March/April 2018

Towards a more perfect state: Teacher diversity in Illinois

By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

In 2016, National Public Radio published a “perfect state index,” based on a premise that used race, education, age, income, and religion to consider which state should “go first” in national elections. Equal parts data journalism, sociological study, and election news, the story placed Illinois atop the “perfect state index” and named it the winner of the “most average” award. The Land of Lincoln “won” primarily because the index gave extra weight to each state’s racial composition as a strong indicator of likely voter behavior. And Illinois population “closely mirrors that country’s racial portrait … almost perfectly.”

What’s not perfect is that Illinois, like most states, has a gap between the racial diversity of its student population, and that of its teachers.

The numbers

Enrollment of students in Illinois public schools reached the minority-majority mark in 2014, and that mark holds true today. According to Illinois School Report Card data, of the state’s 2 million public school students, 49 percent are white, 25 percent Hispanic, 17 percent black, and 5 percent Asian.

Nationally, white students are 48 percent of public school enrollees, followed by Hispanic (27 percent), African-American students (16 percent), and Asian (6 percent).

In Illinois 83 percent of the state’s 130,000 teachers are white, 6 percent are black, another 6 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian. Although these percentages are mostly unchanged over the past 10 years, there is a slight decrease in the percentage of black teachers since 2008. Illinois teachers are slightly less diverse than their national cohort: 80 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. are white.

For those curious about gender demographics, 77 percent of Illinois teachers are female and 23 percent are male; these percentages have not changed since 2008.

Although there are more minority teachers in the U.S. now than 10 years ago, it’s not keeping up with the increasingly diverse student population. For Illinois’ teacher population to match its “perfect” racial and ethnic diversity, public education in the state would need 14,000 more black teachers and 28,000 more Hispanic teachers.

In a 2016 report, the U.S. Department of Education noted, “Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline in which teachers progress through postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention.” There are fewer minority students enrolled in education programs, and “bachelor’s degree completion rates for students who major in education are lower for black and Hispanic students than for white students.” The report additionally noted that fewer minority students, especially black students, are choosing education as a major, compared to other majors. This is cyclical: minority children without minority teachers may not recognize education as a career path.

Illinois has a teacher shortage on top of and including a shortage of minority teachers. The pathways are imperfect as well. In Illinois teacher preparation programs, the most recent data available show 74 percent (10,142 of 13,797) of the individuals enrolled in Illinois teacher preparation programs were white, 11 percent Hispanic/Latino and 6 percent black. Intensifying the problem is that, since 2012, the number of students in Illinois teacher preparation programs dropped from 18,000 in 2012-2013 to under 14,000 in 2014-2015. The situation was exacerbated in Illinois in 2010. As James Rosborg noted in the Journal’s “Rigor to Reality” series, changes to the “rigor” of the requirements for admission to teacher preparation programs resulted in the “reality” of a dramatic decline in candidates, especially minority candidates seeking an education degree.

Why does it matter?

Addressing the teacher/student diversity gap addresses the achievement gap that is the persistent difference in academic performance between different ethnic and racial groups.

According to “High hopes and harsh realities: The real challenges to building a diverse workforce,” by Hannah Putman, Michael Hansen, Kate Walsh, and Diana Quintero, published by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the National Council on Teacher Quality:

“First, same-race matches between students and teachers are associated with greater student achievement … Next, same-race teachers are more likely to view students’ behaviors and prospects in a positive light. … Finally, student behaviors and attitudes are also associated with teacher race. Students assigned to a same-race teacher have significantly fewer absences and suspensions, and are less likely to be chronically absent.”

Additionally, a 2016 study demonstrates the importance of minority teacher recruitment and retention. In “The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers,” researchers Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin said, “we find that students perceive minority teachers more favorably than white teachers [and] there is mixed evidence that race matching is linked with more favorable student perceptions.”

Another study indicates that black teachers, in this case elementary schoolteachers, can improve outcomes for black students. “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers,” by Constance Lindsay, found having a black teacher in the third through fifth grades “significantly reduced the probability of dropping out of high school among low-income black males by seven percentage points, or 39 percent.”

IASB Field Services Director Patrick Rice, leading a team of writers on a piece for Black History Month, said, “Reforms … may have led to a third generation of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation in public schools, but may have also led to teacher shortages. African-American and Hispanic parents and families value having teachers of color who can help mentor, guide, and serve as role models. Sadly, black students have but a few — if any — teachers who can fill these roles. It is often difficult for non-minority teachers to build relationships with black students. In some cases, non-minority teachers are not afforded the opportunity to work with black peers who would be instrumental in assisting them in working with black students.”

Potential for change

Nationally, closing the teacher/student diversity gap will require “substantial patches to the teacher pipeline,” according to “High hopes and harsh realities,” and even then, it won’t be a quick fix. The study offers suggestions aimed at closing the gap (although strongly suggesting there won’t be a perfect match for decades if ever): hiring and retaining more minority teachers, increasing the proportion of minority college students interested in teaching, and increasing college graduation rates for those students.

Addressing the teacher shortage in general, the Illinois Council of Professors of Educational Administration is seeking to “Increase the overall candidate pool and strengthen the overall professional quality of the education workforce.” In doing so, it encourages “… leaders in the state of Illinois to look at the current regulatory rules and make the proper adjustments using the research at hand to again enhance the field of education,” as stated in the “Rigor to Reality” series.

NPR’s Perfect State Index places its highest priority on race, “because it often correlates with income, education, and, perhaps even religion.” For Illinois K-12 schooling to exist in a “more perfect state” of matching the diversity of its teacher population with that of its students, will take time, effort, and change.


NPR’s “Most perfect index” article can be read here:

Illinois School Report Card: profile&Stateid=IL

“High hopes and harsh realities: The real challenges to building a diverse workforce,” by Hannah Putman, Michael Hansen, Kate Walsh, and Diana Quintero published by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and the National Council on Teacher Quality, August 2016.

Read more on the “From rigor to reality, revisited: State regulation and its impact on teacher, administrator ed candidates,” by James Rosborg in the March/April 2016 and July/August 2017 issues of The Illinois School Board Journal:

Sources for national data workforce.pdf