More than half of all children in public schools are students of color, but only about a fifth of educators are teachers of color (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). This mismatch is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, there is considerable evidence that teachers of color provide academic as well as social and emotional benefits to students of color and white students alike (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, & Papageorge, 2017; Anderson, 2015; Egalite & Kisida, 2016). Moreover, schools without meaningful educator diversity are more susceptible to cultural misunderstanding, a s well as racial bias and stereotype. The absence of teacher diversity can lead to lower expectations for students of color, higher discipline rates, and inequitable access to advanced courses and enrichment opportunities (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2015; Sparks, 2018; Wong, 2015).
There are important and ongoing efforts to increase the diversity of the teacher workforce. However, recent estimates projecting current trends into the future suggest decades would pass without meaningfully closing the student-teacher diversity gap (Putnam, Hansen, Walsh, & Quintero, 2016). In short, efforts to diversify the teacher workforce, while critical, are insufficient to address the educational inequities facing students of color today and in the near future.
Given that the teacher workforce will remain predominantly white for the foreseeable future, what can schools of education and teacher preparation programs do to better prepare educators to serve students and communities of color more effectively?
To begin to answer that question, we studied the policy and practices of minority-serving institutions (MSIs), many of which have a historic mission to serve communities of color, as well as a long track record preparing teachers to provide high-quality education to students of color (Herring, 2017; Gasman, Samayoa, & Ginsberg, 2016; Gasman & Conrad, 2013). In particular, we focused our study on MSIs given that they graduate a considerable proportion of the country’s educators of color, who evidence suggests are often better prepared to serve students of color well (Gasman et al., 2016). As such, these institutions are in a unique position to offer important lessons for preparing teacher candidates to serve in our increasingly diverse K-12 schools.
While pursuing greater teacher diversity is critical, it is insufficient to address the many challenges and inequities facing students of color today and in the near future. Simply put, teachers need to be better prepared to educate effectively students of color. And for that to happen, many schools of education and teacher preparation programs will need to examine their policies and practices.
While other schools cannot replicate the historic mission and role of many MSIs, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), they can nevertheless learn from their practices and adapt them to fit their contexts.
To understand how schools of education and teacher preparation programs can rethink some of their practices, we interviewed nearly 20 experts and practitioners, many of whom work at MSIs. We also conducted a comprehensive literature review that revealed three areas of focus for institutions to better prepare teacher candidates to serve students of color well, including effective field work and practicum experiences, culturally relevant pedagogy, and developing strong community ties.
Based on our research, we found three key practices of MSIs that are effective in preparing teacher candidates to serve students of color:
1. Build teacher candidates’ cultural awareness and provide them with necessary skills to effectively educate students of color;
2. Design field experiences intentionally to expose candidates to diverse students, contexts, and other educators; and
3. Increase diversity in program faculty and in the teacher candidates themselves.
Although some of these practices appear intuitive, we found that they are not widespread, nor are they implemented effectively among many schools of education or teacher preparation programs. Even teacher preparation programs actively pursuing some of these policies may need to take a more comprehensive approach and further embed principles of multicultural education.
This piece will explore in greater detail the first two findings, as well as several recommendations for how schools of education and teacher preparation programs can incorporate or adapt these practices from MSIs into their own programming.
Building Teacher Candidates’ Cultural Awareness
Imbuing courses and curricula with perspectives of people of color and addressing issues of social inequities and injustices is foundational to building teacher candidates’ cultural awareness. Confronting societal inequities is not merely a strategy, but part of MSIs’ DNA. Other institutions cannot simply replicate that. Instead, to improve their curricula and course offerings, they can conduct a curricular review to ensure greater representation and incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices. Culturally responsive teaching and pedagogy values and incorporates all students’ culture and experiences throughout their learning experiences (Ladson-Billings, 1994).
For teacher candidates, as with students, what they read determines a lot of what they know. Often, the texts utilized by teacher preparation programs only present a particular perspective and experience, leaving others overlooked. As UC Berkeley assistant professor Travis Bristol put it:
“We rarely teach articles that center on the teaching practices of teachers of color. [Teacher candidates] rarely get a picture of what [educators of color] do and how they show care for their students of color.”
There have been comprehensive analyses of the caliber of teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities across the country. Those investigations found wide variation, and only 18 percent of elementary and special education programs prepared teachers to meet Common Core math standards. And about 70 percent of undergraduate elementary education programs do not even require prospective teachers to take a foundational science course. (Greenberg, McKee, & Walsh, 2013). What is missing is a review of how well these programs incorporate and represent perspectives, expertise, and experiences of educators and scholars of color.
Rowan University, for example, restructured their curriculum and course offerings around social justice. (See our case study on Rowan University on page 22 of the full report from Bellwether Education Partners.) They established “anchor readings” that all teacher candidates would read that reflect on the school’s equity framework. One example of an anchor reading at Rowan is Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (1995). Delpit’s work is frequently used by district’s and teacher preparation programs to help teachers examine their own cultural identities and to introduce and maintain more culturally relevant teaching.
Another important way schools of education and teacher preparation programs can improve teacher candidates’ cultural awareness is through facilitated, direct examination of the candidates’ own racial identities and biases (Mueller & O’Connor, 2007; N. Wetzel de Cediel personal communication, September 20, 2018; Amos, 2011). To teach students of color successfully, it is important for all teachers, but particularly for white teachers, to examine critically their own racial identity and engage with the consequences of systemic inequality.
