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Sixth grade teacher Luis Vega’s classroom is seen Sept. 28, 2022, at Mapleton’s Global Intermediate Academy in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

About 86% of Colorado teachers during the last school year were white, a sharp contrast to the growing body of students of color in their classrooms across the state.

The lack of diversity among the state’s educator workforce has been a chronic challenge, prompting lawmakers to intervene in 2021 with legislation calling for a workgroup to look at ways Colorado could more effectively recruit, prepare and retain diverse educators — and the hurdles that stand in the way of drawing teachers from different backgrounds into the profession.

In a report published Friday — titled “Diversifying the Educator Workforce: Disrupting Indequities” — the group details a patchwork of 14 strategies to help round out the state’s cadre of teachers. Many of those strategies aren’t novel ideas but rather are echoes of proposals made previously and initiatives that are already underway. They include increasing teacher pay, providing financial support for student teachers, offering mentoring opportunities for teachers of color, expanding teacher preparation programs that tap into local workforces, and putting culturally relevant content at the center of preparation programs.

“Any movement forward is good movement, but it’s not enough yet,” said Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education. “And we haven’t hit that tipping point with these initiatives.”

The emphasis on teacher diversity is reaching a crescendo as the state becomes home to more people of color. By 2050, people of color will make up an estimated 46% of Colorado’s population, with Hispanic or Latinx residents representing an estimated 35% of the state population, according to the report. Meanwhile, in 2020-21, the percentage of teachers of color in Colorado schools was miniscule — 1.6% of teachers were Black and 8.8% were Hispanic or Latinx.

The strategies from the latest report mirror priorities outlined in a 2017 state report focused on teacher shortages and a 2014 report that also offered up recommendations on how to add more teachers of color to classrooms.

O’Neil, who was not part of the state-convened workgroup, said the recommendations overlap reports because “they are showing some effectiveness,” but “they aren’t showing enough effectiveness yet, and so there’s some investment into those that really makes a big difference.”

Classrooms at Calhan High School on March 15, 2022. Calhan High serves upward of 400 students from preschool to 12th grade. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

All students benefit when they learn from at least one teacher of color, the report notes. It also points to studies that indicate “students feel more cared for, are more motivated by, and learn more from educators who share their same race.”

Students of color who have been in the class of at least one teacher sharing their race between third and fifth grade are about 40% less likely to drop out of high school than students of color who have not had a minority teacher, the report states.

Teachers whose backgrounds reflect those of their students “may understand the struggles and challenges and the strengths and all kinds of things they bring to school much better,” said Jingzi Huang, school director for the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Teacher Education and associate dean for the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. 

Huang, who was one of 39 workgroup members from state departments, higher education institutions, teachers, principals, researchers and community organizations, added that teachers of color can help their white colleagues learn about their students and understand what they need.

Teacher diversity is also needed to prepare students to navigate a country that’s become increasingly divisive, said Jenni Trujillo, dean of the School of Education at Fort Lewis College and another workgroup member.

“Our students in Colorado and around the U.S. are growing up in a diverse nation, and the more that you can learn about intercultural dynamics starting in the years that shape you, the better prepared you are for the workforce, for society, for getting along and understanding others’ points of view,” Trujillo said. “And I think in today’s world, we’re really seeking that. Understanding diverse sets of perspectives really matters. Whether you agree with a person or not, it’s being able to come together in a unified way and learn something, and so classrooms are a place where that can happen.”

Urging lawmakers to seriously consider better pay

The ideas pushed out by the workgroup, which first met in December, aren’t new but are worth doubling down on, Huang said. She has not seen complete buy-in from state lawmakers on what educators like her know would help schools overcome their lack of teacher diversity.

“This report will really force them to take another look,” Huang said.

The most pressing strategy to recruit and retain more educators of color: a competitive salary.

Many students of color come from economic hardship and pursue higher education to improve their financial situation, Huang said. They now have many more career options with more prospects for higher wages.

“If teaching cannot compete with other professions,” she said, “then basically we are sending people of color to other professions.”

The need to increase teacher pay has long been known, she said, but it often meets opposition from the public.

“We know that,” Huang said. “The teachers know that, but it doesn’t mean that the public discourse will want to recognize it. And that’s why people, for a long time, they keep saying people don’t become teachers for the sake of money.”

Money isn’t a motivator for many teachers, she acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean educators should forgo a living wage or that better pay would sell more people on teaching.

“The salary plays a very important role, no matter what, no matter what we say,” Huang said.

First-grade classroom decor is seen on Thursday, August 12, 2021, at Second Creek Elementary School in Commerce City. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The report sheds light on the longstanding financial struggles that often stand in the way of aspiring teachers and their ability to start working with students. It highlights the persistent wage gap between educators and other college-educated professionals, as teacher pay has largely stagnated since the mid-1990s while salaries of other college graduates have risen 28.5%. 

Additionally, students pursuing teaching careers often have no choice but to take out student loans to cover the cost of college. In 2020, half of Colorado college graduates had accrued debt from student loans, with the average amount of loan debt for graduates who had earned a bachelor’s degree hitting $25,700, according to the report. Students specializing in education face steeper challenges to paying off their debt because of how much teacher pay has lagged, the report stated, adding that teachers of color have higher rates of student loan debt than white educators.

That’s also why paying student teachers for their time in the classroom under the watchful eye of a veteran educator and offering loan forgiveness to teachers are other necessary steps to diversifying the workforce, the report says.

Lawmakers have set in motion a state stipend program that will compensate student teachers up to $22,000 and forgive up to $5,000 in student loans for teachers who recently started their careers.

The state initiative, funded by federal stimulus dollars, has been a boon for teacher candidates, Huang said. However, with the program slated to run for two years, students wonder whether they’ll be able to depend on state funding further into the future.

It’s that kind of shortcoming that O’Neil sees in many of the strategies rolled out to help broaden representation among teachers as “they’re just snipping around the edges.”

For instance, the legislature has repeatedly offered financial incentives to teachers, but much of that funding reaches only a fraction of the total number of teachers of color in the state — up to half at best, O’Neil said.

“We don’t need just 50%,” she said. “We need 100%. Fifty percent is awesome. That’s great. That certainly makes a big difference, but we’re not going to move the dial on diversifying our teacher pipeline unless we can get all 100% and continue to bring more people into the pipeline.”

Other strategies in the report highlight the need for communities to continue “grow your own” programs that connect local residents with training for careers in education and a public campaign that gives teachers of color a platform to share their experiences as a way to pique more interest in the field. That campaign has already taken off through the Colorado Education Association and TEACH Colorado, a statewide partnership among districts, universities, other teacher preparation programs, state agencies and nonprofits that guide people who are considering a career in education through the steps to becoming licensed.

The report also hits on the need to make sure teacher candidates have other options beyond the state Praxis exam to become licensed — another initiative passed into law that allows rising teachers to use a coursework review or a portfolio to demonstrate their qualifications to teach in a specific subject. 

Additionally, it draws attention to the need to offer mentorship opportunities for students on the path to teacher licensure and compensate the veteran teachers who support them. 

It’s something O’Neil hears again and again: “We want someone next to us that helps us push through the harder times, that helps us think about what the end goal is.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin