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Teachers' Ethnicity Matters

Although the number of minority teachers in public-school classrooms has doubled since the late 1980s, the need to recruit and retain more persists ("Where Are the Teachers of Color?" The New York Times, Apr. 12).  That's because it's important for students to be able to identify with their teachers.

It's not that race counts more than expertise. On the contrary, both are vital for effective learning. But in our obsession with test scores, we tend to give short shrift to the role that racial identification plays. For example, consider what is known as stereotype threat ("How Stereotypes Defeat the Stereotyped," Time, May 9, 2009).  Nearly 100 refereed studies have shown that black students often perform poorly on tests because they're afraid the results will be used to confirm negative views about their race.  When the stereotype threat is eliminated, so too is the difference in test scores between the groups in question.

It's here that minority teachers can help.  Their mere presence in the classroom, coupled with their encouragement, can help minority students perform at far greater levels than otherwise.  I'm not saying that stereotype threat is the only cause of differences between racial groups.  There are multiple causes.  But with so much on the line, I'd like to see more minority teachers.

The trouble is more with retention than with recruitment.  Nonwhite teachers tend to be disproportionately assigned to schools with large number of low-income students.  They quit at a higher rate than their white colleagues, citing "student discipline problems and lack of resources and lower salaries, with often more top-down and scripted curricula."

Too many low-income families bring huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development to class through no fault of their own.  It's little wonder that teachers of all races tend to avoid assignments in these schools.  I see few signs that their reluctance will change.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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