The challenges of building a diverse and effective educator workforce: An excerpt from Testing America’s Freedom

The truth about education in this country can be hard to stomach. But in our new podcast series, Testing America’s Freedom, Aaliyah Samuel faces that uncomfortable reality. She’s the executive vice president of Government Affairs and Partnerships at NWEA.

In Episode 3, Aaliyah takes us on a journey through the history of education policy in the United States, challenging beliefs about teachers of color and the outcomes of students of color. Her guests are Lea Austin with the Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment; Lynne Wright, principal of Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia; LaTanya Pattillo, teacher advisor to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper; and Wayne Lewis, dean of the school of education at Belmont University in Nashville. This post is an excerpt of their initial discussion, and it has been edited for length and clarity.

Aaliyah: Each of you represents a different part of the education continuum, from early childhood to K­–12 to post-secondary. Could we talk about one of the challenges that really cuts across the entire education continuum: the educator workforce? I’d like to turn it over to you, Lea, to start the conversation for us.

Lea: Well, with any leg of the education system, educators are themselves central to learning and quality. So how teachers are treated, what their conditions are, matters. And, I think, what we see is that teachers are often to blame for systemic failures that are happening across the system. But they’re operating without adequate pay, without the right resources, tools, and conditions that they need to be effective.

[W]e’re expecting educators to produce these amazing outcomes, to deliver on the promise of high-quality early care and education, but we have educators who are experiencing poverty at double the rate of all other workers.

If we think about the early education workforce, it’s important to start with examining who our educators are. They are overwhelmingly women. About 97% are women. They are often women of color. In my home state of California, most of our early educators are women of color. They’re Black. They’re Latino. They’re Asian. They’re Indigenous women. We have this incredible diversity among our educators that I know other segments of the education field are really desperate for, right? But at the same time, that diversity is just rife with racial stratification. And, on top of that, we have one of the lowest-paid workforces in the country, not just among educators, but overall. So we’re expecting educators to produce these amazing outcomes, to deliver on the promise of high-quality early care and education, but we have educators who are experiencing poverty at double the rate of all other workers. For early educators, that rate of poverty is about seven-and-a-half times higher, on average, than their K­–12 peers. And for educators of color, those conditions are even more harmful.

So we’ve been doing research at our center on racial wage gaps and inequities among the workforce. And what we find is, routinely for Latino educators in the field, for example, they’re confined to roles of assistants and aides rather than lead teachers. Well, of course, aides and assistants are going to be paid less. So, among a workforce that’s already earning low wages, we have a large segment of our workforce that’s confined to lower-wage jobs. And for Black educators, we routinely find that they’re getting paid lower wages for the exact same work as their peers.

We’ve created these conditions where the educators themselves are living with economic stress, they’re worried about their own families and their own well-being, and we haven’t tended to them. We haven’t tended to their needs and provided that security, but we keep kind of moving and shifting policies around and saying, “Here, do more. Do more. Do more.”

Aaliyah: Sticking to the same workforce lens, I want to turn to Lynne Wright. I’ve had an opportunity to be a member of her school as a parent. She was the principal of my oldest son when he went to kindergarten. And one of the things that struck me the most about Lynne’s campus is the diversity.

Lynne, as a public school administrator, leading a team of very diverse educators during a time when we’re really experiencing two pandemics—COVID and increased racial tension—what do you see as the greatest opportunity and challenge for the K–12 workforce?

We’ve created these conditions where the educators themselves are living with economic stress, they’re worried about their own families and their own well-being, and we haven’t tended to them.

Lynne: It’s funny because I was going through my spring PowerPoints in getting ready for this conversation today, and I looked back at how the shift then was on COVID and meeting children’s needs at home, taking care of them. Ensuring that we knew them, heard them, really were making sure that they were safe and accessing some sort of learning. And there was a shift toward the end of May when we realized that we couldn’t go on just talking about keeping our spirits high and making sure that children are happy, healthy learners without addressing the racial tension that was occurring throughout our country. And so we did a hard stop with staff.

Our staff, we’re fortunate enough, really reflects our student population. We’re 51% white teachers, 50% white students. We’re 11% Asian children, 7% Asian staff. We’re 17% Black students, 21% Black staff, plus 13% Hispanic students and 19% Hispanic staff. We also have an even split, just about, between men and women and how people self-identify.

We’ve really been trying to take a step back and help people. We realized we needed to really just focus on racial inequity among our staff members and our students.

Aaliyah: I’d like to turn now to LaTanya, who is the teacher advisor for Governor Roy Cooper in North Carolina. North Carolina is one of the first states to launch a diversifying the teacher workforce initiative, and I’ve been so proud to see the evolution of the work.

