Skip to content

Field Trip: School Workforce Diversity


It’s no secret that when students have teachers of the same race or ethnicity, they tend to do better academically. Yet people of color make up a relatively small percentage of the teaching workforce.

Today we’re joined by Dr. Searetha Smith-Collins, a career educator, chief academic officer, and former superintendent, to talk about workforce diversity in education: why it matters, and steps schools can take to overcome roadblocks to inclusive hiring practices.


Related Resources

Full Transcript  

When students of color are taught by teachers of the same race or ethnicity, good things happen. Test scores and graduation rates tend to go up. Absences and drop-out rates go down.

But it’s not just good for students of color.

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Your stereotypes or your ideas About people can be changed based on the people you interact with, the people you have relationships with.

So how do you go about increasing the diversity of your educators?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: When you really are trying to recruit, you’re trying to recruit enough people to really be a representative of many. That’s one thing that can be very discouraging when you don’t feel included, you may not feel like you belong. You don’t feel like oftentimes that you have the support that you need. It’s really a lonely place to be.

Today, we’re looking at what it takes to build the kind of teaching workforce that’s representative of all students.

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: We’re going to have to look at some more strategies, and to really find the time the, budget, the opportunities to tap into communities of color, where you have a lot of gifted, talented people who don’t have opportunities to engage in professional learning,

So you’re really looking at ways that you could entice people to become a member of your district that would meet their need as well as yours.

Don’t go anywhere. From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.

Let me introduce you to Dr. Seretha Smith-Collins. As a career educator, she’s worked as a teacher, she’s worked as a superintendent, as a Chief Academic Officer in PreK-12 education. And she’s taken those experiences into the business world to help improve educational processes for kids.

RYAN ESTES: Excellent. Well, welcome. We’re really glad you’re choosing to spend some time talking with us today. And we initially asked you on to this podcast to talk about the issue of diversity in the workforce, and specifically diversity in the education workforce. And let me ask you, why is that something that you are passionate about?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Ryan, thank you, first of all, for having me here to talk about this topic, because it is a passion for me. Not only because I am a person of color, but because I believe that we all have to co-exist peacefully in this world. And the only way we can do that is to make sure that we are looking at equitable opportunities and environments in our life and in our work life.

So my passion has been, how do I help to bring understanding and awareness and empathy to others. And that means both adults and children. So if it’s talking about curriculum, if it’s talking about workforce, if it’s talking about any aspect of teaching and learning, it’s my passion to make it inclusive, to make it diverse, to help people to understand that all of what we squabble about is really not so difficult. It’s about expecting or understanding the humanity of everyone and how do we help people to understand how to get along better together, to learn together, to work together, to play together so that we can overcome some of the inequities that we are facing today, actually?

RYAN ESTES: And when we talk about diversity in the education workforce, what comes to mind for you as being important for schools to think about? Are we aiming to have as many people of color as possible in a given school? Do you think it’s more important to reflect what the makeup of the student body is? What an ideal state do you think?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Well, I think when we look at our country, we are a diverse country and society. So our schools, our classrooms, should reflect that diversity. So what I’m talking about when I say workforce diversity, I’m saying representation of people who look like the students, as well as people who are not present just understanding that the makeup of our society should be reflected in the school setting.

So it’s not a numbers game. It’s a matter of understanding that everyone should be present. Everyone should have voices in what we are trying to teach and what we’re trying to learn.

RYAN ESTES: What do you think are the positive outcomes that occur when there is greater diversity in the workforce? Or another way to ask it might be, what negative outcomes are there when there’s a lack of diversity there?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: When there’s a lack of diversity, I’ll start with that one first, you have, very often, students sitting in the classroom who have never had an opportunity to see someone who looked like them as a role model. So that’s a problem for people of color, because you’re not seeing people to give you the idea that “This could be me. I have the potential of being like that person.” And that’s an important thing for kids of color, especially those who don’t have opportunities to understand that they have great possibilities. For kids who are in classrooms where you don’t necessarily see diverse people, teachers, and leaders, they too need to see people of color to understand that everyone has the capabilities of being a role model for all of us, and that you can see your stereotypes or your ideas about people can be changed based on the people you interact with, the people you have relationships with. And that can be from student to teacher, teacher to student. So it’s important in environments in total to have diverse people present.

