Making teacher diversity a priority in Kentucky

In the wake of the pandemic, a potential budget crisis and civil unrest in Louisville and beyond, there’s one unassailable investment that should be on every leader’s mind right now: Recruiting more teachers of color to Kentucky’s classrooms.

The research is clear. Educators of color are more likely to use effective, culturally relevant teaching methods in their classrooms, leading to stronger relationships with kids. One study shows that Black students are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college by having just one Black teacher in elementary school. For Black male students, the impact is even more pronounced — it reduces the odds that they will drop out by almost 40 percent. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that this impact isn’t exclusive to Black and Brown students. When school districts make intentional efforts to recruit, support and retain educators of color, all students — regardless of race — reap the benefits. 

Kentucky isn’t there yet, however, and too many of the Commonwealth’s students of color are missing out on the benefits of having teachers who look like them. According to data from EdTrust, almost a quarter of Kentucky’s students are of color, but only about 5% of teachers can say the same. What’s even more surprising? Roughly 9,000 Black students (12.8 percent) and 28,000 Hispanic students (65.5 percent) are in schools with no teachers from similar cultural backgrounds. If we truly want to achieve meaningful social change, working to diversify the teaching profession is a natural first step.

The good news is that Kentucky already has some ideas about how to do that. In 2019, the Kentucky Department of Education launched the Kentucky Academy for Equity in Teaching (KAET), a program designed to identify and recruit outstanding teachers of color. The initiative would have achieved that by providing significant financial incentives to college students from racially diverse backgrounds to become teachers, creating a “pipeline” of future faculty members. It was a good plan.

But KAET did not receive funding for this year, meaning rising educators of color in Kentucky will miss out on the program’s outstanding incentives for joining the teaching profession unless additional action is taken. And while there has been some interest in reviving the program, the lack of publicly available data about KAET’s launch last year makes it difficult for community members and educators to provide feedback. At a time when every organization seems to critically examining its commitment to diversity and equity, it’s unfortunate that a great program like KAET is simply resting on the backburner.

As the late civil rights leader John Lewis said, “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society.” Now is the time for Kentucky’s education, business, and community leaders to come together and develop a working group for designing strategic efforts to increase diversity in Kentucky’s teaching force, with a restored, emboldened KAET as the centerpiece. By engaging in rich dialogue and developing a plan to reinvigorate the KAET program, Kentucky’s leaders can ensure that our Commonwealth is recognized as a national leader in educational equity.

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