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Students Of Color Benefit From Teachers Who Look Like Them, But 95% Of Wisconsin Teachers Are White

Emily Files
A student at Auer Avenue School in Milwaukee reads out loud at a literacy event in February. In Milwaukee Public Schools, about 30% of teachers are nonwhite, compared to about 90% of students.

Protests sparked by police killings of Black people are drawing attention to the United States' persistent racial disparities. Those disparities are also widespread in education. Wisconsin has some of the largest test score and high school graduation gaps between Black and white students.

Research shows that one way to improve outcomes for students of color is to hire more teachers who look like them. A new report outlines just how difficult that is in Wisconsin — where 95% of public school teachers are white.

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“The gap between students and teachers of color has widened,” said Wisconsin Policy Forum Senior Researcher Anne Chapman. “As of 2019, about a third of our students in Wisconsin are students of color. Whereas our percentage of teachers of color is less than 6%.”

Credit Wisconsin Policy Forum
This chart from the Wisconsin Policy Forum report shows the gaps between the number of students and teachers in various racial groups.

The Policy Forum is examining the issue of teacher diversity in a series of reports. The first outlines the racial mismatch between students and teachers. There are large gaps in student and teacher demographics across Wisconsin's communities: urban, suburban, town and rural.

“The gap in urban areas is larger,” Chapman said. “But in terms of growth in the last 10 years, the growth in those gaps is larger in the suburban and rural and town communities, which is something we couldn’t necessarily have predicted.”

An extended interview with WUWM Education Reporter Emily Files and Wisconsin Policy Forum Senior Researcher Anne Chapman that aired on Lake Effect.

Credit Wisconsin Policy Forum
This graph from the Wisconsin Policy Forum report shows how racial mismatches between students and teachers have grown in the past 10 years.

In Milwaukee, about 90% of students are nonwhite, versus 31.5% of teachers. In Madison, students of color represent 58% of enrollment, whereas nonwhite teachers were about 14% of the workforce.

There are 17 Wisconsin school districts that have a majority of students of color. All of them have racial gaps of 40 percentage points or more between students and teachers. Some of the largest mismatches are in districts with predominately Native American student populations.

The Policy Forum report highlights education pipeline problems that may contribute to the low number of teachers of color in the state. Even though 30% of K-12 students are nonwhite, their numbers shrink at each step of the education pathway: high school graduates (23.8% students of color), college enrollees (18.5% students of color), and teacher preparation programs participants (9.8% students of color.) This leads to a smaller supply of nonwhite educators.

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Chapman says the Policy Forum will look more closely in future reports at the “dropoff” as students of color move through the educational pipeline.

“This is an issue that has been documented across the country,” Chapman said. “The ultimate goal for our research is to find potential policy levers that can make a difference in some of these areas.”

When Chapman started researching teacher diversity in 2019, she says she couldn’t have predicted the national movement happening now against racial injustice and discrimination.

“Way before COVID happened, way before George Floyd was killed, far too few students of color in Wisconsin were graduating from high school and going to college and deciding to go into teaching,” Chapman said. “So those were racial equity and justice issues that we knew we had to address. I think what’s going on now helps us feel the urgency that we should feel.”

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.