Too Many White Teachers Teaching Children of Color, State Education Commissioner Says

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By Katie Lannan

FALL RIVER — Forty percent of students in public K-12 schools in Massachusetts are children of color, but only 6 percent of teachers in those same schools are people of color, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley told lawmakers Monday.

Those figures, Riley said at a Ways and Means Committee hearing at Bristol Community College, are despite “both profound and important research” indicating that if children of color see a teacher who looks like them, they have greater chances of graduating high school and having better life outcomes.

“We have to be intentional about this, and this will be a big goal of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education,” Riley told the committee.

“Good. Appreciate that,” state Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan, a Democrat, called out in response.

Holmes, who is black, said later in the hearing that he was in the fifth grade when he saw a white teacher for the first time.

“It is a very different perspective,” Holmes said.

Riley discussed diversity in response to a question from state Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), the assistant vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and Senate chairman of the Education Committee.

Lewis said students of color are making up increasingly larger portions of the state’s student population “yet when you look at the leadership in our higher education system, we don’t see that reflected, and when we look at our workforce in K-12, we don’t see that reflected today as well.”

Lewis said Malden has the most diverse high school in the state, and one of its biggest challenges is finding educators “who reflect the students that are being educated.”

Moms and Former Students

Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago said diversity in the public education system is “only going to be increasing.” Latino students now make up 24 percent of the system’s student body, he said.

“It’s a dramatic change, and it is among the only growing population we have that’s going to college, and we have to educate them and bring them in in greater numbers,” he said. “We have to do that at the higher ed leadership level as well.”

Santiago said the higher education system in Massachusetts is decentralized, with hiring and leadership decisions made at the individual campus level.

“We think we’ve made some gains, and we have to continue to make more,” Santiago said. “We have grants now to diversify the teacher corps as well.”

Riley, who served as receiver and superintendent in the Lawrence school system before becoming commissioner in January 2018, said Lawrence managed to triple its number of Latino teachers, in part by looking within the school system.

“We were very intentional about how we did it,” Riley said.

He said school officials looked to their paraprofessionals, many of whom were moms with kids in the district, and “got them trained up” to be teachers by providing test-taking support and financial help for needed coursework.

Lawrence officials also reached out to graduates — “I won’t say stalked, but we hunted our former students,” Riley said — and offered incentives like paying for master’s degrees or connecting them with a housing program to make home ownership affordable.

“Our idea was if we could bring our kids home and re-establish them in the communities, we could rebuild a middle class,” Riley said.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s School and District Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council plans to discuss diversity recruitment initiatives at a Wednesday meeting in Marlborough.