Arkansas Educator Workforce Not Reflective of Diverse Student Population

A new report offers recommendations for creating a more diverse environment.

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All children can benefit from having educators who represent their community’s racial, cultural and linguistic diversity, but to create this environment, district leaders must commit to diversifying the workplace and regularly report their progress. That’s according to a new study focused on improving teacher diversity in Arkansas. 

The research was created by members of the Teach Plus Arkansas Advisory Board. Teach Plus is a national nonprofit with a mission to empower diverse teachers “to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity and student success.”

In 2020, 40 percent of Arkansas public school students and 12 percent of educators identified as people of color. Of the state’s 262 public school districts, 68 did not have a single teacher of color employed as a teacher of record for the 2020-2021 school year.

The springboard for the new study was a previous report that looked at why teachers of color leave their positions. To better understand the perspectives of minority teachers in Arkansas, researchers conducted focus groups in December 2020. Christhian Saavedra is a Rogers Heritage High School teacher and a Teach Plus Arkansas Advisory Board member who worked on the report. Listening to participants’ stories about their experiences made him “feel blessed” to work where he does.

“I do think that there’s a lot of work to do, even in Rogers Public Schools, but it made me feel fortunate that I couldn’t identify with a lot of the things that the people were going through,” Saavedra said. “And it just motivated me more to continue that conversation so that more people can experience the freedom that I’m having.”

Less than a third of respondents said they currently work in an environment where their identities are valued and affirmed. Focus group participants overwhelmingly agreed they regularly do not feel listened to or engaged when it comes to making decisions about school business like curriculum and continuous improvement work. 

Joel Lookadoo is the 2020 Arkansas Teacher of the Year and he teaches at the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale. While working on this report, he was saddened to hear teachers did not feel valued by their schools.

“It’s really heartbreaking, but I think it’s so important that we hear those stories, that those stories are shared,” Lookadoo said.

Teachers of color reported an absence of learning opportunities for school leaders and educators to discuss and learn about racial, economic and linguistic diversity. Additionally, participants said they do not have sufficient access to leadership roles and the support and resources necessary to grow as professionals as compared to their white peers.

When it comes to recruiting and hiring educators of color, study participants said there are barriers such as officials not making diversity a priority. Participants also reported teachers of color don’t have a role in the recruitment and hiring process.

“You need to have a diverse advisory board before you hire anybody,” Saavedra said. “I don’t think one person should be making the final decision on what their staff should look like, and that should include student leaders.”

To address some of these issues, the report recommends developing pathways to leadership by creating and providing stipends for teachers of color to attend leadership mentoring programs. Researchers also suggest districts design and implement requirements and protocols for campus recruitment, interviewing and hiring practices that engage diverse campus committees and rely on research-based practices. 

“We’re all in this together and we need to work together if we’re going to see productive and positive change,” Lookadoo said. “It takes all of us.” 

The report’s findings will be presented during the Arkansas Board of Education’s meeting tomorrow morning. The meeting begins at 10 a.m. and can be livestreamed. The report can be read in its entirety here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.