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The Value of Teacher Diversity: New Ways to Representation

Racial and cultural diversity in the classroom are extremely important to student learning, so the teacher diversity gap needs to be understood and addressed. Find out the numerous benefits of increased teacher diversity and how the education field can improve diverse teacher representation in the classroom.

Author: Timon Kaple
Editor: STEPS Staff

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A black male teacher surrounded by a group of young students.

As students in American work their way through the public school system, they are met by the faces of teachers who are probably, statistically speaking, white women. That means that many students, about 50%, don’t see their own race or gender reflected in their teachers. So, how does this fact impact students? According to a growing body of research, there are several important issues to consider. Diversity among teachers has significant effects on students—influencing aspects of their performance ranging from test scores to their ability to get jobs. And academic success isn’t the only benefit of diversifying the workforce. Teacher diversity also increases cultural competence, which in turn allows students to be more empathetic to the experiences of others.

Although diversity is on the rise, state and district administrations need to double down on the recruitment and retention of a multicultural staff. In this guide, we will look at existing strategies to increase representation, explore new potential ways forward, and offer use resources for students and teachers who want help.

Fast Facts


of public school teachers are female


of public school teachers are white


of public school teachers are African American


of public school teachers are Hispanic


of public school teachers are Asian


of K-12 students are of color

The Importance of Teacher Diversity

The cycle that produces a lack of racial and cultural diversity in education begins when students don’t see themselves and their values reflected in their teachers. Fewer role models in schools for minority students can lead to a lack of interest in academic achievement for many learners, and therefore fewer minority students move on to enroll in college and pursue teaching degrees.

This is a continuing cycle that’s had a lasting impact on the face of education. According to Jim Paterson with Tolerance.Org, narrowing the diversity gap in education is not necessarily about teacher recruitment but rather more support and opportunities for college students of color. Constance Lindsay at the Urban Institute argues that even if all black college students in the U.S. obtained jobs as teachers, they would only barely exceed the number of white teachers today.

Below we examine the teacher diversity gap and take a look at the consequences of fewer educators of color in the U.S. education system.

The Teacher Diversity Gap

Simply put, the diversity gap in public schools refers to the lack of educators of color in U.S. school systems. This is not only a problem of yesteryear but is a continuing issue today. In fact, depending on which resources you consult, the diversity gap may actually be a growing problem in the U.S., with underrepresentation of teachers of color persisting or even expanding over the next forty years. There are many factors to take into account when considering why the diversity gap exists, and we investigate several aspects of this phenomenon below.

More than 40% of public schools in the U.S. don’t have a single teacher of color

Efforts to improve upon this fact have only been slightly effective. The Center for American Progress reports that teacher diversity has only increased by about 6% from 1987 to 2012. Additionally, despite this growth, there has been a decline in the overall number of African American teachers in urban areas and lower retention rates for all educators of color across the nation.

Studies by AmericanProgress.Org in 2011 show that while 40% of the U.S. student body is composed of students of color, only 17% of the teaching force identify as African American, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic. This state-by-state analysis reveals some staggering facts about the diversity between student and teacher demographics across the U.S. Some of the stand-out numbers come from states like California, with 73% of its study body identifying as nonwhite compared to its 29% nonwhite teaching force. Maryland shows similar numbers, with 55% nonwhite students and 17% nonwhite teachers.

Less than one in five U.S. public school teachers is a person of color, while nearly half of K-12 students are individuals of color

The Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr. argues that a diverse teacher workforce is essential to improving outcomes in the workforce, social communities, and schools. He stresses that it’s important for “all students to see teachers of color in leadership roles in their classrooms and communities.” With only 18% of the teacher workforce identifying as individuals of color, they fail to meet the needs of nearly half of the student body, or 49%, of public elementary and secondary school students who identify as nonwhite, according to King.

Progress toward greater diversity is being made, but it’s modest compared to the need for more minority teachers

According to Phi Delta Kappan, a professional journal for educators, minority teachers have a profound effect on minority student bodies and the stats shown in this research cannot go overlooked. For example, the journal reports that male African American students in grades 3-5 with at least one class taught by an African American student reduces their probability of dropping out of school by 39%. Additionally, minority students are also 29% more likely to pursue a four-year university degree if they have at least one educator of color during those formative years.

Outcomes of Increased Teacher Diversity

The Phi Delta Kappan research shows that minority students are much more likely to perform to the best of their abilities in any given classroom scenario when they have an educator of color. In classrooms with a non-minority teacher, students are 46% more likely to act up and 28% less likely to complete assignments, for example.

Given what we now know about the diversity gap in education in the U.S., what can be done to improve upon or remedy these issues? In this section, we take a look at some of the positive outcomes of increased teacher diversity in public school systems and reasons why we should move forward.

Diversity and cultural competence are proven factors in improving the quality of America’s teaching workforce

Studies have shown that more diverse teaching bodies typically include more effective, active teaching methods in the classroom. Active pedagogy helps students from different backgrounds engage in more robust class discussions and group projects. Additionally, teachers who come from more diverse backgrounds have a better chance of identifying with a larger base of students. In these classroom scenarios, students are more likely to receive instruction that is specifically student-centered and representative of the contributions of both women and people of color in society.

