Mass. teacher diversity falling short

Disparities start early in the pipeline, says new report

IF MASSACHUSETTS IS going to make big gains in the diversity of its teacher workforce, those efforts will have to begin early in the career process by convincing more minority college students to consider teaching careers, according to a new study.

The representation of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in the state’s teaching workforce lags significantly behind the proportion of K-12 students in Massachusetts from those backgrounds, but the steepest fall-off in the teacher pipeline occurs early on as college undergraduates decide whether to pursue teaching certification, according to the study released by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School.

While 22 percent of Massachusetts four-year college students are black, Hispanic, or Asian, only 10 percent of those taking the initial state test required for teaching certification come from those groups. In contrast, white students account for 66 percent of Massachusetts college students, but are are overrepresented in the initial cohort of would-be teachers, where they make up 87 percent of those taking the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure communications and literacy test. The state’s overall teaching workforce is nearly 90 percent white, while white students only account for 60 percent of the K-12 student population. 

“We’re just not attracting black, Hispanic, and Asian students into the teaching profession in the first place — that seems to be the cause of it,” said Joshua Goodman, an economics professor at Brandeis University and coauthor of the report with Melanie Rucinski, a doctoral student in public policy at the Kennedy School. 

The findings take on added urgency in light of accumulating research evidence of the benefits on minority student outcomes of having a teacher of the same race during their early elementary school years. 

The report tracked potential teachers by race at various stages of the pipeline into the profession. Blacks account for 7.1 percent of four-year college students in the state, but only 3.7 percent of those taking the initial teacher licensing exam. For Hispanics the figures are 7.4 percent and 3.7 percent, while for Asians they are 7.7 percent and 2.9 percent. Whites make up 66.4 percent of Massachusetts college students, but accounted for 87 percent of those taking the teacher licensing exam. 

At the next step tracked by the report — the percentage of those ever taking the initial licensing test who passed it — there was further falloff in the representation of minority candidates remaining in the pipeline, with passing rates of 68 among black test takers, 84 percent among Asians, 76 percent among Hispanics, and 68 percent among blacks. The researchers also found that minority test takers were less likely than white candidates to retake the test if they failed the first time. 

“This suggests that efforts to improve teacher workforce diversity should focus on diversifying the initial pool of licensure exam takers and improving pass rates on the exam,” says the report.

Of those earning a teaching license, there were comparable rates of hiring for classroom jobs among those of different backgrounds. There were also similar retention rates when the researchers looked at the percentage of those still teaching after three years. 

The study didn’t attempt to answer the question of why fewer minority college students were drawn to teaching, but Goodman speculated that it might be because such students are more likely to be graduating with college debt, and the financial rewards of teaching — especially early on — are not as great as those of other career paths.

The issue of teacher workforce diversity looms even larger today, as minority students account for a growing share of the state’s K-12 population. Black, Hispanic, and Asian students now account for almost 40 percent of the state’s K-12 student population, roughly double their share 20 years ago.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

There is mounting evidence of student achievement gains when they have a teacher of their same race. A recent large-scale study found that black students who had a black teacher at any point from kindergarten through third grade were 7 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. 

“Even if you don’t feel warm and fuzzy that diversity is a good thing, there are practical reasons to think it will help close some of the academic gaps that we rightly worry about,” said Goodman.