Massachusetts needs to diversify its educator workforce

Evidence in clear on the benefits for all students

THERE IS A powerful cultural connection when our students see teachers and leaders who look like them. Having diverse teachers exposes students from all walks of life to various cultural and social groups in ways that help prepare them to succeed in the future and become leaders in their communities.

Research backs up these sentiments. When taught by teachers of color, students of color have better academic performance, improved graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college. Teachers of color act as positive role models, maintain high expectations, use culturally responsive teaching practices, develop trusting relationships with students, and advocate for racial equity. White students report feeling challenged and cared for by their teachers of color and found they gained a deeper level of appreciation for people of different races and backgrounds.

The unfortunate reality is that our educator workforce is not diversifying at the pace that our students, families, and current staff members of color deserve. Today, about 44 percent of students in Massachusetts k-12 public schools identify as people of color, yet only 9 percent of our teachers are people of color. Latinos comprise 22 percent of the student population but only 3.3 percent of the teaching staff. Among Black students, an astonishing 25 percent attend a school without a single Black teacher.

Increasing the racial and cultural diversity of the teacher workforce will take a statewide commitment to develop policies that recruit, support, and retain a high-quality, diverse workforce that reflects the changing student population. The Educator Diversity Act, filed by Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Education, would require all of us to do the work of building the ecosystem and the infrastructure that is actually going to be able to not only produce a statistically substantial number of diverse applicants – and hopefully diverse hires – but also create an environment where they will stay, invest, and change lives. The legislation would create alternative pathways to teacher licensure, set statewide teacher diversity goals, require diversity, equity, and inclusion plans across districts and improve the tracking and analysis of data to measure progress and ensure accountability. We hope the Legislature approves the bill this session.

As school leaders ourselves, we’ve long expressed a commitment to diversifying our own staff, but we did not start to meaningfully move the needle until we put some real teeth behind it. For us that meant putting together a comprehensive strategic plan around racial equity and justice work that was linked to every aspect of what we do, from our individual classrooms to our boards of directors, to our mandatory professional development for all staff. We publicly named this as a priority to our students, families, and staff and we backed it up with action, resources, and expertise to make it happen. Most importantly, we asked our communities for feedback on how to create a space and culture where teachers and staff of color can thrive. The Educator Diversity Act, if passed, would require a similarly deep investment in this work at every single level.

The results of our efforts have been nothing short of transformational. Today, 60 percent of KIPP’s staff members identify as people of color, with 28 percent identifying as Black and 22 percent identifying as Latino. Comparatively, just 20 percent of staff members were people of color in the 2008-2009 school year. Women of color comprise 75 percent of school leadership and, over the past year alone, KIPP retained 80 percent of its staff members of color. By 2026, the school predicts that 80 percent of its staff will identify as people of color and that retention rates will soar to 90 percent year after year.

Based in large part on the results of a racial equity audit and resulting action steps, Phoenix has similarly made transformational strides. Across their schools, 52 percent of staff at Phoenix Charter Academy now identify as people of color, compared with just 15 percent in 2008. Across its system of three schools statewide, Phoenix has made a concerted effort to increase the number of staff who identify as Black and Latino at all levels of the organization, spanning teachers to board members, reflecting its commitment to represent the lived experiences of the communities it serves. Today, 50 percent of school leaders identify as Black or Latino; 56 percent of statewide leadership identify as Black or Latino, as compared with 29 percent in 2008.

The data and the lived experience of our students is evident: The increased diversity among our teachers, staff, and leaders has undoubtedly had a positive impact on our organizations and our students. With over half of our staff members identifying as people of color, our students are spending most of their day in spaces where their identity and cultures are affirmed. Our school culture as a whole also thrives, resulting in lower suspension rates and stronger relationships with our families. And, we know that teachers of color are more likely to stay and teach in environments where cultural diversity is seen as both a strength and a priority.

But let’s be clear: The demographic diversity that we are achieving only launches the deeper systemic work that will need to be created in order to achieve truly effective systems of public education. And if we stop at simply hiring diverse teachers, we’ve failed. When our schools and districts become more diverse, we need to make room for our educators of color to lead and strengthen our public education system. This is continuous, evergreen work that must remain at the center of everything that we do.

Legislation like the Educator Diversity Act will enable our schools, and the rest of the schools in the Commonwealth, to create joyful and identity-affirming schools where students achieve excellent and equitable academic outcomes, ensuring they are prepared to pursue any path they choose, so they can lead fulfilling lives and build a more just world.

Nikki Barnes is the executive director at KIPP Massachusetts. Beth Anderson is vice chair of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association board of directors and the founder and CEO of the Phoenix Charter Academy Network.