RYAN ESTES: I’m curious how this past year in particular, as race has come to the foreground in our country in somewhat of a new way and what we’re seeing right now in 2020 and 2021, because of the protests that have been happening across the country, maybe because of some of the inequities that have been exacerbated because of COVID, I’m curious how this past year has caused you to look, think, feel reflect on this issue that maybe prior to that wasn’t the case.

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Ryan, that’s an interesting question because this year we have a spotlight that’s shining on the inequities in society. And when we look at the idea of haves and have nots, I think that’s what we’re looking at very clearly in our society today with the COVID situation.

But it’s not a new idea for me, that has been a part of the equity work that I have been involved in throughout my career. The disparities are not new. They have been there. We have had activists and leaders talking about them for a very long time. So I guess the major question is why does it still exist why are we in this situation? Because we have known for many, many decades now that we have such disparity. So now it’s no longer something we can not look at. It’s in front of us.

So COVID has brought something to the spotlight that I think now we can look at and wrap our arms around in terms of, what are these inequities and why do they persist? And what can we now do to actually make a change other than just talking about it? Let’s move toward action so that we can get past this.

And let me just give you an example. We’ve been talking about the digital divide for I don’t know how many decades, and we’ve been talking about the digital divide in schools and in homes. And we’ve also been talking about, for years, incorporating technology in our schools. So if all that has been the case, why now do we see kids without the technology? Why now do we see families without internet access? Why now do we see schools that have uneven opportunities for virtual learning? So these are long-standing inequities that have been brought to the forefront even more dramatically. And for me, I’m happy to once again see these things surface, but I certainly hope this time we will actually find some ways to solve some of these challenges that seem to persist no matter what happens.

RYAN ESTES: Is there anything that you see happening this time that gives you hope, more hope than you had in the past, that we’ll actually see change?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Yes, there is, there are more people now showing concern. There are more people who are grasping the enormous aspect of the problem, so that I think we will find some solutions this time. Now my question is, will it stick long enough to really make an institutional, systemic change? I think that’s where the problem lies.

I think Americans, we are good at reacting to a problem, and then we kind of lose sight of the problem and go on to the next thing until we have another crisis. So once we actually get at the level of solving equity problems, you know, socially and physically and emotionally, and all of that, I think we can really begin to make a dent into the problem. And I think this time we at least know that it’s in front of us enough to really look at how we can go back into the school setting, for example, and really look at some of the differences that occurred during COVID that we can now address differently. There’s more of an opportunity to make some changes to address some of the experiences we just went through.

RYAN ESTES: As we’ve been talking about this at a broader, more cultural level, let’s focus in on education a little bit more. And what might you say to someone, if you had a conversation and they said, “I’m not so sure that I see the problem. I’m not so sure that I see the inequities that you are talking about.” How would you respond to that person?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: I would probably give them some examples of what they don’t see. For an example, I was recruited to go into a school district as the curriculum leader in that school district. And I was brought into that school district because in that community, which was a high income community with very few people of color and nobody at the central office level who was a person of color.

I went into that district to help with the problem of having an incident of a cross burning in a neighborhood in that school district. So I think at that point, most people in that school district did not see that they had a problem until the crisis occurred. And their response at the leadership level was first of all, “We have taken note that we have no people of color on our staff at the central office level.”

So they didn’t see it, but through the crisis, they did look at their data, they did look around them to note that, “Well, we really don’t have any other voices that can help us to understand what we just experienced, and how can we go about making this situation better for our school district, for our community and for our students?”

