Growing up in King William County, Rodney Robinson had one black male teacher — one man in more than a dozen years of learning who looked like him. It wasn’t enough.
“I struggled finding my place,” he said.
So upon graduation, he sought out a historically black college and enrolled at Virginia State University, motivated to become the teacher he’d needed.
“This country is becoming more and more diverse and schools are the main place for socialization, so it’s important to have role models of all races and ethnicity — especially for students of color,” said Robinson, now a teacher in Richmond Public Schools.
Across the U.S., only two out of every 100 teachers are black men. About 1 in 5 public school teachers and half of students are nonwhite, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which expects the share of white students to drop below half by 2024.
Research shows that having a teacher of color is helpful for students of color, but where — or how often — that’s happening in Virginia is unclear.
Despite having set a goal of boosting teacher diversity, Virginia is one of six states that does not track teachers’ race and ethnicity; a fact some lawmakers say is a glaring oversight in the state’s efforts to address a nationwide challenge.
“It’s problematic,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico. “We should be collecting that data. Virginia is behind the ball.”
Although the Virginia Department of Education, which collects thousands of data points on schools every year from student test scores to salaries to absentee rates, does offer prospective teachers the option of reporting their race on licensing applications, not all candidates choose to do so.
And while the state can use those responses in its own research and reports, the information is not made public under an exemption from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Charles Pyle, a VDOE spokesman, said the department does not get the information because it’s not required to.
“Our data collection is driven by the requirements of the state code,” Pyle said.
More than 4 in 5 states plus the District of Columbia collect school-by-school teacher diversity data and 38 of the 43 that do make it “reasonably available to the public,” according to a report released last week on the issue by the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.
Alabama, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia are the only states that do not collect data on the subject, the report said.
“Just collecting basic data allows you to get a sense of whether there’s a lack of diversity and if the teacher population isn’t representative of the student population,” said Matthew Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Shanker Institute and co-author of the study. “Data is a fundamental requirement to understand and address the teacher diversity problem.”
Teacher diversity, specifically for students of color and students from low-income families, also helps academic performance as well as lowers suspension and dropout rates, according to multiple academic research studies.
Those students also are most likely to encounter challenges with teacher quality and experience, which play a key role in student achievement, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank.
Black boys and black girls were more likely to attend college — and boys were less likely to eventually drop out of school — when they had a black teacher at the end of elementary school, according to a March 2017 study from the nonprofit research organization Institute of Labor Economics.
The same study showed no effect on white students when they had a black teacher.
“Creating a school system that reflects the diversity of Virginia can only have positive impacts on children,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, a former Richmond School Board member who has championed legislation reforming student discipline.
In a five-year plan adopted last November, the Virginia Board of Education said teacher diversity “should reflect diversity in the classroom.”
The plan cited 2014-15 statistics that showed almost half of Virginia’s students weren’t white, while nearly 4 in 5 of their licensed teachers were.
That gap is slightly larger than the national average, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy research and advocacy organization.
The numbers Virginia does have are incomplete, because not every teacher candidate chooses to disclose race on their licensure application.
A state task force last year recommended that by 2040, 35 percent of Virginia teachers be teachers of color.
“As the demographics of our nation have changed, the makeup of our teaching force has not kept up,” said Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston in a statement, adding later, “We need more educators who are grounded in the life experiences of the students and communities they serve.”
The General Assembly would need to pass a law requiring the state education department to collect teacher diversity data in order for the agency to do so, something the Richmond-area legislators said they would like to see.
“I’m interested in fashioning a solution to get this data,” said Bourne, adding that he would first want to talk with state education officials about how they would go about collecting the data.
In its report on the issue, the Shanker Institute recommended that states collect the data for every school and not just at the district level so they can see trends within districts and potential inequities.
Nevada, North Carolina and Colorado collect information by district; Colorado does not make those results public.
“Until we have the data to see where the problem is most acute, we won’t be able to address it,” said VanValkenburg, the Virginia legislator who is a high school government teacher.
The Shanker Institute report also recommended that the federal education department collect and publicly report the figures, specifically through a data collection process it does every two years.
A federal education department spokesman did not immediately say whether the department planned to collect the data in the future.
For now, Robinson, the Richmond teacher, will carry on teaching in a juvenile detention center representing a demographic officials say they need more of.
“To have people of color in the classroom only lifts expectations for students,” he said.
The 40-year-old is in the running for state teacher of the year after being named not only the best teacher in the city during a ceremony last November, but the best in the region.
Before first lady Pamela Northam announced the social studies teacher at Virgie Binford Education Center — housed in the city’s juvenile detention center — as central Virginia’s best educator, he greeted each student with a fist bump and his ear-to-ear smile.
“All numbers help make better informed decisions,” Robinson said. “If it’s something you want to address, you need the data.”
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