Equity & Diversity

Teacher Colleges Emphasizing ‘Cultural Competence’

By Sarah Karp, Rebecca Harris & Catalyst Chicago — March 15, 2011 16 min read
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Quishun Elrod’s 3rd-grade class is starting a discussion about things that are scary, based on a short story they’ve read. Michael apparently wants to say something, but instead of raising his hand, he mutters under his breath and gets up and down several times.

Another boy, David, is called on first. He says, “I am afraid of snakes because I think one day they are going to bite me and I am going to die.”

Frustrated, Michael stands up, plops back down, shoves his chair back and loudly complains that he was going to say that. Michael’s turn comes next, and he talks about the time his godfather showed him a rattlesnake.

But when another student answers and ties the topic to the storyline of the movie “The Lion King,” Michael disrupts the class again by getting up, walking over to another desk, sitting down and hanging his head. “You lame,” he says to the student.

Michael’s face is scowling and his behavior quickly becomes the center of the conversation in class. So the next time he stands up, Elrod is there at his side. She puts her arm firmly around his shoulders and holds him still, while keeping her eyes on the student who is talking. At once, Michael becomes quiet, even attentive.

Leaving the room at Faraday Elementary, Principal Cederrall Petties says he was wowed by the skillful way Elrod handled the boy’s disruption. Elrod, unlike other teachers he’s seen, is not likely to send students to the office, dole out harsh punishment or holler at the children. But before today, he didn’t know exactly what tactics she used to manage her classroom. A firm but sympathetic gesture seemed to be just what Michael needed.

“The fact that she was totally able to settle him down was amazing,” Petties says. “Did you see that? His behavior changed immediately. It was night and day.” Elrod will celebrate her first year handling a classroom by herself on March 1, and says that her teacher training did a good job helping her develop teaching strategies for reading and math. But there was little about how to deal with students like Michael, who appears impulsive and angry. The sole class on child development was online.

So Elrod draws on her personal experience to develop a relationship with her students. While she’s green, she’s a career-changer and is not as young and overly idealistic as some new teachers are. And as a black woman who spent time in foster care while growing up, Elrod says there are “tremendously important ways” in which she can relate to her students.

“I tell them, ‘You might not be in an ideal situation, and neither was Mrs. Elrod,’” she says. “I let them know that we are one and the same, and look at where Mrs. Elrod is now.”

Black teachers like Elrod are an increasingly hot commodity in Chicago Public Schools. In fact, Petties says, one of his colleagues has already tried to steal her. Latino teachers are scarce as well.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of state teacher service records for 2010 and 2000 shows a distinct shift in the racial makeup of new teachers in CPS and thus the teaching force as a whole. More teachers are white. The Catalyst analysis found that:

• In charter schools, two-thirds of teachers are white.

• In turnaround schools, where CPS replaces most of the staff, the racial balance has shifted from 70 percent black to less than 50 percent black. At two turnaround schools, Fulton Elementary on the South Side and Bethune Elementary on the West Side, the shift was especially dramatic: The number of black teachers fell by more than 40 percentage points and is now at 35 percent.

• Only 15 percent of teachers are Latino.

At the same time, other trends are emerging: a move to increase clinical practice among teacher candidates, especially those headed for urban schools, and an emphasis on helping teacher candidates learn about and understand the communities where they will teach.

The end result: More schools have a mismatch similar to Faraday’s, where all of the students are black but just a third of the teachers are.

One factor behind the demographic swing is a shift in the hiring mix from schools of education and teacher training programs. Over the past decade, Chicago State University—the No. 1 producer of black teachers—lost its position as the top provider of teachers to CPS. Illinois State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the majority of teacher candidates are white, are now among the top five providers of new CPS teachers.

Second, the district is now drawing more teachers from out-of-state. In 2010, nearly 40 percent of teachers with five years of experience or less were from out-of-state colleges and universities, and the vast majority—80 percent—were white. In 2000, just 29 percent of newer teachers were from outside Illinois.

David Stovall, associate professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has noted the racial shift. He says some of it is caused by black and Latino teachers quickly being scouted to be principals before they’ve spent much time in the classroom.

