Opinion

Esther J. Cepeda: Why there are so few minority teachers?

Melissa Bujan, a kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary in Miami, Florida, gets a hug and flowers from her student Antonia Rosso.
Melissa Bujan, a kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary in Miami, Florida, gets a hug and flowers from her student Antonia Rosso. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

There is a constant rallying cry in education circles: Why don’t we have more teachers of color?

The answer is simple — it’s not a degree likely to pay off, assuming the student can even make it to graduation.

A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce detailed lifetime earnings for 137 college majors and identified the ones with the lowest median incomes: early childhood education ($39,000); human services and community organization ($41,000); studio arts, social work, teacher education, and visual and performing arts ($42,000); theology and religious vocations, and elementary education ($43,000); drama and theater arts, and family and community service ($45,000).

As you can see, many minority or low-income students who choose to go into the “helping” careers will have a very difficult time repaying the student loans required to finance their bachelor’s degrees. Especially if they hope to work in geographic areas with the greatest need, where school and social-services budgets are continually frayed.

And teachers have an extra hurdle — they must spend half an academic school year of unpaid work in a classroom as a student teacher in order to both graduate from their teacher-preparation program and gain certification.

As is well-known, Hispanic parents truly respect teachers. There is a saying that Latinos hold priests, doctors and teachers in the same regard. But if a high school student who understands what it takes to become a teacher goes home and explains to Mami and Papi that he or she wants to teach, it’s not going to go over well.

As it is, many low-income and minority students and families are frightened of taking out five-figure student loans to finance their education, and a lot of them simply don’t. If they go to college at all, they cobble together lower-priced college tuition with grants and work long hours to make up the balance.

This is why low-income and minority students tend to have a hard time earning a degree relative to their white counterparts, who tend to have greater resources.

The New York Times recently published data from the National Center for Education Statistics on the “graduation gap” between rich and poor students. The analysis found that 87% of high school sophomores from the richest quartile of families expect to get a bachelor’s degree, and 60% end up doing so. Of the poorest high school sophomores, 58% expect to graduate college, but only 14% do. Educational achievement does not explain the gap.

Research has concluded time and again that while many factors keep minority and low-income students from getting through college, money is a major barrier.

Those who, as a family, take a risk on college tend to be more cautious about what the sacrifice is going to yield and push their students toward career tracks that could eventually pay off. Teaching is no longer on that list.

The teaching profession is not on firm ground. We’ve gotten to where only high-income families can afford to put a student through teacher-preparation programs and help them through student teaching or stints as inner-city teachers before heading off to grad school or the latest hot startup.

Education is broken, and it’s in no small part due to a system in which lower-achieving students can become teachers if they can afford it, while high-achieving candidates of all backgrounds are shunted off into careers that offer better pay and stability.

This isn’t a diversity issue — most students are being deprived of highly talented, subject-matter-expert teachers of all backgrounds.

Until we fix teaching-preparation programs, the teacher-union fiefdoms they feed, teacher evaluation and the money issues that keep the most talented away from the profession, worrying about the ethnic and racial diversity of our teachers is but fiddling while our kids’ educations burn.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda

@washpost.com.

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