Although public schools with predominately non-white students are dramatically increasing, 82 percent of teachers in these same schools are white (“Study: Less Than 1 in 5 Public-School Teachers Are Nonwhite,” Time, May 4). With so much attention placed on the importance of teachers as the No. 1 in-school factor in student learning, this disparity warrants further discussion.
Is teacher effectiveness the result of knowledge of subject matter and mastery of pedagogy, or does matching the race of teachers to that of their students also play a powerful role? In the past, we assumed that the former was the basis for effectiveness. But now it seems that success in the classroom also depends on the latter. That’s because teachers who are, say, Hispanic better understand the values and attitudes their Hispanic students bring to the classroom than, say, white teachers. Moreover, teachers serve as role models, which often accounts for their effectiveness.
But what happens when the racial population of a school changes yet the racial composition of the faculty does not? I experienced precisely that when I taught in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years. When I began my career in 1964, the school was overwhelmingly white, as was the faculty. The situation changed as a result of busing and Third World immigration. Lessons that were surefire hits were suddenly total duds.
Instead of preparing teachers for the changes in enrollment through a series of seminars that provided concrete case studies, the district mandated a one-day workshop that dealt in generalities. As a result, like most teachers at my former school I learned by trial and error. It’s never too early to begin to teach about other cultures. UCLA, which has dragged its feet, is about to propose that most undergraduates take a class in racial, religious or gender diversity (“UCLA again considering diversity class requirement,” Los Angeles Times, May 5). It’s a step that is long overdue.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.