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Reflections from our 2022 Black teacher study

The research evidence has never been stronger about the benefits of and need for teacher diversity. Yet school communities across the nation are struggling to maintain already disproportionately low rates of teachers of color, and particularly teachers who identify as Black. 

RFA began conducting research on teacher diversity in Pennsylvania in 2018, identifying leaks in the teacher pipeline that contribute to lack of diversity in the state’s schools and potential solutions.  Our most recent analyses highlight the stark shortage of teachers of color in the state, as well as notable declines regionally in the number of Black educators in the teacher workforce in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the last two decades.  

These findings, which we shared and discussed with the local Philadelphia community at RFA’s Teach-in on the need for more teachers of color, inspired a Black teacher study in Philadelphia in which we interviewed 30 current and former Black teachers as well as leaders of local and national teacher diversification initiatives. This study examined teacher sensemaking around the factors that contribute to Black teacher attrition and sought to identify school- and system-level solutions for retaining these teachers. The findings from this small-scale study aligned with the existing yet limited national literature on this topic— that racially inhospitable school climates and the lack of supportive or effective school leadership, opportunities to advance, and resources in general are among the factors that drive Black teachers from the classroom. In January, RFA will launch a parallel study of current and former Black teachers in Pittsburgh. 

However, we know this issue is not unique to PA, in fact additional cities across the country—including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC1—are losing Black teachers. This data and RFA’s work in this area have made us aware of the need for a national study that is driven by experts in this area – current and former teachers who identify as Black – to offer a nuanced understanding of this complex issue and actionable practice-based and policy solutions. In partnership with the Center for Black Educator Development, RFA has recently received funding from Spring Point Partners to pilot a Participatory Action Research (PAR) study to that end. This pilot study will capitalize on existing relationships and research garnered in Pennsylvania by RFA to-date and continue to collect PA-specific data to bolster existing findings and recommendations, while also informing the development of a national PAR study on the topic. 

The PAR approach involves researchers and participants working together on a social problem and developing research-based solutions. It aims to challenge inequality and address the needs of a particular group, often a historically marginalized group whose expertise has been excluded from the research and solutions though they are the most impacted. This study will thus center Black teachers in the entire research process, from design through dissemination, as paid researchers and experts on this topic. This approach aligns very closely with RFA’s focus on conducting community-informed research to help produce meaningful, actionable findings that empower community members to drive change. Our hope is that this pilot will serve as a springboard for a subsequent national PAR study that addresses Black teacher retention and attrition in American schools and launches a network of experienced teacher researchers in this area. We look forward to continuing to learn and promote positive change in partnership with our nation’s teachers and school communities. 

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