A Critical Race Theory look at Teacher education

In the U.S., achievement gaps by race/ethnicity persist. I will use Critical Race Theory to ask what teacher education is doing to address them. But first, let’s look at the gaps themselves. I like to use data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, because it has been given to samples of students since the early 1970s, so you can get a sense of long-term trends.



Take, for example, the graph above that shows reading scores of 13-year olds between 1974 and 2008. (Sorry it’s blurry. If you click on the image, you’ll be taken to the original source). The graph shows that 1) scores of White students remained fairly steady, inching up a little bit; 2) scores of Black students had risen until 1988 when the standards-based reforms were initiated, then they dropped quite a bit but have since rebounded, 3) scores of Hispanic students look more like those of Black than of White students, and 4) the achievement gap, narrowest in the late 1980s, has persisted. You can explore more comparisons for yourself here.

While I’m not a fan of basing policy on test scores, I find them a useful indicator of who schools are reaching. And when I look at the NAEP data, I would say schools are reaching White students better than students of color.

Now let’s look at teacher education. It is common that today’s teacher education programs proclaim an orientation toward social justice and preparation of teachers for culturally responsive teaching, which I fully support. At the same time, the great majority continue to turn out roughly 80% White cohorts of teachers even though White students are now less than half of the K-12 population. In general, programs attempt to prepare their predominantly White teacher candidates to teach racially and ethnically diverse students by offering a course or two that focuses on multicultural education, culturally responsive pedagogy, teaching English language learners, or social justice teaching. Until I retired, I taught such courses. But I must ask: is this response enough?

Critical Race Theory offers conceptual tools for analyzing how race and racism have been institutionalized and maintained. As such, it provides a helpful lens for analyzing teacher education’s response to the growing diversity of students and persistence of achievement gaps. A core premise of Critical Race Theory is that racism is endemic, institutional, and systemic; racism is not an aberration but rather a fundamental way of organizing society. This means that continuing to produce teachers, large proportions of whom are not well equipped to teach racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students well, is not an aberration. Rather, as my colleagues Rogers-Ard, Knaus, Epstein and Mayfield argued in 2013, it is a product of racist systems designed to meet White needs. I find three tenets of Critical Race Theory particularly helpful for this analysis: interest convergence, challenges to claims of neutrality and color blindness, and experiential knowledge.

  1. The tenet of interest convergence posits that people do the “right thing” when it is in their own interest. This means that White people will support the interests of people of color only when they converge with White needs. Interest convergence is very useful given the racial composition of most teacher education faculties: about 78% White in 2007. The dominance of White perspectives has huge ramifications for what happens in teacher education programs: how curriculum is designed and what is taught; how students are recruited and selected; how new faculty members—and who those new faculty members are—are recruited, hired, and supported; how urgently a program works to address race and ethnicity; and the extent to which faculty members who work with race are supported. Teacher education programs can accommodate incremental “add on” steps, such adding a course or a topic to existing courses, adding a field experience, or hiring a professor of color, without substantially changing the program itself.
  2. The tenet of meritocracy challenges claims that policies and practices shaped around the dominant ideology are neutral and colorblind. This analytical tool exposes various ways in which processes in teacher education that purport to be colorblind serve to perpetuate whiteness, including a predominantly White teaching force. Consider, for example, research findings on the impact of the Praxis, a widely used test. According to its website, the Praxis tests “measure teacher candidates’ knowledge and skills. The tests are used for licensing and certification processes.” This test, like many others, however, has been criticized for failing teacher candidates of color at much higher rates than White teacher candidates. Is this because more White teacher candidates become better teachers? Goldhaber and Hansen published results of a study in the American Educational Research Journal in 2010 in which they statistically compared the interaction between Black students’ average achievement scores, teacher race, and teacher candidates’ scores on the Praxis. They found that Black students achieved better with a Black teacher who failed the Praxis than the same students would achieve with a White teacher who passed it. In other words, the Praxis acts as a barrier to many prospective teachers who would teach students of color better than many White teacher candidates who the test ranks favorably. Yet, this and other tests that disproportionately pass White teacher candidates continues to be used to screen teacher candidates.
  3. The tenet of experiential knowledge holds that the counterstories of people of color reveal how racism works better than the dominant “majoritarian” stories. Applied to teacher education, this tenet draws our attention to experiences of students of color in predominantly White teacher preparation programs; it also asks whose voices are heard and whose are not. For example, while Historically Black Colleges and Universities have graduated 50% of Black teachers and currently produce 16% of the nation’s Black teacher candidates, Dilworth points out that their voices tend to be ignored in discussions of reform of teaching and teacher education. 

This analysis could leave you feeling like nothing can be done. After all, if the teacher education profession is mostly White, continuing to prepare teachers in their own mold, can anything significant be done?

Writing in the Journal of Teacher Education in 2008, Milner argues that we can extrapolate several core principles from social movements to the work of transforming teacher education. First, as in any social movement, activists must establish a common agenda and vision. This means that social justice–minded teacher educators and their collaborators need to develop enough conceptual convergence that despite differences, they can work as a unified collective. I’m not sure we’re there yet. Second, social movement work takes account of contextual issues, realities, and resources. There is no one formula; local work is necessary. Third, movements connect “pro-action, re-action, and prediction” using evidence of impacts of past practices and trends to make a case for changes for the future. We probably need to generate and work better with data than we currently do. Fourth, individuals cannot opt out simply because they do not personally see themselves as implicated. If you teach math methods, for example, you cannot assume someone else is “taking care of” preparation of teachers to teach math do diverse students Fifth, movements involve persistent long-term work. Addressing racism in teacher education is a process of systemic and cultural change rather than a short-term “fixing” of a problem.

For a longer version of this article, see: Christine Sleeter, Critical race theory and the whiteness of teacher education. Urban Education, 2016.


  1. Simona L. Brickers says:

    Dr. Sleeter, you continue to shine brightly through all the webs of social deceit and confusion to reach the core of many of the issues concerning education, thank you.

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