If the U.S. Supreme Court repeals race-conscious admissions — a decision expected to drop in late June — some higher education experts fear a worsening of the already disproportionate representation of teachers of color in K-12 schools.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October for the two cases weighing affirmative action’s fate, stemming from lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the institutions’ race-conscious admissions practices. Should the conservative-majority Supreme Court rule to cease considering race in higher ed admissions, as is expected by legal experts, it will end decades of legal precedent.
The most recent available data finds teacher preparation program enrollees were underrepresented across multiple racial backgrounds compared to the K-12 student population in the 2018-19 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Among K-12 students, 15% were Black compared to 9.6% of teacher preparation enrollees. The representation gap widened between Hispanic or Latino students and teacher candidates, at 27.5% of K-12 students compared to 14.6% of teacher candidates. There were also more Asian students (5.2%) than teacher candidates (3%), and more students of two or more races (4%) than teacher candidates with a similar background (2.7%).
At 61.4%, White teacher candidates significantly overrepresented White students, who made up 46.7% of the K-12 student population.
Research shows, however, that employing more teachers of color can provide wide-ranging benefits for students.
Large, diverse and urban districts saw fewer exclusionary discipline measures for Black and Latinx students when their race matched their teachers, according to a 2021 working paper from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. Black students are also 7% more likely to graduate high school if they had a teacher of the same race in grades K-3, compared to their peers who did not have a Black teacher, a National Bureau of Economic Research study found.
Ongoing efforts are aiming to ramp up strategies for recruiting and retaining more teachers of color in classrooms, though they come alongside continuing concerns of teacher shortages in districts nationwide.
‘Making our jobs more difficult’
Efforts to improve representation between teachers and students of color will be further challenged if affirmative action is struck down, said Monika Williams Shealey, board chair of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Such a decision will add another barrier for prospective teachers of color on top of roadblocks they already face like state certification tests, she added.
“It’s making our jobs even more difficult in trying to recruit highly qualified, diverse, talented teachers,” said Shealey, who is also the senior vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Without affirmative action, more selective and smaller educator preparation programs will become less accessible, Shealey said. Those institutions “will definitely feel the sting of not being able to have slots available to students that they otherwise would have if they were able to consider race and ethnicity.”
For less selective schools, many of which are experiencing a decline in enrollment, they will have to “retool” recruitment efforts, Shealey said. While that doesn’t mean these institutions have been providing scholarships based on race, she added colleges have targeted their efforts to offer students of color such resources and explained why they need extra supports.
“If we are moving into a space where race is not a consideration, then I don’t know how we effectively address equity outside of poverty and income,” Shealey said. “What we know for sure is that there are structural barriers that prevent certain students from being able to access equitable education opportunities. So how do we effectively address equity if we’re not considering the historical barriers erected because of race?”
Affirmative action’s history
It’s important to remember the original charge for affirmative action came from President Lyndon B. Johnson during a 1965 commencement address at Howard University, said Leslie Fenwick, AACTE’s dean in residence and a dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education. In his speech, Johnson noted the nation needed to “affirmatively act” to correct its racially divisive and exclusive history, Fenwick said.
“That history is very important, that you have a president who lays out the charge for the nation to equalize the foot race,” Fenwick said. “You can’t have one person starting the race at the 50-yard line and another starting at the 100-yard line and think that’s fair.”
In Fenwick’s book, “Jim Crow’s Pink Slip,” she describes the history of the 100,000 Black principals and teachers who were illegally fired between 1952 and the late 1970s due to massive resistance to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that challenged the racial segregation of schools.
Though these Black teachers and principals were more likely to have master’s or doctoral degrees, Fenwick said, they were “purged from this system” by White segregationists “who were intent on maintaining their hold on schools as they were desegregating.”
Fenwick said that piece of history extends Johnson’s charge to the nation calling for affirmative action.
Predominantly White institutions have also not been as strong at preparing to diversify the nation’s teaching force as historically Black colleges and universities or Hispanic-serving institutions, according to Fenwick.
“There is legitimate concern that with rollbacks of affirmative action, [predominantly White institutions] in particular will not have the tools to help them become stronger engines for the production — not only of Black college graduates, but Black teachers,” she said.
This potential setback to diversifying the teacher workforce is coming at a time when districts across the country need more teachers, Fenwick added.
Current efforts to diversify teacher workforce
More recent initiatives like the One Million Teachers of Color campaign remain focused on achieving their goal to significantly improve the number of racially diverse teachers in the classroom. The campaign began in late 2021 and was co-created by the Hunt Institute and TNTP, with a goal of adding 1 million new teachers of color and 30,000 leaders of color over the next decade.
The campaign’s steering committee is focused on legislative solutions to help advance this goal, said Ashlee Canty, the Hunt Institute’s director of equity initiatives.
“We know that in the short-term, we won’t see the results of any policy changes to affirmative action,” Canty said. “So it’s really critical for us that we continue to monitor and hold educator preparation programs accountable for their recruitment and their enrollment.”
The campaign will also continue to support and uplift minority serving institutions for their ongoing work in preparing a diverse education workforce, she said. Other tools that schools and colleges can use to potentially diversify the education workforce include tapping into grow-your-own programs and lowering the costs of attendance into educator preparation programs, Canty said.
“Those are a few strategies that we’ve seen in some states that have made some impact. I don’t know if they’ve been around long enough to see a significant increase, but I think as we measure and think about benchmarking and metrics, keeping an eye on those will be really important,” Canty said.
Making standardized testing optional in college admissions can also increase student diversity, as Rowan University experienced when it made the same move, Shealey said.
“It feels like then we are then now asking institutions to think about how they engage in recruitment that doesn’t use race as a consideration, but still allows them to tap into those same students,” Shealey said. “It just makes us have to work harder to make sure our campuses are welcoming and inclusive.”