The challenge is especially acute in our high-poverty, under-resourced public schools where teacher tenure is lowest. Black and brown students are twice as likely to attend one of these schools than their white peers. As nearly 80 percent of teachers are white, our newest educators often find themselves in a very different cultural context for the first time.
The result is often a gross underestimation of Black and Brown students’ academic abilities, misunderstanding and an inability to cope with what teachers perceive as “problem behavior”. This “culture shock” and racial bias drives many teachers out of schools educating Black and brown children as they escape to lower-poverty, whiter schools.
Many white teachers are clearly not adequately prepared to teach Black and Brown students. Our students are paying the price for the failures of our teacher-preparation programs. Changes to these programs that result in better education for Black and brown students are long overdue.
The solution is threefold. Our teacher preparation programs must engender cultural fluency; equip teachers with the skills to actually teach Black and brown students; and commit to diversifying courses, professors, and student bodies.
1. Engender cultural fluency and understanding. Teacher preparation programs and their faculties have proven time and time again to be something short of truly culturally responsive to Black and brown communities. The heights of tenured teachers college posts are too far removed from the lived experiences of Black and brown students.
The result is a pipeline of new teachers inadequately prepared to serve Black and Brown students. In a recent survey, fully 72 percent of newly graduated aspiring teachers say they feel unprepared to work in an urban classroom and 62 percent say they feel unprepared to teach culturally diverse students.
Those who prepare our future teachers must be more assertive in addressing their own shortcomings and acknowledge when they don’t have a particular sphere of understanding, knowledge and skills. Vitally, they must then be willing to do the work to acquire them.
2. Equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to help Black and brown students actually learn, not just “speak woke.” It is not enough to be able to speak of liberation and equity; our teachers must be able to provide students with the tools to actually secure it. Performative wokeness should not be an exercise perfected in teacher colleges, but it seems to be the primary occupation of many who enjoy tenure in them. When the teachers of teachers are more enamored with virtue signaling than embracing meaningful accountability for their students and their grand-students’ success, we are lost.
Whether by ignorance or arrogance, those in the ivory tower seem to have forgotten that it was Maya Angelou who once observed that the “elimination of illiteracy is as serious an issue to our history as the abolition of slavery.” Indeed, many in academia are uninterested in either acknowledging or learning about how their class content and pedagogy reinforce inequity rather than meet the needs of schools serving Black and Brown children.
3. Commit to diversifying faculty, student bodies, and syllabi. Teacher colleges need to commit to diversifying their courses, professors, and students. Some graduates and organizations like NCTQ and TNTP (I serve on the board) are working to engage teachers college alums to advocate for a more diverse teacher preparation program at their alma mater. We need much more than this, however.
Teacher prep syllabi should be informed by the aspirations and goals of the Black and brown communities, not just by what they wrote their latest book about. Teacher preparation programs should embrace accountability for the impact, or lack thereof, of the students who graduate from their programs. The point of preparing teachers, after all, is for them to teach well.
We should also look to the programs that are effectively preparing more of our Black and Brown teachers. We need new investments in HBCUs generally and their schools of education in particular. Given the transformative role that teachers of color can play in the lives of all students, such an investment would redound to the benefit of our entire education system.
Instead of bashing alternative certification programs, traditional programs should draw lessons from their experience and effectiveness. These programs essentially level the playing field with aspiring teachers from traditional four-year programs and graduate more Black and Brown aspiring teachers than all non-HBCUs, combined.
Some predominantly white institutions are waking up to this need. The Center for Black Educator Development, which I founded and lead, is partnering organizations and a group of teachers colleges to improve the cultural competency of their faculty and academic offerings. This is hard but vital work for these institutions, they should be applauded.
States can use their accreditation authority to drive productive reforms. This past summer, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education passed new regulations to require teacher prep programs to implement “Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Education”, including trauma informed approaches to instruction, cultural awareness, and the ability to address “any factors that inhibit equitable access for all Pennsylvania’s students.”
The Biden administration is also well-positioned to lead on this issue. They can start by bringing a much-needed dose of public transparency to teacher prep. As it stands, we know too little of how well programs and institutions are recruiting and preparing Black and Brown teachers.
At the last, there is little standing in our way and much to be gained in creating better-prepared and more culturally competent new teachers. Teacher retention and efficacy will improve. Student achievement will rise. More people, especially from diverse backgrounds, are likely to be interested in teaching and the profession as a whole will be elevated.
More than anything, though, this work can improve the lives of our students and the broader well-being of our public school communities.
These should be the baseline goals of any institution claiming to be woke or committed to the equitable education of our students.
A version of this blog was originally published on Education Week.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.