NEW ORLEANS—Before the 2020-21 school year, Christa Talbott, a 20-year veteran of New Orleans schools, had never considered leaving the profession she loved this early.
But then came a dispiriting spring trying to stay connected to her students while COVID-19’s first wave ravaged her hometown. George Floyd’s murder that May left her reeling, exhausted and eager for racial reckoning on her home turf. Talbott, who is Black, began to push for change at a school that, despite its reputation for progressive politics, bore the last name of a Confederate official and dedicated proponent of school segregation, Robert Mills Lusher.
In the summer of 2020, Talbott and her colleagues asked for a meeting with the charter school’s leaders to discuss racial justice at Lusher, one of the city’s most coveted for families and teachers alike; they also created an antiracism group for teachers. It did not go over well. By the end of 2020, the 44-year-old was agonizing over whether the school year might be her last teaching there.
“I was tired of being quiet,” she says. “I was tired of sitting back so that white people could feel comfortable.”
Lusher, like America, has long had a teacher diversity problem: Slightly more than 20% of public school teachers—who include those at charter schools— in the U.S. identify as people of color, compared with more than half of students. Only 7% of teachers identify as Black. At Lusher, in 2020, 13% of teachers were Black compared with 22% of the students.
The research has been clear for years that many of our schools struggle less with recruiting diverse educators than retaining them: between 1988 and 2018, the number of teachers of color hired by the country’s schools increased at a faster rate than the number of white teachers, yet those diverse educators also left their positions much more quickly, on average.
Now, as Talbott’s story underscores, the problem could be poised to get worse, with Black teachers in particular feeling increased strain.
Into a burning house
Black teachers were more than twice as likely as other teachers in the winter of 2021 to say they planned to leave their jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year, according to a report released by the RAND Corporation. And a slightly higher percentage of nonwhite teachers than white ones—45% vs. 42%—said that they were considering leaving their position last school year, researchers at the University of Arkansas’ College of Education & Health Professions found. (The gap was 30% vs. 22%, when teachers were asked if they were considering leaving because of reasons related to COVID-19.)
Despite all the recent and increasingly dire warnings of a teacher shortage in some parts of the country, we have too often failed to clarify who is most at risk from the departures: Black and Latino educators and the students of color who rely on them. Students of color perform better academically, and are more likely to stay in school, when they are exposed to teachers of their race or ethnicity. White students benefit too.
Meanwhile, many districts and schools continue to believe they can hire their way out of the teacher diversity problem—if they acknowledge it’s a problem at all—and fail to take on the hard work of transforming school culture.
“A lot of school and district leaders take the approach, ‘We don’t care how messy or untidy or oppressive our house is—just come in anyway,’” says Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, whose organization last fall co-released with the teacher leadership and advocacy organization Teach Plus a report that lays out steps school leaders should take to retain more Black educators.
“They have not spent a second thinking about what kind of environment they are recruiting people to,” says El-Mekki, who invokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s worry, expressed shortly before his death, that he had integrated Black Americans “into a burning house.” “That could stand for teachers of color entering racially hostile school environments today,” El-Mekki says.
Starting several decades ago, several powerhouse groups and individuals invested in recruiting a more diverse teacher workforce, says Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and policy at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an expert on teacher demographics. In the 1980s, the Ford Foundation partnered with other organiz
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