A Teacher Satisfaction Gap? New Study Shows Teachers of Color Less Happy in Their Schools

By Matt Barnum | June 14, 2016

A new study shows why it’s challenging for schools to retain teachers of color: non-white instructors report significantly lower job satisfaction than their white colleagues.
The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, focuses on first-year teachers who entered the classroom in 2008. Differences in job happiness were not huge but were still statistically significant: 78 percent of black and Hispanic teachers reported being satisfied on the job, compared to 86 percent of white teachers.
The study appears little more than a month after the U.S. Department of Education’s National Summit on Teacher Diversity and as many commentators, including Secretary of Education John King, have called for the teaching force to better reflect America’s increasingly diverse student body.
“Minority teachers report substantially lower job satisfaction rates than other teachers, which had been consistent over time. Preparing and supporting an academically skilled and diverse teacher workforce as a whole remain as a pressing issue,” authors Benjamin Master, Min Sun, and Susanna Loeb write.
Master, the lead author and a policy researcher at RAND, said in an email that the phenomenon was not unique to teaching: “We observe a similar pattern of black or Hispanic [college] graduates being similarly less satisfied with their jobs overall.”
The findings may help explain why teachers of color leave the classroom at significantly higher rates than white teachers. The report also shows that the proportion of black and Hispanic teachers entering the classroom was lower in 2008 than in 2000 (though higher compared to 1993). Similarly a 2015 study found significant declines in the number of black teachers working in many major cities including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

In other respects, however, the study points to some positive trends: new teachers in general have higher job satisfaction than recent college graduates entering other professions, and entering teachers’ academic ability — as measured by SAT scores — increased substantially between 2000 and 2008.
The research looks only at snapshots of new teachers at specific points in time (1993, 2000, and 2008), and so should be interpreted cautiously. But the results are important given recent research showing black students in particular benefit from black teachers. Studies find that black educators have higher expectations for black students, are less likely to see their behavior in a negative light, are more likely to identify black students as gifted, and contribute to larger achievement gains among black students.
While posing several different hypotheses, the latest study is unable to pin down what causes the measured job satisfaction gap. It does cast doubt on certain explanations, though. The trend was consistent between 2000 and 2008, suggesting that No Child Left Behind’s approach to school accountability was not the main culprit. (Other research has found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, NCLB in general did not reduce teachers’ job satisfaction.) There was no evidence that dissatisfaction was related to teachers of color working in high-poverty (and potentially more challenging) schools.
In past surveys, teachers of color cite dissatisfaction with administration, student discipline problems, accountability and testing mandates, lack of influence and autonomy, and poor working conditions as top reasons for leaving.
It’s not clear what policies would best address the relatively high rates of dissatisfaction. Efforts to ensure teachers have sway within their schools, are treated fairly in accountability systems, and receive support in handling student discipline might be considered. Salary incentives have also been shown to have a positive effect on teacher retention as a whole. Some scholars have suggested rethinking teacher training in ways that ensure teachers of color are prepared for the classroom.
In many ways the research provides fresh data for what some teachers have long described. Nate Bowling, a high school social studies teacher in Tacoma and the Washington state teacher of the year, said that too often teachers of color aren’t appreciated for their pedagogy or knowledge: “It doesn’t matter what degrees or credentials we have, we’re not viewed as expert in our content.”
Bowling also said that many teachers of color may feel isolated. “It’s very hard to go into a professional where you know you’re already a minority numerically,” he said.
Bowling pointed to “grow your own” programs, which recruit teachers from within the community to work at schools in their neighborhoods. “The teachers of color of the future are the kids of color we have now.”
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