So that would be one example that I would share, that you may not notice it, but it’s not the case that it’s not there. You just don’t have the lens to look at what is and is not happening in the community, in society, or in your environment, and you have to begin to gain that kind of understanding to really get at the issue, to understand enough to act. And that’s what I think most people who don’t think they see any problem, they’re simply not aware of the realities of what most other people are going through.

RYAN ESTES: Let me pull back to the idea of workforce diversity again. Dr. Smith-Collins, from where you sit, as we look at the education world, how do you think education, K-12 in particular, is doing with regard to workforce diversity? Where are we seeing this be done well and where are we not?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Well, I think K-12 has been giving lip service to diversity for a long time, work force diversity. So when you look at the data, we currently have approximately 20% of our core is teachers of color. And of that number there’s a small percentage who are black. And I think it’s something like 7-8% of the total. So if we look at that, I would say we haven’t done too very well lately in terms of that. If you look at the principalship core, it’s similar statistics where there are probably, let me see, I think it’s about 54% of the principals are still white. And people of color, especially when you look at African-Americans, it’s more like, I think it was 8%. There’s been growth in the Latinx population of administrators at that level, but you know, it’s not growing at a fast level. When you look at superintendents, it’s even worse. Of the 13,000, let’s say, 13,700 superintendents, let’s look at equity with women. Approximately 1.9% of those are women and of those numbers, approximately 8% are women of color, and approximately 3-4% are males of color.

So although we’ve been working on workforce diversity for quite a while, there does seem to be difficulty in building a workforce that is diverse. So I guess you would have to ask, “Why?” You know, why is it so slow? Why are we not able to accomplish that?

RYAN ESTES: And that was my next question. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the reasons and causes of this.

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: There’s a saying that schools are perfectly designed to get the results they get. And I think that’s an interesting thought because when you look at schools, when you look at society, although some people would say they don’t see it, there is institutionalization and systemized racism that is an undertow.

So when you look at workforce diversity, especially in education, you have to look at the ebbs and flows of when the systems had more diversity and when they had less diversity and why. So over the last few decades, if you would just focus on those, you would have to begin to look at some of the systemic problems that you have seen and that people have experienced. For an example, about 20 years ago, I noticed that there were a lot of efforts in schools, especially urban schools, where a lot of the kids of color exist, were looking at reform. And those reforms occurred at a time when we were in recession, when jobs were kind of scarce for graduates, et cetera. So all of a sudden we saw some strategies that the business sector initiated in education, and it was that our schools were not effective, we needed to overhaul those schools, get rid of the staff, we need to restructure these schools and bring in the brightest and best people to really get at the issue of achievement of students.

Dr. Smith-Collins told me these schools that were struggling, a lot of them were urban, and most of those held up as in need of restructuring were led by leaders of color. Most of the teachers, were teachers of color. Then, in the early 2000s, when systemic moves were made to overhaul schools and change up teaching staff, many of those teachers were removed, and replaced with quote, ‘the brightest and the best.’ The thing is, those who took their place were mostly white.

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: So you have to ask yourself that, you know what, wait a minute, the brightest and the best? There are only the young white teachers coming out of Ivy league colleges? I don’t think so. You know, so there’s some bias in there and some issues that I would question. Not to say that there may not have been some teachers who may have needed to have been removed, but I just don’t know if that was an act of… I think it was really a social justice issue, because a lot of people lost their jobs unfairly, and they were caught up in this movement of reform.

And if we look today, we should ask, did those reforms work? Maybe in isolated places, but we still have the same problems today that we had back then. So obviously that strategy was not a strategy that really got at the achievement and educational needs of our students, not to say that some of that change was not needed, and not to say that some of the new teachers were not great. That was all good. But when you look at the problem today, you have to ask yourself, okay, well, didn’t someone realize at that time, when you were removing all of these people of color, that at some point there was going to be an outcome that you were going to have a shortage?

