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Rod Watson: Failure to diversify teaching ranks cheats all kids

One implication of the new Education Trust-New York report on teacher diversity should be obvious, though apparently it isn’t in most districts: Having teachers of color improves educational outcomes for students of color, who then have role models as well as motivators who know they can achieve and who affirm rather than disparage their culture.

But there’s another compelling reason to have African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and other educators of color at the head of the classroom, in the principal’s chair and in the superintendent’s office: It can help reshape the attitudes of white students at a time when post-Charlottesville signals from the White House on down indicate we are not anywhere near burying racism.

Remember the naive hope that having pupils of all colors sitting next to each other in integrated classrooms would eventually mean "we shall overcome" as the kids learned we’re far more similar than different? That hasn’t panned out, in part because so many schools have resegregated, but also because many of those students went home to parents and neighbors who preached an entirely different message about the qualfications of blacks and other minorities.

If seeing is believing, being educated by professionals of color is one way to counter the stereotypes many white kids no doubt still learn at home. As one Long Island student said in the report, "If White students have more Black and Latino teachers, they can’t have as many prejudices."

Diversity lags in teaching ranks in Buffalo area schools

That’s especially true for kids in suburban and rural schools, where the numbers are even worse than in Buffalo and the other Big 5 urban districts. While 8 percent of white students in Buffalo’s schools attend a school with no black or Latino teachers, 73 percent of suburban and rural white students have no contact with a black or Hispanic instructor.

As long as they are denied those role models, they will be easy prey to the race-baiters and hate-mongers. The report also notes that having more teachers of color means more voices at the table when curriculum and instructional decisions are made, so that the history and contributions of people of color are more likely to become part of the lesson plan.

But none of that will happen by accident – or by doing the same old thing.

One Education Trust-New York recommendation is state-mandated implicit-bias training for all school personnel involved in hiring to make sure good intentions aren’t being unwittingly sabotaged. Another is that districts keep data on their diversity efforts and publicly report it, because what gets measured gets done.

No doubt some whites will pooh-pooh the report. But to any white who thinks this isn’t important: Imagine yourself – or your children – in a school where all of the teachers are African-American and Hispanic. What would the reaction be?

Too many kids of color face the reverse every day, with disastrous educational consequences. But the impact on white kids should not be dismissed, either.

Granted, many African-Americans have tired of worrying about what whites think and just want to do for self. But as long as whites disproportionately control everything from hiring and lending to who gets arrested, their attitudes matter.

In the ongoing fight for equality, breaking down barriers posed by their prejudices has to take place alongside graduating more minority kids.

With a nod to historian Carter G. Woodson, hiring more teachers of color can help correct the miseducation of whites as much as the "mis-education of the Negro."


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