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Finding a teacher who inspires, understands and fully connects is not easy for minority high school
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Growing up in New Rochelle in the suburbs of the New York City, John Burns saw his community as less diverse than divided.

"You have a very rich north side, mostly white," Burns said, "and then on the south side you have the lower-income families, mostly minorities."

This split carried over to the high school. Burns, 20, says that New Rochelle High School, his alma mater, might as well have been two different schools sharing a cafeteria and a football field.

One group was overwhelmingly white and well off and the other poorer and heavily minority. The first was academically oriented, with college-bound students immersed in AP and honors classes. But down the halls, minority students sat in classes where teachers focused on remedial skills and classroom management, rather than on college preparation.

Students in either group could go through high school without sharing any classes with students in the other. In fact, Burns said, most did.

By temperament and ambition, Burns belonged with the academic group, but by outward appearance as an African American he belonged in the other group.

Even though both his parents are college graduates, and even though he spent most of his high school years with the academic group, Burns went through high school with a nagging sense of self-doubt, afraid to raise his hand in class, fearing he did not belong.

It was not until his senior year, when he took a class taught by the school's principal, Reginald Richardson, who is also African American, that Burns suddenly broke out of that defensive shell.

Before long, he began to walk differently, talk differently. Others noticed. What changed? they asked. "I found a mentor who believed in me," Burns answered.

Could a concerned white teacher have had a similar effect on him? Burns doesnt think so.

Mentors needed

John Burns is far from alone in looking for a teacher to connect with. Increasingly, education experts are concerned that the rising wave of students of color will not find those connections among their high school teachers

A year ago this month, a key tipping point was reached in American demographics, the Census Bureau reports: for the first time, the majority of babies born on July 1, 2015, were not white. America's schools are heading there very quickly as well. By 2025, the National Center on Education Statistics reports, 46 percent of American K-12 students will be white, down from 59 percent in 2003. Fifteen percent are projected to be black and 29 percent Hispanic.

Meanwhile, 82 percent of American K-12 teachers are still white, down only slight from the 87 percent in 1988.

Building a more diverse teaching profession has become a key issue in recent months, which Secretary of Education John King has frequently addressed in his stump speeches.

There is good reason to think that a diverse K-12 teaching pool might matter to students. A new study by two economists suggests that students who shared race and/or gender with their teachers may rate their classroom experience more highly in ways that could have implications moving foward into adulthood.

"The results were striking," said Brian Kisida, an economist at the University of Missouri and one of the paper's coauthors. The strongest results, he said, were responses by black female students to black female teachers and black male students to black male teachers. In both groups, students rated their experience learning from "matched" teachers significantly higher than they did other teachers.

Of course, nothing in those results will surpise Burns, who experienced all of this first hand.

The mentor

From 2011 to 2105, Burns was one of a tiny handful of black students wedged into the academic group at New Rochelle High School, spending most of his high school years in advanced classes with white students and white teachers.

But it took some doing to get there. He spent ninth grade in the other half of the school, having been shunted there by the system coming out of middle school.

"Those teachers had no interest in caring for kids," Burns said. "Everything was centered on discipline and not much learning being done, nor was there much push for learning."

"My dad was having none of that," Burns said.

The fifth generation of his family to attend college, Burns grew up planning to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, an historically black college and his father's alma mater. His father marched into the school to ensure that going forward his son would be in the academic half of the divided school.

Even once he got onto the academic track, however, Burns lacked confidence. "Teachers assumed I wasn't smart," he said. "I would be terrified to raise my hand. I honestly believed I was inferior academically."

And then, he took a class from Reginald Richardson. "I owe much my success going forward to that man," Burns said. "The love, support, affirmations he expressed toward me changed me significantly.

Some of this was due to their connection over the course material, which was African American Studies. But it was also very personal. "Mr. Richardson expressed a particular interest in me," Burns said, "and affirmed me as a student. He once called Burns father. Your son is something special, he told him. You did a great job raising him.

In class, Richardson would say to him, John, you always have an interesting perspective. Not many people think like you do.

John already had his father, who is both educated and has a successful career. But in Richardson, Burns found a teacher who affirmed his academic potential and worth both in class and out.

Diversity gaps

Could a white teacher have had the same impact if he had reached out in the same way?

Burns is skeptical. "The transparency and authenticity of our conversations," he said, "and the rawness of the conversation, allowed me to open up to him in a genuine way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise."

Burns nearly missed his chance for a mentor, since he did not take Richardson's class until his senior year. He did have one other African American teacher while in high school, but that one did not reach out to him and left no imprint on him.

Otherwise, the only other black teacher in the academic side New Rochelle taught AP calculus, which Burns, now a philosophy major at Morehouse College in Atlanta, did not take.

