Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Election 2020: Live Results | Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice

Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Closing San Diego Unified's Student-Teacher Diversity Gap

April 14, 2014 1:22 p.m.


Cindy Marten, Superintendent, San Diego Unified School District

Joe Johnson, Dean SDSU College of Education

Related Story: Closing San Diego Unified's Student-Teacher Diversity Gap


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. White students barely make up a quarter of the student population in the San Diego Unified School District, but two-thirds of the teachers and counselors in the district are white. That lack of diversity among the district's teaching staff and management is a concern to the school board and school Superintendent Cindy Marten. The district says it's working to find ways to expand the hiring pool of teachers to insure more diversity. That outreach may be tested soon as the district offers a retirement-incentive program which could open up hundreds of teaching jobs. I'd like to welcome my guests Cindy Marten, School Superintendant of the San Diego Unified School District. Cindy, welcome back.

CINDY MARTEN: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Joe Johnson is Dean of the San Diego State University College of Education. Joe, welcome to the show.

JOE JOHNSON: It's a pleasure to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Cindy, you got some criticism about the lack of diversity in your very first appointments when you became superintendent. When did you recognize teacher diversity as a problem for the district?

CINDY MARTEN: Well, it's something that we've always looked at, I looked at as a school principal when I was in City Heights for the last ten years, and paying attention to the highest quality, most effective educators is something as a leader that I've always paid attention to. That wasn't something new for me. There's a spotlight at the beginning that was placed on a small group of decisions that I made, not into a larger context, and in that one spotlight area it looked like there might be some decisions that lacked diversity as central to the theme, and what I'm interested in is having a much broader dialogue about that. And so the diversity memo that I released and the diversity committee that we've established through the leadership of our board of education with my moral imperative behind that around what does it mean to have a dialogue around what this really looks like.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remind us, if you would, just so we have a basis for our conversation here, how diverse the student population has grown in the San Diego Unified District.

CINDY MARTEN: So you can break it down into traditionally-identified groups, and one of the things that we're doing through our San Diego Unified Through Diversity Committee is making sure we're expanding the definition of diversity. So I think the question you just asked me was the traditional breakdown, probably, is that what you're interested in?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, anything else you'd like to throw in.

CINDY MARTEN: So one of the things we are doing is broadening the definition, but when you look at the traditionally-identified groups, you can look at American Indian, Asian, black, African-American, Hispanic, Latino, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islanders that we have not specified, and then we have white. We can break it down by student and staff, and we've released that data so you can look at the current statistics, and where we see the largest gap between our student population and our district workforce is in the Hispanic/Latino population.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. So when you break down the student population, you have this wide diversity, as you say, not only in the traditional demographics, but also in new ones that you're going to be expanding and looking at, but when you contrast that with teachers, as I said in the opening, what you're finding are gaps; is that right?

CINDY MARTEN: We are. And, like I said, the largest gap that we see is in the Hispanic and Latino. There's 46 percent of our students are identified in this traditional group of Hispanic/Latino and 27 percent of the workforce is. When you look at the black/African-American, we have 10.3 percent of our students and 9.2 percent of our workforce. So the gap there isn't as wide as it is in the Latino groups. We can see in the Asian population we have 14 percent of our students and 7 percent of our workforce.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Joe Johnson, some people might argue a good teacher is a good teacher no matter what their gender or their race. What does research show about a lack of diversity among teachers, especially when you consider a very diverse student population?

JOE JOHNSON: There's an old saying: Before I care about how much you know, I want to know how much you care. And so it's really important for educators to have great content knowledge, but it's also important for them to know and be able to relate to their students, their backgrounds, their communities. And so it's important for us to nurture a workforce that reflects the diversity of the community.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Cindy, when you were a principal and, as you say, you were a principal in City Heights and you saw that, I would imagine, the majority of your teaching staff were white and many of your students were not, what did you think about that? Did you think that was impairing the teachers' ability or that they were going to have to work harder to make that connection? What did you think about that?

CINDY MARTEN: Well, I want to echo what Dr. Johnson just said about it. Teachers' ability to care and to have empathy and to have what we call culturally proficiency, the skill set that it takes to meet a student where they are and the context that they're living in and honor and respect with empathy, and the way that you teach is the most important characteristic, and what you bring to your teaching is your experiences. We say as teachers you teach who you are and what you know and what you've experienced is what you bring into your classroom and can you meet and understand students where they are, and you bring all that you have and everything that you've experienced in your own background, whether that's cultural background, socioeconomic background, your gender experiences, that's who you are, and do you have empathy and cultural sensitivity towards the experiences your students are bringing, and you're looking at your students and honoring what they bring to the classroom. Honor their culture, their race, their background, their belief system, their family values, what do students bring, and how do we use the gifts that they bring from their backgrounds in the teaching context.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so when you were a principal in City Heights and you saw (check audio) did you see teachers struggling to do that because they didn't have that cultural background that they could rely upon to make that connection with their students?

