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Study Points to Need for Diversity Training in Teacher Prep

Students' race, ethnicity, and immigrant status play a role in a teacher's decision to speak with parents about their children's behavior and academic issues, a new study suggests.

The study, published in Teachers College Record, found that math teachers are more likely to contact parents of third-generation black and Latino students about disruptive behavior than parents of third-generation white students. In fact, math teachers contacted parents of black students over behavior issues twice as often as they contacted parents of white students. 

Both math and English teachers, the study finds, are less likely to contact immigrant Asian parents about homework and behavior issues, even when the students in question are struggling academically.

 "The patterns of communication we saw are consistent with stereotypes that teachers may subscribe to different racial and ethnic groups," Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, the study's author, said in a statement. Cherng is an assistant professor of international education at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Cherng analyzed the responses of math and English teachers included in a nationally representative sample of about 10,000 public high school sophomores from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, which was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The Education Department's study asked teachers how they communicated with parents on topics like the failure to complete homework, disruptive behavior, and accomplishments.

Of the topics, sharing accomplishments was overall the most common form of communication between teachers and parents. Yet teachers were less likely to contact immigrant Latino and Asian parents with news of their children's achievements. Thirty percent of math teachers contacted parents of first-generation Latino and second-generation Asian American students with news of achievements, compared to nearly half of math teachers contacting parents of third-generation white parents.

"These findings support the notion that Asian American students are perceived by teachers to be 'model minorities'—the image that all Asian American students excel academically and are in less need of attention or intervention," Cherng said.

Cherng concludes that the way teachers communicate with parents is consistent with racial stereotypes. He said education policy should take disparities in teacher-parent communication into account and that teacher prep programs should provide more diversity training. To see what training teachers in cultural sensitivity looks like, check out Stephen Sawchuk's article on simulated student-teacher interactions and this video about a summer fellowship that prepares young teachers by immersing them in the communities where they will work.

 According to Ann Nutter Coffman of the National Education Association, the diversity training that Cherng suggests is provided inconsistently across teacher-prep programs. "You don't need to come from a disadvantaged background or be a person of color to be a successful teacher," explained Coffman. "But it's just a matter of making sure that teachers are trained in cultural competence and to understand what that means in how to help kids. Getting that training is super important; it's just not always given the prominence it should."

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