Are We (Finally) Ready to Face Teacher Education’s Race Problem?

The teacher quality and teacher education debates have been absent a fundamental acknowledgement of race in the same way that school quality and education reform have mostly ignored race.

Some are taking the recent Office of Civil Rights reports on inequitable discipline policies and access to quality teachers and courses as evidence that education reform may soon confront the race problem in education.

In Educating today’s kids requires different skills, Lewis W. Diuguid accomplishes two notable things: the piece is a rare mainstream media article getting education commentary right, and Diuguid confronts the race problem and the related deficit perspective problem that tarnish education policy and reform:

We’re repeatedly told of an achievement gap, with students of color trailing their white classmates. But that casts the blame on minority students, parents and teachers.

Central to the power of Diuguid’s commentary is that it is informed by the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Ladson-Billings referred to the gap as “an education debt.” She defines it in historical, economic, social, political and moral inequities affecting communities of color. The debt includes it being illegal to teach slaves followed by 100 years of unequal education for black children.

While the mainstream press and education reform agenda remain distracted by the whitewashed “achievement gap”—a metric not only identified by but created by standardized testing—many critical researchers and educators have called for examining the wider systemic inequities grounded in racism, classism, and sexism that create gaps reflected in and perpetuated by schools.

Ladson-Billings offers ways in which we must begin to examine racial inequities not only in discipline and academics in the schools, but also in the racial make-up of the teacher workforce and the barriers to candidates of color in current teacher education models.

For example, Ladson-Billings examines “the demographic and cultural mismatch that makes it difficult for teachers to be successful with K-12 students and makes it difficult for teacher educators to be successful with prospective teachers” (“Is the Team All Right?, p. 229):

Our teacher education programs are filled with White, middle-class, monolingual female students who will have the responsibility of teaching in school communities serving students who are culturally, linguistically, ethnically, racially, and economically different from them. Our teacher education literature is replete with this reality (see, e.g., Cochran-Smith, 1995; Grant & Secada, 1990; Ladson-Billings, 1999; Zeichner, 1992). However, much of the literature on diversity and teacher education is silent on the cultural homogeneity of the teacher education faculty. Teacher educators are overwhelmingly White (Grant & Gillette, 1987), and their positions as college- and university-level faculty place them much further away from the realities of urban classrooms and communities serving students and families of color. Despite verbal pronouncements about commitments to equity and diversity, many teacher educators never have to seriously act on these commitments because they are rarely in situations that make such a demand on them. (“Is the Team All Right?,” p. 230)

Ladson-Billings identifies a parallel problem in teacher education and the teaching workforce that faces the wider U.S. society and its public institutions, such as public education: Race is either addressed in trivializing or marginalizing ways or not at all.

Just as the racial inequity in school-based discipline, teacher assignment, and course access must be exposed and reformed, teacher education has several race-related issues that Ladson-Billings and others have been raising for years:

  • The racial make-up of the teacher workforce.
  • The masking of addressing race in education and teacher education behind terminology such as “diversity.”
  • Isolating and stereotyping professors and scholars of color.
  • Perpetuating deficit perspectives about children of color:

Searches of the literature base indicate that when one uses the descriptor, “Black education,” one is directed to see, “culturally deprived” and “culturally disadvantaged.” Thus, the educational research literature, when it considers African American learners at all, has constructed all African American children, regardless of economic or social circumstance, within the deficit paradigm (Bettleheim, 1965; Bloom, Davis, & Hess, 1965; Ornstein & Viaro, 1968). (“Fighting for Our Lives,” p. 206)

  • A failure to fully engage with critical race theory as a powerful mechanism for addressing issue of race in education and teacher education.

Toward the end of his commentary, Diuguid highlights a key point from Ladson-Billings about deficit perspectives and children of color:

“This is a new way of thinking about culture and thinking about students,” she said. “Young people are not slackers.”

And from this, Diuguid explains Ladson-Billings remains hopeful.

Let’s hope, then, that Diuguid’s commentary is the beginning—like the Obama administration’s concerns about racial inequities in discipline—of something about which we can all be hopeful.

Ladson-Billings Articles Referenced [click HERE for access]

Is the Team All Right?: Diversity and Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, May/Jun2005, Vol. 56 Issue 3, pp. 229-234.