“We’re seeing a lot more black and Latino young teachers transfer into the principal [pipeline],” says Stovall, who cites “very extensive recruiting efforts, here at UIC and in other education administration programs around the country. And the current charter movement likes young leaders of color. That’s a [move] we haven’t seen in quite some time.”

Training for Urban Schools

Elrod’s background makes it easier for her to relate to her students. But many new teachers come from suburban, middle-class backgrounds and don’t have that advantage. As a result, they often are quickly overwhelmed by the challenges of urban, high-poverty schools.

Schools of education have generally always included training targeted at specific types of students, whether those living in the inner city or in rural areas. But Tim Daly, president of the non-profit The New Teacher Project, believes that such specialty training is on the rise nationally. (The New Teacher Project conducts policy research and helps districts find strategies to improve the quality of teachers in schools serving poor and minority students.)

UIC’s College of Education now offers only an urban education major for undergraduates.

Students in the major can choose to prepare for an elementary education certification or study “education in a democratic society,” which includes policy studies and prepares students to become educators in non-traditional settings like non-profits.

Indeed, the catch-phrase “cultural competence” has become common in education circles. As Reavis Elementary School Principal Michael Johnson puts it: “Are they able to relate to the children they serve?”


Schools of education are under pressure to better prepare teacher candidates, especially those who will work in urban schools. One strategy is to give prospective teachers the knowledge and tools to relate to students who come from a different background, through classes on race, class and culture; longer stints as student teachers; or community internships. The skill of cultural competence has become important at the same time that a shift is taking place in the Chicago Public Schools.

• More new teachers are white, while the student body is more than 80 percent black and Latino. In 2010, 62 percent of teachers with five years experience or less were white, up from 48 percent a decade ago.

• The hiring mix from schools of education has also changed over the past decade. Predominantly black Chicago State University has lost its position as the top provider of new teachers to CPS to Northeastern Illinois University, where 6 percent of education students are black.

• With federal support, Illinois State University has created two innovative programs that get teacher candidates into Chicago neighborhoods and classrooms early on. Experts say early exposure is important in getting teachers ready for the realities of urban schools. Scaling up these initiatives will be expensive.

• Principals say they are struggling to find teachers who can relate to students. The Chicago Public Education Fund is backing the design of a tool to help principals determine which candidates have the characteristics to be effective teachers.

SOURCE: Catalyst Chicago

To help prospective teachers better understand the children and communities in which they plan to work, some education schools offer classes in race, class and culture. Some incorporate internships at local community organizations as part of training. Some programs are being more deliberate in teaching candidates how to manage classrooms—a skill that new teachers often struggle with.

One reason is culture shock. “The vast majority of the teaching force is white women who don’t know the communities, so there’s a potential cultural mismatch or a misreading [of students’ behavior] that happens early on and it unravels from there,” says Vicki Chou, dean of the College of Education at UIC. The college commissioned a survey of Chicago principals and found that first-year teachers, especially in predominantly black schools, lack classroom management skills.

At the Academy for Urban School Leadership, the goal is to hire teachers who mirror the student body at schools operated by AUSL, says Brian Sims, managing director of teacher development. The reality is that they can only choose among those who apply. One principal at an AUSL school says applicants at job fairs are most often “young white women from Midwestern colleges.”

Yet Sims rejects the notion that a teacher will be better able to manage a classroom or teach students if he or she is of the same race or ethnicity. A case in point: Ed Morris, a tall black man who is principal of Dodge Elementary, one of the 19 schools managed by AUSL.

Morris received his teacher training through AUSL, which requires a year-long residency in a school as part of its intensive program. Morris grew up in an upper-middle class suburban household and attended mostly private schools. Walking into his first inner-city classroom, he recalls being deathly afraid.

“It was a different world than what I was used to,” Morris says. The disconnection was “bigger than race. I had to learn the norms of the community I was in. I had to work to understand the subculture.”

AUSL’s intensive program provides critical exposure to the realities of Chicago schools, Morris and Sims say—something that is necessary for any future CPS teacher, regardless of race.

The concept of teaching the “soft” skill of cultural competence isn’t new, but remains controversial. Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says that schools of education have long had a bent toward teaching social justice, the concept that teachers should be advocates for students and their communities.

