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North Carolina’s public schools need teachers of color. How will the state recruit and retain them?

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A native of North Carolina, Anthony Graham is the provost and vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Winston-Salem State University. He serves as chairman of a task force that is examining ways to increase teacher diversity. (Photo: WSSU)

Data show that more than half of public school children are nonwhite, but only 21% of teachers are.

As a young boy growing up in Kinston, Anthony Graham, saw well intentioned Samaritans flow into Eastern North Carolina after strong hurricanes battered the coast and inland regions. For a brief time, Graham said, they provided an invaluable and welcomed safety net for people in his community, some of whom had lost everything in the destructive storms. 

They brought food and water. They helped to remove storm debris and to repair homes. 

After a few weeks, however, the Samaritans disappeared. 

But the needs and the despair lingered, sometimes for years. 

“Those families, my family, still needed that same level of support and those same resources two months, six months, 12 months, 24 months, 72 months later; yet there were few people there to assist, Graham said. 

Graham, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Winston-Salem State University, is also the chairman of a task force examining ways to increase diversity in North Carolina’s teaching ranks. On Monday, he used the hurricane anecdote to emphasize that the work of increasing teacher diversity will require patience. It will require a commitment that must last well beyond the few weeks of fanfare he predicted the report’s release would generate. Read the 35-page report here. [2] 

“Where will you be two months, six months, 12 months, 24 months, 72 months from now?” Graham asked task force members. “Will you remain in the arena fighting to diversify our teacher workforce? Will you stick to the plan when things get rocky?  

“And it will get rocky,” he warned. 

Data from the 2018-19 school year show that 53% of children in North Carolina’s public schools were nonwhite, a 10percentage point increase over the 2005-06 school year when 43% were identified as children of color.

By comparison, in 2018-19, only 21% of teachers were nonwhite, a small increase from 2005-06, when 17% of teachers were identified as people of color.. 

Graham told Policy Watch there isn’t a specific person or group that he believes will oppose the recommendations. However, he said, “because these recommendations are grounded in principles of equity rather than equality, then we anticipate that there will be some people who oppose the idea of investing a focused amount of resources toward the initiatives and programs … rather than allocating those resources elsewhere,” he said in an emailed response. “Additionally, the report tackles issues of institutional racism and implicit bias inherent within our educational system, and we know that there’s opposition to educating people on these topics at the federal level.” 

Graham’s story about the Samaritans followed the DRIVE (Developing a Representative and Inclusive Vision for Education) Task Force’s unanimous adoption of 10 recommendations and dozens of suggested strategies its members agreed could help to put more teachers of color in K-12 classrooms.  

The group sent its report to Gov. Roy Cooper, who created the 34-member task force a year ago [3] and directed it to find ways to help make the state’s cadre of teachers more closely resemble the 1.5 million students who attend North Carolina’s public schools. 

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What’s at stake

The state’s public school student population became “majority-minority” for the first time during the 2015-16 school year, when the number of students of color exceeded the number of white students. The state’s teacher workforce has not kept pace. 

Census projections show that the nation is growing increasingly diverse and is doing so at a faster rate than initially predicted. Demographic experts project North Carolina will become a “majority-minority” state by 2048. 

It’s important that the state’s teacher workforce becomes more diverse to more closely mirror the racial and ethnic makeup of its students, Graham said.

The benefits, he told the State Board of Education last week, include improvements in reading and math scores for all students. In addition, a diverse teacher workforce can introduce more culturally relevant practices that affirm students’ racial and ethnic identities, reduce dropout rates for Black students, and generate more interest in attending college for students of color.

Everyone is better off, he said. 

“We often times relegate the impact of teachers of color to the impact that they have on students of color, and even in that space we relegate it to it’s nice that they serve as [role] models,” Graham said. “It’s deeper than that. Teachers of color have significant impact on all students beyond just being a live model in the classroom. They move learning gains in math, reading and social studies.” 

Teachers of color also contribute to the state’s economic success, Graham said.  “These individuals help move the state forward because they’re addressing the learning outcomes of our young people who will become productive citizens and will also be taxpayers,” he said. 

A proposal for bold recommendations 

One of the report’s recommendations encourages the state to create scholarships, as well as loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement programs, to encourage people of color to become teachers. 

The task force also recommended that one of the state’s 11 accredited Historically Black Colleges and Universities join a partnership of schools that host the state’s Teaching Fellows ProgramThose schools currently include Elon University, Meredith College, NC State University, UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Chapel Hill.  

“Our state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have traditionally been the primary conduit through which North Carolina’s educators of color emerge, and throughout much of our state’s history were the only institutions preparing educators of color,” the DRIVE report states. “The institutional knowledge and resources of these colleges and universities will be instrumental in providing best practices to increase recruitment and enhance preparation across all Educator Preparation Programs.” 

[5]The Teaching Fellows Program provides up to $8,250 a year for up to four years to students who agree to teach in the fields of special education or S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) in state schools. 

Supporters believe the program can be used to entice Blacks, Latinxs and other students of color to consider teaching. 

“I would say that in its current configuration, that is not true,” Graham said.  

For the 201819 academic year, 81% of the 133 Teaching Fellow award recipients were white, and 86% were women. The previous year, 83% were white and 82% were women, according to an analysis performed by WRAL News. 

Only 25 – eight Blacks and eight Latinx, five Asians and four people identified as others – received Teaching Fellow awards.    

“So, again, the Teaching Fellow program at present, is essentially perpetuating the exact conditions that we see in our K-12 teacher workforce,” Graham said. 

Last month the state’s Program Evaluation Division also recommended adding a minority serving college or university to the Teaching Fellows Program to increase teacher diversity [6]. 

The DRIVE report includes eight additional recommendations:  

Goals set: Retain at least 95% of the state’s teachers of color

The task force set several goals, such as working to increase the number of educators of color admitted into the state’s Educator Preparation Program by 15% each year. In 2020, approximately 1,424 students of color were admitted into such programs compared to 3,403 white students.

It also set a goal to retain at least 95% of the state’s educators of color. “We continue to see teachers of color leave the classroom at an alarming rate, especially Black male teachers,” Graham said.  

He noted that Black teachers say the feel devalued and complain that their voices are often silenced. 

“That’s a scary word for someone to say: ‘I feel silenced,’” Graham said. “They don’t feel supported by their administrators by and large who are often time white. They are questioned pedagogically and professionally, and they experience racial microaggressions. All of these things contribute to our teachers of color leaving the profession at very high rates.” 

Rodney Pierce, a middle school social studies teacher in Nash County Public Schools, said the reasons teachers of color say they leave the profession are valid. Pierce said he remains a teacher because he loves history and showing students how past events shape the present. 

“History is my passion,” Pierce said. “I’ve put in too many countless hours researching, attending professional development, reading and collaborating with colleagues to just leave the profession,” he said. “And ultimately, I know there aren’t a lot Black male teachers in the profession in general and in North Carolina. We try to downplay it, but representation matters. The research shows having Black teachers is beneficial, not just for Black students, but for all students.” 

Gov. Cooper shared this story. “I remember my school integrating when I was in the sixth grade,” Cooper said. “I remember distinctly and vividly the teachers of color that I was fortunate to have from sixth grade all the way through high school and how it enriched my life in so many ways.” 

He said there’s no doubt that having teachers of color had a positive impact on his education. 

“I saw the same thing with my three children in public schools, and how a diverse faculty made a difference and enriched them,” Cooper said.