At a time when minority students comprise over half of the nation's public school students, a new study shows that minority teachers are sorely underrepresented in public elementary and secondary schools in Chicago and several other major U.S. cities.
The Albert Shanker Institute (ASI), a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), took a comprehensive look at teacher diversity in nine U.S. cities -- Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington.
On average, about 6 in every 10 teachers in these cities are white, while only 1 in every 10 students is white, the study found.
"As a general rule, there is a serious underrepresentation of minority groups in the teacher workforces in each one of these nine cities," ASI's Executive Director Leo Casey said last week during a press conference about the study. "And that underrepresentation is particularly marked for black and Hispanic teachers."
Large gaps in representation between minority students and minority teachers were also found across the cities. The trends were more pronounced in charter schools than district-operated schools, "because, as a general rule, charter schools have whiter staffs and blacker and browner student populations," Casey explained.
Teacher diversity was examined in the nine cities from 2002 to 2012.
Over that 10-year study period, the number of black teachers fell in all nine cities at rates ranging from a low of 15 percent in New York to a high of 62 percent in New Orleans.
The situation was better, but not great, for Hispanic teachers.
"In general, they were either stuck in neutral where they were maintaining their share of the teacher workforce, or they were making very small gains," Casey said. "Given the growing numbers of Hispanic students in these cities, neither of them is adequate for the task."
In Chicago, the number of black teachers dropped by 39 percent from 2002 to 2011, while the number of white teachers declined 3 percent. The number of Hispanic public schools teachers in Chicago, home to the nation's third largest public school district, went up 6 percent over the same period.
Roughly 85 percent of Chicago's public school students were black or Hispanic in 2011, the most current year of data examined by researchers. That year, about half of all public school teachers in Chicago were white.
In Chicago charter schools, 64 percent of the teachers were white in 2011, and 95 percent of the students were black or Hispanic.
Though teacher diversity falls short in Chicago and the other cities examined in the study, there has been some progress on the issue at the national level, according to the research.
Over the 25-year period from 1987 to 2012, the minority share of the American teacher workforce increased at a "relatively modest pace" from 12 percent to 17 percent.
But because of the growing minority student population, minority teachers are still "significantly underrepresented relative to the students they serve."
AFT President Randi Weingarten weighed in on the study's overall findings last week.
"We've reached a crisis in urban education as it pertains to diversity," she stressed.
Weingarten spoke to the importance of making teacher diversity a greater priority across the country, and also called on President Barack Obama to convene a summit on the issue.
"If we do not have, in 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a real intentional commitment to integration in (our) teaching force, then how are we gonna have that kind of commitment in terms of our housing patterns, in terms of our schools," she asked.
A diverse teacher workforce is important for a variety of reasons. Minority teachers, for example, tend to have greater academic expectations of minority students, who also benefit from having "academically successful role models" from their own racial and ethnic group. All students, however, benefit from teacher diversity because it "better prepares them to succeed in an increasingly diverse society," the researchers wrote.
Nationally, the main roadblock to increasing teacher diversity has not been the recruitment or hiring of minority teachers; minorities entered teaching at higher rates than white teachers from 1987 to 2012.
"Rather, the problem lies in attrition," the study says. "Minority teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than other teachers."
Why do minority teachers -- who are disproportionately employed in urban and high-poverty schools -- have higher quit rates than white teachers?
"It's very clear," said Richard Ingersoll, an education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who examined national data for the teacher diversity study. "It boils down to this -- the conditions in those schools."
To put that another way, quit rates are about the same for minority and white teachers in schools with better working conditions, Ingersoll found.
In discussing ways to improve teacher diversity, Weingarten said the solution is "not simply making teaching attractive again."
"Yes, of course, teachers need higher pay, but what we're seeing is when you have better working conditions, when you have a supportive environment, when you have a collaborative environment, then teachers of all races, of all ethnicities, want to teach," she stressed.