Michael Hansen: Diversity in education benefits white and Black students alike

Utah students need to learn to navigate an increasingly diverse society.

(Ben Dorger | Standard-Examiner via AP) Maria Montessori Academy, a public charter school in North Ogden, Utah, is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Parents who sought to opt out their children from learning Black History Month curriculum at the charter school have withdrawn their requests. The Standard-Examiner reported that the academy experienced a public backlash after announcing plans to make participation optional.

Last week, commotion broke out in North Ogden over Maria Montessori Academy’s decision allowing parents to opt out of a social studies unit spotlighting Black History Month. School director Micah Hirokawa “reluctantly” made this concession, yielding to parental pressure for exemption from the curriculum.

Though the misguided decision was reversed after a prompt response from the NAACP, it highlights Utah’s urgent need for greater teacher diversity to foster more inclusive schools.

A growing consensus of research shows that teacher diversity impacts students. Seeing a same-race teacher leading the classroom benefits students of color in myriad ways, including stronger test scores, fewer disciplinary actions, improved high school graduation rates and raised college aspirations. Given the stark underrepresentation of teachers of color in public schools nationwide, it is no surprise nonwhite students benefit from seeing a teacher who looks like them.

Here’s the kicker: White students also benefit from teacher diversity. Many studies show exposure to racially diverse authorities or peers positively influences students’ perceptions about those from other backgrounds, leading to greater empathy and tolerance. Such attributes are valuable in helping our children navigate an increasingly complex society.

When schools provide exposure to diverse teachers, and offer curricula covering topics like Black History Month, white students learn that people from different racial backgrounds deserve to share public spaces on equal grounds.

Many school systems nationwide are making inroads on teacher diversity, by creating incentives and recruitment programs designed to attract diverse talent into schools. Ironically, the school systems with the lowest levels of teacher diversity are also the slowest to act.

Rural and suburban districts, for example, often show little urgency to prioritize teacher diversity when students of color make up less than half of their students. But student diversity is growing quickly in such settings; without quick action, we miss the benefits diverse teachers provide to white and nonwhite students alike.

Utah has one of these systems, its schools demonstrating urgent need for diverse teachers but seemingly little motivation to act. Utah’s student body has been diversifying for decades; more than 25% are now nonwhite. Meanwhile, less than 10% of public teachers identify as nonwhite.

Based on calculations Diana Quintero and I produced for a UNLV—Brookings Mountain West report on regional teacher diversity, Utah students’ likelihood of seeing a nonwhite teacher is 5% or less for white and nonwhite students. For comparison, this is less than half of the likelihood seen outside of the Intermountain West, and the lowest observed among neighboring states in the region.

As a graduate of Utah schools myself, I can attest that this was my experience, too. We can and should be doing better for Utah’s next generation.

With more teacher diversity, our schools will change; this may feel hard to some, but it’s worth it. Greater diversity corresponds to smaller racial differences in test scores — which should be of great interest to Utah, since its achievement gaps exceed national averages.

More diversity also leads to more inclusive and responsive practices. In the Maria Montessori case, Hirokawa cited his own experience as a person of Asian descent in why he valued Black History Month as a way to “[teach] our children about the mistreatment, challenges, and obstacles that people of color in our nation have had to endure,” even in a school serving a handful of Black students. In short, greater diversity promotes more equitable schools, which we desire for all our children.

In these increasingly divided times, we should be actively searching for ways to engender inclusion and tolerance as citizens in our dynamic, multicultural democracy. Increasing students’ exposure to diverse teachers is a proven way to do exactly that.

Michael Hansen

Michael Hansen is director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and is a co-author of the forthcoming book, “Teacher Diversity and Student Success: Why Racial Representation Matters in the Classroom.” He is a graduate of Dixie High School in St. George and received his bachelor of science in economics from Brigham Young University and his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in economics from University of Washington.