How Race Matters in the Classroom
Show Me the Numbers: Do black kids have problems in schools because so few teachers look like them?
On the Implicit Association Tests, many people, both white and black, have difficulty pairing words like "delinquency" with a picture of a white person, and "wholesome" with a picture of a black person. These biases can lead teachers to have dismissive and condescending attitudes toward black culture because of negative messages they have received about black people from the media, their families or their communities.
Beyond Black and White
Still, as I report here, any teacher, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, can teach black students. Recent media coverage of the lack of black male teachers has led to many misconceptions. The growing practice of assigning students to classes based on the race of the teacher is both unethical and misinformed. Increasing the presence of black male teachers does improve the diversity of the profession, and should be viewed as a benefit to the system, as they provide quality services to all students regardless of race or gender. However, many people falsely believe that black male teachers have a primary responsibility to foster the social development of black male students. Black male teachers should not become a prop for failed educational and economic policies.
On the issue of setting different performance standards by race, Asians outperform whites on most, if not all achievement tests, yet this well-known fact is not viewed as a deficiency among white students. But beyond race, to set fair standards based on backgrounds, we would need to separate Cambodians and Filipinos from the rest of Asians, because most indicators suggest that they underperform blacks. We would also need to separate Nigerians and Ghanaians from the rest of blacks, because most indicators suggest that they outperform whites. We should also separate poor whites from more affluent whites -- or, we can simply stop betting our educational future on tests and use more legitimate measures of academic progress. Additionally, teacher performance should not be based on test scores.
Consistent with the research, teacher performance should be based on a teacher's ability not only to "teach" a student, but to "reach" a student. Effective teachers exhibit openness, unconditional positive regard and empathy, as expressed in their ability to listen to and learn from the student. Educators' feelings toward their students and knowledge of their students' cultures are important to the students' learning process.
Teachers who have implicit or explicit biases toward black students, or who take a "colorblind" approach to understanding students' issues and needs, will have difficulty developing the authenticity necessary to reach black students. Students' evaluations of their teachers are the most effective method of gauging the teachers' ability to reach.
All of this brings to mind Asa Fludd, a black male 11th grader whom I quoted in the report Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path to Academic Success for School-age African American Males (pdf). He said:
It was at school where I met teachers who are concerned about my education. One of those teachers is my AP US History teacher, Melissa Soule. Besides making history an exciting class, Ms. Soule expressed the realities of minorities living in the United States, especially black men. She made me realize that struggle can be a luxury when you achieve, because it makes you the person who you are. Besides Ms. Soule, there are other teachers who influence me to do my best, many of them being black men.
For black male students like Asa, black male teachers who serve as models are a luxury, but committed teachers of any race who respect and care about them as a person are a necessity.
Editor's note: For all statistical analyses, unless otherwise noted, Toldson used the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), which consists of 66 high-precision samples of the U.S. population drawn from 16 federal censuses, and the American Community Surveys (ACS) of 2000-2010. Where the notation "(Ruggles, et al)" is given, the data come from Ruggles S., Alexander J.T., Genadek K., Goeken R., Schroeder M.B., Sobek M.; Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 (machine-readable database), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota; 2010.
Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor for The Root. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.