As the demographics of America change, it’s becoming increasingly likely that a teacher’s cultural or ethnic background won’t align with that of his or her students. In 2007-08, 83 percent of public school teachers were white, compared with just 56 percent of public school students – and this divide appears to be widening.
There is a widespread reluctance to speak about issues of race in the education system, with some arguing that ethnicity and cultural background should not be factors when examining a student’s academic performance – that all students should be treated the same (a viewpoint dubbed “naive egalitarianism” by academics). Yet studies have found that a significant racial achievement gap exists in the United States, an academic disparity that can be tracked all the way from kindergarten to the end of high school.
It’s an issue that, according to anthropologist Mica Pollock, must be addressed before it can be resolved – but people often tiptoe around the subject for fear of sounding discriminatory. In her book Colormute, Pollock found that both teachers and students commonly fumble around issues of race rather than addressing them directly.
“In a nation such as ours, which is a diverse nation, issues of race are going to always be there when we’re talking about really improving education,” Pollock told the Harvard University Gazette. “If we have a commitment to achieving racial equality, then the simple act of how we talk about race in schooling has to be thought through. Because we can’t improve schooling without talking about it.”
A key part of fixing these issues is not by ignoring racial difference, but by making students of all backgrounds feel that they belong, that their cultures and ethnicities are recognised and valued. This is an ongoing process of communication between teachers, students and families, a merging of home and classroom. After all, to teach most effectively, a teacher must deeply understand the students: What are their strengths and weaknesses? To what recourses to they have access? What languages do they speak at home?
Demonstrating a personal interest can go a long way towards improving your students’ academic achievement; studies indicate, for example, that African-American and Latino students tend to perform better when they like their teachers or feel that their teachers care for them.
So how do you engage with students from racially diverse backgrounds? First and foremost, it’s important to let students talk about their experiences in classroom discussions, group assignments or writing projects. The Kamehameha Early Education Program demonstrated that incorporating the values and beliefs of students’ homes and families (based, this case, on Hawaiian culture) in the classroom can significantly increase academic performance.
Cooperative learning is also an excellent way of allowing diverse students to make valuable contributions according to their background and ability; Elizabeth Cohen’s Complex Instruction program, for example, has been shown to close racial achievement gaps by supporting students from traditionally under-performing groups.
Culturally responsible teaching requires a great deal of subtlety and effort – yet it’s essential if the significant racial achievement gap in the United States is ever going to close. At its heart is a core principle that all teachers, regardless of the diversity and makeup of their classrooms, should adhere to: students learn best when guided, accepted and understood by their teachers.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.