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
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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.

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