Alabama schools struggle with teacher diversity

This is the latest story in our series Tackling the Gap: A Teacher’s ConversationThe gap between black and white students in Alabama is both large and persistent when it comes to the percentage scoring proficient on standardized tests. and Spaceship Media are facilitating an online conversation with Alabama teachers, exploring the many factors and looking for solutions. 

While evidence shows a diverse teacher workforce can benefit all students, researchers are finding just how important it is for black students to have black teachers.

But that’s not always easy to accomplish in Alabama. Ten school systems in North Alabama have no black classroom teachers.

“It’s essential that we diversify the workforce,” said Dr. Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s chief academic officer, referring to studies demonstrating the positive impact black teachers can have for black students, including reducing the likelihood of being suspended or expelled, possibly due to a better understanding of the lives of black students that nonblack teachers might not have.

Though 33 percent of public school students are black, only 19 percent of Alabama’s teachers are, and while 55 percent of students are white, nearly 79 percent of teachers are white.

Hispanic students account for seven percent of enrollment statewide, but less than one percent of teachers are Hispanic.

Dr. Orletta Rush is overseeing efforts in Jefferson County Schools to satisfy a half-century-old federal desegregation order, which includes diversifying their teacher work force.

Rush said it is very important for children of all races to see teachers of all races. How can children be expected to work with people of other cultures if they’ve never been exposed to it, she asked.

“That’s how the real world is,” she said. “This is usually your first exposure outside of your family’s home that you’re exposed to real world actions.”

Black teachers in Alabama schools

While there has been an increase nationally in the number of teachers of color, including black and Hispanic teachers, from 1987 through 2013, minority teachers continue to have higher turnover, due in part to the difficult school environments where they teach.

And there has not been an increase in Alabama.

Of the 46,773 teachers in Alabama public schools during the 2016-2017 school year, 9,046, or 19 percent, were African-American, according to information the Alabama State Department of Education provided in response to a request from

And those 19 percent are not evenly spread out in Alabama. Not even close.

When looking strictly at the concentration of black teachers in all of Alabama’s school districts, 4,523 work in seven Alabama districts: Montgomery County, Mobile County, Jefferson County, Birmingham City, Bessemer City, Huntsville City, and Tuscaloosa City.

Looking at it through a different lens, more than half of the state’s black teachers are working in the 25 school districts where more than 90 percent of students are in poverty.

Because those conditions are more challenging, the public may incorrectly assess black teachers as not being successful, Cooper said.

Rush said she has spent most of her teaching career in high-poverty schools with large concentrations of African-American students. Teachers in those schools are working as hard as anyone else, if not harder, Rush said, because of the challenges associated with poverty: truancy, high transiency, and working with single parent homes.

“You have so much up against you that is making you look like you’re not the best teacher, when you’re giving it everything you’ve got,” Rush said.

Every school district in Alabama employs some white teachers. In only five districts, Macon County, Greene County, Lowndes County, Sumter County, and Fairfield City, do white teachers account for less than 10 percent of the teacher population.

Yet state department data shows 10 school districts where there are no black teachers employed. In those districts, most of the students are white. Black students do not account five percent of the student body in nine of those 10 districts.

Yet there are 58 more districts where black teachers account for less than 10 percent of the teacher population.

In the 40 school districts where more than half the students are black, only 18 also have a majority black teacher workforce. By contrast, in the 89 school districts where more than half of the students are white, all have a majority white teacher workforce.

That means, by and large, you could guess the racial composition of a student body by looking at the teachers, something expressly problematic in the dozens of Alabama systems still under federal desegregation orders.

State data shows there are only three districts where the percentage of black teachers is greater than that of the student population. In the Pike Road City school district, 18 percent of teachers are black, and only 7 percent of students are. In Bullock County schools, 88 percent of teachers are black, while 85 percent of students are.

Mountain Brook City, where data shows no black students are enrolled, employs one black teacher.

Further, historical documents show the actual number of black teachers in Alabama in 2017, 9,046, is nearly the same as it was in 1961, at 8,959, while the number of white teachers has more than doubled from 18,566 in 1961 to 36,554 in 2017.

