When Rachel Valdivia-Ornelaz attended elementary school near Oxnard during the 1950s, none of her teachers were Latino.
Later, over the course of a decades-long career as an elementary school teacher in Oxnard, she watched that pattern change, especially during the last few years.
“Our district in Oxnard has been making a push to hire more Latinos, as role models,” said Valdivia-Ornelaz, who recently retired and now serves as state president of the Association of Mexican American Educators, which advocates for Latino students and teachers. “They are making an effort to try to get them any way they can.”
As districts like the Oxnard School District put the Great Recession behind them, they are hiring more teachers — and becoming more ethnically diverse. That is also true in several of the state’s largest school districts.
As a result of a combination of retirements and new teachers entering the profession, there has been a significant shift in the demographic profile of California’s teaching force. The proportion of the state’s teachers who are white, non-Hispanic fell from 67 percent in 2011-12 to 62 percent in 2017-18. During that same period, the proportion of teachers who are Latino grew from 17.7 percent to 20.7 percent and the proportion of teachers who are Asian, Pacific Islander or Filipino grew from 6.8 percent to 7.6 percent.
But despite the recent gains, the teaching corps in California still does not resemble the state’s student body. A majority of California’s students are Latino, compared to about 1 in 5 of its teachers. At the same time, about 6 in 10 teachers are white, compared to about 1 in 4 of the state’s public school students.
Due to new hires, attrition and retirements, California saw a net gain of about 22,000 teachers from 2011-12 to 2017-18. By far the biggest growth was in Latino teachers. The total number of Hispanic teachers in the state grew by 13,000, or 26 percent, from 2011-12 to 2017-18. The combined number of Asian, Pacific Islander and Filipino teachers grew by about 4,000, or 21 percent. The number of black teachers grew by 5 percent.
But the total number of white, non-Hispanic teachers stayed essentially flat, growing by only 0.1 percent.
The shift has implications that go beyond just the numbers. Research has shown that students with exposure to teachers of the same ethnic group perform better academically, though much of that research has focused specifically on black students. One recent paper found that black male students in North Carolina and Tennessee who had a black teacher in the 3rd, 4th or 5th grade had increased chances of later earning a diploma. Another paper found that black students with black teachers were less likely to be suspended or expelled. Black and Latino students are suspended at higher rates than white students.
“If you receive those type of punishments you are not going to be learning,” said Constance Lindsay, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit social and economic policy research organization, who co-authored the paper.
Lindsay said the racial and ethnic diversity of a state’s teacher workforce is heavily dependent on two factors: The diversity of local college programs that prepare teachers and the efforts of school districts when hiring and retaining teachers.
“We are constrained in having the number of diverse teachers we would like to see (in schools) because we don’t have the numbers coming out of the college pipeline that we’d like to see,” Lindsay said.
Still, several districts, particularly those in areas with a high proportion of Latino students and others from diverse backgrounds, are catching up:
- In Los Angeles Unified, Latino teachers make up 41 percent of the teaching corps, double the statewide rate, and outnumber white teachers. But they still don’t mirror the district’s student body, nearly three-quarters of which are Latino;
- In Oakland Unified, black teachers make up 19 percent of the teaching corps, more than quadruple the statewide rate. About 24 percent of students in Oakland Unified are black;
- In San Francisco Unified, Asian, Filipino and Pacific Islander teachers make up 23 percent of the teaching corps, about triple the statewide rate. About 36 percent of San Francisco Unified students are Asian, Filipino or Pacific Islander.
At Palm Springs Unified, the number of Hispanic teachers has nearly doubled in the past six years, rising from 113 in 2011-12 to 216 in 2017-18, though the district still has a long way to achieving racial and ethnic parity in its teaching force.
Nearly 80 percent of Palm Springs Unified’s 23,000 students were Latino last school year, state figures show. As recently as 2011-12, just 12 percent of its teachers were Latino. By 2017-18, that figure had grown to 19 percent.
“We have a very conscientious effort in making that happen,” said Tony Signoret, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “That is something our superintendent and board really wanted to do.”
One of the district’s main strategies to increase diversity has been to recruit its own students to become teachers.
A lack of teacher diversity can become self-perpetuating, as children lack teachers as role models to emulate. Signoret said the district combats that pattern by identifying promising students and encouraging them to go to college, get a teaching credential, then come back to teach in the district.
Many districts statewide have also increased diversity by helping employees without teaching credentials — like teacher aides — go back to school and get those credentials.
Obstacles remain. New teachers often quit at high rates, a fact that has hampered efforts in multiple districts across the state to build a more ethnically diverse teaching force. Palm Springs and other districts have put programs in place to have new teachers work closely with experienced faculty, who serve as mentors.
The state is also facing a shortage of teachers, particularly those who can teach high-demand subject areas like science and math. Competition for a relatively small number of science and math teaching candidates is fierce — and diversity can sometimes take a backseat to simply filling a position.
Palm Springs and other districts statewide have approached the shortage by recruiting nationwide for hard-to-fill positions. It also offers a $10,000 incentive to new science, math and special education teachers who make a two-year commitment to the district.
Still, Palm Springs and other districts “are competing for the same crop of candidates,” Signoret said. The current pipeline is “just not enough to meet all the demands.”
Marquita Grenot-Scheyer is keenly aware of the problem. As Assistant Vice Chancellor for Educator Preparation & Public School Programs, she coordinates teacher education programs across the California State University system.
The CSU, which educates more than half of the state’s K-12 teachers, recently received more than $12 million in federal funds at four campuses to help recruit and train Latino teachers. Most teacher candidates studying at CSU campuses are students of color and more than a third are Latino, system figures show.
“It is important to have these role models for kids in our schools so they can see themselves,” Grenot-Scheyer said.
CSU has received millions more in federal grants to help recruit and prepare STEM teachers. And the state Legislature recently allocated tens of millions of dollars to a program that provides grants to classified employees seeking undergraduate degrees and becoming teachers.
“The perception that teaching is not a valuable career, we are trying to counter that narrative,” Grenot-Scheyer said. “We are sharing stories — teachers who came to the CSU, got their credentials and went back to their communities.”
Rachel Valdivia-Ornelaz, the longtime Oxnard teacher, said such investments are worth it. Over her decades in teaching, Valdivia-Ornelaz said she saw the difference a Latino teacher can make in the lives of Latino students.
“Just before I retired, they made a big push to make some of the aides that have gotten two years of college in and offering them a chance to go back to school,” she said.
Correction: This story was changed to include the correct name of the Oxnard School District.
Phillip Reese is a data consultant for EdSource. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Sacramento State.