicity. These positive results include better attendance, fewer suspensions, more positive attitudes, and higher test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance. Teachers of color also have higher expectations for students of color, which may fuel the other gains.
Studies find that having a same-race teacher makes Black and Latino students more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, and can even affect a choice of major. A study looked at Black students who had at least one Black and one White teacher in high school and found the Black teachers more likely to expect Black students would finish college. Another study found that Black students were more likely to be referred for gifted and talented programs when they had Black teachers. Studies found the race of a teacher does not affect White students in the same way, although there may be life benefits from exposure to diverse perspectives and role models. Most children are not getting that. About 8 in 10 students live in districts where Black or Latino teachers make up less than 5 percent of the faculty.
As far as Wisconsin teachers, the numbers are very similar to the country. I looked at the three largest public school districts in the state: Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), and Green Bay Public Schools (GBPS). As the figures below indicate, MPS has a 60.1% teacher of color gap. Specifically, about 90% of students are BIPOC, whereas only 28.8% of teachers are BIPOC. At MMSD, there is a 44.3% teacher of color gap, where 57.3% of students are BIPOC and 13% of teachers are BIPOC. Finally, at GBPS, there is a 49.4% teacher of color gap. That is, 54.3% of students are BIPOC yet about 5% of teachers are BIPOC.
It is undeniable, representation absolutely matters, and it matters for almost every educational outcome we can think of. The million-dollar question -- is how do we effectively find teachers of color and how do we retain them? This is the discussion we need to continue to have.