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Study: Teacher-Prep Programs Need to Deepen Educators' Racial Awareness

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What responsibility do white teachers have to confront their own racial identity and potential privilege while teaching students of color? 

A new study, conducted by four education researchers and published in the Current Issues in Education journal, seeks to answer that question by examining changes in white student-teachers' racial understanding, as well as their perceptions of working with students of color, after a semester of teaching in diverse classrooms. 

The question is particularly topical, since although the majority of U.S. public students are non-white, 82 percent of the nation's teaching corps is white. And the teacher pipeline has been found to be filled with holes when it comes to increasing diversity in the profession. 

The study finds that many prospective educators entered their student-teaching placements with biased expectations, but a majority said that after a semester working in a racially diverse, "high needs" school, they felt more confident about teaching diverse students and were more comfortable in a diverse setting. One-fifth of pre-service teachers surveyed said they became more cognizant of the need to be culturally aware of their students backgrounds. And 35 percent demonstrated an increased self-awareness of the disparity between themselves and their students' backgrounds. 

A caveat: The sample size for the study was small, with just 75 white pre-service teachers participating. The study only took place over the course of one semester in one private institution in the northeastern United States.

Still, while this study shouldn't be used to make any sweeping conclusions, the insights in the report are worth mulling over. While the researchers found that a semester of immersive practice in a diverse classroom can help teachers develop greater perspective, they argued that teacher-prep programs need to take additional steps to boost educators' cultural competency. They found that although the pre-service teachers in their study were more aware and comfortable at the end of the semester, for example, very few respondents felt like they should adapt their teaching to meet a range of students' needs. 

The researchers also observe that white teachers often avoid discussing race and racism in the classroom for fear of saying the wrong thing. But color-blind racial attitudes can negate the ongoing influence of racism and discrimination on people of color and ignore the influence of a student's culture on learning, they say, citing a previous body of research. Teacher education, they conclude, must address racial identity issues so that white pre-service teachers are able to reflect on issues of race, including their own white privilege.

To do that, the researchers argue, education school faculty members must be trained on critical race theory, white racial identity, and privilege, and this information should be incorporated throughout the curriculum. And pre-service teachers should reflect on what it means to be a member of a marginalized group and how students of color might perceive white teachers. (The study found that just over half of pre-service teachers said students of color are biased or sometimes biased toward white teachers.) 

Teacher-prep providers have been making an effort to boost the cultural-competency training teachers receive, by creating a more immersive training experience for pre-service teachers, from simulations to clinical components. 

Still, Teach For America just announced that it is winding down a pilot program that gave some of its recruits a year of pre-service training on social justice topics and how to better engage with diverse communities. In an opinion blog on edweek.org, Kailee Lewis, a participant of the program, blasted the organization's decision, writing that it was a "disservice to the students who are going to have to attempt to learn from a corps member who can't understand the community they have stepped into." 

Avoiding or paying minimal attention to racial identity, the researchers warn in the new study, "perpetuates a systemic stratification in our schools, sustaining the achievement gap and perhaps inadvertently maintains long-standing control by the dominant culture." 

Source: Image by Flickr user US Department of Education, licensed under Creative Commons


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