In Colorado, close to 90 percent of teachers are white, compared to just 57 percent of the student population. While a handful of programs across the state have sprung up to address that discrepancy, one academic thinks more can and should be done.

Terrenda White, an assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied urban education and the teacher workforce, says that while recruiting a more diverse teaching force is an important goal, policymakers and school and district leaders also need to think about how to keep them in the classroom.

According to a Chalkbeat analysis of teacher turnover data, an increasing number of Colorado teachers are leaving their classrooms in Colorado, which is causing some school districts, including Denver Public Schools, to rethink how they recruit and retain teachers.

Chalkbeat sat down with White for a conversation about why teacher diversity matters, what drives teachers to stay or leave their schools, and how policies intended to improve schools may have led to more teachers of color leaving the classroom. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why is teacher diversity an issue worth focusing on?
We know our kids in U.S. schools are diverse, and increasingly so. But our teaching force does not look that way.

Teachers of color bring so much to the classroom. They act as role models for all students, not just students of color. And there’s evidence that teachers of color become cultural brokers for students of diverse backgrounds, which means they tend to have insight on issues of race, issues of racism and discrimination, the cultural practices in the homes of Latino or African-American families, and they infuse some of that knowledge into their teaching, their relationships with parents. That matters. There’s also evidence that the representation of kids in gifted programs is higher when that school has more teachers of color.

We are actually recruiting teachers of color at a higher rate than we were before because of programs like the Pathways2Teaching program here in Colorado. The issue isn’t that we aren’t bringing them into the profession. The issue is that they’re leaving at a higher rate. And that’s a new phenomenon.

These are policy-related trends. That means we can do something about that.

Terrenda White, Assistant Professor Educational Foundations, Policy & Practice
Terrenda White
PHOTO CREDIT: University of Colorado Boulder

Why are teachers of color more likely to leave the classroom?
Some of the research suggests that teachers of color leave at higher rates than white teachers not because of the students. It’s not even salary. It’s the lack of autonomy, lack of decision-making authority, having trouble with discipline policies at their schools, as well as poor leadership.

These are all things we can address. They’re things we can change in terms of how we organize schools and how we make teachers of color feel like they can make a valuable contribution .

In order to have an education that supports a diverse democracy, we have to have democracy for diverse educators. And what that means is creating school conditions that allow diverse educators’ voices and their practices to matter and shape their schools.

This comes from survey responses come from Richard Ingersoll’s work using nationally representative surveys from the U.S. Department of Education, where he looks not only at turnover patterns but at the reasons teachers indicate.

He finds that issues around autonomy and school conditions are a thing for all teachers. But it’s distinct between white teachers and teachers of color.

Another piece of this is that historically, teachers of color have been placed in or choose to work in hard-to-staff schools. Now that they’re leaving at unprecedented rates, we have to think about how we’ve structured those schools in ways that don’t give teachers as much control.

How do charter schools fit into the issue of representation in the teaching force?
Since the early 1990s, the number of charters has grown exponentially, especially in urban areas. That’s where teachers of color tend to work. Nationally, there are more teachers of color in charter than in traditional district schools.

Some of the concerns are that charters have much higher turnover rates than traditional district schools. So they may be providing options for teachers of color to work, but they have certain conditions that may not be lending themselves to the retention of those very teachers. It’s a double-edged sword.

Is this just an urban schools issue?
No, it’s not. We know diversity in suburbia is alive and well. They have just as much sake in diversifying the teaching force as in urban communities.

But overall, I think we spend a lot more of our resources and research trying to improve recruitment and the pipeline. But we know from the data that it’s actually retention that’s the issue. We’re bringing them in but we’re losing them.

It seems that some of the schools that have been the subject of turnaround efforts are the schools that are the most likely to have the kind of teaching environment you describe as problematic. So do efforts to improve schools actually lead to these kinds of working conditions?
There is some new research being formed around the issue that, with all of our effort to improve low-performing schools, these are schools that often happen to have teachers of color. These are the schools that are being hit the hardest with accountability policies. We don’t know this from research yet, but this may be a driving factor in the underrepresentation of teachers of color, who are leaving at a higher rate.

On the one hand we say we want diversity, we need to support schools that support teachers of color, but we’ve turned a blind eye to the push-out of teachers of color who didn’t want to leave.

The case in New Orleans [where teachers in most of the city’s public schools were laid off in the wake of a state takeover of schools after Hurricane Katrina] is a symbolic case of, here we are restructuring schools in a particular way that’s disenfranchised a particular group of teachers at the same time we’re saying we want diversity in teaching.

I think some would push back and say, well, yes, they were teachers of color, but were they doing a good job?

The ethics around evaluating teachers and defining teacher quality gets complicated with issues with race when we look at the actual teachers who are losing jobs and who’s gaining jobs.

The standard of what’s considered a failing school can shift. There are issues around how we evaluate schools that isn’t quite clear.

Also, in some places, novice teachers who don’t have a credential yet are sometimes getting hired in places where they’re not defined as highly qualified. That’s happening at the same time we’re pushing out as highly qualified teachers.

Are there efforts to improve the situation that you’d point to?
NYU adopted scholarships for teachers of color to attend education graduate schools schools. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation also has a fellowship.

I think that where we are, though, is that we’ve identified that retention is the issue, and the next step forward is research to determine what has a better outcome in terms of retention.