CINDY MARTEN: It's ongoing training, and the training isn't in a workshop. It's in the ways that we respond to students. When I see there's all kinds of struggles that teachers will face in the classroom, whether they have the technical knowledge about how to deliver the lesson or whether they have the cultural sensitivity or empathy that they need, we're constantly in dialogue through professional development around how to meet our students where they are.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Joe, could we talk about the diversity gap a lot, that that's the gap in which black and Latino students as a whole score lower in tests than white and Asian students? Could the teacher diversity gap impact this achievement gap that we've noticed over and over again in California and in other areas across the country?

JOE JOHNSON: It certainly has the potential to. And so the development of culturally proficient teachers, teachers who can relate to and respond to the strengths and needs of the various populations they serve, is very important in not just responding to the moral imperative, but also in responding to the need to be effective in insuring that every child has a great education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Cindy, has there been something wrong with the district's hiring practices, or are there other factors that account for the lack of teacher diversity?

CINDY MARTEN: Well, I think we're looking at the trends of the population in our city, and the memo that I released showed actually county numbers, so we can look at our student population, we can look at county numbers, then we can look at district workforce we're hiring from the county. And so what is the population, what are the demographics of our population? We're just about to go through a retirement and we have about 1900 educators eligible to retire. That workforce started 30 years ago. What did San Diego look like 30 years ago, and we hired from the pool of San Diego? We do have a teacher-pipeline strategy now where we're looking at, with this retirement coming up, when we're recruiting new people in. If we hire new educators in the next year with this retirement, is it clear to the public that we are hiring people that have this diversity of experience and background and the diversity that we're looking for San Diego State and our local community partners know that we've put a clear message out they're the type of workforce we're looking for as we hire now because our city has changed, our students have changed, and we're interested in hiring teachers that match that. We're working with the Latino Advisory Committee and the Association For African American Educators are informing our practice. We've put a teacher-pipeline strategy, we're doing a recruit-your-own, and we're interested in a San Diego Unified students that graduate from our schools coming back and becoming teachers in our schools, and, in fact, I'm investing in a scholarship to help promote that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're going to be talking about a lot when we return. We have to take a short break, and I'm speaking with Joe Johnson, Dean of the San Diego State University College of Education, and Cindy Marten, school Superintendent for the San Diego Unified School District. You're listening to KPBS Midday Edition.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Cindy Marten, school Superintendant of the San Diego Unified School District, and Joe Johnson, Dean of the San Diego State University College of Education, and we're continuing a conversation about the effort to insure that teachers and management with the San Diego Unified District reflect the diversity of the student population. Cindy, before the break, you were just talking about a retirement-incentive package the district will be offering to veteran teachers. How many teachers did you say might be eligible to take advantage of that?

CINDY MARTEN: About 1900.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And how long is the incentive package going to be offered?

CINDY MARTEN: It's over the next couple of weeks and maybe two more months. I can't remember the final (check audio), but we've just at that point now where it's being offered, and by the end of the school year we need to have that finished.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, in your report on diversity, Cindy, you make it clear that it's illegal to give preferential treatment in hiring based on race or gender. So how does the district build a more diverse teaching staff?

CINDY MARTEN: So we talk about goals and not quotas and we talk about a value system that we hold, and the types of educators that we feel are the most effective in the classroom are those that have cultural proficiency, and where does that come from? It comes from your own diverse background and experiences and what you bring to the classroom, and we want the educators that are in front of our children to be the most diverse that we can find so that they're bringing that diversity of opinion, perspectives, backgrounds into our classrooms because we know that's what helps students achieve.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Joe, we were also talking about a pipeline, and we'll talk more about that in trying to get more people, more diverse students learning how to become teachers and, therefore, in that pipeline to be hired, but at SDSU College of Education, is there right now a lot of diversity among the students who are training to be educators?

JOE JOHNSON: There is diversity, but there's not enough diversity. And so that means that we still have work to do, to help insure that there is that strong pipeline.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there factors, Joe, that seem to keep people of color from pursuing a career in teaching?

JOE JOHNSON: I think that there are a number of factors just in our recent history that have reduced the likelihood that a lot of young people are interested in teaching when just in terms of looking at the recent history when we had such horrible cuts of school district budgets. And so teachers were being laid off or at least there were rumors of teachers of being laid off. And so many talented young people chose to pursue other careers when they might have been interested in education, and certainly when we look at our most talented young people of color, often they have looked to see, well, there are other professions where perhaps there's a greater likelihood of getting a job, getting a high-paying job. And so those are some of the issues that we're confronting, but these are challenges, but they are not insurmountable challenges.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So how do you promote teaching as a career? I'll ask you both, but let me start with you, Joe.

