When James Cole, Jr. started high school in the Southside of Chicago, his mom had just died. And a few weeks later, he was robbed at gun point. His transition to high school was “chaos.”
He never thought he would—or could—go to college, but with the constant encouragement of his 10th grade English teacher, he did.
Cole, now the U.S. Department of Education acting deputy secretary, told this anecdote in a keynote speech at the Teaching With Purpose conference in Portland, Ore. today. The Education Department provided excerpts of his speech to Education Week Teacher. The theme of the conference, which was organized by a former Portland teacher, calls for culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogies.
In Cole’s speech, he focused on the expectations gap—teachers tend to expect more from their white students than they do from their students of color. He pointed to new research that found that the average difference in expectations of college completion faced by black and white students is 40 percent. When a student has a teacher with high expectations, that student becomes 7 percent more likely to complete a four-year college degree.
Cole said he was able to become the first person in his family to graduate from college partly because his English teacher, Ms. Schmitt, believed in him, regardless of his race, his socioeconomic status, and the low graduation rates in his high school.
“Our nation’s teachers are hopeful optimists that strive for the best in our children,” Cole said in his speech, according to the provided excerpts. “That’s why I’m here talking to you about having faith in your students’ ability to succeed. Your perceptions of them, and expectations are for them are so important. ... Students need us to believe in their ability to thrive in school, earn a degree, and lead a better life.”
Some research has found that culturally responsive teaching can close achievement gaps, and that approach has been championed by groups like the National Education Association. In an interview with Education Week Teacher, Cole said the Education Department’s recent guidance on teachers and Title II recommends that states and districts use federal money to provide ongoing professional development aimed at building cultural competence and responsiveness among teachers.
And the work should not be focused solely on race—"It’s also about other groups that face opportunity gaps,” he said, pointing to English-language learners.
Teacher preparation programs should also teach prospective teachers cultural competence “so teachers can succeed from day one,” Cole said, adding that the new teacher-prep regulations touch on this issue. The regulations don’t specifically include cultural competence as an exit requirement for programs, but leave that inclusion up to the states.
Culturally responsive teaching has been well regarded in the education world for years now, especially since the majority of the K-12 student population is non-white, while only 18 percent of educators are of color. The pedagogy involves teaching students of all backgrounds while respecting and engaging with their cultures.
Still, many teachers, particularly those who are white, have shied away from bringing up race in the classroom for fear of saying the wrong thing. That “colorblind” approach has been criticized by educators, but Cole told Education Week Teacher that he didn’t think addressing race explicitly was necessary to be a culturally competent teacher. In fact, he said, Ms. Schmitt never addressed race in the classroom.
“We never talked about race explicitly,” he said. “What was really important is that there was a teacher holding me to high expectations. It just so happened that she was a white teacher and I was an African American student.
“Where teachers feel comfortable, talking about race is helpful and important from a historical perspective, but I don’t think it’s required to have high expectations of all student.”
In his speech to educators at the conference, he said he was standing there “because a teacher had a profound faith in [his] potential.”
“The next time you’re having a difficult moment with a student—the next time you want to give up on them, or the next time a student gives you a hard time—double down on your faith in them,” Cole told teachers in his speech. “Step up your faith that they can overcome the challenges in their lives. With your help, I bet they’ll go on to achieve some amazing things for this community and for our country.”
Image of James Cole, Jr., courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education
- For Preservice Teachers, Lessons Cultural Sensitivity
- Developing Resilient, Equity-Conscious Teachers (Opinion)
- Study: Class Getting-to-Know-You Exercise Can Help Close Achievement Gaps
- Study: Teacher-Prep Programs Need to Deepen Educators’ Racial Awareness
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.