Although educational opportunities for minority and low-income students have improved over the past 30 years, the achievement gap has not been closed. Understanding diversity and how it affects teaching and learning is a critical component in reaching this goal. Yet even with additional resources for multicultural education, most educators are not aware of the many ways that racial and cultural diversity affects teaching, learning, and educational outcomes. The situation is further compounded by the placement of uncertified or inexperienced teachers in schools where the majority of students are minorities from low-income families.
There is considerable research demonstrating that teachers lacking “cultural competence”-a deep understanding of ethnic groups, learning styles, and cultural differences-have lower academic expectations and aspirations for students from diverse backgrounds. Findings from a US Department of Education survey on teacher preparation indicate that inexperienced teachers do not feel well prepared to teach students from diverse cultural backgrounds or students who are English language learners.
One strategy for improving the quality of teaching for diverse learners is to diversify the teaching profession: The typical teacher is young, white, female, a recent college graduate with limited contact or experience with people of other races or cultures. Researchers argue that students are better served by teachers who share their cultural and social backgrounds, since it is assumed those teachers will have greater cultural awareness and understanding, higher aspirations for student achievement, and the ability to provide positive role models.
Recruiting teachers from diverse backgrounds, however, does not sufficiently address the challenge of meeting the needs of diverse learners. First, there are not enough teachers of diverse backgrounds to go around. While the percentage of minority children in schools has increased, the percentage of minority teachers has not kept pace. In addition, the student population has become increasingly diverse on a variety of levels, making it highly unlikely that any one teacher would have the same cultural and racial background as the students in the class.
Broad changes in pre-service teacher education programs are needed to produce teachers who are effective with a diverse student body. These changes include recruiting teachers who are committed to multicultural education, integrating diversity throughout the undergraduate curriculum, and providing clinical experiences that immerse teacher candidates in the communities of their prospective students.
Because so many teachers begin teaching without the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge needed to teach diverse students, ongoing professional development in diversity is essential.
How New Teachers Deal with Diversity
Overall, new teachers in a new survey held positive attitudes toward cultural diversity. The teachers – the majority of whom are young (70 percent were age 35 or under) white (78 percent) women (77 percent) – did not consider schools with a predominantly non-white student population to be “diverse,” even when the background of the teaching staff differed from that of the students. The teachers also had a tendency to view diversity in terms of individual student differences, and worked on addressing the individual interests, needs, and aptitudes of their students. Teachers seldom mentioned diversity in terms of social and educational equity, and very few described students as members of racial, cultural, or linguistic groups that, historically, have been treated unfair by the education system.
Many indicated they felt well prepared to understand the culture and background of their students and to teach their subject areas in ways that help all students learn. However, the same teachers also said they felt least prepared to address the needs of English language learners or students with special learning needs (see 5 Areas New Teachers Feel Least Prepared, page 9), a pattern that held true not only for teachers in the PEN study, but also for those participating in prior studies as well. These findings indicate a disconnect between the way teachers view culture and the way they view language, raising the question of whether teachers really understand what it means to teach all children.
Across all sites, teachers felt that socioeconomic diversity-in particular, poverty-and academic diversity had more of an effect on their teaching and on student learning than did race or culture. They viewed their lack of preparation in dealing with English language learners and special-needs students in terms of academic diversity, but did not link academic diversity to race or culture.
The level of awareness among teachers of how their racial and cultural backgrounds might affect their teaching and their relationships with students varied significantly. Most teachers did not mention the issue-even those describing their student population as predominantly African American and the teaching staff as predominantly white-while others were very conscious of how the nuances of cultural difference affected their teaching.
Some teachers said they felt more comfortable with their students if they shared the same race/culture and lived in the same community, and acknowledged that they may not have the necessary preparation to teach children of other races or cultures.
Teachers also felt it was important for schools to make a greater effort to recruit teaching staff that reflected the student body. They felt that white teachers had to work harder to establish trusting relationships with students of color and that non-white teachers seemed to be able to develop “positive” and “different” connections with students of color.
Teachers with greater diversity awareness felt it was important for all teachers to spend time learning how to relate to students of various racial and cultural backgrounds. They felt teachers need to be more proactive and self-reflective in obtaining a better understanding of how their background and experiences might affect their teaching. Since good student-teacher relationships are a key to academic success, teachers felt they should have the opportunity to learn about their students and to work in the community before they entered into formal teacher-student relationships. Interestingly, these teacher perspectives are supported by research on the integral components of teacher diversity preparation.