JOE JOHNSON: I think that the first important way to promote teaching is to help people understand that this is an incredible opportunity to influence the lives of young people, and if that doesn't resonate with someone, then they're probably not right for this profession in the first place, but certainly that opportunity to make a difference is so important. And so that's what we look for, but it's all in how you go out to look for those individuals, right?


JOE JOHNSON: And so for us here we like to see that we have a great potential pipeline right here at San Diego State, so as we go and talk to different student associations, different undergraduate courses, and especially in those courses that might serve a diverse population of students, we go and we want to talk to them about careers in teaching.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So reaching out to student bodies that perhaps wouldn't just normally think, oh, I'm going to become a teacher. I'm wondering, too, Cindy, about what Joe said, about the cuts. How much do you think that impacts whether or not people think going into teaching makes sense considering how much extra education a teacher needs? I'm wondering if it looks like a risky profession now.

CINDY MARTEN: Well, we like to say teaching is definitely a calling, and if you have been called to teach and it's in your heart and you have kids that grow up in play schools since they were little and they know they want to a teacher and then they're afraid, oh, well, I won't have a job, we look to teachers that know that that's what they were born to do, and we welcome them into the profession, and I want to say to not worry about whether there'll be a job for you, that teaching is your life's work, and whether you think you're going to get that job fresh out of college. There are multiple ways that you can teach if that's what your traditional, classical training is. I'm promoting the profession and welcoming people into our organization with our view on diversity, wanting the best and the brightest from San Diego and our teacher-pipeline strategy. We're going out to our future educator clubs on our campuses, people that want to be teachers. I'm looking for a student to invest in. I'm going to be giving a scholarship this year to a San Diego Unified graduate. I haven't picked that student yet, so if you're out there somewhere and you're thinking about becoming a teacher, I'm investing a $5,000 scholarship through the San Diego Education Fund that invests in teachers that serve a pipeline strategy working with the universities and our teachers' union to make sure that we're attracting people right from our own classrooms. And I would say let's not worry about will the job be there because if this is your life's work, we need you and students are counting on you to enter the profession.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When we talk about diversity, what about gender? For quite some time, especially in the lower grades and grade school teachers who were automatically thought of as women, and I'm wondering how do you get (check audio) is it a goal to get more men involved in teaching?

JOE JOHNSON: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How do you go about doing that?

JOE JOHNSON: It's the same strategy of going out and delivering the message and helping people who perhaps did not see this was a potential career for them, to help them see that this would be a great choice.


CINDY MARTEN: At my previous school we did have some male teachers in kindergarten, which was not something that was typical, and when you see the difference that a teacher can make, male or female, we want to invite in, that's the diversity that we're trying to expand and to invite in male teachers to the profession, not see it as traditionally a female job, what does that look like, and give some models of what that looks like and the difference that you can make in the world by coming into the public education system and becoming a teacher to change a life that I think we're changing through this diversity initiative. Our first meeting is tomorrow. Our San Diego Through Diversity Committee is kicking off tomorrow, and when we expand the definition to help people see that they have a career choice and that teaching is a viable, important career choice for the future of America that we think will expand the diversity of our teaching population, not just male and female, but also the traditional breakdown of diversity, that we need the entire city to step in and serve in education and it's not just for a certain type of person that can teach.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, are you still gathering information about ways to expand the teacher-hiring pool? There's a team of Harvard-education students, what are they doing?

CINDY MARTEN: There's a team of 25 graduate students from the Harvard School of Education that came out to San Diego back in February and we identified five problems of practice for them to help us explore options and opportunities to improve, and one of them was looking at our human resources and the diversity of our staff and recruitment practices, and we've just seen the results of the study. We'll be presenting them next to our internal team and then we'll be presenting the results to the board of education at a future meeting, and what some of their recommendations are about how we will (check audio) what are some of the best practices, and we can look in corporate America, we can look in other institutions, what are the best practices out there in human resources. Hiring really begins with a vision that is clearly articulated to the community and being able to speak about it today when I can expand the definition of diversity, put an advertisement out there to the world: Please come and teach. We want you, our students need you, and we're looking for diverse candidates. And it's not just talking about traditional breakdowns. Harvard is giving us some examples through their study around how to replicate some best practices from across the nation and really put Harvard behind our effort here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That invitation, I think, is a great way to end our discussion here. I've been speaking with San Diego School Superintendant Cindy Marten and Dean Joe Johnson of San Diego State's College of Education. Thank you both very much.

JOE JOHNSON: Thank you.

CINDY MARTEN: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You've been listening to KPBS Midday Edition.