Teacher Preparation Opinion

Far Too Many Educators Aren’t Prepared to Teach Black and Brown Students

Teacher-prep programs can help change that
By Sharif El-Mekki — April 06, 2021 5 min read
A group of multicolored people stand together looking in both directions
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Effective teachers can transform the lives of students and their families. Research by Harvard’s Raj Chetty shows a single great teacher can increase the total lifetime earnings of a typical classroom of students by more than a million dollars. That’s life changing.

But being a great teacher is hard, even in nonpandemic times. From inadequate classroom resources to a lack of professional support, the stress and strain of teaching was already driving nearly half of new teachers from the classroom in their first five years. In our new pandemic era, educators are feeling even more taxed.

The challenge is especially acute in our high-poverty, under-funded public schools where teacher tenure is lowest. Black and brown students are twice as likely to attend one of these schools than their white peers. As nearly 80 percent of teachers are white and more than half of public school students are nonwhite, our newest educators often find themselves in a very different cultural context for the first time.

The result is our teaching workforce as a whole often grossly underestimates Black and brown students’ academic abilities and fails to cope with what teachers perceive as “problem behavior.” This “culture shock” and racial bias drives many teachers out of schools that educate Black and brown children to lower-poverty, whiter schools.

Many teachers are clearly not adequately prepared to teach Black and brown students. Our students are paying the price for the failures of our teacher-preparation programs. Changes to these programs that result in better education for Black and brown students are long overdue.

The solution is threefold for our teacher-preparation programs:

1. Engender cultural fluency and understanding. Teacher-preparation programs and their faculties have proven time and time again to be something short of truly culturally responsive to Black and brown communities. The heights of tenured teaching posts are too far removed from the lived experiences of Black and brown students.

The result is a pipeline of new teachers inadequately prepared to serve Black and brown students. In a 2018 study from researchers at Temple University, fully 62 percent of newly graduated aspiring teachers said they feel unprepared to work in an urban classroom.

Those who prepare our future teachers must be more assertive in addressing their own shortcomings and acknowledge when they don’t have a particular sphere of understanding, knowledge, and skills—and then work to acquire them.

2. Equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to help Black and brown students actually learn, not just “speak woke.” It is not enough to be able to speak of liberation; our teachers must be able to provide students with the tools to actually secure it. Performative wokeness, where appearing anti-racist to others is a more important goal than being anti-racist, should not be an exercise perfected in education schools. Unfortunately, it seems to be the primary occupation of many who enjoy tenure in them. When the teachers of teachers are more enamored with virtue signaling—creating a perception in others that they “get racism”— than embracing meaningful accountability for their students and the success of the students their students go on to teach, we are lost.

Whether by ignorance or arrogance, those in the ivory tower seem to have forgotten the wisdom that Maya Angelou articulated: “Elimination of illiteracy is as serious an issue to our history as the abolition of slavery.” Indeed, many in academia are uninterested in either acknowledging or learning about how their class content and pedagogy reinforce inequity.

3. Commit to diversifying faculty, student bodies, and syllabi. Teacher colleges need to commit to diversifying their courses, professors, and students. Some graduates and organizations like National Council on Teacher Quality and TNTP (where I, in full disclosure, serve on the board) are working with teacher-college alums organizing for a more diverse teacher-preparation program at their alma mater. We need much more than this, however.

Teacher-prep syllabi should be informed by the aspirations and goals of the Black and brown communities, not just by what professors wrote their latest book about. Teacher-preparation programs should embrace accountability for the impact, or lack thereof, of the students who graduate from their programs. The point of preparing teachers, after all, is for them to teach well.

We should also look to the programs that are effectively preparing more of our Black and brown teachers. We need new investments in historically Black colleges and universities generally and their schools of education in particular. Given the transformative role that teachers of color can play in the lives of all students, such an investment would redound to the benefit of our entire education system.

Instead of bashing alternative-certification programs, traditional programs should draw lessons from their experiences and effectiveness. These programs essentially level the playing field with aspiring teachers from traditional four-year programs and graduate more Black and brown aspiring teachers than all non-HBCUs combined.

Some predominantly white institutions are waking up to this need. The Center for Black Educator Development, which I founded and lead, is partnering with organizations and a group of teacher colleges to improve the cultural competency of their faculty and academic offerings. This is hard but vital work for these institutions. They should be applauded.

States can use their accreditation authority to drive productive reforms. This past summer, the Pennsylvania state board of education passed new regulations to require teacher-prep programs to implement an education that is “culturally relevant and sustaining,” including through trauma-informed approaches to instruction, cultural awareness, and the ability to address “any factors that inhibit equitable access for all Pennsylvania’s students.”

The Biden administration is also well-positioned to lead on this issue. They can start by bringing a much-needed dose of public transparency to teacher prep. As it stands, we know too little of how well programs and institutions are recruiting and preparing Black and brown teachers.

At the last, there is little standing in our way and much to be gained in creating better-prepared and more culturally competent new teachers. Teacher retention and efficacy will improve. Student achievement will rise. More people, especially those from diverse backgrounds, are likely to be interested in teaching, and the profession as a whole will be elevated.

More than anything, though, this work can improve the lives of our students and the broader well-being of our public school communities.

These should be the baseline goals of any institution claiming to be committed to the equitable education of our students.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teacher Preparation The Complicated, Divisive Work of Grading Teacher-Preparation Programs
As the two national accreditors for teacher-preparation programs evolve, the battle over market share heats up.
9 min read
Illustration of checkmark
Teacher Preparation Remote Learning Is Changing Schools. Teacher-Preparation Programs Have to Adjust
For schools to leverage lessons learned during the pandemic, new teachers need better training on how to work in online environments.
8 min read
A teacher tries to keep up with her technology training
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teacher Preparation Teachers Can Take on Anti-Racist Teaching. But Not Alone
Teachers want to do better by their students of color, but many don’t know how. Madeline Will examines the gap between intention and action.
3 min read
Illustration by Jamiel Law
Teacher Preparation You Have Anti-Racist Curriculum Resources. Now What Do You Do?
Teachers need spaces to explore how power dynamics have shaped the subjects they teach, explains Sarah Schwartz.
4 min read
Illustration by Jamiel Law