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A chance to close Long Island's teacher diversity gap

Districts should make an all-out push to fill

Districts should make an all-out push to fill open jobs with Blacks, Latinos and Asians, writes Lawrence Levy. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The sharp, pandemic-driven rise in teacher retirements means headaches for short-staffed Long Island school districts and heartbreak for reluctant retirees. But the classroom openings create an opportunity to address a problem that penalizes virtually every Long Island student and thousands of aspiring educators — the glaring lack of minority teachers.

The diversity gap — 61% of all Long Island school buildings have no Black teacher and 43% no Latino — is more than a matter of social and professional equity. The moral imperative is matched by an educational one: According to a Hofstra University report, research has demonstrated that diverse role models benefit all students, including white. Conversely, the paucity is punishing them.

At the same time, thousands of diverse graduates of education schools have been denied a greater share of the billions of dollars spent on teacher salaries that their property taxes support. Put another way, Black, Latino and Asian educators have been segregated from some of the state’s highest-paid teaching jobs.

The retirement spike amounts to additional collateral damage from a pandemic that has battered public schools and underscored deep educational, economic and health disparities, particularly for underserved districts and families. Now, districts face the daunting task of replenishing their teacher corps at a time when fewer men and women are choosing the profession for a variety of reasons. How about a push to close the gap by filling the majority of these open jobs with Blacks, Latinos and Asians?

But that can’t happen until all districts recognize that exposing kids to diverse role models may be as important as having strong STEM teachers. Nurturing students’ respect and appreciation for people of different races is essential to their success in a world where diversity is increasingly valued by employers and universities.

Unfortunately, few districts consider diversifying their teaching corps a priority — at least not enough to invest the time, money and creativity necessary to recruit and retain these valuable educational and social resources.

And the numbers are nothing short of numbing. According to the Hofstra study, which I co-authored with Prof. William Mangino, the surge in nonwhite population and students is far outpacing the Black, Latino and Asian teaching corps. In a region where 45% of the public school students and 37% of the population are people of color, only 8% of the teachers are.

To the districts that don’t see the need to diversify because they have few, if any, minority students, look at the data and then say that you’re preparing your kids for the real world.

To the districts that say, "Well, we’ve tried but there aren’t enough, if any, diverse candidates applying for their openings," try harder. That includes working with universities and community groups to create diverse pipelines and recruiting from historically Black colleges.

To districts that say, "We only want the best for our kids" — implying that not a single minority applicant has measured up — be careful of the implicit (or even explicit) bias revealed in that remark. And then be honest: hiring teachers is a subjective process. Defining the "best" candidate is far more art than science.

And, remember, not a few candidates come to the attention of district hiring committees because they knew somebody in the district. On segregated Long Island, many whites simply don’t know people who aren’t white.

To the districts that say no diverse teachers are applying, consider this: Why should they bother to apply to an employer who has shown no inclination to hire Black, Latino or Asian teachers?

It’s up to the districts to make them feel welcome for the value they provide.

Lawrence Levy is executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.