Diversity in Teacher Education: A Double Helix

Nicholas J. Shudak

Over the past twenty years, the literature in teacher education has built a discourse around diversity. Much of it is predicated on the vast multicultural education literature developing since the late 1970s, a literature that is very much activist- and advocacy-oriented. It is also a literature largely ignored by “traditional” academics, ostensibly because education is a low-status academic interest,1 and also because arguing against the multicultural education discourse is a very unpopular thing to do. In this article, I delve into the largely ignored teacher education literature to find the meaning of diversity as it is conveyed there. In doing so, I develop the idea that diversity in teacher education acts as a double helix.

As long as they maintain accreditation, many teacher education programs and schools of education in general have carte blanche to do what they want, and are doing so in relation to diversity. The goings-on operate largely under the academic radar. Thus it is no wonder why many are incredulous that a task group seeking to redesign teacher education at the University of Minnesota, for example, does so out of a concern for “diversity awareness.” Of the many concerns regarding student achievement, the task group operates out of a conviction that teachers’ lack of “cultural competence”—knowledge about students’ backgrounds and frames of reference—is a key contributing factor. Furthermore, the group suggests that underachievement is the result of the teachers’ inability to recognize and evaluate their own positions of “white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.”2

This area of scholarship is worthy of attention in light of the sheer numbers of people graduating from schools of education. In their research concerning teacher preparation, David M. Steiner and Susan D. Rozen note that there are nearly fifteen hundred schools of education in the United States.3 Steiner also states elsewhere that out of the roughly three million public school teachers in the United States, 70 percent have attended a school of education as an undergraduate.4 In terms of total number of graduates each year, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that “[o]f the 1,524,000 bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2006–2007, the largest numbers were conferred in the fields of business (328,000), social sciences and history (164,000), education (106,000), and health sciences (102,000).”5 The same report indicates that more degrees are conferred at the master’s level in education than in any other field. And at the doctoral level, education nearly ties with the health professions and clinical sciences for the most degrees conferred, with engineering not too far behind.

One can get a sense of the scholarship of diversity by consulting the few key publications that dominate the education field: Teacher Education Quarterly, Journal of Teacher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Kappa Delta Pi Record, and a few others.6

Diversity as deployed today in teacher education literature can best be described as a double helix because it consists of two strands, or helices—the descriptive and the normative—plus a bonding agent called “cultural matching.” The descriptive strand is identity-based and pertains to basic demographical changes taking place in society as well as to how individuals come to identify and understand themselves. The normative strand pertains to some form of action that society, its institutions, and even individuals must take to affirm and recognize identity.

As Stephen Macedo, Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics at Princeton University argues: “At the broadest level, the typical invocation of diversity embodies an insistence that no one should be excluded from the American dream of equal justice based on arbitrary and irrelevant differences of skin color, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”7 And to prevent such exclusion, diversity requires society to mobilize in particular ways in order to protect the identity of those considered to be “different.”

Likewise, Charles Taylor asserts that in liberal societies such as the United States, “Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.”8 Individuals whose identity is not recognized or is misrecognized by social institutions within a liberal society are harmed. They cannot give meaning to their lives when they do not see themselves represented in the institutions that comprise the larger cultural context that surrounds them. Society and its institutions must act in a way that recognizes identity affirmatively or they risk inflicting harm, pain, or other forms of symbolic violence.

The bonding agent that keeps the two strands of the double helix spiraling around and interacting with each other in teacher education is the concept of “cultural matching”: the theory and practice of pairing minority students with teachers of similar backgrounds in terms of skin color, cultural tastes, life experiences, language, etc. The belief is that eliminating barriers of cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding between teachers and students leads to higher student achievement. Cultural matching is a highly problematic concept for which there is little supportive evidence, but it goes largely unchallenged in teacher education literature.

For example, Gloria Ladson-Billings declares that the “real problems facing teacher education” are the disconnections between teachers and the families, students, and communities they serve.9 In her view, demographical and cultural mismatches between teachers and students blight the prospects for student academic success. Furthermore, this will be exacerbated as the student population becomes increasingly diverse while the teaching and teacher educator forces become less so and continue to be dominated by whites—white women for the most part.

For Ladson-Billings, something is inherently wrong with an all-white team of educators. Borrowing from a familiar call and response cheer, she imagines the diversity cheer team shouting, “What’s the matter with the team?” to which she responds, “The team’s all White!” rather than the familiar “The team’s all right!” as the title of her article indicates (233).

According to Ladson-Billings, the imperative for “a more diverse teaching force and a more diverse set of teacher educators is to ensure that all students, including White students, experience a more accurate picture of what it means to live and work in a multicultural and democratic society” (231). Diversity in this descriptive and demographical sense, especially pertaining to teacher education, is anything other than white.

A black teacher teaching black students or a black teacher teaching white students are examples of cultural matching. A white teacher teaching white students does not represent cultural matching, but is rather an example of homogeneity and a lack of diversity, whether in a classroom or an academic teacher education setting (231).

A white teacher teaching black students is also not an example of diversity. This represents instead an unbroken circle of “White teacher educators [who] prepare White teachers [to] teach children of color who fail to achieve success in schools and are unable to pursue postsecondary education where they might become teachers” (231), and thus eventually break the circle.