Teachers from culturally diverse backgrounds may have a competitive edge working with minority students

Teachers who can work well with minority students and teach from a culturally competent perspective may have more of a competitive edge in the job market because of their versatility. Teachers who can speak more than one language also have an advantage here for the same reasons. Since the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education has acknowledged the importance of strengthening the public education system, in part, by improving education provided to racial and ethnic minorities. Additionally, John B. King Jr. also argues that it is also important for white students to see teachers of color in leadership roles as a way of erasing negative racial stereotypes.

Students demonstrate improved academic outcomes with teachers of the same race

Several academic studies have shown that students with a same-race teacher experienced a boost in academic performance not only in middle schools, but in community colleges, universities, and law schools, too. Additionally, the students with a same-race teacher have statistically had higher test scores, fewer school absences and suspensions. Researchers who conducted case studies in Tennessee reported that students with a same race teacher were 7% more likely to graduate high school, 13% more likely to enroll in college than their peers, and more likely to take the ACT or SAT exam.

Research has shown that when a school prioritizes diversity and strives to create authentic cultural change, the quality of both teaching and learning improves, benefiting everyone

The Learning Policy Institute shows that schools who increase their efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color ultimately improve the quality of education their school can offer students. The Institute argues that schools need to hire employees earlier in the school year, partner with local teacher preparation programs, include more teachers of color in the hiring process, and offer more support for minority teachers during their first years on the job. Additionally, schools are more successful at retaining teachers when their principles have clinical training experiences on how to lead, support, and celebrate a diverse staff and student body. Schools also need to set aside funds to be used for developing and strengthening teacher support programs. Schools can also create relationships with colleges and universities in the area to help then more actively recruit talented minority teachers.

Increasing Representation in Education: 5 Ways Forward

Schools, colleges, and universities need to be proactive about increasing representation of minority educators. Luckily, there are a handful of proven ways to help institutions move toward diversifying their teaching force. Some of the more common methods include scholarship loan forgiveness, teacher residency programs, Grow Your Own programs, course articulation agreements, and ongoing teacher support initiatives. Let’s take a closer look at each of these opportunities.

Scholarships & Loan Forgiveness

Scholarships and loan forgiveness programs can help students transition into careers in the teaching workforce. According to the Learning Policy Institute, “when the financial benefit meaningfully offsets the cost of professional preparation, these programs can successfully recruit and retain high-quality professionals into fields and communities where they are needed most.” These programs especially help schools in rural communities and underserved urban areas. Similar to the types of financial packages offered to learners pursuing careers in a medical profession, teachers can receive tailored loan forgiveness options or service scholarship awards.

Scholarships & Loan Forgiveness Programs Aimed at Increasing Representation in Education

This program strives to increase the number of minority teachers in Florida in a way that reflects the state’s population. The program also provides financial awards and pre-professional training for educators. Students must be a Florida resident to apply for a scholarship.

This scholarship is for minority teacher candidates who possess a 2.5 or higher GPA and rank in the upper 50% of their class. Awards are typically between $2,500-5,000 and applicants must be Kentucky residents.

This program is reserved for teacher recruiting programs at colleges and universities that focus on recruiting and retaining teachers of color. Grant funding for each project ranges from $40,000-55,000 per year. Proposed plans must be designed for teachers residing in Minnesota.

This merit-based scholarship is designed for minority students planning to go into a teaching profession. The award starts out as a loan to assist with educational expenses. The loan can then turn into free scholarship money for students who meet all of the program’s financial need guidelines. Applicants must be a minority residing in Missouri.

Teacher Residency Programs

Teacher residency programs place aspiring teachers in full-year classroom apprenticeships. In these traditionally rigorous programs, apprentices work on learning graduate-level content under the supervision of a lead teacher or mentor in a high-need classroom. Teacher residency participants learn advanced teaching strategies and classroom management skills while face-to-face with students. Residents commit to teaching in districts for three years upon completion of their residency. In return, they receive payment in the form of a stipend.

5 Innovative Residency Programs

Grow Your Own Programs

Grow Your Own programs recruit teacher candidates from minority populations who reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. These programs serve a diverse group of prospective educators, from high school students and paraprofessionals to after-school program staff and other community members. Grow Your Own offers them financial support as they complete teacher preparation programs in exchange for the candidates returning to teach in their communities upon completion of the program.

Grow Your own Resources

Course Articulation Agreements & 2+2 Partnerships

To increase teacher diversity, teacher preparation programs can partner with community colleges to create articulation agreements. Articulation agreements allows teacher candidates to begin coursework in local colleges and transfer to four-year programs where they will complete their education. Similarly, 2+2 programs offer access to teacher preparation courses at community colleges in rural communities. These initiatives help build the pipeline of placing teachers in hard-to-staff rural communities.

Benefits of 2+2 Programs

Less Student Debt

2+2 programs can significantly soften the blow of student debt from a 4-year university. By earning credits from a community college for your first two years, students can expect to graduate with fare less student debt.

Explore Different Majors

If you’re not sure what you want to study, a 2+2 program can be a great way to study different topics without paying the high fees of a university.