Because at the same time, we have to look at our preparation programs in colleges and universities. And there are not a lot of people of color going into the educational field. So at some point, this was a perfect storm coming together, which is now. So once again, looking at our core, we don’t have the teachers we need, we got rid of some of the best and the brightest teachers in that wave two decades ago, we got rid of some of our best and brightest leaders then who went on to other things and other jobs, or simply got out of the profession through retirement. So some of the shortage is due to that.

RYAN ESTES: And you mean the shortage because after the reform, we had fewer teachers of color. Would that be because there were fewer role models then for students of color to then say, “I would like to go into teaching now”?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Well, there definitely were fewer role models when many of the teachers were removed who were teachers of color. And by the way, these were teachers who had really bonded with families and had really gotten into the the trust and relationship level of families and community and could work all those aspects of schooling. So definitely those role models and support systems were removed.

You know it really kind of boils down to, when you remove that aspect of it schooling, there’s a gap there and an omission. So now when we look at schools and you see the same population of students, and you see a lot of the young teachers who came in during the reform, they didn’t stay very long, because some of those are tough environments to survive in, and if you don’t have the cultural proficiencies to exist in those environments, it’s very difficult. So now we find ourselves looking more for those role models and those people who can balance out our staffs so that we can offer not only the role models for those kids, but role models in general for everyone.

We also want to have people who are a little more culturally proficient to deal with the environments and advocate for those kids to help us with our understandings of social injustice and racism and stereotypes and all of those things that surface in the environment to actually become the support systems for workforce diversity and all of that. That all becomes a need for now. So we begin to look for those people to fill those gaps. And they’re simply not as plentiful because there are so many options for teachers and others now to go into different fields. Plus the profession has been maligned so much that there are many people who just don’t think it’s a great profession to go in as a person of color.

I mean, you kind of get beat up enough in life, so am I going to go into a profession where, you know, nobody respects the fact that I’m valued and good and the brightest and the best to work here? So there are issues like that.

The other issue is treatment in the environment. Do they feel included? Do they feel respected? Do they feel valued as a worker? Are their contributions valued? Sometimes some of the changes that are reflected in reform and change are not the ideas that educators of color think are the best for the students. So there could be conflict there that’s reflected in the environment that can sometimes end up in the evaluation process.

Maybe a person is evaluated as difficult. Well, maybe they’re just fighting for what they believe in is best practice for kids of color, versus what someone who doesn’t have that perspective is advocating. So there are all kinds of issues going on like that in the environment that makes it a bit difficult, sometimes, for teachers of color.

When I look at the issue of leadership, and I look at the fact that we now have lost ground in terms of people of color as superintendents and principals, and especially, we’ve also lost ground in terms of women in general. And that concerns me that we are not finding the women that we need as well as the women of color.

And I think that when we look at the role of leadership, and black leadership, and women of color in leadership, et cetera, there’s some work that has to be done there as well. And it’s a whole ‘nother issue that I think that we need to consider in our school districts. Leaders make decisions. They have input into decisions. Decisions impact students, parents, families, and teachers, and all staff. So we need those voices at the table. And I think that’s another area that we have to work with school boards and we have to work with search companies and university preparation programs. So that is another element of workforce diversity that needs to be also at least talked about and improved as we go about working with this area.

RYAN ESTES: Many people are probably listening and nodding their heads in agreement. But by itself that doesn’t solve the problem, and we don’t want to simply admire the problem. How do we move from words to action on this? And I suppose I’m asking both at the macro level, what do we need to do as a country, as a culture to address these things? But I’m also asking at the individual school or district level. What do you see are concrete steps that schools can take?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: Yes, there are some very good things going on and some school districts are doing excellent things. I saw something on Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, that they have an entire equity workforce complete school district plan for improving their performance in the area of equity, inclusion, diversity, social justice, and it’s embedded throughout the entire district strategic plan.

