The influx of African American educators was able to shrink the black-student-to-black-teacher ratio even as the share of black students slowly increased over the same timeframe. In fact, the new policy reduced the “representation gap”—defined by the authors as the difference between the share of students that are black and the share of teachers that are black—by between 3 and 4 percentage points. The policy also resulted in a greater share of black teachers employed at predominately white schools, which tended to have few black teachers before the court intervened.
And the value of this policy, it seems, wasn’t just a matter of optics. Since the paper was released, Schanzenbach has obtained additional race-specific data that reflect notable achievements for black students. After the court order was implemented, the black-white achievement disparity in test scores narrowed by 5 percent. While it’s difficult to assess causation, this improvement, Schanzenbach theorized, happened “just from hiring different teachers within the pool of applicants.”
DuBois, a native of Tangipahoa Parish and an emerging scholar who co-authored the study but passed away earlier this month, surveyed teachers in the district to provide more context on the quantitative data. Some 81 percent of participants reported that they heard about job openings through word-of-mouth, describing a “decentralized, accelerated, and insular hiring process” that resulted in uneven access to employment opportunities for black and white teacher applicants in the rural-Louisiana school system.
DuBois also found that a rejection of the court-ordered affirmative-action policy—61.5 percent of teachers had a negative view of the hiring preference—rarely translated into how a teacher viewed the new hires at his or her school or the teacher quality in a given department. Just over 46 percent of teachers gave the newly hired black teachers a “completely positive” review, and an almost identical share gave a “mixed” review. About 60 percent said the quality of teachers in their department was rising.
With the marked increase in the share of black teachers and other positive shifts in the district, Schanzenbach recommends that school systems consider expanding the recruitment pool and encouraging individual campuses to develop systematic, consistent ways of interviewing teachers. She noted: “School districts should look at their hiring and say, ‘Are we really doing what we can here to diversify our teacher force? Maybe we should have a rule that says we interview at least one candidate [of color].’” Districts and policymakers, she continued, would benefit from taking the initiative to reform their hiring protocol and avoid subjecting themselves to a plan dictated by a court.
One school district in Pinellas County, Florida, is putting such changes into practice. Part of its comprehensive plan to eliminate racial disparities in student test scores is a vow to increase the percentages of black teachers and administrators, bringing their numbers more in line with the district’s black-student population. As reported last year by the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas County aims to grow the black-teacher pool by an average of 1 percent annually, to a total of 18 percent in the next 10 years. To keep tabs on the district’s progress, the number of qualified black-teacher applicants and hires will be tracked, although no hiring quotas are in place.
Even without quotas, though, districts are bound to struggle in their efforts to improve their teacher diversity if they disregard the prospect of pushback when considering affirmative-action hiring policies. Valerie Hill-Jackson, a clinical professor in teacher education and the director of educator-preparation programs at Texas A&M University, said Schanzenbach and DuBois’s paper offered a sobering reminder of the teaching force’s racial realities, as well as of the challenges inherent in diversifying the profession through hiring changes. “Most of our [public-school] teachers are white, female, middle class, and Christian. We have to be cognizant of and prepared for detractors,” Hill-Jackson said. “We can’t legislate hearts.”