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"Exceptional Teaching for Students of Diverse Backgrounds: A Fundamental Strategy for School Improvement,"

by Willis D. Hawley (1/1/2010) January/February 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

The recent conference of the National Coalition for School Diversity (see cover story) rightly emphasized the continuing value of racial and economic integration for student achievement and other long-term outcomes. At the same time, school turnaround strategies have proliferated throughout the country, seeking to enhance educational outcomes for low-income children despite conditions of racial and economic isolation. But putting aside controversy over the many proposals for school improvement, there is virtually unanimous agreement among researchers and educators that:
  1. The quality of teaching students that experience is the most significant school-based influence on student learning.

  2. Students bring with them to school a diverse set of motivations and prior knowledge that significantly affect how and what they learn.

  3. To maximize students’ learning, teachers must build on their students’ understanding and dispositions while maintaining high expectations and targeted support for student performance.
  4. School leaders must foster school conditions that ensure students opportunities to learn.

  5. There are staggering differences in the academic achievement of students of different races and ethnicities that have been affected little by the most widely advocated policies for school improvement.
Given these critically important realities, one would expect to see teacher educators, professional development providers, advocates for school reform and policymakers focusing attention on how best to enhance the capabilities of teachers to work with students of diverse races and ethnicities. But, while diversity gets its course or workshop, and the need to narrow the achievement gap is a widely subscribed to goal, serious efforts to provide teachers and school leaders with the special skills they need to maximize their effectiveness in teaching diverse students are hard to find.

Why Teaching and School Conditions that Are Particularly Important to the Success of Students of Color Are Not on the School Improvement Agenda

There are several likely reasons why there is so little attention to what experts on teaching call “culturally relevant pedagogy” and the conditions in schools that are particularly important in order to foster the learning of students of racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.

First, to focus on how students’ race or ethnicity affects how one should teach is to acknowledge that racial and ethnic discrimination has been and continues to be a significant influence on what and how students learn. This is not a comforting recognition, and its implications seem to have no certain response. Indeed, it is quite common to hear educators say that they are colorblind.

Second, there is the belief that good teaching is good teaching; that what works for one student works for another. Students who are struggling just need more of it. Unfortunately, most measures of good teaching do not deal explicitly with culturally relevant pedagogy.

Third, there is (unwarranted) suspicion that focusing on race and ethnicity may be divisive and that strategies to enhance the achievement of students of color will undermine the learning opportunities of other students.

Fourth, when diversity is the focus of teachers’ professional development, the emphasis is often on increasing teachers’ awareness of and sensitivity to racial and ethnic differences. Even if such efforts could change teachers’ dispositions, they would not—in themselves—increase the pedagogical expertise or leadership capabilities of educators. Unless addressing issues related to race and ethnicity is seen as a way to directly improve student achievement, most educators will give it little attention.

Fifth, because the pressures to increase the performance of students of color are so intense and measures of student achievement are so narrow, schools look to improvement strategies that often ignore the improvement of teaching. Instead, the focus is typically on more time for learning, test preparation, and curriculum alignment.

Sixth, research on teaching effectiveness seldom examines whether variations in teacher behavior affect the learning of students of different races and ethnicities. One reason for this is that such research is difficult and expensive, requiring the measurement of teacher practices and linking those practices to particular students. This means that large-scale studies of teaching and research syntheses yield conclusions that typically omit culturally relevant practices. Smaller studies that identify the effectiveness of such practices get little attention outside the academic community of the converted.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Diverse Students Initiative

Almost three years ago, building on its award-winning Teaching Tolerance program, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) undertook a nationwide consultation with scholars, professional organizations and expert educators to identify what it could do to help educators more effectively enhance the learning opportunities and outcomes of students of color. This effort led to the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative (TDSI).

TDSI is unique in its focus on how educators can improve their professional skills, understandings and dispositions that are especially relevant to the race and ethnicity of their students. TDSI’s suite of tools embody interactive multi-media professional development resources that are available online, without cost, at www.

The Initiative places primary emphasis on practices within educators’ immediate control—classroom practices, pedagogical techniques and school conditions. The research- and theory-based strategies promoted by the Initiative first and foremost support students’ academic learning. Within that focus, TDSI also emphasizes practices that have the potential to improve students’ abilities to learn from and relate to people who are different from themselves.

While the Initiative focuses on improving instruction and student engagement, TDSI recognizes that the learning opportunities experienced by all students are influenced by school structures and cultures that vary in the extent to which they are responsive to student diversity. Thus, TDSI helps educators and advocates identify the characteristics of schools that are particularly important in maximizing the social and cognitive development of racially and ethnically diverse students.

TDSI’s Tools and Learning Resources

The TDSI tools can be used together, or separately, to address the goals of a course, workshop, teacher study group, school improvement plan, district or individual educator. The tools—which can be adapted to specific situations and provide educators with learning resources that include videos of expert commentary and effective practices, authentic cases, learning activities, articles and reports—are:
  • The Understanding the Influence of Race tool helps educators learn more about the origins of beliefs about race; examine the continuing influence understandings of race have on their own dispositions and behavior; and better comprehend how and why their students succeed or struggle.

  • The Common Beliefs Survey identifies beliefs about instruction that may have negative consequences for students of diverse races and ethnicities.

  • A Primer on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is an introduction to teaching that facilitates student learning by building on race- and ethnicity-related values, dispositions, behaviors and experiences.

  • Case-based Modules engage users in interactive problem-solving related to improving instruction for diverse learners.

  • The Teaching Diverse Students School Survey focuses on conditions in schools that support effective teaching and learning of racially and ethnically diverse students.
Ideally, teachers and teacher candidates, school leaders, school improvement teams and advocates for quality education will use the resources in collaborative situations that can be face-to-face, wholly online, or a mix of online and face-to-face learning. Guides for facilitators/instructors are available for each tool.

TDSI also provides opportunities to engage in discussions with educators, contribute to its resources, and participate in regular question- and-answer sessions with prominent scholars and educators.

Race-Conscious School Improvement Would Improve the Learning Opportunities of All Students

The resources available through TDSI continue to be enriched. The much harder task is to get them used as a matter of course. Often, special efforts to meet the needs of racially and ethnically diverse students are marginalized and treated as actions that take time away from the central tasks of improving academic achievement. But there is no zero sum game here. Teachers who can engage in culturally relevant pedagogy are more effective with all students, and the school conditions that foster effective learning for students of color facilitate the learning of all students. Nonetheless, TDSI does ask educators to engage in work that is more complex and adaptive than more common educational strategies. So, the SPLC is working with professional associations, school districts, advocacy groups and professional development providers to find ways to make its work useful and practicable.

It is striking that the most common policies and practices advocated to respond to the “crisis” in American education are raceless—or implicitly “post-racial.” And it is ironic that policies and practices that are particularly responsive to the needs of students of color are likely to be the best things we could do to enhance the learning of all students.

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