Can Whites Teach Blacks?
Teachers' Racial Makeup In Hartford Spurs Debate
July 17, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Race was at the heart of the Hartford school system's most wrenching incidents this year.
A white principal didn't make it through the year at Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School, in a mostly black neighborhood, after she hired all white teachers to replace retirees, setting the tone for a racially charged atmosphere that seemed to worsen every week.
At the end of the year, parents and students also complained bitterly to the school board that a Simpson-Waverly music teacher told kids she didn't like "black music." The music teacher, who denies ever saying such a thing, had previously filed a complaint of her own accusing three black teachers in the school of racially harassing her and encouraging their students to misbehave in her class.
And a black principal in the district's most troubled school, Milner Elementary School, attributed her school's woes, in part, to white teachers being culturally out of tune with black students.
Hartford's political focus on racial balance has long helped determine the composition of the school board and the selection of the superintendent and even principals. But it has rarely reached down to the classrooms as it did this year.
School officials whiplashed by this year's incidents are now debating some tough questions: Can white teachers effectively teach children of color? Is the lagging achievement of children of color caused in part by low expectations of white teachers? And are white educators to blame for the high rate of minority group members directed to special education services?
Michael C. Williams, vice chairman of the board of education, is pushing hard for an aggressive affirmative action plan to drastically increase the number of minority teachers. The way he sees it, the achievement gap is inherently a racial problem. "We need a race-based solution," said Williams, who is black.
Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry, who is black and Latino, strongly disagreed and said Hartford's record of hiring a diverse teaching force is the best in the state. Half of all administrators, including Henry, eight of his 11 senior administrators and 32 percent of the teaching force are black or Hispanic. The student body is 96 percent black and Hispanic.
The debate about the race of teachers has spilled beyond board meetings and is creeping into broader public forums.
Former Hartford Mayor Thirman L. Milner addressed the issue in a recent column in the Northend Agent's newspaper. "There is nothing wrong with white teachers," Milner wrote. "I had them, respect them, was the only black in an all-white high school, and appreciated the education that I received, but when they are sent into a problem environment that they are not used to, and may not want to get used to, what do you expect and what do you expect the students to learn?"
District officials say Hartford is a success story when it comes to minority hiring. They point to a minority recruitment and retention plan approved by the school board in 2000 as evidence of the district's attention to diversity.
Williams said the plan is inadequate and there should be a constant effort to improve, though he is uncertain what the goal should be.
Some board members agree with him, to varying degrees. Others disagree altogether.
"I don't think quota systems work," said board member Michael Lupo. "In the long run, they do more harm than good. You'll find white teachers that do an excellent job teaching all students."
But Williams voiced a skepticism that has long simmered in the North End.
"Institutional racism exists within the school system," Williams said.
As an example, he cited the high number of black and Hispanic students identified as needing special education services, particularly speech and language. When white refugees from Bosnia moved into the district, their children were not placed in special education, yet high numbers of black and Latino children are, he said.
According to the state Department of Education, Hartford has over-identified Latino students in three of seven special education areas - the figures are particularly high in speech and language impairments. But the school district has not over-identified black students for special education.
School board member Elizabeth Brad Noel, a retired Weaver High School guidance counselor, said Williams could have a point. "I'm sure there is institutional racism in our school system. But I don't think that's the only reason we're having trouble with our children."
Having a goal to hire more minority teachers is not enough, said Noel, who thinks the district should be vigilant about having a more diverse staff. "I'm not sure we're doing enough."
Jack Hasegawa, chief of the office of educational equity for the state Department of Education, said there could be a multitude of explanations for identifying more African and Latino than Bosnian children as needing special education services. The Bosnian children, he said, come from a culture with strong early childhood education. By the time they've reached sixth grade, he said, they've studied physics and English or another foreign language. African refugees and children coming from Puerto Rico or Latin America may not have had those advantages, he said.
Also, Hasegawa said, the special education designation provides financial resources to get extra help for students, so there's a heavy tendency in cities to apply the designation to children who lag far behind their peers.
Henry sharply disagreed with Williams' assertion that the district is beset by institutional racism. "It's highly unfair and inaccurate to pin that label on the district."
The district may identify more minority students as needing special education than it should, Henry conceded, but that is a trend it is working to reverse. The practice is not racially motivated, he said, and Hartford compares well to peer cities. "It is not meant to be punitive, but rather to provide them with support and assistance. It isn't a racial determination."
Williams is adamant that the education of Hartford children would improve if more teachers shared their race and culture. He said that white teachers may have lower expectations for children of color and that even in the suburbs, where most teachers are white, the black and Hispanic children of professionals lag behind white students.