During the same time period, the percentage of black students was nearly the same as it is today 35 percent in 1961 and 33 percent in 2017, but the white student population has dropped by 10 percentage points, from 65 percent to 55 percent of the total student population. Alabama’s Hispanic population has become a larger percentage of the student population in recent years.

Diverse teacher workforce benefits all students

It benefits all students to see intelligent people of all races as teachers, said researcher Travis Bristol at Boston University.

“In a diverse democracy you need to have diverse representation of all people across all fields,” said Bristol, who studies the recruitment, retention and support of teachers of color. However, Bristol said a diverse faculty does not solve many of the other issues at racially isolated, high poverty schools.

“Simply saying we’re going to improve black learning by giving black students a black teacher is a flawed policy,” he said, “without giving black teachers the resources to do their work.”

Here’s a look at where black teachers are working in Alabama’s school districts. Hover over a district for more information about the entire teacher and student population.

Benefits of black teachers for black students

Researchers have shown that black teachers have a positive effect on the outcomes of black students in many areas, including increasing test scores, improving attendance and reducing suspensions.

Recently, researchers found a long-term effect: black students who have a black teacher at least once in grades three through five are less likely to drop out of high school and are more likely to want to attend college.

Bristol finds another positive outcome for black students. “If the goal is to continue to instill in black children the possibilities of social mobility and economic mobility,” he said, “having someone stand in front of them 160 or 180 days a year, it becomes a real great marketing tool for that.”

“On one level, particularly for black children,” Bristol said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

There is also the reverse issue, meaning how the teacher sees the students. In 2015, researchers found that in high school, black teachers have higher educational expectations for black students than white teachers do.

Specifically, the team showed that nonblack, including white, teachers have significantly lower expectations for black students to complete high school and are significantly less likely to expect black students to complete college.

The effect was largest for boys, with black teachers having higher expectations of black male students than white teachers.

Yet that same research showed that black and white teachers has no difference in expectations for white students.

Teacher bias is not a new area of research, but this research is the most recent to explore expectations.

Teachers in’s Tackling the Gap group are also discussing teacher bias, examining whether they have biases that impact the way they interact with students in their classrooms. As part of our continuing series, those teachers will talk with about disparities in disciplinary actions given to white and to black students.

Teachers in the Tackling the Gap group questioned whether more black teachers could impact the achievement gap. There was some disagreement among them, with white teachers feeling confident they could teach their black students well, and black teachers advocating for teachers who could relate to black students better.

What is being done to increase teacher diversity?

Eleven states, including Mississippi and Tennessee, are working together, supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers(CCSSO), to find best practices for recruiting, retaining and supporting teachers of color.

These states have committed to match their teacher demographics to their student demographics by 2040. The other states are Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin.

CCSSO Director of Educator Preparation Initiatives Saroja Warner said concerns about teacher diversity have been around for at least three decades, but that it hasn’t been a priority. Research in recent years helped illuminate the impact of teachers of color on students.

Warner said a number of places have begun “grow your own” initiatives to create opportunities for people in local or regional areas within a state to become teachers. However, Warner said, “We’re not going to fire teachers who don’t match the demographics of the student population in order to make space for new ones.”

Cooper in Alabama said some superintendents in the historical Black Belt begun “grow your own” programs. And other systems within Alabama, such as Huntsville City Schools, are being compelled by decades-old federal court cases to make efforts to revise hiring practices and diversify the teaching staffs.

Paraprofessionals are another pool of potential candidates, Warner said. They are typically a very diverse group of employees within a school “who already have a commitment to students and support their learning,” she said. Many paraprofessionals are not teachers because of barriers that keep them from getting certified, Warner said. She suggested states might remove some of those barriers.

Ultimately the goal is to create a pipeline to find teachers who can effectively teach diverse students, Warner said. Warner said states involved in the group will share their work by the end of the summer, which will then serve as a resource for other states. Those states are making it part of their federal plans to implement requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

While no statewide initiative currently exists in Alabama, Cooper said increasing diversity in Alabama’s teacher work force will be a part of Alabama’s new strategic plan, called Alabama Ascending, and she anticipates Alabama’s federal ESSA plan will have goals for diversity as well.

Cooper said the state could examine the certification practices and work with teacher preparation programs at colleges across the state. “People are doing a great job out there [increasing diversity], but it’s in pockets,” she said.


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