More Flexibility

Because 2+2 programs begin at community colleges, you will have more flexibility with class times. This is an excellent option for students who have full-time work commitments and may benefit from night classes.

Time to Adjust

If you’re not quite ready to go off to a 4-year school, attending a 2+2 program at a community college close to home can make the transition easier.

Continuing Mentoring & Support

Another way colleges can support minority teaching candidates throughout the teacher preparation experience is through mentorship programs. Colleges and universities often have dedicated academic or personal support teams on-staff. Some schools even go the extra mile and offer teaching candidates their own education-focused support team or mentors. Here are some examples of programs dedicated to supporting minority teaching candidates.

Example #1

Clemson University’s MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) program works to increase the number of black male teachers through support that includes loan forgiveness, mentorship, academic and peer support, preparation for state licensure exams, and assistance with job placement. Program participants commit to teaching in local schools for each year they receive financial support. Graduates of the program are expected to become mentors to new program participants.

Example #2

Graduate students at Duke University complete a one-year internship program with a built-in mentorship component. Master’s students receive a “mentor teacher” that coaches them throughout the process, assisting them in turning their theoretical studies into practice. Mentors providing for students in this program all have a master’s degree or are board certified. In sum, this mentored internship program offers student teachers a guided experience of creating and executing lesson plans, trying out classroom management techniques, and evaluating student performance.

Example # 3

Evergreen State College provides mentorship for teaching candidates during 10-week sessions. The program helps introduce student teachers to colleagues and their students and give mentors a chance to provide constructive feedback on teaching techniques and class materials. Mentors provide constructive feedback and guidance for student teachers, including an evaluation of teachers’ work using Evergreen’s student teaching rubric. Depending on the student, Evergreen offers a traditional model where the student teacher is responsible for most classroom activities, classroom management, and teaching. The school also offers a co-teaching model where student teachers take on temporary leadership roles in the classroom, usually for about three weeks out of the 10-week program.

Expert Q&A


Dr. Deniece



To provide additional insight into what’s being done to diversify our teacher population and what can continue to be done, we’ve talked to two experts on the matter. Let’s see what they have to say.

In your experience, what has been one of the most effective programs for the retention and holistic development for college students?

Deniece Dortch: In my experience, the most successful programs tend to focus heavily on student belonging needs, help students to navigate the academy, meaning that they shed light on what the student didn’t know that they needed to know, and provide a particular level of both challenge and support for students. Students that have been historically marginalized, tend to experience various types of isolation whether it be intellectual, structural, or cultural. Programs that proactively address these needs tend to retain more students. Some examples of these programs would be the University of Utah’s African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative, PHD Project, UCEA Barbara Jackson Scholars, Jackson Scholars Program at University of Texas.

What advice would you give to a high school student who has an interest in pursuing a career in education?

Tyler Sainato: Don’t listen to the teachers that tell you to avoid a career in education. Equally important, you should not listen to the people that tell you to do this work because you get a lot of time off like holidays and summer vacation. Education work is like activism. If your heart is in it, you will love your job. Teaching is so much more than just a content area. It is helping other to find their voice and equip them with the skills they need to be successful. Once you are there you need to find your people- the ones who will motivate you and push you to be better. This work can feel lonely and difficult, but I promise you it is worth it.

What is one way that teachers today can ensure they are inspiring students so that pupils from a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds gain an interest in teaching or education-focused careers?

Deniece Dortch: I think that it is really important that teachers engage in a practice called culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally relevant pedagogy is a term coined by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings in the 1990s and is a theory that explores the lens by which teachers should think about and approach teaching. The pillars of culturally relevant pedagogy focus on academic success (the intellectual growth that the student experiences as a result of classroom instruction and learning), a willingness to support cultural competence (that is, the ability to help students appreciate and celebrate their cultures of origin while gaining knowledge and fluency in at least one other culture) and a development of a sociopolitical consciousness (which is, using the knowledge gained inside of the classroom space and moving it beyond the classroom to identify, analyze and solve real-world problems). I find that students tend to be most inspired by faculty who have adopted this approach to their teaching.

Tyler Sainato: I believe that the most important part about teaching is building relationships with your young people in addition to holding them to high expectations. Students are extremely observant, and they can recognize when adults do or do not care about them. They can also tell when an educator dislikes their job. As an educator you must commit to loving each student, regardless of background, race, sexuality, or gender. It is your job to create an inclusive environment for your young people so that they have a safe space to grow and learn both personally and professionally. Once you show all students that you love them and your job, it is an easy sell on getting them into the profession. If you have students that care about other people and want to make a difference, being in education is an excellent career choice. I have a feeling that it is only going to get better as we make the field more inclusive and start to get younger, more passionate people involved!

What do you think the role of college and universities today needs to be in reducing the diversity gap in education?

Deniece Dortch: I think that universities can develop a multi-tiered approach to resolving diversity challenges (student admissions and retention, faculty recruitment and retention, financial resources). First, institutions would have to begin to acknowledge the institutional and structural racism that created the gap in the first place. Then, institute practical policies aimed to resolve systemic racism.