Tennessee school districts must set educator diversity goals under new policy

Diarese George (center) poses with several students at Clarksville High School, where he was the only Black male teacher on staff until leaving in 2017. George is now executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance. (Courtesy of Diarese George)

Tennessee school districts will have to set goals and strategies to get more teachers of color in front of their students under a new policy approved Friday by the state Board of Education.

Beginning with the 2021-22 school year, district leaders must submit their plans to the Tennessee Department of Education, then share subsequent reports annually on how they’re doing. State officials also want them to publish their goals and data on district websites to create an environment of collaboration, transparency, and accountability around racial diversity.

“I’ve been really excited to see this policy come together,” said Sara Morrison, the board’s executive director. “The real impact will come from the conversations that we’re already scheduled to have with directors of schools.”

The policy aims to address the growing mismatch between Tennessee’s increasingly diverse student population and the educators who teach them. In 2018, students of color comprised 37% of Tennessee’s K-12 enrollment, but only 13% of teachers, according to the education department.

The change aligns with a growing body of research showing that a racially and ethnically diverse teaching force can have positive impacts academically, socially, and emotionally on students of all races. There are also growing national calls for more nonwhite teachers as America becomes more racially diverse.

Studies have found that Black students in particular benefit from having a Black teacher, leading to better test scores, more positive views of school, fewer suspensions and expulsions, more referrals to gifted classes, and lower dropout rates. Black teachers, research has found, also have higher academic expectations for Black students than other teachers.

White students benefit too, according to other evidence. Teachers of color can disrupt racial stereotypes and share valuable insights about people with different backgrounds. One study published in 2016 found middle and high school students, regardless of their race and ethnicity, had more favorable perceptions of their Black and Latino teachers than of their white teachers.

Tennessee’s new policy positions the state to become a leader in promoting diversity in a nation where the teacher force remains overwhelmingly white, said Gini Pupo-Walker, state director of the Education Trust, which advocates for high academic achievement of all students, especially those of color or living in poverty.

“This acknowledges that a diverse teacher workforce is good for all kids and asks districts to set goals. The intent is to say that what gets measured, gets done,” she said.

Tennessee has tried to address the challenge for at least three decades, with minimal success. With its new policy, it’s specifying the need for more teachers who are Black, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, or American Indian.  

Diarese George, executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, calls it a game changer.

“Tennessee is a very data-informed and equity-driven state on education, but we’ve never really had goals around educator diversity,” said George. Meanwhile, the state has shown improvement when setting goals and following strategies to raise ACT scores, high school graduation rates, and the number of Tennesseans earning a college degree or certificate. 

As a Black educator, George understands firsthand the importance of teachers of color. Growing up in Clarksville, he had his first Black teacher in high school and his first Black male teacher in college. Later, he was the only Black male teacher on staff at Clarksville High School, and many of his students told him he was the first nonwhite teacher that they had had, too.

“I saw the impact and power I had with the students I taught,” he said. “I know that what the research says is true because I’ve lived it.”

Educator diversity is particularly challenging for rural districts, but George says the hurdles aren’t insurmountable if leaders think intentionally and set longer-term goals.

“It’s extremely hard to convince someone living in an urban area to pick up and move to a rural area,” he said. “So instead, what about investing in a student of color from your community? You can provide them with the resources to go to college and get a degree and guarantee them a job to come back and serve in that district.”

His organization wants to be a resource for district leaders as they strategize.

“Our disparity problem didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to get solved overnight either,” George said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere. There’s no state in the country that’s doing this particularly well. We can do better.”

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