So for the districts that are very serious about this effort, they are making progress. For an example, some districts are having these “grow your own” strategies where they have programs that are elevating let’s say paraprofessionals. There are a lot of paraprofessional workers in the school districts. So they’re offering opportunities for those people to advance to the next level by providing educator developmental programs for teacher preparation. So they probably are required to have at least a two year degree or a bachelor’s degree and they go into a two-year program to begin to get their credentials for teaching. So that’s a “grow your own” kind of program that many districts are working on, which is great. There are other versions of that, where you have districts and universities that are working on increasing the black male teacher programs that will offer the opportunities for increasing those numbers in communities and in school districts and their partnerships that are operating in that regard, which is good.

There are, of course, the usual recruitment, a lot of efforts going in those arenas and they’re being very creative about that. So, you know, it’s not that a lot of districts are not trying very hard, but I think we’re going to have to look at some more creative strategies, and to really find the time, the budget, the opportunities to tap into communities of color, where you have a lot of gifted, talented people who don’t have opportunities to engage in professional learning.

Shaping programs for that kind of engagement, I’m thinking about a program that was, I think in the seventies and eighties called Teacher Corps, which, really, I thought was very good, because they tapped into other professions, as well as communities of color, where people really were recommended by various entities to go into the teaching profession. So those particular people were tapped and placed in a program of development, and many of those people became teachers and later principals and superintendents.

So that’s putting the federal government behind the effort with funds, the grants, the creativity to develop the partnerships between communities, universities, and school districts to help with increasing the numbers. So those are just a few ideas that are really showing the actions that can happen and that are happening now.

RYAN ESTES: Hmm, let me get even a little bit more specific with that question. Let’s say I’m a hiring director at a school district. I’m setting out to fill positions and I really want to increase the number of teachers of color. I want to better reflect the diverse makeup of my student body. What would be some inclusive approaches to hiring that I could put into place? What are the kinds of things at the very detailed level that I could do that would help address this problem?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: I think for many people, it’s just first of all having the lens, the equity lens, to know what you’re looking for. You are trying to find the right conferences and the right diversity activities to do, you have to make sure you are aligning your action with where the sources are. And that’s one thing, knowing exactly where to go to look for the people of color that you’re looking for to have those networks and alliances that will allow you to tap into resources.

And I know a lot of school districts are developing partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, or places where a lot of the latinx students might be attending, colleges and universities or something like that. I think those kinds of alliances are very good, but the problem with that is everybody’s looking for the same thing and everyone’s at the same diversity fairs, so, you know, how do I make a difference?

Well, look at the way you’re operating or you’re offering benefits and opportunities and bonuses and all those kinds of things to attract people. And then just look at the basic needs of people. What is it that they need that would help you to convince them, to influence them, to come into your district as either a trainee or a teacher who would be willing to work where you are advocating?

So you’re really looking at ways that you could entice people to become a member of your district that would meet their need as well as yours.

And I know there’s a lot of creative ways to do that, that people are engaged in. But I think we just have to first of all, as I say, have an open lens to understanding that people are there. Maybe we have to approach it differently than what we’re doing, and what are those differences? Well, let’s talk to the people out there who understand how that can be done. Let’s go to the organizations where the people are, who might understand some strategies that we could use.

For an example the National Alliance of Black School Educators. Should we have some conversations with their leadership to talk about, “What are your ideas? What are some things that are going on that’s helping people to attract more leaders of color, more teachers of color? Is there anything we could do differently in our district that would help us to retain the people we have? What are the problems? Look at our data. What does our data say about our efforts and how are we moving through that data?”

