Important Series Explores Need for Diverse Teachers in Diverse Classrooms

An extraordinary series of articles, Tomorrow’s Test: Race in America’s Schools, ran last week at  The series, a collaboration with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, is made up of eleven stories “about America’s changing face as glimpsed through its classrooms.” The Columbia School of Journalism describes The Teacher Project as an annual,”ambitious journalistic effort to report on the next generation of American teachers. Three reporting fellows, all recent alums of the Journalism School, work under the supervision of a veteran education journalist.”

This year’s lead reporter is Sarah Carr, who explains the thread running through the reports: “If you want to know what America will look like in a generation, look at its classrooms right now. In 2014, children of color became the new majority in America’s public schools… We’ll have to overcome challenges old and new: how to educate kids who increasingly come from impoverished and traumatic backgrounds.  How to communicate with students who speak languages as diverse as Spanish, Russian, Bengali, and Tongan.  How to avoid mirroring the racism of America—our disproportionately harsh treatment of black males, for example—inside schoolhouse walls.”

This year’s articles sidestep the ideological debates about school governance. Each piece examines instead how a school district in a particular location is trying to serve the distinct needs of children and adolescents and grappling with what is, nationally, the enormous mismatch of white middle class teachers and the identities and cultures of their students. Here is just a taste of three of the eleven articles in the  Tomorrow’s Test series.  I urge you to explore all of these fine stories.

Miriam Hall describes a debate among the four Murray-Heavy-Runner sisters, all teachers in Browning, Montana, the center of the Blackfeet Nation, and home to Blackfeet Community College, which is partnering with the University of Montana to expand the college’s teacher training program to offer four-year degrees and Montana teacher certification. The sisters disagree about whether—to serve the children of Browning these days—teachers ought to spend time during their education off the Reservation: “(S)ome educators wonder whether tribal colleges… have the tools and expertise to train the next generation of teachers entirely on their own. And some Native teachers who left the reservation and came back say the experience and insights they gained while living away were invaluable to their work.” But, “This is by no means a minor philosophical matter; there are immediate pressures to consider.  Rural communities across America often face particularly acute teacher shortages, so it’s important for places like Browning to cultivate and recruit teachers…. (T)he Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s renewed emphasis on growing teachers who never have to leave the reservation brings with it great promise…. Native teachers have a unique connection with Native students: They know the culture and community intimately and understand the challenges of reservation life.”  “As a Blackfeet woman, Angela Murray-Heavy-Runner understands her sixth grade students’ complicated family backgrounds…. She knows cultural rules and taboos…. Like many native teachers, she’s aware some children and their families are distrustful of schools and teachers. In the past, many white teachers arrived only to leave within a year or two. Memories from the boarding-school era linger, too—echoes of a time when school was a place of cruelty, where their culture was systematically unraveled.”

Sarah Carr, the project’s leader, describes Why Boston Desperately Needs More Hispanic Teachers. Her article profiles Antonio Arvelo, a brilliant student living in a homeless shelter and lost in anonymity in a Boston middle school after his mother and siblings suddenly relocated to Massachusetts from New York.  His school discovered the “invisible” Arvelo only when his PSAT scores arrived—the highest in the school. But Arvelo encountered few Hispanic teachers, despite Massachusetts’ rapidly growing Hispanic population. “In Boston, Hispanics make up just 10 percent of the public-school teaching corps but a plurality of the student body, at more than 40 percent.”  “Ironically, many Hispanics don’t really count as prized diversity hires for the Boston public schools—at least not when it comes to the legal definition in the courts.  In 1985, U.S. District Judge Arthur Garrity mandated that 25 percent of the city’s public school teachers be ‘black.’… Most educators agree that Garrity’s order was necessary at the time.  But more than 30 years later, the mandate’s become somewhat outdated, particularly given the growth in the city’s Hispanic population.”  After he began a career in business, Arvelo followed a desire to teach and he is now working to make teaching an attractive career choice for Hispanic young men in Boston.

In The Color of School Reform, Alexandria Neason goes to the heart of what many believe was the ugliest part of New Orleans’ school reform right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005: “After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fired its mostly black teacher corps. Now its charter schools are trying to convince black educators that there’s a place for them.” “Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school system boasted a significantly higher share of black teachers than most urban districts.  In 2003, just 15 percent of teachers in large cities across the country were black.  In New Orleans, where nearly all students are black, that figure was 72 percent.  In the aftermath of Katrina, the school board fired the district’s thousands of teachers en masse as it reconstituted the system …. Between 2004 and 2014, the percent of black teachers plunged from 71 percent to 49 percent. And far fewer teachers working in schools were raised in New Orleans.”  Today 70 percent of new hires remain white.  Charters have recruited hard at Teach for America and other alternative certification programs.  Neason profiles Raven Foster, a black teacher and graduate of local Xavier University. After Foster joined the staff at a KIPP charter school, she became concerned about the scarcity of African American teachers. “Foster believes that some white teachers, however well-intentioned, were ill-equipped to handle the vast gaps between themselves and their students.  They often missed nuances in language and behavior.”  The legacy of the mass firing of New Orleans’ teachers is proving hard to overcome: “But at KIPP Central City, and throughout the KIPP New Orleans network, teacher diversity efforts haven’t produced such dramatic gains, underscoring the persisting chasm between the school reform movement and veteran educators—particularly veteran educators of color… Charter schools don’t participate in Louisiana’s pension program… (C)harter school leaders have considerable work to do when it comes to rebuilding trust with veteran educators in New Orleans.  Teachers, who made up a major portion of the city’s black middle class, had their livelihoods yanked out from underneath them at their most vulnerable; while their city drowned, they were quietly discarded and replaced… (O)utsiders flocked to the city to rebuild that which they did not know, without seeking the wisdom of those who had worked there for decades.”

In her introduction to the series, Carr concludes:  “As public school students diversify, qualities such as empathy, self-awareness, open-mindedness, and understanding are more important than ever in our teachers—just as they will be for all of us in an increasingly diverse society.  Teachers will need to have the capacity to serve not just as instructors but also as cultural brokers and social leaders, aware of their own biases, empathetic when confronting difference, comfortable with change… (W)e all pay a price for a lack of tolerance or understanding in the classroom.”