In classrooms, quality counts

Updated 3/13/2012 5:48 AM

Every few months, a handful of education reform advocates push the idea that the public education system's woes could be fixed if only there were more black or Hispanic teachers in classrooms.

You'll surely hear this in the wake of the U.S. Department of Education's alarming data, published last week by the Office of Civil Rights, showing that though Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of public school populations, they account for 56 percent of students expelled under zero-tolerance school discipline policies.


Worse, black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers, and more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. Add this to the well-known low academic achievement rates of both these groups -- the National Center for Education Statistics reported the dropout rate as 9.3 percent for black students and 17.6 percent for Hispanics in 2009, compared to 5.2 percent for whites -- and it's easy to see why anyone would conclude that a teacher's race matters.

The disparity itself is clear: In 2009, again according to the NCES, 83 percent of public school teachers were white, whereas only 54 percent of students were white. By comparison, Hispanics and African-Americans each made up only 7 percent of teacher rolls, while 23 percent of students were Hispanic and 15 percent were black.

But, no, racial balancing is not a magic bullet. I have observed many teachers over hundreds of hours in rich, poor and special-needs schools and seen white teachers inspire and edify minority children but have also watched black and Hispanic teachers fail to engage classes made up exclusively of students of their own background. I've observed white teachers totally rock a class composed of both native Spanish-speakers learning English and native English-speakers acquiring Spanish, and watched black teachers make Shakespeare live and breathe in classes composed mostly of white students.

Excellent teachers have expertise and passion for their subject, a firm understanding of the principles of good teaching, and a fundamental appreciation of their students, regardless of their background. For teachers to succeed, they must be equipped with equitable and well-supervised schoolwide discipline systems, rigorous classroom management training, and whatever resources are necessary to understand the issues and life circumstances that affect their school's students.

Without such environments, black and Hispanic students will continue to face harsher discipline and get kicked out of school more often than their white peers. Even excellent teachers can't be expected to educate diverse students without being well-prepared by teacher training programs or supported by their districts to address the myriad issues that cause their most challenging students to get into so much trouble.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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