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A Memphis teacher engages with his students at Cherokee Elementary School.

A Memphis teacher engages with his students at Cherokee Elementary School.

In Tennessee, black educators stick with teaching, but change schools more often, says new study

Tennessee’s black teachers are more likely to leave their schools than their white peers, but in most cases are not exiting the profession altogether, according to new research.

Data collected from 2011 to 2016 shows that the state’s black teachers, especially males, are transferring to other schools within the same district at a higher rate than white teachers.

The findings are a surprise and defy conventional wisdom about the challenges of achieving a racially diverse teacher workforce. U.S. data suggests that black teachers are leaving the profession just a few years into the job, which is why retaining teachers of color has been central to the national dialogue on this challenge.

“I just assumed that Tennessee would look like the national trend. But in fact, while our mobility rates were high, our exit rates weren’t as high,” said Jason Grissom, the study’s lead researcher and an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

The patterns were outlined in a research brief released Thursday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and the Tennessee Department of Education.

The research is important as Tennessee grapples with how to diversify its teacher workforce at the same time that its classrooms are quickly becoming more diverse. Only about 13 percent of the state’s teachers identify as people of color, compared to about 37 percent of Tennessee students.

“To put these results in context, a growing body of research indicates that students of color are more likely to succeed academically when taught by teachers of color,” said Grissom, “and yet we know that teachers in Tennessee are not representative of the state’s student population.”

There’s also evidence of positive impacts for white students who are exposed to teachers of color. Not only can teachers of color disrupt racial stereotypes, they can share invaluable insights with students who come from different backgrounds.

For any student population, research shows that high teacher turnover tends to diminish student achievement. But the rates of turnover are greater for schools with lower achievement and higher poverty. In Tennessee, about 75 percent of the state’s black teachers work in urban schools where that’s more likely the case.

And that’s the rub.

“Teachers of color are working in precisely the schools where we’d like to have the most stable workforce, yet they have the least stable workforce,” Grissom said.

The reasons for higher rates of mobility among Tennessee teachers of color appear to be twofold, but both can be explained by school environments.

First, more black teachers work in urban schools that are home to greater concentrations of poverty and lower student achievement. These schools tend to face more challenges with resources, parental involvement, discipline, and school leadership.

Jason Grissom

Jason Grissom

“There are systematically more challenging environments for teachers to teach in,” Grissom said. “When you account statistically for those factors, you start to see turnover gap between black and white teachers diminish. In other words, if white teachers taught in the kinds of schools that black teachers teach in, you would see much higher turnover rates among white teachers.”

Another big factor is who surrounds black teachers at work. The more racially isolated, the more likely they will transfer to another school. Conversely, as the number of black colleagues increase, the turnover rate tends to go down. Additionally, the race of the principal matters, with black principals retaining black teachers at higher rates than white principals.

“This highlights some of the challenges of diversifying the workforce when people are as residentially segregated as they are in Tennessee,” said Grissom, noting the state’s suburban districts tend to have few teachers of color and many rural ones have none.

“We know there are schools that feel pressure to hire more people of color. But our research suggests that it won’t be enough to keep them if you only have a couple of black teachers,” he said.

Researchers hope the findings will help Tennessee leaders strategize how to increase teacher diversity.

“Recruiting more teachers of color into the profession is a large factor, but the findings also indicate that we should prioritize policies and practices aimed at better supporting teachers of color across the state,” said Erin O’Hara, executive director of the research alliance. “For example, principal training and preparation efforts could incorporate more training and ongoing discussion specific to hiring and, just as critically, to supporting teachers of color.”

A separate report released earlier this month offers perspectives from teachers of color in Tennessee. That report, developed by the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, includes policy recommendations on how schools and districts can support teachers of color.