America's Rich Diversity Should Be Reflected in Our Teaching Force

The United States has an enormous amount of work to do to recruit, support and retain a teaching force that reflects America's rich diversity. We'll need allies and resolute action to accomplish this, not unfounded accusations such as those in Erika Sanzi's March 23 Huffington Post piece.

Sanzi suggests that I "clean up [my] own house" (America's teacher corps) to make it more diverse. I am surprised that her need to criticize trumps some basic facts about schools she undoubtedly knows: Who gets hired as teachers is decided by those who manage district public schools and charter schools -- not by teacher unions. And who enters the teaching pipeline is determined by teacher preparation programs -- not by teacher unions. I wish I could snap my fingers to bring more teachers of color into the profession and keep them there, but the reality is that I have to work to influence and partner with others who have that authority. And so I do.

We raised our eyebrows when Teach for America announced it was closing its diversity office because TFA plays a significant role in providing recruits to district and charter schools, and we believe this is a move in the opposite direction.

Our advocacy on this issue didn't start or stop with TFA. The AFT has been calling on the Department of Education to collect good, transparent data about the race and ethnicity of teachers in public and charter schools and to make that data available. We'll keep pressing, but we're not waiting. In her post, Sanzi cites an Albert Shanker Institute report, "The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education," which documented the extent of the problem and elevated it to the center of education policy conversations. But she neglects to note that the institute is affiliated with the AFT.

The AFT is partnering with historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities to work to diversify the nation's teaching corps. Together, we've met with members of Congress and done other advocacy work. In Oklahoma City, we're piloting a teacher diversity program with the school district, Langston University (a historically black college) and others.

We're calling for -- and our affiliates often provide -- mentoring, support and training in culturally responsive practices to novice teachers of all races and ethnicities working in the challenging conditions of high-poverty, racially segregated schools. AFT-supported programs like the paraprofessional career ladder in Baltimore greatly boost the number of teachers of color. So do the teacher residency programs in districts like Boston and New York, through which aspiring teachers work with a master teacher for more than a year before they have their own classrooms.

The AFT's Racial Equity Task Force recently issued a report, "Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity: In Education, Economics and Our Criminal Justice System," which provides a framework for developing policy through national and state legislation, at the school board level and inside the AFT itself.

Maybe I missed it, but where was Sanzi's ire over what happened in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina provided the excuse for officials to lay off 3,500 teachers, depriving students of accomplished role models with shared experiences who anchored the black middle class in that city? Where was her outrage at what happened in Washington, D.C., where, under the guise of dealing with budget shortfalls and teacher ineffectiveness, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee disproportionately laid off female, African-American teachers?

Teacher diversity is an educational civil right for our students. The research is clear that a diverse teaching force is essential to ensuring high-quality education for all students, and especially for students of color. It's an important issue, which is why I expressed disappointment that TFA seemed to be reducing its commitment to diversity and questioned its reasons for doing so. That deserves an answer, not an attack by Sanzi against teacher unions. Our schools and our students deserve better.