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.
"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."
She also cites parent involvement as another example of how the role of black families in school can easily be misunderstood by some segments of white society. "Sometimes these families feel uncomfortable or intimidated participating in this way," Draper explains. "And sometimes they have jobs they can't take time off from. I know one parent who has to take three buses to get to school. They love their children just as much as anyone else and think their education is just as important," Draper says, but "they just cannot show it in the way some people may think is 'normal.'"
Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor at the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides another example of how teachers may miss connecting with students. "Most white teachers describe themselves as 'just regular,'" she says. "It sounds innocuous, but it says, 'It's something I never have to think about.' But their minority students have to think about it all the time."
But other teachers say it's more a matter of training than simply experience. Being of the same ethnicity is an advantage, but nonminority teachers can help fill the gap by "learning a lot about students who are ethnically different, because all teaching involves social-cultural contacts," says Louis Castenell, dean of the University of Cincinnati's College of Education and a noted expert on multicultural education and academic achievement. And he notes that other factors come into play. "If you communicate a class difference, it negates whatever advantage you had. And if you are of a different ethnic background but communicate high expectations, you can get rid of any disadvantage you may have had."
A teacher can't hope to understand all the cultures represented in one of today's diverse classrooms, says Professor Ladson-Billings, an African-American who has done studies of what she calls "culturally relevant teaching." So her approach, she says, "is to help students understand their own culture. Only in that way can they relate well to students from other cultures. "I try to develop a sense of informed sympathy, she says.
The problem has given a sharp edge to the drive to train and recruit minority teachers. One obstacle is the reluctance of some minority teacher-students to return to the inner city and serve in those schools. So at the University of Indianapolis, for instance, the school of education gives urban high school seniors one credit to go on field trips to local schools and "teach" a class.
The education department at the University of Memphis offers a number of programs designed to produce minority teachers for the city's school system, which has been called the "blackest school district in America." Mr. Castenell's own College of Education has a new program intended to put 25 minority teachers into Cincinnati's schools each year.
"For the foreseeable future, most of the teachers we educate will be white." In terms of the cultural gap that may create, "It's our obligation," she states, "to say to these [future] teachers, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'"