Although a substantial body of research has indicated students of color tend to benefit educationally when they have the opportunity to receive instruction from and form relationships with teachers from similar backgrounds, many districts nationwide struggle to recruit, support, and retain high-performing teachers of color to provide that instruction and form those relationships. For this reason, SCORE placed a priority on developing a teaching population more reflective of Tennessee’s student population in our 2015-16 annual report. This work is all the more challenging, and important, as research has found a growing mismatch between the representation of teachers of color and students of color in public schools. Nashville presents a compelling case study of this phenomenon and the need to address it.

A recent report from the Metro Nashville Human Relations Commission presents the stark disjoint between the demographics of Metro Nashville’s teaching and student populations. The report’s data and findings are jarring, but its authors have provided a valuable service to the Nashville community by providing a call to action. Similar investigations in other districts would provide a comparable service and should prompt the kind of reflection necessitated by Metro Nashville’s report.

Nashville’s student population reflects the real and emerging diversity of the city’s overall population. Thirty percent of students in Metro schools come from households in which English is not the primary language, and more than 140 languages are spoken across those homes. Forty percent of students identify as African American; one in five students identify as Hispanic/Latino. The data below, however, reflect a profound imbalance in racial/ethnic background between Metro teachers and the students they serve.

Kyle Data

According to data from the Metro Nashville report, for every one teacher of the same racial/ethnic background, there are approximately six white students, 27 black students, 79 Asian students, and 223 Hispanic students. The city’s fastest growing population is also the most disproportionately underrepresented among its teaching population. According to the report, “there are no Hispanic/Latino teachers in pre-k…and virtually none in special education.”

Just as there is no single cause for these disparities, there is no single solution. Stronger focus is needed to encourage a more representative group of current students to envision careers in education for themselves. In turn, tangible steps must be taken to make teaching an appealing career. Such steps could include increasing teacher compensation and access to affordable housing options in the ever-more-expensive Nashville market.

Compensation increases, however, must also account for the need for increased equity. According to the Metro Nashville report, “Although whites make up over 63 [percent] of MNPS employees, they are underrepresented in the four lowest income brackets, while African American employees…are overrepresented in those same four brackets.” In the highest three income-earning brackets—for employees making at least $80,000 a year—“whites and African Americans are more equitably represented, though Hispanics and Asians are largely absent from these high-earning groups.”

Intentional partnerships between the district and local organizations focused on serving youth from Hispanic and Latin American backgrounds, including YMCA Latino Achievers, can help prepare and encourage more young people for teaching careers.

Regardless of their racial/ethnic identity, however, all teachers can best serve students when they are equipped with the training and tools needed to provide culturally responsive instruction and mentoring. As noted in the Metro Nashville report, teacher training programs and professional development opportunities have critical roles to play in preparing culturally competent teachers who facilitate inclusive, engaging classrooms. This kind of training, preparation, and embedded professional development must be part of the kind of intentional effort required by the district and by schools to promote greater inclusion of historically marginalized populations.

Each week seems to bring a new national headline hailing Nashville as one of America’s “It” cities. But an It city must have an It school system, and without a population of high-performing teachers who are more reflective of the community they serve, research tells us Metro Nashville schools will face continued challenges to meet this demand. Diversity represents one of the city’s primary strengths, and ongoing, intentional efforts matched with needed investments can leverage that strength to enhance achievement for all students.