RYAN ESTES: You mentioned the idea of retaining teachers of color, and that brings up the question, because you’ve already mentioned, briefly, professional learning and evaluations. And I’m wondering if there are things beyond the hiring process that should be kept in mind that can help districts as they work to increase workforce diversity, whether that be how evaluations are approached, whether that be the kind of professional learning that is offered. What are things that might not be obvious right up front as you’re actually recruiting, but that would really help on the retention side?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: I think that that probably would be more in the culture and climate arena for a school district or a school. One of the things I think that’s most discouraging to a person of color – and I’m thinking about my own experiences, the good ones and the not so good ones – the best experiences were, and I’ve been fortunate to be in environments where I was sometimes the only person of color, which can be a very lonely place to be, and then I’ve been in other districts and positions where I’ve been one of many people of color and that’s the most comfortable place to be, to be around people who are like you. And that’s the difference in probably culture and climate.

When teachers are isolated, that’s very difficult. And I know that it’s very difficult for districts to probably recruit people of color when they are going to be isolated. So that has to be a consideration, that it’s not okay just to hire a few and place them here and there so that they’re the only… when you really are trying to recruit, you’re trying to recruit enough people to really be a representative of many.

So that’s one thing that can be very discouraging, when you don’t feel included, you may not feel like you belong. You don’t feel like oftentimes that you have the support that you need. It’s really a lonely place to be.

So that’s something to be considerate of when you do have only a few people of color, and what you can do about that is make sure you give them opportunities to go to conferences where they’re going to find other educators of color. They find ways to insulate themselves socially and emotionally and that kind of thing.

So that was the not-so-good. The great experience, even if I was only one or one of few, is just to be in an environment where people, all of the people, are accepting, they’re more culturally competent than most, they really just understand how to be fair and good. They are just open to difference. They’re open to being accepting of people who might have different perspectives and ideas. In fact, that’s a value for them. And they know how to make someone who is different feel to be included and a part of the environment. So as you’re recruiting, you really have to understand which of those districts you represent, or is there one in between all of that. But putting yourself in the shoes of a person of color, that’s the empathy piece.

And is the district user-friendly, to sort of speak? They’re going to be able to share with you as a prospective employee, that there are going to be opportunities for you to be involved with others. For an example, I read where a one school district, and I’m sorry, I can’t remember the exact name, but they have a group where they allow once a month for all the black males in the district to get together to talk and share their experiences and really to bond with one another and find comfort. And one administrator talked about, he was called to the meeting and thought, “Oh no, another meeting.” But he walked in the meeting and saw 25 other black males there. And that they were having that opportunity to get together to support one another. So just sharing an example like that would be kind of comforting, I think, to a person of color and you think, “Wow, this district is really sensitive and understanding of my potential needs. So I kind of like that. I might want to work for them.”

RYAN ESTES: What is the one thing that you think educators and administrators most need to hear on this issue?

DR. SMITH-COLLINS: That’s such a great question. I know that everyone pretty much now is focused on the topic of workforce diversity, but what I would love to see happen is that most people – and I would say everyone, but I know we’re going to always have some exceptions – but it would be nice if most people did not see the issue as such a challenge, but more as just a natural state of being. It’s something that we do naturally when we go about our hiring and our practices and our school districts, it’s just a natural thing that we do to make certain that we’re looking for, we’re trying to find any and every opportunity to hire people of color, people who are different in any way that will enrich our environment and enrich our experience for teaching and learning.

If we can get to that point, this won’t be such a challenge. We won’t miss the boat. It’s just a part of doing business. And that’s what my hope is, that we finally can dispel the idea that it’s such a challenge and such an issue to find these people. We’re here, people are here. They’re available if we know how to support them, how to work with them, how to elevate them, how to empower them. And then we’ll kind of eliminate this aspect of our challenge in education.

RYAN ESTES: Well, Dr. Seretha Smith-Collins, I want to thank you so much for your time joining us today. It’s been fantastic hearing your perspective on this and learning from you. So thank you for joining me.

DR.SMITH-COLLINS: And thank you for having me.

Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software. Frontline helps you hire the best teachers, find substitutes when teachers are absent, support your employees’ professional growth, manage special education and other special student populations, get rid of paperwork, break down silos between departments, and turn all that data into information you can use to make decisions. For more information, visit

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.