LaTanya: Governor Cooper began his administration with the most diverse cabinet in North Carolina history. So he believes fundamentally that government should be representative of the people that it serves, and that translates to education. His mother was an educator, so education is always at the top of his radar.

Because of his interest in, focus on, and support of educators, and his willingness to tackle head-on these challenges with diversity, we talked about increasing the diversity of the K–12 educator workforce for some time, and we started by saying, “We want this to be a state issue. We want this to be a statewide initiative.” And so we held the DRIVE summit in December of 2019. DRIVE stands for Developing a Representative and Inclusive Vision for Education. The goal was for the first issue to be teacher diversity.

We brought together educators, stakeholder groups from across the state for a level-set, to get everyone in the same room, in the same space to talk about the history of how North Carolina got to be where we are around diversity and the lack of it in our educator workforce. I’ll tell you some numbers. Our educator workforce is 70% female and white. It does not match our student population. Our student population is 53% students of color, and then there’s the breakdown within the students of color, right? So we knew that we would have significant work to do.

We really got down to the beginning of the development of strategies, statewide strategies, that we could intentionally develop and implement to address this issue. We’re talking about recruitment. We’re talking about preparation. And we’re talking about support and retention. What we’ve seen up to this point is that there are folks tackling parts of this continuum, but there wasn’t one entity, one statewide entity, to bring together everybody to say, “Let’s look at the entire thing.” And so that’s what we did.

Too many of our kids of color, too many of our kids from low-income backgrounds are moving through our education system without the necessary skills that they’ll need to be successful academically, and without the skills they’re going to need to be successful in post-secondary education or the workforce.

We now have 34 wonderfully committed task force members, again, from across the state, representing everyone from business and industry partners to educator preparation programs, educators, and early childhood representatives from our department of health and human services. We really said, “If we’re gonna be inclusive in education, we need to be inclusive in this process.” And we know that this work is gonna be ongoing, but this is the start. We’ve been really, really excited about people’s willingness to engage in this statewide conversation, but also their willingness to tackle this challenge.

Aaliyah: I want to turn to Wayne now, a former commissioner. Often educators are on the receiving end of policy. Policy happens at the federal level, the state level, and then it’s turned to us to implement. What are the policy levers you see state departments of education can really lean into when we’re forming educator preparation programs?

Wayne: You know, it might sound strange, but in beginning to answer your question around reforming teacher preparation programs, I would go back to our youngest learners. I believe state departments of education should begin with ensuring that their school and district accountability related to our youngest learners demonstrates competence and basic academic skills. This is all related.

Failure to ensure that teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills for effective instruction places our traditionally underserved populations of students at the greatest risk. And so we have to work to ensure that we’re not doing things that keep teachers of color out of the profession.

Too many of our kids of color, too many of our kids from low-income backgrounds are moving through our education system without the necessary skills that they’ll need to be successful academically, and without the skills they’re going to need to be successful in post-secondary education or the workforce. Literally, we’re pushing some kids through the system who cannot read, who cannot perform basic skills in mathematics.

I believe accountability for teacher preparation programs is absolutely critical. The impact to learners is the most important of indicators. We can’t continue to have preparation programs that operate like degree mills, which, unfortunately, we have across our country, exiting larger and larger numbers of teacher candidates when we know those graduates don’t serve our students well—particularly our most vulnerable students. So growth on standardized assessments is one indicator that we should look at in terms of a program completer’s impact on student assessments, but it can’t be the only indicator. Feedback from principals, feedback from superintendents should also be part of how we gauge the impact of teacher preparation programs. Principals and superintendents across the country, especially those in the regions of the preparation programs, have lots of critical information to share with us concerning the degree of preparedness teachers have coming into the classroom.

Finally, I believe SCA should be on the front lines of facilitating the development of alternative measures of teachers’ mastery of content, knowledge, and pedagogical skill. Frankly, I hear lots of disenchantment  in the field and, I think, rightfully so around the use of our current set of assessments for measuring teachers’ knowledge and skills, but I hear far less conversation about what measures we might use in place of our current assessment approaches to ensure that teacher candidates have the necessary knowledge and skills to serve our kids. Failure to ensure that teachers have the necessary knowledge and skills for effective instruction places our traditionally underserved populations of students at the greatest risk. And so we have to work to ensure that we’re not doing things that keep teachers of color out of the profession. We need to recruit teachers of color into the profession while also ensuring that we don’t repeat the same errors that we have for previous generations and giving our most vulnerable kids our teachers who are often less prepared and less well-versed to meet their needs.

To find out where this amazing group of education leaders took the conversation, listen to the full episode on NWEA.org or by searching for Testing America’s Freedom on your favorite podcast app, including Apple, Spotify, Google, and Stitcher. You can also watch the full conversation on YouTube.

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