This summer, Long Island school districts will be hiring new teachers to replace the more than 2,000 educators from Nassau and Suffolk counties who filed for retirement in 2020. While there is a growing consensus that districts should address the shocking shortage of teachers of color, there is less acknowledgment of the circumstances that caused and perpetuate this shortage.
While more than 50% of the student population in Long Island public schools overall are Black, Latinx or Asian, only 9% of Long Island teachers are of color. Furthermore, about half of these teachers of color are employed in only 11 of the 125 Long Island school districts. Not coincidentally, these 11 districts serve student populations that are 90% to 100% students of color and disproportionately economically disadvantaged.
The outcome of this concentration of teachers of color is that more than 25% of Long Island’s public schools have an all-white teaching staff, according to a 2019 report by The National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. That means 80,000 students "will never see a Black, Latinx or Asian teacher in any of their classrooms."
Meanwhile, research on learning demonstrates that exposure to diverse perspectives and role models from different cultural backgrounds is key to preparing Long Island youth for 21st-century success in a global economy. The scarcity and segregation of teachers of color thus has long-term consequences.
While all Long Island school districts, especially those with an all-white teaching force, should focus on recruiting and hiring teachers of color, a fuller solution is needed. The origins of the current shortage and concentration of teachers of color extend well beyond teacher fairs and interview practices.
Those origins include housing policies — from racially discriminatory real estate financing by the federal government until the late 1960s to ongoing racial discrimination in home sales and rentals by the Long Island real estate industry. Neighborhood schools look like their neighborhoods; separate and unequal communities result in separate and unequal schools. Too often, those schools are slow to embrace proved education reforms to make schools more culturally sustaining and welcoming for all educators and students.
Thus, the challenge for Long Island is to make neighborhoods and schools more supportive of teachers of color and vibrant, diverse student populations. Fortunately, New York State has a framework and state standards for culturally responsive sustaining curricula for our schools, which both of us helped develop.
That framework supports local districts in creating curricula that elevate historically marginalized voices; affirm diverse identities, perspectives, and cultures; assure rigor; and foster independent learning. Such curricula are not only important to students — as evidenced by the work of ERASE Racism’s Student Task Force in advancing it — they also convey to prospective teachers of color that local schools embrace diverse perspectives.
In addition, local communities can develop a longer-term pipeline of students of color interested in becoming teachers. Such a pipeline can be developed through partnerships with the state and teacher preparation programs such as Grow Your Own.
Recruiting teachers of color is crucial. Ensuring that Long Island neighborhoods and schools are welcoming should be a priority. Reconciling the region’s history of segregation while also embracing proved education reforms can make the long-deferred American dream a reality.
This guest essay reflects the views of Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, and Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University.