Headshot of Erica Frankenberg with long brown hair and multi-colored blouse.
Published on: Aug 31, 2021

Research on racial desegregation and inequality in K-12 schools has consistently demonstrated the benefits of school integration for students but according to Penn State College of Education researchers, teacher diversity is also important for providing students with a well-rounded educational experience. They recently completed a study that reveals a lack of student exposure to racially diverse teachers in Pennsylvania as well as a growing trend of teachers of color being isolated from other teachers of the same race.

“I don’t think I realized how low the racial diversity among teachers was in the state, and the lack of exposure that white students, in particular, in Pennsylvania had to teachers of color,” said Erica Frankenberg, professor of education (educational leadership) and demography and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights.

In a research brief, “Inching Toward Integration?,” Katharine Dulaney, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Education Policy Studies, and Frankenberg build on data originally compiled by Research for Action detailing teacher diversity in Pennsylvania’s schools and districts from 2013-14 to 2019-20. They examined the extent to which Pennsylvania’s students and teachers have racially desegregated environments in their exposure to same-race and other-race children and/or adults in their schools. To do so, they used the exposure index, a commonly used measure in segregation analyses that measures interracial exposure and racial isolation.

Dulaney and Frankenberg frame their study with two expressed goals: 1) having a teaching force that reflects the demographic make-up of the state’s student population and 2) ensuring that rich, cross-racial experiences are available for students and faculty at each school across every district.

In their report, Dulaney and Frankenberg included calculations of exposure indices for 2013-14, 2016-17 and 2019-20. Across all three time points featured in the study, the researchers found that Pennsylvania’s teaching force has remained stable and overwhelmingly white while student enrollment has been increasingly more diverse.

Frankenberg and Dulaney found that Pennsylvania’s Black students have the highest exposure to teachers of color as well as Black teachers, specifically, on average. However, they also discovered that the average Black student only has 16% of teachers in their school who are Black — a figure that has remained stable from 2013 to 2020. In addition, the researchers found that Black students have significantly fewer Hispanic teachers, only 1% to 2% throughout 2013 and 2020; and white students statewide also have minimal exposure to teachers of color.

“Across the board, students in Pennsylvania, no matter their racial identity, have a high number of white teachers in their school,” Dulaney and Frankenberg wrote in their brief. “This is highest for white students, however; between 2013 and 2020, the average white student attended a school with 98% of teachers who were white. The implication of these findings is that students’ current exposure to teachers reinforces student segregation and offers little redress for student segregation.”

According to the research, there are documented academic and social/emotional benefits for an integrated teaching force. Dulaney said that research has shown that teachers of color have more understanding of diverse cultural backgrounds. For white students, learning from teachers of color is important for healthy racial identity formation.

“A diverse teaching force benefits all students, albeit differently for students of color and white students,” she said.

One of the benefits in hiring more teachers of color in high schools, Frankenberg said, is that if they teach Advanced Placement (AP) courses, it may encourage more students of color to enroll. When speaking of other benefits of racially diverse faculties, she added, “Having teachers of color alongside white teachers can make families of color feel more comfortable sending their child to school. They could help make white teachers aware of cultural issues.”

In their brief, Dulaney and Frankenberg state that although white teachers are still most likely to teach in schools that are majority white, their exposure to white students is decreasing.

“This trend of white teachers gaining exposure to more students of color points to the importance of ensuring that white teachers participate in cultural competency and anti-bias training,” they wrote.

While it is important for teachers and students to have cross-racial experiences, Dulaney and Frankenberg said, research demonstrates that retaining teachers of color is particularly difficult when teachers experience racial isolation in the schools in which they teach.

“We’re realizing that to make and sustain progress, we need to pay simultaneous attention to two metrics: yes, we need more cross-racial experiences for both students and teachers,” said Dulaney, “but we can’t pursue that goal if it comes at the expense of racial isolation for teachers.”

Often, she added, predominantly white schools have one or two teachers of color which will increase the cross-racial experiences of students and teachers. However, if they’re the only one or two teachers of color within the building, research shows it will increase teacher burnout and attrition rates.

Additionally, Dulaney said, many teachers of color who experience racial isolation share reports of shouldering a disproportionate amount of work in their schools. Males of color, for example, are often asked to handle disciplinary concerns, whereas Hispanic teachers might be asked to assist with translation needs for Spanish-speaking families even if they do not speak Spanish.

In their brief, Dulaney and Frankenberg offer a multi-faceted set of policy recommendations for increasing the number of teachers of color in Pennsylvania for district, state and federal leaders, as well as for colleges of education.

“There are all these exit ramps with the goal of getting more integrated teachers in every school,” Frankenberg noted. In addition to stressing the importance of teacher retention, a key component of their recommendations is recruitment. According to Frankenberg, some school districts have “robust efforts going to HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) or Hispanic-serving institutions to recruit teachers.”

In addition, Dulaney and Frankenberg said, more Pennsylvania school districts should follow the lead of other districts that have had success with programs such as the Para2Professional program in Pittsburgh, which enables paraprofessionals to return to school to earn their teaching licenses, and the Aspire to Educate program in Philadelphia, which helps interested high school students graduate college with a teaching degree. Besides increasing diversity, the researchers said, an advantage of this approach is that the teachers in the programs are more rooted in the community and therefore more likely to teach in the school district long-term. They added that school districts could partner with colleges of education to support these programs.

“Ultimately, it’s helpful for the university but also for the school district to have input into how their teachers are prepared,” said Frankenberg. “Colleges of education can also double down on recruiting and support efforts to enhance the diversity of our teaching force in Pennsylvania.”

Dulaney said that to attract a more diverse teaching force, policymakers also need to address financial barriers such as low teacher salaries, as well as expensive tuition and teacher licensing exams.

“Paying attention to these fiscal barriers and providing support and relief at the state and federal level is really important,” she said.

A major requirement for tackling the teacher diversity issue in Pennsylvania, Dulaney said, is having access to data on teacher race/ethnicity. In their brief, the researchers pointed out that the data used for the study is not available on an ongoing basis; Research for Action was able to secure seven years’ worth of data from the state department of education through a partnership with WHYY, a public radio station based in Philadelphia.

“Schools annually report the number of students by race; let’s also report the educators by race,” Frankenberg said.