As educators and scholars, we take issue with the false comparisons and inaccurate claims raised in the counterpoint by Rob Jorczak (“Increase the ranks of teachers of color? How and toward what end?” March 23) to a recent article about the severe shortage of teachers of color and American Indian descent in Minnesota (“Schools try to bridge teacher-student color gap,” March 19).
Minnesota has had some of the worst academic and opportunity gaps in the nation. While there are many excellent white teachers who do great work to close the gap, many others contribute to widening the gap due to implicit biases that children who are American Indian and of color are intellectually and socially inferior to whites.
Only 4.6 percent of teachers in Minnesota can relate to the experiences of 31 percent of students who are of color and American Indian, which is one of the major causes of academic gaps that need to be addressed in our state. The racial gap between teachers and students is even wider in the metro area: only 7 percent of teachers are of color or American Indian, compared with 59 percent of students.
Developing trusting and affirming relationships with diverse students and families is crucial to closing equity gaps. Research by nationally recognized experts in education Gloria Ladson-Billings (University of Wisconsin), Tyrone Howard (UCLA), and Ana Villegas (Montclair State University), among many others, has shown the academic benefits of having ethnically and racially diverse teachers in our classrooms.
Simply, when all students, including white students, see diverse adults in professional roles they come to value different experiences and perspectives. In particular, students who are American Indian and of color benefit by having adult role models who look like them and understand their experiences.
Why are there so few American Indian teachers and teachers of color? There are several systemic reasons, including: institutional/historical inequities in schooling; lack of financial incentives and support; teacher licensing exams and overuse of standardized testing in K-12 schools; teacher-preparation programs that tend to replicate inequity by lacking inclusive practices; and racially isolating school climates that lead to problems with retaining teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Institutional inequities steeped in history are opportunity gaps that scholar Ladson Billings has called the “education debt.” A 2016 report released by the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership (MnEEP) shows that Minnesota still has one of the nation’s largest “achievement gaps” due to these persistent problems.
Beyond disparate test scores and graduation rates, other evidence of opportunity gaps includes: the overrepresentation of students who are American Indian or of color in special education and underrepresentation in advanced, “gifted” or honors courses; students of color being more harshly disciplined compared with their white peers for the same misbehaviors; traumatic educational histories of exclusion, segregation and assimilation; lack of racially diverse role models as teachers; and deeply rooted views that those who are not white are deficient, deviant, and intellectually inferior.
Jorczak’s comment that perhaps people of color and American Indians are simply not “qualified” compared to whites is problematic, as it implies that one must be white to be a competent and qualified teacher. In reality, there are many white teachers who are unqualified to serve in the classroom. Unfortunately, researchers such as Beverly Cross (University of Memphis) have demonstrated that many white teachers perpetuate deficit approaches to teaching and learning with communities, students, and teachers who are of color and American Indian.
Research as well as national and state policy briefs in recent years have emphasized the following needed changes and investments:
• Support expanded pathways to teaching.
• Provide financial incentives and support through scholarships, student teaching stipends and loan forgiveness.
• Create inclusive and respectful climates and curriculum in preK-12 schools and higher ed programs.
• Eliminate discriminatory teacher testing requirements.
• Provide induction and mentoring support.
Current legislation including the Increase Teachers of Color Act (SF 1555) authored by state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, would help address barriers. Minnesota would serve itself well by being a national leader in this area, directly confronting systemic barriers to teaching for communities from underrepresented backgrounds. Our state cannot credibly stake its purported claims to being equity-minded and providing a high-quality education to all if these basic structural inequities in the teaching profession are not dismantled.
Vichet Chhuon, Paul Spies and Rene Antrop-Gonzalez are professors of education and members of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota.