Volume: 9, Issue: 2


Representation for Equity in Education: What Is Really Holding Students Back?
Фолкинз, Клэр [about]

KEYWORDS: equity, race, education, multicultural education, representation, diversity, teaching.

ABSTRACT: Combining a historical perspective of multicultural education and a current review of existing diversity in educational leadership in America, this paper examines the positive effects of same-race teachers on students of color. The conclusions discussed are that students who have access to a same-race teacher generally experience greater academic success, benefit emotionally from having relatable role models in leadership positions, and report more positive perceptions of their school environment. Similar advantages are noted from the existence of principals of color in schools with large numbers of students of color. The effects on students of gender representation in educational leadership are also considered, as well as the emotional and academic benefits of diverse racial representation in school for white students. This article reasons that the need for a more diverse teaching staff is pronounced and urgent, although challenges to immediate change are discussed.


The importance of racial representation in organizations and institutions first became a reality to me when speaking with a friend of mine who works for a nonprofit youth outreach organization I also volunteer with. He, an African American male, was the only person of color on the team of volunteers at the time he first joined the organization. Although he felt a little out of place, he had friends on the team and valued the opportunity to provide a positive role model to students who related to him. He was satisfied to participate for the time, although he thought nothing more of his involvement. However, one year, he was at summer camp volunteering with the same organization when he heard one of their staff members speak. The speaker was a Latino with a tough personal history that he felt he could relate to. In that moment, my friend felt that this organization he was volunteering with really could be a lifelong endeavor for him. Now, he works full-time for the same organization and is a key leader in cultivating diversity among their staff members and volunteers, all because he saw just one person in leadership who reflected a bit of his own identity. This one-time experience changed the course of my friend’s life, and offers a powerful lesson to those of us who are members of the majority culture in America.

For most, if not all of us, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to not see ourselves represented in leadership at our schools, in our jobs, and in mass media, although these experiences are foreign to most Americans of color. Yet, research explored in this article shows these differing experiences have immense consequences for how each of us builds our own identity and chooses the course of our life, and that this process begins at a very young age (Dee, 2001, p. 25). For this reason, it is crucial that all Americans involved in education take notice of the landscape of racial representation in our multicultural schools and consider the possible connections between these trends and the patterns of achievement, or lack thereof, we see in specific groups of students.  

Historical Roots of Multicultural Education

Since the onset of public education in America, there have existed gaps in achievement between students of different genders and races. The first public schools in America permitted only white male students to be educated, and the same was true of the first colleges and universities in the country. When female students were finally allowed to attend schools, they were often given a curriculum designed only to return them to work at home caring for a family. When black students were able to seek a formal education, they were forced into segregated schools with far inferior resources. Students of other races faced similar forms of discrimination (Wagoner & Urban, 2014). These are only a few of the ways that public education has implemented systematic social inequality, though this list is certainly not comprehensive, and the discriminatory practices of public education are unfortunately not limited to historical acts of the past. Of course, our country has made some strides since the time of segregation. Our public schools are now integrated, at least officially, and Affirmative Action has allowed more females and minority students to acquire a college education than ever before (American Council on Education, 2011, p. 6). With these improvements come the multicultural education movement, which describes both a set of ideals involving the integrated education of diverse groups of students as well as the far-from-perfect reality of education today in a pluralistic society.

Banks (1993) states that the two main goals of multicultural education upon which specialists in the field agree are first, “to reform the school and other educational institutions so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, and social-class groups will experience educational equity,” and second, “to give both male and female students an equal chance to experience success and mobility,” (p. 3). While these are commendable goals, Banks goes on to explain that there still exists a large gap between these goals and the reality of multicultural education. This gap, I argue, has only persisted over the near quarter of a century since Banks’ statements were made, and this problem is in one part largely due to a lack of minority representation in teachers and other academic professionals, a lack of female administrators, and a lack of male teachers in elementary schools, all of which are the results of decades of racism and sexism in American history. The inequalities of American society at large remain evident simply through observing who holds what roles in the realm of education. So long as students lack appropriate and relatable role models in the world of education, educational institutions will largely serve only to recreate, not demolish, the systems of oppression already existing in our country. However, more positive alternatives will be explored in this article in hopes that change will occur on both systemic and personal levels. 

Relevant Research

Race and Success

Research shows that, for students of color, interacting with a teacher of their same race can yield immediate benefits. The Center for American Progress (2011) reports that teachers of color can serve as powerful role models for students of color (p. 1) and that the presence of same-race teachers often makes students of color view their schools as more welcoming places (Villegas & Lucas, 2004).

Having a diverse teaching staff is not only important for the mental and emotional health of students of color. Research shows that concrete decisions such as placement in advanced courses can be greatly impacted by the race of the educators making those decisions. Grissom, Rodriguez, and Kern (2017) report that “in a large, national data set spanning two time points, larger percentages of Black teachers in the school correlate to increased gifted representation among Black students,” and almost identical results for the relationship between Hispanic teachers and Hispanic students. A similar association was noted between the presence of a Black principal in the school and the racial composition of the gifted program in the same school (p. 416).

In conclusions from a randomized study comparing STAR reading test results of white students and students of color, Dee (2001) found “consistent evidence that there are rather large educational benefits for both black and white students from assignment to an own-race teacher in these early grades,” (p. 25). While the author admits more research is needed to establish the specific mechanisms producing such positive results of students’ learning from an own-race teacher, it is certain that whatever benefits exist have been largely available to white students since the beginning of public education in America, considering the largely homogenous nature of the American teaching force.

Grissom, Rodriguez, and Kern (2017) signal that these findings regarding the advantages of a diverse teaching staff for minority students may be more important than ever as the percentage of minority students, and Hispanic students in particular, are quickly increasing in American schools, but that changes in teacher demographics are not keeping similar pace. This fact is supported by the Center for American Progress’ (2014) findings that, while “students of color made up more than 40% of the school age population,” within the teaching force, only 17 percent is comprised of teachers of color (p. 1).

In additions, studies show that diverse representation in education is not just important for students of color, but is also important for helping white students to build more positive and rich understandings of racial diversity, as the experience of a white student learning from a teacher of color has been shown to result in greater social trust and a wider sense of community reported by the student (Center for American Progress, 2014, p. 3).

Gender and Success

As mentioned previously in the brief discussion of the history of multicultural education, women and minority students have both been systematically excluded from formal education and its benefits. For female students of color, the intersectionality of their identities can leave them at a greater disadvantage than any other group. For these reasons, our exploration of the significance of representation in education cannot exclude a consideration of gender.

Critics may mention the fact that women now surpass men in college enrollment and degree attainment as evidence that there no longer exists an achievement gap between men and women (United States Census Bureau, 2015, p. 2). However, this increased level of education is simply not yet translating to increased pay for women in the workforce, as on average, American women’s median earnings are only 82 percent of their male counterparts (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). This indicates that the American education system is still failing to meet the second goal of multicultural education, which is to provide success and mobility to male and female students. While this inequality persists in most workplaces in the United States, it has important connections to the professional field of education. It is well known that teaching is heavily dominated by females. However, according to Kruse and Krumm (2016), “the numbers of men and women who hold secondary school administration positions continue to be disproportionate to their numbers in the teaching profession,” (p. 1) meaning that most females in education report to male supervisors. This dynamic, repeated across districts throughout the country, provides a constant example for students of female subordination. Considering the impact of role modeling discussed in the earlier section, it is likely that this exposure is having a large effect on the types of careers male and female students imagine for themselves, although more research should be done regarding this hypothesis. As consideration is made for more racial diversity in the teaching profession, similar intentionality should be taken regarding gender. It is likely that male students would benefit from more male teachers, especially in the elementary school grades where men are scarce, and that female students would benefit from exposure to more female administrators, while more racial diversity would be valuable at both levels.  


Once we acknowledge the importance of representation for our students in education, we need to consider practical ways this goal can be achieved. Banks outlines several strategies for making these improvements in his Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education (Tucker, 1998). The first dimension is content integration. This is simply the practice of acknowledging that common curriculum in the United States is centered on the narrative of White America, and within that narrative is also mainly concerned with male figures. Therefore, in order to engage students of other heritages and identities, it is important that we integrate their story into the information being taught. The histories, heroes, and current experiences of women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and many more should be taken into consideration and presented to all students whenever possible.

While Banks’ second through fourth dimensions are less concerned with the physical representation of people of color, they still involve representation because they require the consideration of various cultures in the ways we think about and execute the act of teaching. All five of Banks’ Dimensions of Multicultural Education are important considerations for teaching that should be explored further by educators of diverse classrooms. Because education has been constructed from the ground up with majority culture in mind, there are opportunities within each dimension of education for us to reconsider how we can include all groups of people more fully and more fairly.

Finally, within Banks’ fifth dimension of multicultural education, educators and administrators are asked to examine the structures of their schools to ensure they are “walking the talk”. Among other important considerations, Banks describes the importance of diverse leadership in schools. Diverse hiring by schools represents “walking the talk” because it requires commitment. Hiring staff members is a big decision, as these people are the face of the school to the community. When students, parents and community members see that the school is being driven by people of many different backgrounds, they can see plainly the school’s commitment to honoring diversity in the community, and this has great potential to make each student and family feel welcome and valued by the school. Efforts to increase diversity certainly can and are currently taking place on a district level across the nation. However, considering the scope of the changes required and immediate necessity of introducing a large number of new teachers of color into the teaching force (Center for American Progress, 2014, p. 2), campaigns to do so should also be implemented at the state and national levels.

Challenges and Solutions

There exist today several major roadblocks on the policy level to making swift increases in teacher diversity. The Center for American Progress (2014) names the following as a few of the negative factors at play. First, fewer students of color than white students graduate high school, and they are not as likely to attend college, a basic requirement to become a teacher. Also, there are many incentives for teachers who already hold positions to remain there until retirement, so it is difficult to displace the many existing white educators with newly recruited teachers of color. Third, in today’s job market, people of color have more career options than ever before, so they are less likely to choose teaching as their profession, especially if they have experienced it to be a “white person’s profession”.

However, these challenges do not negate the possibility of progress in diversifying the American teaching forces. The Center for American Progress (2014) argues that states and districts have the power to attract more teachers of color by providing specific benefits and bonuses for people of color interested in becoming educators (p. 3). Bireda and Chait (2011) add that more funding could also be given to fund teacher training programs and college for low-income students in general (as cited in Center for American Progress, 2014, p. 5). A greater prevalence of other aids such as greater access to mentorships and practicum opportunities would also be constructive (p. 6). Above all, greater awareness is needed, of the discrepancy between teacher and student demographics and the additional challenges it creates for already disadvantaged minority students, in order to motivate politicians and policy makers to be intentional in cultivating change in educational leadership.


It is important to note that the main point in this article is not that white teachers cannot effectively teach students of color; they absolutely can. Banks describes the most important factor for teachers working with students to have “a set of cultural characteristics” which many different people possess (Tucker, 1998, p. 4). Banks likewise describes in his Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education several ways teachers of any background can work to represent students of many backgrounds in the information they teach and the ways they direct their classrooms. White teachers can also be great allies for teachers of color and proponents of increased diversity. However, the concern at hand is not simply teaching all students effectively, but also creating a school in which all kinds of students are inspired and set up for maximum success, a goal which requires the increased diversity of staff members in both teaching and administrative roles. Banks asserts that representation in education has powerful consequences for our society (Tucker, 1998). By acknowledging the many voices that make up our country and by giving them importance, we actually create unity. In our schools, we have the opportunity to allow students to practice being a part of a united society made up of many unique people, but if this opportunity is missed, students who do not see themselves represented are likely to withdraw, choosing not to engage now in academics or in democratic society later in life. Thus, the degree to which we are able to teach and practice the ideal of a united multicultural society in our schools will determine our degree of success in moving forward together as a country. While states have shown a record of undervaluing the recruitment of teachers of color (Center for American Progress, 2014, p. 1), the time to end such apathy is now. With this article and others like it, convincing, recent, and reliable research is now available to the American public indicating the importance of and urgency for renewed motivation to diversify the American teaching force so it is able to appropriately meet the needs of the rapidly changing base of students they serve.


  1. American Council on Education. (2011). Minorities in higher education: 2011 supplement. Retrieved from https://diversity.ucsc.edu/resources/images/ace_report.pdf
  2. Banks, J. A. (1993). Multicultural education: Historical development, dimensions, and practice. Review of Research in Education, 19, 3-49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1167339
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Women’s median earnings 82 percent of men’s in 2016. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/womens-median-earnings-82-percent-of-mens-in-2016.htm
  4. Center for American Progress (2011). Increasing teacher diversity: Strategies to improve the teacher workforce. Retrieved from https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2011/11/pdf/chait_diversity.pdf
  5. Center for American Progress. (2014). Teacher diversity revisited. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2014/05/04/88962/teacher-diversity-revisited/
  6. Dee, T. S. (2001). Teachers, race and student achievement in a randomized experiment. (NBER Working Paper No. 8432). Retrieved from National Bureau of Economic Research website: http://www.nber.org/papers/w8432
  7. Grissom, J. A., Rodriguez, L. A., & Kern, E. C. (2017). Teacher and principal diversity and the representation of students of color in gifted programs. Elementary School Journal, 117(3), 396-422.
  8. Kruse, R. A., & Krumm, B. L. (2016). Becoming a principal: Access factors for females. Rural Educator, 37(2), 28-38.
  9. Tucker, M. (Interviewer) & Banks, J. A. (Interviewee). (1998). Multiculturalism’s five dimensions [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.learner.org/workshops/socialstudies/pdf/session3/3.Multiculturalism.pdf
  10. United States Census Bureau. (2015). Educational attainment in the United States: 2015 (Report No. P20-578). Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf
  11. Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. F. (2004). Diversifying the teacher workforce: A retrospective and prospective analysis. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 103(1), 70-104.
  12. Wagoner, J. L., & Urban, W. J. (2014). American education: A history (5th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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