Jacobs, however, says that teacher training should focus on instructional strategies to better teach students, rather than meeting children’s social needs.

“We need to make sure the exposure is on content and pedagogy,” says Jacobs. Her group released a report last November that strongly criticized Illinois schools and colleges of education for a lack of rigor and other shortcomings. Education deans dismissed the findings and said the study’s methodology was flawed.

Still, a number of educators believe that cultural competence should be addressed in teacher training programs.

“It has to be explicit and upfront,” says Stovall. “And it is critically important because of that [racial mismatch] dynamic. It is increasingly important to get those issues on the table.”

The class “Composing a Teaching Life” at UIC is designed to do just that. The class covers U.S. history with a focus on race and ethnicity, and includes readings of classic literature by African-American authors.

At a class last fall, students begin by talking about a passage in James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” Baldwin writes of his feelings about school and describes how his teachers are nice to him, which contradicts his tyrannical father’s contention that all white people are evil.

Instructor Eleni Katsarou then transitions into a discussion of the book “Ways with Words.” Written by a cultural anthropologist who studied family interactions, the book is about how those interactions—how children are talked to and whether they are read to—are determined by class and race and, in turn, affect school outcomes.

Next, the class turns to an essay in the book “City Kids, City Schools. “First, they talk about the introduction, which describes a “Saturday Night Live” skit that parodies media portrayals of teachers as “nice white ladies” who teach urban students to achieve against the odds. Then the discussion shifts to an essay by a teacher who describes her goal as “to re-teach a thing its beauty.”

Teacher candidate Alyssa Holzrichter says she found the class helpful. She was enrolled in the class during a semester in which she was also doing field work at Spencer Elementary in Austin, and the readings taught her about the lasting impact of racial prejudice on her students and their families. And she learned the need to teach her students to recognize the great things in their communities, even if the outside world views it as impoverished or bad.

“We need to tell them, ‘Your community is great in a lot of ways. There are things you can do to make it better, and there are things you can do to make your life better,’” Holzrichter says.

Tracie Kenyon, who teaches in a diverse school in Lincoln Park, says that a similar class she took while a student in the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program helped her to better navigate her first years in the classroom. One of the first assignments was to answer a list of questions designed to determine a person’s level of privilege. It dawned on Kenyon, who grew up in California, that she had a lot of advantages.

Now, when interacting with students, Kenyon keeps in mind the inequities created by race and class—and says she works hard to mitigate them by providing rigorous instruction.

Classroom Management

Lack of understanding about a student’s culture can easily lead to problems in the classroom. Edwin Rivera, principal of Monroe Elementary in Logan Square, has grappled with the issue. At Monroe, the student body is 94 percent Latino, compared to just 34 percent of teachers.

A few years ago, a first-year teacher came to him, frustrated and ready to punish a student who had been assigned to write a composition and turned in a rap poem instead. Rivera explained to her that the boy might not have been trying to disrespect her assignment.

“This is what he loved, this is what he knew,” Rivera says. “This was a cultural expression.” As long as students are not being disrespectful, he adds, teachers have to guide them in the right way, not punish them.

Over time, with a mentor and professional development, that teacher has been able to adjust and now is much better at understanding and managing her students, Rivera says.

The challenge in addressing classroom management is getting teacher candidates to shed assumptions about urban students, says Krista Robinson-Lyles, an assistant professor at National-Louis University.

National-Louis takes an indirect approach, by emphasizing how to build relationships with students and parents. Doing that, Lyle says, makes for a positive, calmer classroom climate.

Daly of The New Teacher Project, however, makes another point: Teachers who have good classroom management skills are often seen as culturally competent, so teacher training ought to focus on providing future teachers with concrete skills and strategies to help them create a respectful climate in their classroom.

The Academy for Urban School Leadership places a premium on strict discipline. At Dodge, one of 19 schools managed by AUSL, the students walk quietly in the hallway. In the classroom, they transition from one task to the next in a matter of seconds. Sims boasts that a sharply managed classroom can add significant learning time to the school day.

“I can predict which schools will be successful on how well they get the rituals down,” Sims says.

