Six out of 10 students of color in New Mexico will go through their entire schooling without ever having a teacher who looks like them. That’s a problem: Research has repeatedly shown that students, particularly students of color, benefit academically from having a same-race teacher.
The good news is that the state is taking steps to address this student-teacher diversity gap. Recently, the New Mexico Higher Education Department announced $10 million in new investments to recruit teachers into the classroom. According to Higher Education Secretary Kate O’Neill, these funds are intended to recruit teachers from diverse backgrounds, particularly “Hispanic, Native, first-generation, returning (educators), veterans, bilingual and alternative licensure applicants” through scholarships and loan forgiveness.
The bad news, however, is that the state may be putting most of its eggs in the wrong basket. The bulk of this investment is going to the Teacher Preparation Affordability Act, which targets new prospective teachers. A much smaller amount of money is allocated to the Grow Your Own Teachers Act, which focuses on current education assistants. But this is the wrong way to divvy up the pot: The state should be banking more on current education assistants and less on prospective teachers.
Education assistants are the perfect population to recruit from to address teacher diversity and retention concerns. Nationally, paraeducators – like New Mexico’s education assistants – are more likely to be bilingual, born outside the U.S., and nonwhite than current teachers. And they’ve already demonstrated their interest in working in schools. This type of locally focused recruitment strategy isn’t new: Former Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo, whose dismissal was announced last month, led one such program out of New Mexico State University. But the Grow Your Own Act is particularly promising; it could be the incentive that pushes education assistants into lead teacher positions. According to a recent survey of current New Mexico education assistants, the primary barriers to completing licensure positions are time and money. But if each education assistant enrolled in the program uses the full scholarship amount available to them, that’s only enough to prepare 17 new teachers. By way of comparison, last year, New Mexico had 740 teacher vacancies. The state needs to do much more to recruit teachers of color, and this plan isn’t it.
To be clear, most new teachers in New Mexico don’t start as education assistants. It makes sense to invest more in recruiting more traditional candidates. But if New Mexico really wants to foster a diverse population of teachers who stay in jobs, they need to look at people who are already in schools. Underinvesting in recruiting education assistants is a missed opportunity for New Mexico students.
Bellwether Education Partners is a national nonprofit focused on changing education and life outcomes for underserved children.