Some 15,000 guests joined Teach For America at its Washington, D.C. gathering in February to celebrate the organization’s quarter-century anniversary. On this milestone, the group’s army of teachers, alumni, and allies – now numbering 50,000 – commemorated the past, but fixed their eyes on the future.
At the top of TFA’s agenda going forward is recruiting teachers of color to meet the needs of the nation’s exploding Latino student population and African-American pupils who are struggling to close the academic achievement gap.
The ballooning growth of Latinos and the simultaneous decline of the White population have resulted in a significant demographic shift among students. The 2014 – 2015 academic year marked the first time that minority schoolchildren—Latino, African-American, and Asian—outnumbered their White counterparts, Education Week reported.
However, the teaching force has failed to keep pace with this major shift. According to U.S. News, only 17 percent of educators are people of color.
The problem, according to numerous studies, is that minority students perform academically better under the guidance of teachers of their own race or ethnicity.
A study reported by the Washington Post states:
“We find that the performance gap in terms of class dropout and pass rates between white and minority students falls by roughly half when taught by a minority instructor. In models that allow for a full set of ethnic and racial interactions between students and instructors, we find African-American students perform particularly better when taught by African-American instructors.”
Why do minority students tend to perform better with teachers who look like them? The study reported in U.S. News says teachers of color are often better motivated to teach in racially segregated, poor schools. What’s more, they typically have higher academic expectations of their pupils and better understand their culture.
With that in mind, TFA is committed to recruiting 2,400 Latino undergraduates and professionals over the next three years to teach in predominantly low-income Latino schools.
From its inception, the group has recruited college graduates to teach in under-performing urban and rural schools for a two-year commitment.
“We’ve learned that great teachers come from all backgrounds, and that teachers who share the background of their students can have a profound additional impact,” said Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s CEO.
Beard added that the group plans to build strong partnerships in the Latino community to reach its recruitment goal and to meet the needs of the growing Latino student population.
TFA also has an African-American Community Initiative that focuses on teacher recruitment and community relationship building. Stacey Cleveland, a senior manager of the Initiative, has been on the frontline of this effort.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to our communities,” she stated, referring to how the organization addresses the educational needs of poor minority communities across the nation. “Here in St. Louis, we’re dealing with failing schools and busing issues because many of our schools are closing. So school choice is an issue for many parents.”
When asked what difference it makes having a Black teacher in the classroom, Cleveland pointed to her 11-year-old son for explanation. She said her fifth-grader, who now has a Black teacher for the first time, views his instructor as a role model and “changed his level of respect from the first time the teacher walked into the classroom.”
Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, said he benefited immensely from having a Black teacher during his schooling. He also recalled having two White teachers who encouraged him and others who “discouraged me actively.”
“I don’t think that only Black teachers are good for Black students, but they can be an incredible force,” stated Lomax, who has served as a TFA board member for 18 years. “They can be incredible role models when students see someone who looks them.”
Lomax, a former literature professor and college president, said he learned about TFA “from day one” and has supported its mission. As head of UNCF, he personally calls college presidents to endorse TFA and encourage them to open their doors to the organization’s teacher recruitment efforts.
TFA’s 2015 teaching corps is diverse, comprising 65 percent people of color or low-income backgrounds. About one-third of them are the first in their family to attend college. Cleveland said several years ago the corps was mostly White and from the middle or upper class.
But recruiting teachers has become more challenging in the past two years since the economy began to rebound. “Now prospects have more career options,” she stated. “Many companies are competing with us for recruits. They want the coveted Black college graduates to meet their diversity goals.”
This is what TFA recruiters often hear: “I could see myself in a classroom one day, but right now I have to make a financial decision.”
TFA established a partnership in September with Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which will aid in its effort to recruit Black men to teach. The organization is seeking not just teachers, but also leaders. About 84 percent of TFA alumni continue working in a community leadership role after completing their two-year teaching obligation.
Lomax, a Morehouse graduate, said he recalls being taught in college that individuals have the power to make a difference. “We saw that in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” he stated. “The desire to lead is one of the values of the African-American community, so the message to lead by teaching resonates. That’s a key concept of Alphas.”
He’s optimistic that the organization will meet its recruitment goals, especially after interacting with recent graduates from his alma mater who are planning to start charter schools and work on school boards in their own communities.