6 of the 10 leading Democratic candidates say they will boost teacher diversity. Here’s how.

Teacher diversity wasn’t an explicit part of either Hillary Clinton’s or Bernie Sanders’ platforms in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

But as 2020 approaches, six of the 10 leading Democratic candidates for president, including Sanders, have laid out concrete steps they’d take to diversify the teaching force, which is about 80% white — a serious mismatch with the nation’s public-school students, about half of whom are students of color.

“I’ve never seen presidential candidates be this interested in what I think is a relatively wonk-ish policy,” said Constance Lindsay, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the issue.

A key reason: while there was evidence that teachers of color benefitted students of color prior to 2016, several influential studies have bolstered the case in the years since. One, a study Lindsay co-authored, showed when black students had even one black teacher, they were less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to college — a finding both Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg have cited.

Other research has found black and Hispanic students are more likely to be referred to gifted programs when they have black and Hispanic teachers. Black teachers are also less likely to suspend or expel black students and to have higher academic expectations for them.

The emphasis on this issue reflects a broader shift away from some of the major topics that have dominated the national education debate over the last decade, such as how to evaluate teachers and schools. And it fits within a larger national shift toward acknowledging the ways in which race affects how students experience school.

That’s helped bring the conversation about teacher diversity “to the forefront,” said Jessica Cardichon, who directs federal policy for the Learning Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. While the Democratic candidates generally agree that the next president should do something to expand America’s pool of teachers of color, how they’d do it varies. Here’s a look at some of the common strategy’s candidates are proposing — and whether they could really make them happen.

Strategy #1: Add and expand teacher-prep programs at colleges that serve many students of color

One of the most popular ideas is to invest in historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions. That would expand an important part of the pipeline for teachers of color; HBCUs enroll about 2% of the nation’s teacher candidates, but 16% of all black teacher candidates.

At least three Democratic candidates have said they’d set aside additional funds for teacher prep programs at colleges that enroll many students of color. Harris, herself a Howard University graduate, called for a $2.5 billion investment in teacher prep programs at HBCUs. Beto O’Rourke called for a $500 million fund to create teacher academies at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, which he said could be used for scholarships, mentorship programs, or to pay students’ teacher certification fees. And Sanders has called for a fund of an unspecified amount to expand existing teacher-training programs at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Joe Biden has more vaguely pledged to work with HBCUs to recruit and prepare teachers.

Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, and Cory Booker have all said they’d create a fund to help HBCUs, though they did not specify if any of that money would be dedicated to teacher training.

That kind of funding would require Congress’ approval. Travis Bristol, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that the federal Higher Education Act sets aside money that can be used to improve teacher training at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, but Congress hasn’t adequately funded the program.

Strategy #2: Fund new kinds of teacher-prep programs

Only focusing on pushing more undergraduates into traditional teaching programs, though, leaves out a lot of prospective teachers of color. That’s why many candidates are also looking to expand programs that focus on helping adults who aren’t teachers to enter the profession.

Castro says he would offer grants to states to start or expand “Grow Your Own Programs,” which work differently across the country but generally target teacher’s aides, substitute teachers, and people who live in communities of color by providing financial assistance and mentoring as they earn teaching credentials.

These programs recognize that teaching assistants are more likely to be non-white and more likely to be bilingual than traditional teachers. Harris and Buttigieg have also expressed support for “Grow Your Own” programs, and Biden has said he wants to help teacher’s aides work toward teaching licenses. 

Those programs can focus on recruiting particular groups, like African American men, or filling hard-to-staff vacancies.

“Teacher labor markets are highly localized, and so to the extent you can shape candidates for your own market, they’re more likely to stick around,” Lindsay said.

Three candidates — Castro, Harris, and O’Rourke — have also said they’d invest in another kind of nontraditional teacher training program: teacher residencies.

Those programs typically pair up a student teacher with an experienced, effective mentor teacher for at least a year. In exchange for a commitment to teach for a certain number of years, student teachers are paid during their residency, making the program accessible to those who might otherwise struggle to pay tuition.

Residency programs tend to be more diverse than other pre-service teaching programs. Research shows teachers trained through residencies are more likely to stay in the profession — and retention is especially important for raising the overall percentage of black educators.

And while some places, like California, have invested heavily in residency programs, they remain relatively rare. That could change if a presidential administration chose to invest substantially in the model.

Castro said he would provide grants and stipends to teacher residents and their mentors for five years. O’Rourke’s plan would create a $500-million-a-year program for colleges to partner with school districts on teacher residency programs. He said he’d provide $10,000 stipends to teacher-residents, as well as funding for participating school districts.

Strategy #3: Tackle prospective teachers’ financial challenges

Most of the leading Democratic candidates have proposed tuition-free or debt-free college for students from low- and middle-income families. While not aimed specifically at teachers, these proposals would likely make it easier for black and Hispanic college graduates to pursue a teaching degree.

Research has shown that black college graduates have higher average debt loads than other students. And while Hispanic students graduate with lower-than-average debt loads, they tend to have a harder time paying it off than their white and Asian peers because of their lower earnings.

Another approach would be raising teacher pay, which varies dramatically by state.

Every leading Democratic candidate has said they support higher pay for educators, and many support the federal government getting involved to help. Doing that could make the teacher profession more attractive in general, including for college graduates of color who might otherwise pursue higher-paying careers. (While black and Hispanic teachers aren’t paid less than their white peers, they are more likely to be concentrated in high-poverty schools where working conditions are more challenging. Some also report added responsibilities they aren’t compensated for.)

While any federal efforts to increase teacher pay would be complicated, there are some straightforward ways the federal government could make it easier to teach in a high-poverty school.

The president could work with Congress, for example, to increase grants for teacher candidates or boost loan forgiveness for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

And because there are already various federal programs funding teacher preparation and training, a presidential administration could also do more to help states understand how to use that money to boost teacher diversity efforts. Buttigieg, for example, has said he would issue guidelines on spending federal Title II funds to train new principals of color.

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