Race Not Cure-All for Achievement Gap Woes

An article in the Press-Gazette today (‘Racial gap between teachers, students vast, Aug 3, 2009) chronicles the color chasm between teaching faculty and students in our local schools—the data is striking but comes as no surprise—certainly we need to continue (if not expand) our efforts to grow minority teachers here. 

That said, let’s be careful not to infer (much less intentionally suggest) that minority kids must have minority teachers to realize great results.  Getting kids to learn is much more about attitude, curriculum and teaching methodology than skin tone—the first three factors are controllable—a profoundly significant reality.

Earlier this year I attended the Boys & Girls Clubs of America national conference in Atlanta—we heard a speaker who specifically addressed these variables—she ‘taught’ us a complicated story using two distinctly different methods.  First, she had crossed arms and other negative body language, she used short terse sentences, and seemed to expect failure from the audience.  We performed accordingly.  Next, she literally welcomed us with open arms and gushed with positive reinforcement, then used mental illustrations and other easy-to-grasp cues to help us along.  We excelled.  Huh.  

Before any hate mail comes my way, this is not an indirect accusation that local teachers are creating negative destinies for their students, instead it is to make a point.  After all, the speaker described above happened to be a black female, and a majority of our audience was white.  Put simply, what you look like doesn’t determine how effective you are as a teacher, there are more important factors and they can all be controlled.   And, by the way, by similar logic one cannot assume that having common race/ethnicity demographics in the classroom means a love of learning will be produced.

Each year in our community we honor excellence in the classroom by recognizing teachers, and many of them have a diverse student population to engage, so it can be done. Let’s keep working to ‘grow our own’ teachers—with the right partners and strategy we’ll produce more qualified minorities and males to staff our classrooms—but let’s be sure we’re scoring on the controllable factors cited above.

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