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What's the Plus?

Three Recommendations to Congress Amid the Pandemic

By Al Rabanera

I teach at a Title I School, where a majority of my students identify as students of color. Developing relationships with effective teachers, and especially teachers who look like them, is key to these students succeeding and staying engaged.

Because of COVID-related substantial budget shortfalls across the country, students in high-poverty schools like mine are at risk of regressing socially and sliding backward economically. I know because I’ve seen this before. In 2011, our school laid off three teachers as a result of the recession. Teachers who helped to shape the culture of the school, made an impactful change in the classroom, and developed meaningful connections with our students were replaced by substitutes. I remember a student named Jair, who had thrived in class. When his teacher, who was a teacher of color and someone that Jair was able to connect with and be motivated by, was laid off Jair’s grades began to slide, and he started to skip school.

A growing body of research indicates that teachers who identify as the same race/ethnicity as the students they teach positively impact student’s attitudes, motivation, and achievement. Teachers of color may have more positive expectations for students of colors’ achievement than white teachers. Teachers of color are invaluable for students of color because they, like Jair’s teacher, understand firsthand the social and cultural narrative of their students.

Despite the prevailing research on the importance of a diverse teaching workforce, data from the National Center for Education shows that teachers of color account for just 20 percent of all public elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States, while 51 percent of all public elementary and secondary school students in the U.S. are nonwhite. Yet even when we’ve been able to recruit teachers of color in my school, they have not stayed long. One colleague decided that he no longer wanted to be a teacher after just one year. The challenges of balancing his workload as a beginning teacher with classroom management, combined with the lack of support from the administration, tipped the balance and it became too much for him to continue. If he had had a clearly defined system of support that included mentorship and common preparation periods, he would have had the tools and strategies to balance his workload with managing the classroom. He might still be teaching at our school.

With state budget cuts being forecasted around the country, Congress and the Biden-Harris administration must ensure that historically underfunded schools and districts are not disproportionately impacted by budget shortfall when there is a decrease in state revenue.

They should protect and invest in students of color by prioritizing efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color. They should urgently work to pass a stimulus package that includes provisions requiring that states and districts to protect low-income schools from cuts and protect students in high-poverty communities from having their teachers laid off. They must also publicly report data about budget cuts and teacher layoffs, and have that data disaggregated by race and ethnicity so that stakeholders can determine whether students and educators of color are being disproportionately affected by the budget cuts.

Over the next two years, Congress and the president should also:

  • Prioritize the recruitment and retention of teachers of color through investments in educator preparation programs that prepare a large number of teachers of color, such as minority-serving institutions (MSIs), Grow Your Own programs, and residencies.
  • Invest in scholarships, loan forgiveness, and teacher salaries in high-need schools to make the teaching profession economically viable for all.
  • Increase Title II monies to support mentoring for new teachers and ongoing professional learning to encourage teacher retention.

Students like Jair need to be connected to school and to their teachers if they’re to succeed. When decreases in state revenue create budget shortfalls in high-poverty, low-income schools, students of color should be protected from bearing the brunt of the burden. Students like Jair need to have equitable educational opportunities and teachers of color need the right support in order to remain in the profession.

Al Rabanera is a high school math teacher at La Vista High School in Fullerton, California. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum.

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