Any competent teacher should be able to educate any willing student. In that regard, the diversity of Erie County’s corps of teachers – or rather, the lack of it – may not matter too much. The fundamental question is how many students graduate, well prepared for the next phase of their lives?
But it’s not the only question.
Another important one is in the long-term impact teachers have on their students and, in that question, the matter of diversity looms. What does it mean to young African-American or Hispanic students to see teachers who look like them in their schools?
What does it mean to white students when teachers of other races lead their classes? Surely, there are important life lessons in what is possible and what should be expected.
Or put it the other way: What lessons would it send if only white teachers – white male teachers, let’s say – populated the county’s classrooms? Socializing forces are at work daily, especially among children, and it is critical for them to see a variety of positive role models.
That’s not happening in Erie County or in most New York school districts. As a recent story in The News observed, while two-thirds of students in Buffalo Public Schools are either black or Latino, 87 percent of their teachers are white.
In Niagara Falls, where 40 percent of students are black or Latino, 93 percent of their teachers are white. Across New York, one-third of all schools don’t have a single black or Latino teacher, and more than 115,000 Latino and black students go to a school with no teachers of color.
Those statistics come from a report issued Tuesday by the Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit that advocates for students of color and those of low income. The figures are beyond dispute, as is at least one of the causes: Not that many African-Americans are choosing education as a career.
That’s a hurdle, not a bar. Achieving a better balance is important enough that state and local education leaders should be focused on strategies to attract more minorities into the profession. That is surely not as easy as it sounds, but it is a challenge that must be undertaken in Western New York and across the state.
The reasons should be obvious enough. As advocates for teacher diversity note, minority teachers are likely to connect better with minority students, better understanding the cultural and racial backgrounds at play. That can produce better academic performances along with a decrease in suspensions and dropout rates.
And, as the report observes, higher numbers of minority teachers can serve as role models for young people of color, while simultaneously exposing white students to more minorities in positions of authority. If the demands of common sense and simple humanity don’t make the case for that, then demographics should.
By mid-century, white Americans are expected to comprise less than half the national population. It will do us no good for half the country’s students to see few, if any, role models at the front of their classrooms and as principals and superintendents.
It’s not just teachers, either. Similar forces are at work in policing, for example. It is important for minorities to see that people like them are in law enforcement, both to encourage confidence in police and, as with schools, to provide role models in authority.
These are important goals that are worth the focused efforts of community leaders. We can do better than we are.