Do Minority Students Need Minority Teachers?
Some specialists argue that minority children learn better from educators of the same race and background
As an African-American school teacher, Penny Draper doesn't have to consult studies to find out how to connect with her pupils. She experiences it every day in her class of 25 first-graders at the Wilkinson Early Childhood Center in St. Louis. "I relate to them naturally," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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"If a kid doesn't show up in class one day and later explains it's because he lost a shoe, Ms. Draper says, "Someone else might not accept that, but I know he only had one pair of shoes. Rather than thinking, 'Oh, this is absurd,' I understand."
Experiences such as this have contributed to what specialists say is mounting evidence that teachers are often more successful when their students have ethnic or racial backgrounds similar to their own. The theory, unsettling to some, poses a major challenge for the future of America's public schools, because some 90 percent of the men and women in teacher-education colleges are of white European extraction. About 8 percent of the nation's public school teachers are black, according to the US Department of Education, and only 3 percent are Hispanic. Yet in many American cities, the student population is predominantly black or Hispanic.
"What we find with [teacher education] students going into schools and working with kids very different from them is a real lack of understanding," says Mary Ellen Finch, dean of the school of education at Maryville University in St. Louis. "Black kids, for instance, may learn more effectively from black teachers. Yet we now have data all over the place that there aren't enough minority people going into teacher education."
In many urban centers, the discrepancy has already become glaring. In the Milwaukee school system, for instance, about 75 percent of the students are minority and 75 percent of the teachers white, according to one study, which also shows 66 percent of the students in Buffalo, N.Y., as minority but 77 percent of the teachers white. By the year 2000, some studies say minorities will account for only 13 percent of America's teachers, while 40 percent of American students will be minority.
The solution, according to many experts, is a widespread commitment - far beyond the sporadic current efforts - to bring a variety of minority teachers into the classroom. Also important, teachers must explore racial attitudes, experts say, as well as confront the potentially thorny issue of how race relates to teaching.
It's certainly not race or ethnicity themselves that affect teaching success, many specialists are quick to note. But these factors often determine one's life experience, and a common life experience may be important for a teacher in relating well to students, minority or otherwise. Professor Finch cites opinions among many of her colleagues that "a lot of liberal white types like me don't understand where people like African-Americans are coming from, because we don't have their experiences."
Draper concurs, saying that she realized that "I can sense the feelings and reactions of the [black] kids" in a way a white teacher might not always be able to. "They're comfortable with me because we are of the same race. I connect with many of the experiences they are having as African-American children with my own experiences as a child."