It’s Your World, I’m Just Trying to Explain It: Understanding Our Epistemological and Methodological Challenges. Qualitative Inquiry, February 2003, Vol. 9 Issue 1, pp. 5-12.

Fighting for Our Lives: Preparing Teachers To Teach African American Students. Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2000, Vol. 51(3). pp. 206-214.

The evolving role of critical race theory in educational scholarship. Race, Ethnicity & Education, March 2005, Vol. 8 Issue 1, pp. 115-119.

Just Showing Up: Supporting Early Literacy through Teachers’ Professional Communities (with Gomez, Mary Louise). Phi Delta Kappan, May 2001, Vol. 82 Issue 9, pp. 675-680.

For Related Reading

Smagorinsky on Authentic Teacher Evaluation

What’s Wrong with Teacher Education?

Conditions v. Outcomes: More on What’s Wrong with Teacher Education (and Accountability)? pt. 2

“We Brought It Upon Ourselves”: University-Based Teacher Education and the Emergence of Boot-Camp-Style Routes to Teacher Certification, Daniel Friedrich

Linguistics of White Racism: Racist discourse strategy in US politics, Kathryn McCafferty


7 thoughts on “Are We (Finally) Ready to Face Teacher Education’s Race Problem?

  1. I would like to here thoughts on how we can get a more diverse teacher force. Are there race-based barriers to entering teacher prep? Or are qualified minorities choosing more promising and lucrative fields?

  2. Pingback: Are We (Finally) Ready to Face Teacher Education’s Race Problem? – @ THE CHALK FACE

  3. Yes. Thank you. I remain hopeful, also, in spite of the counter evidence –and then I often wonder whether we’ll ever get our acts together in teacher education.

    I want to raise one honest question: I see the “middleclasswhite” mantra used over and over in describing the teaching force, typically in articles that provide clear data on race and gender, but never data on actual class backgrounds of teachers or teacher ed students. Do you know if that data exists?

    I think that it matters, if thorough and systematic critique of racist and classist schooling is central to our work in teacher ed, to at least be able to see and understand the life experiences of those who do decide to become teachers. There are different roads into critique and analysis depending on one’s starting points, and poor and working class white students may have much different things to contribute to this conversation than their middle class peers (Even while few likely have had the chance to learn more about how class shapes access to education because we just don’t talk about class).

    I’m thinking partly of your work critiquing Ruby Payne and how often in a nearly all-white teacher education class, it’s the often the poor, white student who will shift the conversation in class by saying “Payne has no idea what she’s talking about” , but how hard it is for low-income white students to even identify themselves to their peers as anything but middle class. (we talk a lot about class based shame in my classes, and that opens all sorts of conversation).

    I’ve wondering if the middleclasswhite mantra comes partly from the experiences of critical scholars at more selective institutions (where most critical scholarship is done), even though most teachers are educated at other state schools where many more of the students may be first generation and/or lower-income students.

    How might this conversation shift if we knew that many more teachers/ teacher candidates had childhoods constrained by classism (even though they may not be able to name this) than by middle class privilege, and those same class-based structures even shaped the options that they had for where they’d go to college to become teachers? Tim Lensmire and his colleagues had an interesting piece last fall in HER about the complications of teaching racial privilege among white students who’d had no prior chance to critique the classism that had constrained their working-class parents’ lives or their own aspirations.

    I do wonder if the structural critiques that are crucial for understanding structural racism would be framed in different ways if we didn’t assume that all teachers are middle-class, but as far as I’ve been able to find, we don’t even collect information about the class backgrounds of people going into teaching.

    I completely get that this is about race. I completely get the need for a more racially diverse teaching force. I’m not as clear about the claims to cultural heterogeneity among teachers, unless we discount class in the US, and discounting class would seem to work against the structural critiques that are missing as we talk benignly about “diversity”.

  4. I feel this issue about the lack of racial make-up in the teaching force is extremely important, but often glanced over. Ladson-Billings brings up important and critical points that need to be discussed within teacher education. Not to be self-grandizing, but my new book, “We Got Next: Urban Education and the Next Generation of Black Teachers” takes this issue head on. It follows the story of 10 Black pre-service teachers, and it explains all the added roadblocks Black pre-service teachers face by just trying to be a teacher in the first place. I think these 10 stories start to highlight the embedded issues within teacher education that are sustaining a monocultural teaching force.

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