Retaining Minority Teachers in Schools where Most of their Colleagues are White

Minorities continue to be largely underrepresented among elementary and secondary teachers relative to the racial and ethnic composition of the nation’s student body, and tend to be concentrated in urban, high-minority schools. This means that many nonwhite or Hispanic students who attend schools with few minority teachers lack valuable role models. Many studies find that minority students experience greater test score gains across a variety of contexts if they are taught by a minority instructor (primary school, community colleges, even law school). Moreover, students of all races were found to have more favorable perceptions of their teachers of color. It is also concerning that minority teachers are more likely than their white colleagues to change schools over a given period, and teacher turnover has been linked to lower student test scores.

In a new study for Brookings, Steven Bednar and Dora Gicheva strive to identify practices that are successful in retaining minority teachers, particularly in schools where they are underrepresented. Social identity theory and theories of isolation postulate that individuals are less content when they are part of a group in which they are a numerical minority. In other words, teachers are predictably more likely to seek employment elsewhere when there is a pronounced mismatch between their race or ethnicity and the racial or ethnic composition of the rest of the school’s staff. Since a supportive school administration has been shown to be one of the most important factors to boost retention for all teachers, the authors investigate whether having a supportive principal can be particularly helpful in making minority teachers in schools with few other minority teachers feel part of the group and less likely to leave.

They analyze four cycles of data from the large, nationally representative Schools and Staffing Survey administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the Department of Education. The research focuses on teachers who stay in the profession, and examines the role of principal support in teachers’ decisions to stay at their current school or move to a different school.

The researchers confirm the established result that once we account for other school characteristics such as size and composition of the student body, more administrative support—both in absolute terms and relative to the school’s average—is associated with a lower likelihood of moving to a different school for teachers of any demographic background. In addition, they find that the relationship is especially pronounced for nonwhite or Hispanic teachers at schools where 10 percent or fewer of all teachers are also nonwhite or Hispanic. Support is more likely to matter for minority teachers in schools with predominantly white staff located in small towns or rural areas compared to minority teachers at other types of schools or to white teachers anywhere.

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