The teacher/student demographic disconnect is typical across the country, even in areas that, like New Rochelle, have more minority students than whites.

New Rochelle High Schools student body is 42 percent Hispanic and 27 percent black, about 28 percent white and a handful of Asian students. But the 200 faculty members are over 80 percent white, about 5 percent Latino with the balance African American.

To shed light on the teacher diversity challenge, Ulrich Boser at the Center for American Progress created a simple teacher diversity index, which subtracts the percentage of non-white teachers in a state's schools from the percentage of non-white students.

The most recent index, from 2014, shows that some of the whitest states such as Vermont, Maine and West Virginia have the smallest gaps, and the most diverse states have the biggest gaps. California, Nevada and Maryland all stand out with a gap of 40 percent or larger.

Does it matter?

Does it matter that so few students of color have frequent interaction with teachers from similar backgrounds?

Using the standard measure of reading and math scores, research seems to suggest that the effects are small. Much stronger results show up on students attitudes toward education, however.

Using survey data collected by the Gates Foundation at six major school districts, two economists, Brian Kisida at the University of Missouri and Anna Egalite at North Carolina State University, recently tested the impact of teacher matching on how students felt about school and their career expectations.

Student were asked if the teacher cared about or listened to students, helped them clarify concepts, instilled in them college aspirations, kept control of the class, challenged students and so on.

Egalite and Kisida found strong results linking teacher matching to students attitudes and ambitions. The very strongest results when black female teachers were matched with black female students, with nearly as large effects when black males.

There are limits on these findings, Kisida acknowledges. If test scores and surveys are not telling us what we need to know, Kisida says, the only way to really know for sure would be to measure surveys like this against life outcomes.

"Does the student who says he or she had a great experience actually have better outcomes?" Kisida asks. "Are students who say they are more likely to go to college after being taught be a matched teacher, in fact, more likely to go to college?"

Cultural competence

Some argue that the value of teacher diversity reaches beyond the direct impact on students. "We're living in an increasingly stratified and segregated society," argues Lisette Partalow, director of Teacher Policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress, "and schools are becoming resegregated."

Strictly focusing on diversity gaps within a school, she argues, could lead one to overlook the need for students in a homogenous school to be exposed to people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and viewpoints. Children who are raised without such leavening, she argues, will be disadvantaged as adults.

In New Rochelle, Burns' mentor, Richardson, calls this "cultural competence." And it's not just students of other races that benefit from an infusion of diversity, he argues. Other faculty also benefit form the insights from teachers who bring cultural knowledge into the school.

"Just by virtue of their cultural or social background," Richardson said, "these teachers become an asset to their colleagues."

This is not a matter of finding a perfect balance of teachers and students, or of making sure every student finds an ideal match at all times. It is, advocates argue, more a question of leavening the mix to increase the odds.

"The studies aren't saying that it has to happen every year," Partalow said. "The studies just say it can make a difference."

No one is suggesting a rigid policy of matching, Partalow says. And as John Burns' experience with his other black teacher shows, not every teacher will click with every student, regardless of racial or gender match.

Finding teachers

At the practical end of this conversation, meanwhile, finding teachers of color has proven daunting.

"The challenge starts pretty early," Partalow said, noting that because proportionally fewer minorities make it into and through college, the available pool of potential teachers is narrow from the beginning.

But even among those who graduate, the most talented potential minority teachers have options in more lucrative fields. "Every profession is struggling with this diversity question," Partalow said, "and it can be very competitive."

But according to a recent report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, most black college graduates are not being drawn into lucrative STEM careers, but rather into other service professions, many of which do not pay all that well any way.

The Georgetown report found that the most common majors for African American students are Public Administration, Human Services and Community Organization, and Social Work, with education trailing behind.

One key to recruiting the best minority graduates is to "elevate and modernize teaching," Partalow suggests. If teaching were more prestigious in the U.S., as it is in Finland, it would be a more attractive career goal. It should be possible, she argues, to improve the teaching profession's prestige and selectivity while still recruiting more minority teachers.

Part of the answer lies in early recruitment, argues Richardson back to New Rochelle High School. To expand the pool of future teachers, he said, NRHS has partnered Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers, a national nonprofit that recruits and mentors students of color into education careers.

Students join the TSTT in high school and receive mentoring and guidance. Those who go into education get a 50 percent scholarship, Richardson said, and after graduation they get help with job placement and further mentoring.

"You have to prime the pump early to get the pipeline going," Richardson said, noting that one of their recent hires in special education is a graduate of the program.

Ironically, Burns himself, whose life Richardson heavily influenced, reflects the challenge he faces in recruiting teachers. Burns lists public affairs, law and religious service as three possible careers on his horizon.

He did not put teaching on his short list.
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