Susan L. Melnick and Kenneth M. Zeichner also conceptualize diversity in relation to demographical considerations and consider a largely white teaching force as problematic. On their terms:

Demographic projections suggest that, in the coming years, students in U.S. schools will be ever increasingly different in background from their teachers, making the task of teacher education one of educating largely “typical” candidates—White, monolingual, middle class—to teach in an increasingly diverse student body composed of many poor students of color.10

Mary H. Futrell, Joel Gomez, and Dana Bedden note that if current demographical trends continue, 51 percent of students in American elementary and secondary schools will be from a racial or ethnic minority by 2050, although the teachers will remain overwhelmingly white.11 James Banks et al., nod in this direction too by commenting that an “increasing cultural and ethnic gap...exists between the nation’s teachers and students,” though this demographical aspect is a small component of their work.12 Stafford Hood and Laurence Parker take things a step further to define diversity as a “de-emphasis of the traditional European-centered canon.”13

For Melnick and Zeichner, as well as the other authors mentioned, the main concern is that the “typical” preservice teacher in a “typical” teacher education program experiences a form of preparation that historically focuses on the needs of white K–12 students. This focus, so it seems, “[has] largely failed to provide quality instruction for poor and ethnic and linguistic minority students” in K–12 schools (89). The “unpreparedness” of white teachers to instruct “diverse” students, it is believed, leads to dire consequences for racial and ethnic minorities. It is interesting that the authors admit they have no real reason to believe that teachers whose backgrounds match “diverse” student populations will be able to translate their experiences into meaningful and effective pedagogy (94). The empirical evidence just isn’t there, and yet there is persistence in promoting the theory of cultural matching.

White teachers, according to Melnick and Zeichner, are often “limited in cross cultural experiences” due to their insularity from minorities (89). And because they are taught by professors who are themselves insular, many teacher education programs do little to sensitize these teachers to the needs of many minority students or challenge commonly held assumptions about how minority students should be taught.14

Furthermore, Elinor Brown asserts that white teachers do not possess the necessary “cultural frames” by which diverse students make sense of the world.15 Mismatches between the worldviews—the cultural values, beliefs, practices, and life experiences—of teachers and their students can be devastating to students’ learning experiences.16 Unexamined biases and prejudices against diverse student populations, as well as limited access to ways of knowing that match minorities’ experiences, ultimately manifest in low expectations through inequitable pedagogy.17

If the problem is cultural mismatch, then the action needed to address that problem is to prepare white teachers in a way that bridges the gap between them and their “diverse” students. This is done by recognizing and affirming the cultural frames of those students—the normative helix of diversity.

According to Lucinda Chance, Vivian Gunn Morris, and Sondra Rakes,

It is necessary to alter the perceptions of all preservice teachers about working with children from culturally diverse backgrounds, children of color, and children in poverty.18

The authors continue: “Teacher educators must seek to alter preservice teachers’ negative perceptions of schools with large percentages of students with cultures different than their own...and their stereotypes of children with backgrounds different than their own.”19 In kind, authors of much of the literature carefully state “all preservice teachers”; however, it is obvious from such remarks as “but the teaching force remains overwhelmingly white and female”20 that they are really referring only to white, monolingual, middle-class, female preservice teachers.

According to Brown, people’s perceptions and how they make sense of the world is partly a function of their cultural frames of reference.21 The perceptions of white, monolingual, middle-class, female teachers are built within and, according to Bennett, “patterned after the [frames of] mainstream culture, a culture steeped in the legacies of racism and colonialism.”22 Nora E. Hyland and Susan E. Noffke submit that such legacies impel white teachers to perceive their diverse students through a demeaning lens of deficiency, a lens that tends to reify white teachers’ privilege.23

Changing these perceptions requires some form of treatment—teacher preparation programs. According to Baldwin, Buchanan, and Rudisill, teacher preparation programs serve “as a vehicle through which to examine in depth personal bias and racism and to better understand the meaning of diversity.”24 Changing the detrimental frames white teachers bring with them into the classroom requires them first as teacher education students to acknowledge, explore, and examine their experiences with diversity.25 As Elza Major and Cynthia Brock explain, this is no simple task. In their view, “teacher education candidates often enter teacher preparation programs with beliefs and dispositions that mitigate against fostering the educational success of children from diverse backgrounds.”26

According to the literature, teachers are prepared for the classroom by undergoing treatment that alters their perceptions of diversity, diverse student populations, and the contexts in which these students have lived. The treatment aims toward cultural affirmation. Ostensibly, preparation is deemed successful when the cultural frames of white teachers have been realigned to match the frames of diverse students. This preparation, unfortunately, and according to the literature, has little to do with teaching strategies, skills, or tried and true practices, and more to do with empathizing with the oppressed and marginalized. And it is white teachers, again according to the literature, who must be altered through such preparation treatment.

This is how the double helix of diversity works as reflected in the teacher education literature. The descriptive strand of the helix—the demographic change that is producing increasing ethnic, racial, economic, and linguistic diversity even as the teaching force remains largely white—is inextricably wound with the normative strand—the need for action to recognize and affirm this diversity—which culminates in the demand to alter white teachers’ perceptions of their diverse students.

It is hard to overemphasize the vacuousness of this literature, which is full of generalized pronouncements based on an unsubstantiated theory that openly calls for the re-education of teachers based on their race. The discourse assumes that there is something wrong with white teachers, that they are inherently deficient, unprepared, and need fixing, and leaves the impression that being white is a remediable pathology. It is worth noting that in the body of literature reviewed not one book or article sought to show or prove causality between white teacher cultural mismatch and student underperformance; nor was any proof offered that cultural matching is related to improved student performance.

Diversity, viewed through the metaphor of the double helix, insists that demographic imperatives in our schools require the altering of white teachers’ perceptions. The altering, then, conforms with the cultural frameworks of diverse populations for the purposes of affirming them. Diversity in this sense, so it seems, is the crudest form of racialism and racial resentment masquerading as an educational principle.

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