More than half of public school students are members of minority groups, but 83 percent of their teachers are white. Half of students are boys, while three-quarters of teachers are women.
Students can benefit in many ways from having teachers who look like them, but in many schools around the country the math doesn't add up.
In recent years, attention to the issue has been increasing, with national teachers unions and the U.S. Education Department, among others, trying to raise awareness and drum up more diverse recruits.
One man working in the private sector to address this problem — or at least a slice of it — is a former elementary school teacher named Orpheus Crutchfield. He's the president of Stratégenius LLC in Berkeley, Calif. (Yes, it's spelled with the accent over that first e.) It's been around for 15 years. And to his knowledge, it's the only search firm in the country that specializes in placing underrepresented candidates in schools.
If your school is looking for a male kindergarten teacher, a female physics teacher or a person of color in any position, Crutchfield says, he can help.
But it's going to cost. The firm typically works with between 55 and 65 schools at a time, charging each one a $1,650 annual retainer. If you happen to call upon its help between December and June, when most schools are hiring, there's an additional "high season fee" of $750. And, if it presents you with a successful candidate, the one-time fee is 14 percent of that person's annual salary, upfront — paid by the school, not by the teacher, of course.
In July, Courtney Martin, a Stratégenius candidate who is African-American, will become head of lower school at Hawken, a progressive private school in Cleveland. It's a promotion over her previous position, and she'll be the first person of color to be hired at that level at the school. "He knew who I was and what I believed as an educator," Martin says. "Anything he suggested, I trusted his advice." Since Crutchfield started working with Hawken a year ago, he has matched it with candidates for three separate positions who have each become finalists.
The vast majority of Crutchfield's clients over the years have been private schools like Hawken, with the occasional charter school. The obvious reason would seem to be the price tag, but Crutchfield says there's also the matter of who is empowered to make the call to use a firm like his.
"Independent schools are very nimble. Decisions get made immediately," he explains. "Whereas dealing with districts is very complicated. I've tried."
Before he started Stratégenius, Crutchfield was involved in a number of national, nonprofit efforts to bring more diversity to the teaching workforce, focused on public schools.
While private schools may have more freedom and money to seek out his services, Crutchfield believes there's another reason they might have an easier time hiring teachers of color: They don't require teachers to be traditionally certified.
"Most schools of education are not diverse," Crutchfield points out. In 2009-2010, 80 percent of people earning bachelor's degrees in education were white; three-quarters were women.
By going outside traditional training and certification programs, he says, he is able to select from a broader pool of candidates. "Most of my candidates have master's degrees and Ph.D.'s rather than teaching degrees," he says. He looks for subject-matter expertise and a demonstrated interest in children and teaching.
Over the past decade and a half, Crutchfield says, Stratégenius has made between 6,000 and 7,000 placements.
It's a very, very small-scale solution to a very, very large-scale issue.
"In my mind, the model of bringing in people from out of state isn't going to be very effective," says Margarita Bianco, an associate professor in the school of education at the University of Colorado, Denver.
Transplanting teachers, she adds, doesn't really address the full need for greater diversity and cultural competence. The most effective model, she believes, "is to grow your own — to have young folks go into teaching and come back to their communities."
She runs a six-year-old program called Pathways2Teaching in Denver-area high schools, where diverse students are coached to see themselves as potential educators.
"We need the cultural brokers," Bianco says. "It's not just the color of your skin. You need people that understand the culture of the community to be effective."
Crutchfield says that the very existence of his firm, and the fact that private schools like Hawken are willing to pay for his services, is a testament to a slow but growing "realization of diversity being critical to excellence."