A small but growing body of research shows minorities tend to do better in class and face higher expectations when taught by teachers from their racial or ethnic group, says the National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force, a partnership led by six groups.
"Teachers of color" often serve as role models and cultural brokers who help students connect to their school through shared identities, group leaders say.
In both the recruitment of teachers and the training of veteran ones, the coalition is calling on policy-makers to put a priority on diversity and "cultural competence," meaning the ability of teachers to understand their students' culture and incorporate it in class.
Some big groups are behind the push, including the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union; the American Council on Education, representing the nation's colleges and universities; and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the primary voice for the schools charged with preparing teachers for work.
About 60 percent of public school students are white, 17 percent are black and 17 percent are Hispanic. Yet 90 percent of teachers are white, 6 percent are black and less than 5 percent are of another race or ethnicity, according to federal figures the coalition cited.
Roughly 40 percent of schools have no minority teachers on staff, the group says.
"When you have that kind of disconnect, teachers are significantly more likely to give discipline referrals and to place kids in special education," said Segun Eubanks, the NEA's director of teacher quality. "And they're more likely to come in with predisposed assumptions and teach down to a perceived academic ability. It impacts the kids' chances to excel."
Coalition leaders acknowledge that language, culture and race are only components of a quality teaching corps. Federal law puts an emphasis on other parts — a bachelor's degree, a state license or certification and clear knowledge of the subjects that teachers handle.
Across the country, education colleges have done a varied job of infusing culture and diversity issues into the curriculum, said Maria Estela Brisk, who leads the multicultural education committee for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
"You have to give teachers the confidence that they can indeed teach children of different cultures and backgrounds," she said. "They have to incorporate it in their classes, the way they organize their classroom, the way they deal with families."
Community Teachers Institute, another partner in the coalition, sets out to "home-grow" teachers in minority areas through partnerships of colleges, schools and community groups.
Urban public education is the best hope for many minority children, but they are often getting "too few teachers of color, too few qualified teachers and too many teachers who leave too soon," said Rushern Baker II, the executive director of the institute.
By Ben Feller