The “achievement gap” is one of the most disturbing phenomena in American education. Teachers want to close the gap in their own schools – but because the gap is rooted in longstanding and widespread problems, the task sometimes feels like a monumental undertaking.
This fall, Teaching Tolerance launched the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative, or TDSi, an online resource that gives educators a set of tools they can use to turn the tide in their own schools and classrooms. Available for free, the research-based tools in TDSi will help you identify ways to reach all students where they are and to guide them to academic excellence.
Education scholar Willis D. Hawley, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and former dean of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, is one of the driving forces behind the creation of TDSi. Teaching Tolerance sat down with Hawley to discuss how and why TDSi’s tools were created — and how they can help you make your school a more productive place for children of color.
TEACHING TOLERANCE What is the basic goal of TDSi?
HAWLEY The most significant educational challenge facing the United States is the tragically low academic achievement of many students of color. The Teaching Diverse Students Initiative helps educators meet this challenge by providing them with research-based tools for improving the teaching of racially and ethnically diverse students. There are also tools to help teacher leaders, school administrators and school improvement teams create schools that support effective teaching and high levels of student learning. Really, anyone or any group with an interest in maximizing students’ learning opportunities could use the tools to identify needed policies and practices.
What does TDSi look like?
It’s a set of online tools that you can adapt to your own school or classroom needs.
There’s a section on “Unpacking the Influence of Race.” It is designed to raise your awareness about the role race may play in your thinking and to examine the influence and meanings of race in our society. There’s also a Common Beliefs Survey. It identifies some beliefs commonly held by teachers — beliefs that, while understandable in part, may have unintended negative consequences for students of diverse races and ethnicities.
We also have a research-based guide on culturally relevant pedagogy. It allows educators and prospective educators to examine their assumptions about, and better understand the effective teaching of, students from different races and ethnicities.
On the site, you’ll find case studies that engage the user in interactive problem-solving related to improving instruction of racially and ethnically diverse students. The current cases involve literacy instruction; we’ll roll out additional case studies, for different content areas, in the near future.
Another tool is the TDSi School Survey. This tool helps teachers, school administrators, school improvement teams and other groups examine whether conditions in their school support effective teaching and student learning.
If you click on any of these tools, you’ll find that each includes a number of resources, such as video interviews with more than three dozen leading experts in the field. You can use these resources to deepen your understanding, and you can share them with colleagues.
Aren’t there already lots of programs that address
the need to improve the learning opportunities of students of color?
Not really. There are courses offered at some universities that deal with many of the issues addressed by TDSi. There are also many books and articles that discuss these issues. But there is not a comprehensive online resource for school improvement that focuses on how best to improve educational outcomes for students of diverse races and ethnicities.
TDSi is unique in its focus on race, ethnicity and language. While other concerns related to student diversity — such as disability and gender — are dealt with, TDSi keeps the emphasis on racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity in a way that you won’t see in most other resources for teachers.
There is another way in which TDSi is different. Many programs to improve teaching for students of color wrongly assume that teachers can improve their teaching simply by being aware of their beliefs and by being introduced to the ways student learning is influenced by race and cultural differences. TDSi aims to improve instruction, not “just” to enhance awareness in the hope of changing dispositions. To that end, TDSi pays attention to the power of relationships. Effective teaching requires more than instructional expertise; it requires that teachers establish caring and trusting relationships with their students.
How was TDSi
We began by surveying leading researchers and reviewing relevant research. That led us to identify some priorities — what educators needed to know, and what they need to be able to do, to improve the teaching of students of color. We then started an on-going process of consultation with prominent experts and formed a development team of researchers and outstanding teachers. The tools are the result of this collaborative process.
As the elements of TDSi are created, they are continually viewed by experts and tested by users – for instance, teacher educators who use the materials in their classes. This is an ongoing process of updating and enriching.
Why do the case studies in
TDSi focus on literacy?
We began with literacy because it affects student learning in all other subjects.
There are elements in the cases — such as a focus on student grouping — that will have relevance in other content areas.
Over time, we’ll deal with other core academic content, but literacy seemed the best place to start.
If the primary goal of TDSi is to improve teaching,
why is there a focus on school-level conditions?
Effective teaching and student learning are heavily influenced by school conditions. If school policies, cultures and leadership do not support student learning, even the most dedicated teacher will face a difficult, uphill struggle.
The TDSi School Survey allows educators, parents, students — any group interested in education — to examine whether the conditions in their school need to be improved to best serve the needs of all students.
In what sorts of settings should TDSi be used?
TDSi is designed to be used in schools, by teacher work groups, by school administrators, in colleges of education or in school district professional development programs.
Can individual educators use TDSi to improve their
own instruction and relationships with students?
Individual educators can use the TDSi resources to assess their own practices and dispositions. Still, it’s best to use the tools in conjunction with your colleagues. Meeting the needs of increasingly diverse student populations is hard work. Having colleagues to learn with and from is motivating and enriches knowledge and understanding. If you want to change schools so that new approaches to teaching and student learning are supported, you will need a team and a school community with shared commitments and understandings.