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The problem of having mostly white teachers in schools with mostly black and brown students is an issue that has plagued the education system for years. There are many reasons for the lack of diversity in the teaching population, but it’s clear that the lack of diversity has had a negative impact on the lives of black and brown students. In an effort to encourage teachers to take a more active role in solving this problem, some states have launched recruitment campaigns that specifically target minority teachers.
Most of the teachers at my high school were white. But the majority of them weren’t really prepared to teach black and brown students. I learned this on my first day of high school, when I showed up for my freshman orientation and realized that I was the only black kid in my grade.
Effective teachers can change and save lives, but being a good teacher is hard.
This problem is particularly acute in our poor under-resourced public schools, where teacher numbers are at their lowest. Black and brown students are twice as likely to attend one of these schools as their white peers. With nearly 80% of teachers being white, our new teachers often find themselves in a completely different cultural context for the first time.
The result is often a gross underestimation of the academic abilities of black and brown students, a lack of understanding, and an inability to deal with what teachers consider to be problematic behaviors. This culture shock and racial prejudice caused many teachers to leave black and brown schools and flee to poorer, whiter schools.
Many white teachers are clearly inadequately prepared to teach black and brown students. Our students are paying the price for the failure of our teacher education programs. Changes to these programs that lead to better education for black and brown students are long overdue.
The solution consists of three parts. Our teacher education programs must promote cultural competency, train teachers who actually teach black and brown students, and advocate for diversification of courses, teachers, and students.
1. Make sure you speak fluently and understand the culture. Teacher education programs and their teachers have proven time and again that they are not entirely culturally tailored to black and brown communities. The heights of the teaching profession are too far removed from the life experiences of black and brown students.
The result is that new teachers are being trained who are not adequately prepared to work with black and brown students. In a recent survey, 72% of prospective teachers who had just graduated said they did not feel prepared to work in an urban classroom, and 62% said they did not feel prepared to teach culturally diverse students.
Those who prepare our future teachers need to be more aware of their own shortcomings and admit that they lack a certain area of understanding, knowledge and skills. Most importantly, they are willing to work for it.
2. Equipping teachers with the skills and knowledge to help black and brown students really learn and not just talk in military terms. It is not enough to talk about liberation and equality; our teachers must be able to give students the tools to achieve this. Excellence in performance should not be an exercise perfected in educational institutions, but it does seem to be an essential element for many of those who hold office there. When teachers are more concerned with virtue signaling than with meaningful responsibility for the success of their students and grandchildren, we have lost.
Through ignorance or arrogance, the people in the ivory tower seem to have forgotten that it was Maya Angelou who once remarked that the eradication of illiteracy was as important an issue in our history as the abolition of slavery. Indeed, many academics are not interested in recognizing or learning how their content and pedagogy reinforce inequality rather than responding to the needs of schools for black and brown children.
Not all educational programs are created equal. Some teachers are not prepared to teach black and brown children in the inner city. – @Mr_Ankrum #Unpublic https://t.co/uPZE3e5H7r pic.twitter.com/xmNi2iTw2W
– Citizen Ed (@CitizenEdu) April 21, 2021
3. Commit to diversifying faculty, students, and curricula. Colleges must commit to diversifying their courses, faculty and students. Some alumni and organizations like NCTQ and TNTP (of which I am a board member) are trying to get alumni teachers to advocate for more diverse teacher education at their alma mater. However, we need much more than that.
Teacher education needs to be aligned with the aspirations and goals of black and brown communities, not just what they wrote their latest book about. Teacher education programs must take responsibility for the impact – or lack of impact – of their graduates. After all, teacher education is about teaching well.
We also need to look at programs that effectively prepare more of our black and brown teachers. We need new investments in HBCUs in general and in their educational institutions in particular. Given the transformative role teachers of color can play in the lives of all students, this investment will benefit our entire educational system.
Instead of denigrating alternative certification programs, traditional programs should learn from their experience and effectiveness. These programs raise future teachers to the same level as traditional four-year programs and produce more future black and brown teachers than all non-HBCU universities combined.
Some predominantly white institutions are beginning to see this need. The Center for Black Educator Development, which I founded and direct, works with organizations and a group of colleges of education to improve the cultural competency of their teachers and academic offerings. This is difficult but vital work for these institutions and they should be commended.
States can use their accreditation power to make productive reforms. This summer, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education adopted new rules requiring teacher education programs to implement culturally relevant and sustainable instruction, including trauma-informed learning approaches, cultural awareness, and the ability to remove all barriers to equitable access for all students in Pennsylvania.
The Biden administration is also well positioned to take a leadership role on this issue. You can start by introducing a much-needed dose of transparency into teacher education. Currently, we know too little about how programs and institutions recruit and train black and brown teachers.
Finally, there are few barriers and much remains to be done to produce better trained and culturally competent new teachers. Teacher retention and effectiveness will improve. Students’ performance will improve. It is likely that more people, especially from diverse backgrounds, will become interested in teaching and the profession as a whole will grow.
Most importantly, this work can improve the lives of our students and the overall well-being of our public school communities.
These should be the fundamental goals of any institution that claims to strive for or aspire to provide equitable education to our students.
A version of this blog was originally published on Education Week.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What percentage of American teachers are white?
If you ask most people, they’d bet most teachers in the United States are white. That’s because they believe most teachers in the United States are public school teachers, and public school teachers are overwhelmingly white. But when you look at all teachers in the United States—including private school teachers, teacher assistants and home school teachers—the picture changes dramatically. In fact, most teachers in the United States are minority. And public school teachers are one of the least diverse teaching populations in the whole country. White teachers are usually considered to have an advantage in the American educational system. This is because they look like the majority of the student body. With that said, do you think white teachers are being discriminated against in American schools? Most people would say yes, but in reality white teachers are more likely to be promoted than other races. Is it unfair that they get this advantage?
Are most teachers white?
The US has a number of major problems right now. Police brutality and racism is just one of them. But what about the system that is meant to educate our children? It’s not separate from the system that is meant to police our streets; they both are failing, and it’s failing our children. While the actual percentage of white teachers in America is debatable—depending on your definition of “white,” and the definition of “teacher” itself—there is no denying that racial disparities in the classroom are real. In the U.S., it’s estimated that under half of black students and close to three-fourths of Latino students are taught by a teacher of the same race. And while there’s been an overall increase in the percentage of black teachers over the last several decades, this increase has largely plateaued in the last few years, while the number of Latino teachers has actually declined.
Do black students learn better from black teachers?
Education is a topic that is a hot button issue in America. It seems that no matter what the issue is, everyone has an opinion. One topic that has recently made its way into the media spotlight is the question of whether black students learn better from black teachers. This question was answered in a recent study. As a white teacher, I believe that the black students learn better from black teachers. I have taught in mostly black schools since I started teaching. It seems the schools I taught in were filled with black students and only a few white students. There seemed to be a disconnect between the students and I. I felt that even though I tried, I couldn’t connect with them. I began to notice that their tests scores were not as high as I had expected and began to do research.