Henry agreed that it's critical for teachers to have high expectations for students, but he disagreed that the race of the teachers plays a role in the achievement gap. "There's no difference in how children perform based on the race of the teacher," Henry said. "I believe children respond to good teachers no matter what the race. The overwhelming majority of teachers in our school system are working hard and doing a valiant job."
Henry said some of his highest achieving schools, such as Dwight Elementary School, were led by white principals and teachers while other top schools were led by black principals and a diverse staff.
And there's no guarantee a black or Hispanic teacher will have grown up in a city, Henry said. They may have grown up in the suburbs in a wealthy family and not have firsthand knowledge about the challenges their students face.
Kati Haycock, director of Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on raising student achievement, scoffed at the notion that race should be a factor in hiring teachers.
"Anybody who believes the answer for kids of color is teachers who look like them is just nuts," Haycock said after speaking in Hartford Friday. "A teacher who is terrific almost loses racial identity with kids. What you need are teachers with very high expectations and with a very good education themselves because you can't get kids to levels you haven't reached."
An unintended consequence to the theory that black teachers should teach black students could be the emergence of a theory that black teachers can't teach white students, Henry said. "It's so regressive."
"The goal," Henry said, "is to get a certified, qualified teacher in front of youngsters while keeping in mind the affirmative action policy we are all required to have."
Ada M. Miranda, who oversees minority teacher recruiting for the Capitol Region Education Council and is the school board secretary, said it's important for children to have role models of the same race and for students to feel a connection to their teachers. But it's more important for teachers to be highly skilled and have a multicultural curriculum, she said, because youngsters can be of the same race but come from dramatically different backgrounds. Some may have grown up in Somalia while others are from Hartford.
It's a basic tenet of respect, Miranda said, for teachers to validate their students' culture and traditions, including their food and holidays.
Marsha McCurdy, chairwoman of the West Hartford Initiative for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, recalled being a black, Jamaican child whose white teachers in West Hartford showed no interest in the food, such as oxtails and curry, that her family ate at Thanksgiving.
"I know what makes me feel comfortable," she said.
If teachers are the same race or ethnicity as their students, she said, it could make a difference when they seek help. The same is true for parents, she said. "There is an ease between a black parent, teacher and student that does not exist with a white teacher."
That ease comes from familiarity with a culture's rules for social interaction, said Vivian J. Carlson, assistant professor of human development and family studies at St. Joseph College. In some cultures, it's acceptable to have layered conversations, she said, in which people speak over each other, while other cultures require a respectful second or two of silence before a new speaker may begin.
"Schools are institutions that are grounded in dominant cultures," she said. "We like students who are assertive, outgoing, confident, raise their hands, want to be first and can work independently. ... But a lot of children in our society are not raised with those values. They may value a different discourse such as rhyming and using language associatively. And they may work better collaboratively where one person starts a sentence and another one finishes it."
The challenge, Carlson said, is for teachers to engage children of color and "teach them to be bicultural - to value and maintain their culture and also to be successful in a broader American culture."
Time For Reform?
It's not clear where the debate Michael Williams has started is headed - or whether he has enough votes on the school board to push through an aggressive plan. District officials say reforms may be needed to increase the number of minority teaching candidates in the hiring pool statewide.
The bulk of Hartford's minority teachers are veteran staffers and as they retire, it is becoming increasingly challenging to replace them, officials said, in a state where just 7 percent of the certified teachers are black and Hispanic. Most of the district's classroom aides are minority group members and Henry said the district pays for some of them to take courses to become certified teachers as one way to increase the pool of minority teacher candidates.
Hartford Public High School also has a program for students interested in teaching to introduce them to the profession. Of the eight seniors who were in the course this year, all were accepted into college and seven enrolled in teacher training programs, said Principal Mark Zito. "That's promising."
Henry said he does advertise with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities' career center, though without much success because teachers who become certified in other states tend not to want to take the two-part Connecticut Praxis test for state certification.
He and school board Chairman Robert E. Long, a former teacher in the district, said the state legislature could help districts recruit minority teachers by allowing those who are certified in other states - at least New York and Massachusetts - to obtain certification in this state without taking more tests here.
Hasegawa supported the idea of waiving the Praxis for teachers certified in New York and Massachusetts. But he concluded that talent remains the most important characteristic of a good teacher.
"In general," he said, "I prefer a teacher who is well-prepared. Gender and culture and race are added values. If you start with gender or race or culture, you may not make a really smart trade-off."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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