Why teacher diversity matters in Michigan

Education experts have long talked about the importance of high quality, highly effective teaching. But as teachers head back to their classrooms to start another school year, we must ask what it means to effectively teach and how we should measure effectiveness.
One source of measurement – the 2013-2014 Educator Effectiveness Report from MI School Data, a report summarizing how Michigan school districts rate the effectiveness of their teachers and administrators – shows we have significant room for improvement in Michigan. Of the state's 95,885 teachers in 2013-2014, 38 percent were ranked highly effective, 59 percent effective, 2 percent minimally effective, and 1 percent ineffective.
“This should be the biggest thing we talk about,” says Michelle Richard, senior education consultant at Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy firm that recently released the report "Building a Brighter Future: Recommendations for How to Improve Michigan’s Education System."
"What we’ve learned is that teachers have tremendous impact, and so a conversation about what makes an effective teacher is important."
But when students look to the front of their classrooms, what does our teaching workforce look like? And does it reflect the student population sitting in Michigan’s schools?
Of the roughly 100,000 teachers in Michigan, 91 percent are white, 6.5 percent are African American, and 1 percent are Hispanic, according to 2013-2014 reports from MI School Data
Compare this to student population in the same time frame – 68 percent white, 18 percent African American and nearly 7 percent Hispanic – and you notice an immediate mismatch.
Does diversity matter?
Does a teacher’s race matter when it comes to effective teaching and student success?
A recent report by the Center for American Progress says yes.
In a 2011 state-by-state analysis of teachers of color, "Teacher Diversity Matters," the Center for American Progress warns the mismatch of teacher workforce and student body demographics is problematic.
“It’s important to note that this challenge is absolutely not unique to Michigan,” Richard says. “Even in places like California, less than 30 percent of teachers are persons of color. Many states are grappling with the challenge of just how critical a diverse teaching workforce is.”
The National Education Association asserts in a recent Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education that a shortage of minority educators and role models “could lead to a failure of all American students to acquire the academic, personal, and social skills they need in a multicultural society."
Additionally, MI School Data reports that minority students in Michigan experience disproportionately high dropout rates when compared to white students. In 2013-2014, 17 percent of African American students and 15 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of school. White students experienced only a 7 percent dropout rate.
“What message are we sending to students if most people they encounter are white and female,” says Richard. “What message are we sending about who should be in school, who can be a leader?”
Tiffany Taylor, executive director of Teach for America Detroit, knows mirroring leadership for students is a key part of teaching today.
“There is something to be said about a teacher with the connection point to help the relationship in the classroom,” she says.  “All teachers can have a great impact on students, but the ones who go the extra mile and have the personal connection act as a mirror for students of color who might not see their achievement potential elsewhere. Our kids need windows and mirrors. They need both opportunity and reflection.”
 “There are plenty of white female teachers who work fantastically well with their students in cultural engagement,” Richard says. “We’ve started to see research, however, that it does matter who is at the front of the classroom.”
That research includes the Center for American Progress, which reports that “Teachers of color serve as role models for students, giving them a clear and concrete sense of what diversity in education – and in our society – looks like. A recent review of empirical studies also shows that students of color do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they’re taught by teachers of color.”
Teacher prep program enrollments plummet
Recruiting a diverse teaching workforce to help ensure student success has become even more difficult in recent years.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that in Michigan, enrollment in teacher prep programs declined 22 percent from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013. Of the teaching students enrolled in teacher prep programs in 2012-2013, 42 percent were white, 4 percent black or African American, and 1.5 percent Hispanic or Latino.
Matt Wandrie, Lapeer Community Schools superintendent, blames the giant swing in teacher evaluation standards.
“Prior to this focus on teacher evaluation and student achievement growth as part of that evaluation, there were very few professional standards that teachers had to meet,” Wandrie says. “It wasn’t a good situation; teachers were nearly independent contractors. Now it’s hyper focused on accountability, evaluations, effectiveness, right to work and so on, so it’s swung too far in the other direction.”
Wandrie says amidst the swing, only one variable seems to have changed.
“We expect more from teachers, but have not increased the amount of time nor compensation to accomplish what’s asked of us.”
According to Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, attacks on the teaching profession itself compound the problem.
In a recent opinion article from The Detroit News, Cook points a finger toward the focus on standardized testing, as well as things like salary and benefit cuts, as the reasons behind the dramatic decline in enrollment in teacher training programs. Mass media coverage of budget shortages and teacher layoffs – along with the reality of employment declines in the sector – aren’t helping either.
People of color appear to be more significantly impacted by these challenges and less likely to enroll in traditional teacher prep programs, according to the Center for American Progress report.
That’s where Teach for America Detroit comes in. Unlike a traditional teacher education program, Teach for America recruits and trains diverse individuals, often from outside the education field, to become teachers in low-income communities, often with large minority populations. Forty percent of Teach for America Detroit teachers are persons of color.
“We firmly believe that the movement for educational equity will succeed if we are diverse,” says Taylor. “We encourage folks to join us in the movement, to find a voice and place as we fight for equity for our students and teachers alike.”
And while the data backs up Taylor’s beliefs connecting diversity and success, Teach for America Detroit only has 180 teachers in 80 different schools in metro Detroit, a small percentage of the thousands of teachers in hundreds of buildings in Southeast Michigan alone. It’s a start, but it shows that Michigan still has a long way to go when it comes to increasing teacher diversity – and student success.
This piece was made possible through a partnership with Public Sector Consultants.