Whiteness of the Teaching Force

As students of color in the US become the new majority, there is growing concern about the persistent overwhelming whiteness of the teaching force. Just recently, for example, writing in the New York Times last month, Elizabeth Harris noted:

Concerned that education schools were turning out too many middling graduates, states have been introducing more difficult teacher licensing exams. Perhaps not surprisingly, passing rates have fallen. But minority candidates have been doing especially poorly, jeopardizing a long-held goal of diversifying the teaching force so it more closely resembles the makeup of the country’s student body.

As this quotation illustrates, diversifying the teacher workforce would appear to conflict with efforts to improve the quality of education. In fact, education reforms sometimes make the teaching force even whiter than it is already. Consider the mass layoffs of teachers in the context of school reforms aimed toward privatization in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. African American teachers went from 70% of the teaching force down to about 50%. The National Education Policy Center wrote that:

The long-term effects of these staffing changes on student outcomes and on the New Orleans community more broadly are still unclear, but these patterns have deepened longstanding local concerns about the racial make-up (overwhelmingly White) of the reform leaders. 

Critical Race Theory, generally not used to examine the whiteness of the teaching profession, makes visible that whiteness is not aberration. Rather, it was created and is maintained by white supremacy. Critical Race Theory asks us to name the racial barriers that usually go unnamed and unexamined that maintain a White teaching force, and how this impacts on the education of students, particularly students of color. In this blog entry, I will briefly illustrate some of the questions Critical Race Theory helps to unpack. LaVonne Neal, Kevin Kumashiro and I have developed this analysis in some detail in Diversifying the Teacher Workforce, and I will be doing so in subsequent work.

Critical Race Theory asks not whether race is at work in a given area, but rather how race is at work. The theory is often described in terms of its core tenets, which are elaborated a little differently by different theorists, but I synthesize as the following:

  • Centrality of racism
  • Challenges to claims of neutrality, colorblindness, and meritocracy
  • Whites as beneficiaries of racial remedies
  • Centrality of experiential knowledge
  • Commitment to working for social justice

So what might Critical Race Theory say about the apparent conflict between raising standards to improve teacher education and in the process disqualifying more prospective teachers of color than prospective white teachers? The tenet that challenges claims of neutrality, colorblindness, and meritocracy asks how policies and practices are shaped around the dominant ideology and why they benefit White people disproportionately. There are at least three areas that can be probed.

First, how is the content of tests teachers are required to take discriminatory? Perhaps the largest issue is testing that does not directly reflect the work of teaching. In June of this year, a federal judge “found that an exam for New York teaching candidates was racially discriminatory because it did not measure skills necessary to do the job.” The flipside of this question is: what do excellent teachers of racially and ethnically diverse students do that is not being tested? An example of an alternative form of assessment was a process used by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Teacher Education Program, in which teacher candidates worked with urban children (who were mainly Black and Latino) over a summer. Program faculty, who were mainly urban teachers, then selected candidates on the basis of their ability to form relationships with urban students in order to succeed in teaching them. Not a test per se, this form of assessment got at a core teaching ability that takes one’s ability to deal with race, ethnicity, and culture into account.

A second question is why it is assumed that increasing the number of tests improves education, especially when tests cost a lot of money, as well as washing out people who bring value to teaching? For example, several studies (such as Thomas Dee‘s research) have found that students benefit academically when taught by teachers of the same race, and that effects are cumulative. In other words, the more years in a row students are taught by teachers who look like them, the better their achievement scores, on the average. Students who benefit most from this phenomenon are White, since White students are far more likely than students of color to be taught by same-race teachers. This research does not suggest that race is the only thing that matters to being a good teacher, or that classrooms should be racially segregated. It does, however, suggest that there are benefits to creating a teaching force that culturally, ethnically, and racially reflects the students. But testing does not help us get there. Usually, it gets in the way.

A third question is whether the classroom work teachers are bring prepared for is, in fact, culturally neutral. These days, it is assumed that Common Core is a racially neutral set of standards that all teachers must be prepared to teach. Yet, this assumption leaves unexamined racial bias in school curricula and texts. In California, for example, Perez Huber, Johnson, and Kohli found that the standards listed in the test preparation guide for the Social Science test in the California Subject Examination for Teachers included only limited references to the history of US-based racial and ethnic minorities, and none to US-based Latina/os, one reference to Asian Americans in regards to Japanese internment, and only a few to Native Americans and African Americans. This analysis calls into question not only the tests used to select who should become a teacher, but also the K-12 curriculum teachers are expected to teach.

Race and ethnicity matter. Critical Race Theory makes visible ways in which they matter, especially ways that are not discussed, or are brushed aside. As student populations become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, it is not enough to simply note that fact, then turn to mainly White reformers to figure out what to do in response. Communities of color have solutions, one of which is to prepare and hire teachers from those very communities.

Speak Your Mind