One way that schools and programs can do this is by requiring a multicultural education (MCE) course. And while these classes are becoming more common, they often are not required to complete the program. A successful MCE class guides and supports teacher candidates through an interrogation of their worldviews and their previously held assumptions and biases. The overarching goal of these courses is to “push preservice teachers to examine their own individualized experience within a broader social context” (N. Wetzel de Cediel personal communication, September 20, 2018).
The results from studies of the impact of MCE courses is decidedly mixed. In some cases, these classes helped teacher candidates recognize structural inequality and the effect it has on their students. Others found that these courses, when implemented poorly, can actually reinforce biases (Bennett, Driver, & Trent, 2017; Sleeter, 2001; Amos, 2011).
The efficacy of these classes largely relies on how well they are implemented, how well what candidates learn in the classroom fits within the program’s larger framework, and on a tightly linked relationship with their field experiences. An MCE course alone will not automatically ready teacher candidates to serve students of color well, but it can be an important part of a larger strategy for some institutions.
Intentionally Designing Diverse Field Experiences
Meaningful field experiences are critical for all preservice teachers (“Reforming Teacher Preparation: The Critical Clinical Component,” 2010). And for white teachers, field experiences with students and teachers from different racial, cultural, economic, and regional backgrounds is particularly important since so often white teacher candidates have had relatively few multicultural experiences throughout their own education (Chang, 2018). Unfortunately, most schools of education and teacher preparation programs do not provide candidates with these kinds of fieldwork experiences (Becerra, 2012; Frankenberg & Siegel-Hawley, 2008; Sleeter, 2008).
That said, simply providing teacher candidates with multicultural practicum experiences runs the risk of concretizing their misconceptions and negative attitudes (Sleeter, 2008). To avoid this, research suggests both introducing candidates to diverse fieldwork experiences accompanied by guided reflection and investigation (Jacobs, 2015; Burant & Kirby, 2002; Lawrence & Tatum, 1997; Sleeter, 2008). In other words, concepts and ideas discussed in the classroom should be relevant to fieldwork, and what candidates’ experience during their practicum should be unpacked in the classroom. The following are examples of some programs that have increasingly been acting on this promising trend.
Grambling State University, an HBCU in rural Louisiana, intentionally partners with school districts from the more urban Shreveport to the rural Delta region to ensure preservice teachers access a wide range of communities and experiences. As Dr. Cheyrl Ensley, Associate Professor, Educational Leadership and Curriculum & Instruction, put it, the university wants to provide “a plethora of experiences and exposures to the field beginning with students in their [first year] and running through [senior year]. Dr. Elaine Foster, also from Grambling State added, “The more interactions [students] have with children of color, the better prepared they’ll be. Students are placed in sites to gain diverse, hands-on experience, and not only with children of color but a wide variety of settings during their preparation period.” She continued, “Candidates are placed in rural settings as well as larger settings to get that experience in interacting with diverse students at various levels.”
The program at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College (MLFTC) at Arizona State University is structured to expose teacher candidates to as many students, educators, and settings as possible throughout their program. A service-learning experience, often with a youth-serving nonprofit is required in a teacher candidate’s first or second year in the program. The third year includes an internship serving students who often differ from them culturally and ethnically. Candidates’ senior year is a full residency program in which students split their time in a K-12 student teaching with a mentor teacher and taking coursework. Dr. Carole Basile, dean of the program, said, “Classes about culturally responsive teaching are important venues to talk about the issues facing [candidates] when they enter diverse classrooms.”
Schools of education and teacher preparation programs need strong community and district relationships to facilitate these kinds of programs and to ensure that teacher candidates can access a range of contexts and cultures. What these partnerships look like varies from situation to situation. However, our research and interviews make clear that to be successful, schools and teacher preparation programs need to focus on building trust and relationships with the communities in which a number of their graduates will one day serve.
Implementing key practices to better prepare teachers to teach diverse students will vary greatly by a program’s specific context. Based on the most effective practices of MSIs and a comprehensive literature review, we developed several recommendations that teacher preparation programs should consider in addressing this urgent need.
- Build teacher candidates’ cultural awareness and provide them with necessary skills to effectively educate students of color.
1. Conduct a comprehensive curricular review and incorporate diverse perspectives. It is critically important that preservice teachers are exposed to and learn from the expertise and experiences of educators of color. Through a curricular review, programs can identify the voices and perspectives on pedagogy and practice that are missing and revise curricula to incorporate them.
2. Incorporate courses dedicated to multicultural education and blend culturally relevant pedagogy throughout the program. Well-designed and well-implemented courses on multicultural education or related topics can be an important addition to a program’s course offerings. However, it is important to guard against unintentionally burdening candidates of color with the responsibility of helping their white peers confront their biases, identities, and stereotypes.
- Design field experiences intentionally to expose candidates to diverse students, contexts, and other educators.
1. Intentionally expose candidates to different classroom experiences, including racially diverse students and educators, rural and urban contexts, students with disabilities, and English language learners. In addition, schools and teacher preparation programs should think carefully about pairing their candidates with educators from different backgrounds and perspectives to demonstrate how they care for and support their students.
2. Closely align field experiences with coursework to facilitate critical reflection. In order for preservice teachers to learn about their own biases, unpack their privilege, and apply those lessons to their teaching practice, teacher candidates need to receive ongoing guidance as they reflect on their experiences. Meaningful reflection can include facilitated discussions, journaling, and affinity groups, among other activities.
Given challenges presented by COVID-19, it may be difficult to implement these recommendations. In particular, it is unclear what field work will look like for teacher candidates in the fall. As schools of education and teacher preparation programs work to find manageable ways forward during the pandemic, we encourage them to think about how their programming will help prospective teachers engage and learn from diverse perspectives, students, and educators, as well as confront their own biases.