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Closing the Diversity Gap Between Teachers and their Students

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In the U.S., the K-12 student body is more diverse than it’s ever been. More than half of the nearly 50 million youth sitting in American classrooms are students of color, while around 10% are learning English as a second language.

Unfortunately, the demographics of the teacher workforce haven’t kept up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 20% of U.S. teachers identify as non-white and non-Hispanic. And although schools with majority non-white students tend to have more teachers of color, the numbers are still skewed: for instance, at schools in which a majority of students were Black, still only about one-third of teachers were Black as well. 

These disparities have big impacts on student outcomes, academically and otherwise. Research shows that when teachers share the backgrounds of the young people they’re teaching, they’re better able to attend to their social and emotional needs, and are in a better position to build trusting student–teacher relationships. It’s not surprising that students of color report feeling more supported, are more motivated to go to college, and perform better on standardized tests when they’re taught by teachers from their own communities. 

The roots of the problem

There are complex structural and individual reasons for the lack of diversity in the teaching workforce, but many have to do with a lack of access to high-quality teacher preparation programs (TPPs). These programs take different forms, such as university undergraduate programs or alternative certification programs, but all have the goal of accrediting teachers. 

From the moment they decide to become a teacher straight through to the time when they enter the workforce, teaching candidates can face a number of barriers to getting the training they need to weather their profession’s unique challenges. As a result, many new teachers are not properly equipped with the pedagogical skills required to be effective in the classroom. 

These barriers disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, and low-income teaching candidates. This means that at every step of the way, diverse candidates are more likely to drop out of the pipeline, leaving their programs or quitting the profession. In other words, fewer teachers from marginalized backgrounds make it into the classroom — and an even smaller number stay there.

Key questions 

Although the need for a well-trained, diverse teacher workforce has become increasingly clear, the exact obstacles that are keeping marginalized candidates out of the profession haven’t been well investigated. Very little is known about how accreditation programs and other stakeholders make decisions about teacher prep materials, or how these decisions differentially affect candidates from different backgrounds. 

TDL partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to change that. We led a groundbreaking research project to investigate barriers to accessing high-quality teacher preparation programs in California and Texas. We were looking to answer three key questions: 

  1. What are key barriers and drivers to the availability of high-quality teacher preparation programs?
  2. What are key barriers and drivers to the accessibility of high-quality teacher preparation programs?
  3. Do the barriers and drivers differ based on teacher candidate ethnicity and teacher preparation pathway?

Mapping the way forward

We started by exhaustively mapping out the decision-making processes of different stakeholders through the teacher prep pipeline. To our knowledge, this project was the first of its kind: nobody else has documented the journeys that new and prospective teachers go through in this level of detail before. 

Our work was based on in-depth interviews with hundreds of teacher candidates, new teachers, hiring managers, and others who play a key role in shaping our school systems. With their help, we were able to identify a huge range of barriers that hindered teachers’ progression along the pipeline, often contributing to decisions to drop out of TPPs, to quit teaching jobs, or simply not to pursue teacher training in the first place. 

These barriers fell into four main categories: 

  1. Psychological (e.g. a lack of self-esteem) 
  2. Informational (e.g. a lack of access to information about local TPPs or other resources)
  3. Structural (e.g. a lack of resources to pay for teacher training)
  4. Social (e.g. a lack of positive teacher role models in candidates’ lives) 

We also looked at how different pathways to becoming a teacher impacted candidates’ experiences. For example, do candidates from diverse backgrounds fare any better if they decide to get a Bachelor’s degree in teaching, as opposed to an alternative certification? What different factors impact their decisions along the way?

Preliminary insights

We identified a number of teacher candidate personas according to which route individuals took to becoming a teacher, which we then further sub-divided based on demographic characteristics. Mapping out the journeys of these different personas let us identify the specific pitfalls that each of them faces, and how those differences map onto variables like ethnicity and socioeconomic status. 

For example, we found in our research that Latinx teaching candidates were more likely to choose a TPP based on proximity to their hometown, likely because of the greater value placed on family in their communities. This decision meant that Latinx candidates were less likely to enroll in high-quality TPPs, leaving them less prepared for their careers as teachers. 

Other barriers were more structural in nature. When interviewing teacher candidates who had opted to get a graduate degree in teaching, we found that Latinx candidates reported feeling less supported and receiving less guidance about their funding options. As a result, they were more likely to rely on loans to finance their degrees (as opposed to grants and scholarships), increasing the financial and psychological burden of completing their degrees.

A behavioral toolkit

Our maps let us identify the barriers that were causing teaching candidates to drop out of the teacher prep pipeline. But what can we do to address those obstacles?

We developed an extensive set of behavioral interventions designed to be implemented through several potential delivery channels, including at the TPP, district, school, partner organization, and individual levels. 

To develop our interventions, we relied on the COM-B model, a widely used framework in behavioral science that posits there are three core elements that must be present for behavior change to occur: capability, opportunity, and motivation. Our interventions were all mapped onto a corresponding key desired behavior (KDB) — behavioral outcomes the intervention is intended to achieve — and were sorted by estimated cost.

Final words

Our research on the teacher preparation pipeline was the first of its kind, and an important foundational step towards a more diverse teaching workforce. Our report highlights that fixing this problem will require efforts at multiple levels, from the level of teacher prep programs up to that of whole school districts. 

Previous efforts that have focused on change at the structural and institutional levels have overlooked how individual behavior, including cognitive biases and heuristics, play a role in reinforcing the barriers to the availability and accessibility of high-quality teacher preparation programs. At the same time, behavioral insights can be leveraged to make incremental changes that lead to better outcomes for teachers and students alike. 

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