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In classrooms, quality counts

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Esther Cepeda
March 11, 2012
— Every few months, a handful of education reform advocates push the idea that the public education system’s woes could be fixed if only there were more black or Hispanic teachers in classrooms.

You’ll surely hear this in the wake of the U.S. Department of Education’s alarming data, published by the Office of Civil Rights, showing that though Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of public school populations, they account for 56 percent of students expelled under zero-tolerance school discipline policies.


Worse, black students are 3½ times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers, and more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.


Add this to the well-known low academic achievement rates of both these groups—the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported the dropout rate as 9.3 percent for black students and 17.6 percent for Hispanics in 2009, compared to 5.2 percent for whites—and it’s easy to see why anyone would jump to the conclusion that a teacher’s race matters.


The disparity itself is clear: In 2009, again according to the NCES, 83 percent of public school teachers were white, whereas only 54 percent of students were white. By comparison, Hispanics and African-Americans each made up only 7 percent of teacher rolls, while 23 percent of students were Hispanic and 15 percent were black.


But, no, racial balancing is not a magic bullet. I have observed many teachers over hundreds of hours in rich, poor and special-needs schools and seen white teachers inspire and edify minority children but have also watched black and Hispanic teachers fail to engage classes made up exclusively of students of their own background.


I’ve observed white teachers totally rock a class composed of both native Spanish-speakers learning English and native English-speakers acquiring Spanish, and watched black teachers make Shakespeare live and breathe in AP English classes composed mostly of white students.


Excellent teachers have expertise and passion for their subject, a firm understanding of the principles of good teaching and a fundamental appreciation of their students, regardless of their background.


For sure, public schools need more black and Hispanics teachers, but not because of some misguided belief that minority students need teachers of their own race to ensure the best educational outcomes. I taught both first-grade and high school math exclusively to Latino students, and though sharing cultural backgrounds was a bonus, this didn’t make me a better teacher than my white peers.


But public schools do need their students to be taught by a truly diverse staff if they want to prepare them for modern workplaces in an increasingly global economy. And it’s not enough for there to simply be equal percentages of black and Hispanic teachers to go with those students’ numbers. It’s imperative for there to be more men—76 percent of teachers are female, with the males concentrated in high school—and 5 percent of all students are Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander, while only 2 percent of all teachers are of one of those backgrounds.


Even more important: Once those teachers are in schools, they must not be relegated to only teaching minority students—white students must also get the chance to learn from someone of a different background. Really, the lack of minority teachers robs all students, not just the nonwhite ones.

Above all, our schools just plain need excellent teachers—no small feat because there is no official, benchmarked description of an “effective teacher.” But for teachers to succeed, they must be equipped with equitable and well-supervised schoolwide discipline systems, rigorous classroom management training, and whatever resources are necessary to understand the issues and life circumstances that affect their school’s students.


Without such environments, black and Hispanic students will continue to face harsher discipline and get kicked out of school more often than their white peers. Even excellent teachers can’t be expected to successfully educate diverse students without first being well prepared by teacher training programs or supported by their school districts to address the myriad issues that cause their most challenging students to get into so much trouble.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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