AUSL provides prospective teachers with specific words and strategies, and teaches an approach that aims to be warm but strict and gives students specific instructions for behavior. AUSL also spends significant time training their master teachers in how to coach residents to use these strategies.

Few education programs offer courses that explicitly teach classroom management like AUSL. That shortcoming was noted by The National Council on Teacher Quality in its study of Illinois education programs.

Many school principals and education professors see field experience as the key to preparing future teachers, especially for urban classrooms. “The way to prepare people for urban schools is to give them experiences in urban schools,” says Maureen Gillette, dean of the Northeastern Illinois College of Education.

In its recent report on strategies for transforming teacher education, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education said programs must be “fully grounded in clinical practice” interwoven with academic content and professional courses.

Eight states—Illinois is not among them—agreed to work with the National Council on creating local partnerships to provide more field training for teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

Principal Amy Rome of National Teachers Academy, which serves as a training site for AUSL, says the year-long residency provides invaluable experience for AUSL residents to see teachers in action.

“They see the beginning of the year and the end of the year,” Rome says. “They don’t just come in for six weeks and see one slice. It is a totally different ball game.”

But until more programs change, few principals have the luxury of hiring teachers who have had a prolonged apprenticeship in the classroom. (The state has no requirement for the length of student teaching.)

At Faraday, Petties says that he would jump at the chance to hire teachers who have had an entire year to work with an experienced teacher. “Most of the teachers who come in don’t have an idea of what the reality is,” he says.

Even Rome, who has connections to AUSL, says teachers with a lot of field experience are scarce.

Chicago’s Teacher Screening

Classroom experience is a good sign for principals who are considering whether to hire a teacher candidate. Absent that experience, however, CPS principals are in line to get help judging candidates before making hiring decisions.

The Chicago Public Education Fund has invested $100,000 to help CPS adapt a “disposition screening” to use in evaluating teacher candidates. Such screenings are based on the idea that successful teachers in urban schools need specific traits. The CPS version of the screening will measure traits such as planning ability, how they relate to their students, persistence, initiative and a focus on results.

In some of the questions, candidates will be asked how they would react to specific scenarios. Other questions will ask about beliefs or attitudes.

Janet Knupp, the Fund’s founding president and CEO, says CPS receives many applicants, even for high-needs subject areas.

“But we do not necessarily hire the high-quality candidates,” Knupp says. “We wanted to find ways where teacher potential could be measured at the time of application.”

“We believe that hiring teachers is one of the greatest levers that CPS can pull to improve teacher quality,” Knupp adds. “To date, the way principals make teacher hiring decisions and the information they are given to help them make hiring decisions is insufficient.”

Last fall, the assessment’s developers sat down with CPS teachers and principals to define the skills needed for great teaching. To gauge the validity of the tool, 900 current CPS teachers took a pilot version. It’s not clear yet when or whether CPS will use the tool.

Already, though, some principals have found ways to try to evaluate teachers before hiring them.

At Reavis, Johnson devised his own questionnaire for applicants. In addition to cultural competence, he says, “one of the things very strong for us is, ‘Do you give up?’”

At National Teachers Academy, Rome puts the candidate in a classroom and watches him or her conduct an exercise. She also asks them questions to gauge how strongly they feel about social justice.

“They need to be able to articulate to me why they want to work in a high needs environment,” Rome says. “Understanding that they are a change agent is enormous.”

Rome points out that she used to believe that knowledge of how to teach a specific subject was the most important trait of an effective teacher. But for her, the pendulum has now swung in the other direction: She believes that teachers can be coached on how to be a better instructor, but if they come in with the wrong disposition, it is harder to change.

Petties agrees. He says that he tries his best to find good black teachers, like Elrod. But failing that, he looks for teachers with a “willingness to understand and deal with certain issues.” He also wants teachers who will stick around, saying that they need to be able to build trust among students. Many of them have seen too much and had too many adults fail them, Petties notes.

“We have to create a safe environment in order for learning to flourish,” he says. “And we have to have teachers who realize that it is a process. It is going to take time to build it up.”

Cassandra West and Taryn Tawoda contributed to this report.

Republished with permission from Catalyst Chicago. Copyright © 2011 Community Renewal Society.


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