Research News

Tennessee Education Research Alliance receives $1.7M grant to explore opportunities for increasing teacher diversity across Tennessee

Though 37 percent of Tennessee’s students are people of color, only 13 percent of the state’s teachers are, according to a 2018 report by the Tennessee Department of Education. To work toward narrowing that representation gap, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance has received a four-year, $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. 

TERA, a research-practice partnership between Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development and the Tennessee Department of Education, will investigate pathways into teaching for Tennessee teachers of color and barriers they encounter along those pathways.  

“By partnering closely with state policy leaders, we hope to comprehensively map the diverse pathways into teaching for teachers of color in Tennessee as compared to other teachers, pinpoint which stages and why teachers of color leave the pipeline, and ultimately identify specific interventions to increase the representation of teachers of color in Tennessee schools,” said Laura Booker, TERA’s executive director. 

Researchers will conduct extensive interviews with teacher candidates, preparation program leaders, school and district leaders, and early-career teachers alongside analysis of survey data and state data on potential teachers’ movement through preparation programs and into classrooms.  

“Tennessee teachers have an incredible impact on their students’ success, and our state is already innovating and investing to help recruit teachers to serve in our classrooms,” state education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said. “We can benefit from additional research that helps inform both policy and practice and supports our state and school districts in recruiting the teacher workforce we need to set all students on a path to success.” 

Jason A. Grissom, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College and TERA’s faculty director, will serve as principal investigator on the study.  

“A growing body of research clearly demonstrates benefits of teacher racial and ethnic diversity for students, but many states are struggling with increasing representation of teachers of color,” Grissom said. “By taking a deep look at pathways into the teaching profession and prospective teachers’ experiences as they move through preparation, licensure, job-seeking and their first few years in the classroom, we hope to glean new insights to help Tennessee and other states meet their goals of making teaching a more diverse profession.” 

According to Grissom, strategies to diversify the teacher workforce fall generally into two categories: those that seek to grow the pipeline of teachers of color and those that seek to increase the retention of teachers in the system. While both are important, earlier research conducted by TERA suggests that strategies to grow the pipeline are needed most. Over the past 10 years, just 15 percent of new teachers hired in Tennessee have been people of color. Once they enter, however, their annual exit rates are the same or lower than that of their white colleagues (about 6 percent). Pulling levers to recruit teachers of color into Tennessee classrooms appears more likely to affect workforce diversity.   

Grissom is joined on the research team by co-principal investigators Kelly Slay, assistant professor of higher education and public policy at Peabody College and an expert in the experiences of students of color in higher education, and Matthew Ronfeldt, associate professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan School of Education, who studies teacher preparation. Ronfeldt is a longtime research partner of the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Along with analyzing prospective teacher characteristics through data provided by the state’s P20 system and the Tennessee Department of Education, and data collected through the state’s annual Tennessee Educator Survey, the research team plans to conduct interviews with potential teachers, current teachers, educator preparation program staff, and school and district leaders involved in teacher recruitment, hiring and support.  

“These qualitative analyses will provide rich descriptions of the pathway experiences of potential teachers of color and illuminate strategies that preparation programs and school systems employ to advance teachers of color along that pathway,” Slay said. 

This study may also inform existing state efforts to strengthen teacher pipelines. Tennessee was the first state in the country to sponsor Teacher Occupation Apprenticeship programs between school districts and educator preparation providers through its innovative Grow Your Own Center, created in partnership with the University of Tennessee System. Results stemming from this project will help school districts and education preparation providers think about increasing teacher diversity more strategically.  

“This research will not only allow policymakers and practitioners to understand more about where Tennessee is losing prospective teachers of color, but it will also provide educator preparation providers and school districts across the state with information about specific interventions they can use to help with recruitment efforts,” Ronfeldt said.  

More about the Tennessee Education Research Alliance  

The Tennessee Education Research Alliance, founded in 2016, bridges the gaps between education research, policy, and practice in Tennessee. Through strategic partnerships, the alliance conducts research in collaboration with state and local education leaders to inform policies that affect school systems, educators and, ultimately, students.