Education Minnesota report calls for more teacher diversity

Minnesota's teachers union is tackling a teacher shortage with calls to diversify the state's hiring pipeline — and to retain existing educators.

The state's student body is not as diverse as the national average, but the lack of diversity among its teaching ranks is much more severe and "highly detrimental," according to a 65-page report from the state teachers union released Monday.

Less than 4 percent of Minnesota's teachers are nonwhite, compared with about 30 percent of schoolchildren.

First-grade teacher Maria Le, an adviser to the Education Minnesota report, said children aren't seeing themselves reflected in the teaching ranks. And, she said, the lack of diversity can also be tough on the teachers who do come from diverse backgrounds.

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"As a teacher of color, what's most challenging is you're the only one," said Le, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. "There's a lot of racial isolation because you have a different perspective from your other colleagues."

At Le's elementary school in Roseville, 82 percent of the students are not white, yet she's one of only a handful of educators of color there.

Education Minnesota is recommending programs that promote teaching careers to high school students, especially students of color. The group also suggests higher starting salaries and college-loan forgiveness programs to make the profession more appealing. The group is working with state lawmakers on a number of bills.

Other recommendations focus on retaining quality educators. Denise Specht, the group's president, said far too many educators, especially teachers of color, leave the profession before retirement.

"We're looking at things like investing in financial benefits, professional development, and making sure that we have strong induction, or mentoring, for teachers," she said. "Those are the kinds of things that will keep them in the classroom."

The teacher shortage is also especially acute within specific fields. A report last year from the Minnesota Department of Education found that districts were having a hard time filling positions that involved working with students with emotional behavior disorders, learning and developmental disabilities, and early-childhood special education.

Districts and charter schools hired more than 3,500 teachers who lacked the necessary licenses for the subjects and the grade levels taught, according to the report.