As the teachers strolled into the cafeteria, their casual dress — jeans and tennis shoes — left no doubt that this was an in-service day, time to put away the “teacher voice” and converse with colleagues.
Yet a certain apprehensive look was clear on their faces. They’d been here before — to a professional development session dedicated to “diversity” — and they dreaded enduring such a thing again.
It’s no wonder, really: there’s a lot wrong with the diversity training that goes on in our nation’s schools. There are programs that offer shortcuts for communication across racial and ethnic lines, too often drawing on stereotypes rather than challenging them. There are dialogue programs that usher in difficult conversations about racism, prejudice and bias, sometimes opening wounds and creating tensions that leave participants asking, “How did that help?” And then there are “feel-good-about-diversity” programs that seem wholly disconnected from the practice and realities of teaching.
Lackluster diversity programs aren’t limited to in-services, either. A May 2007 survey by Public Agenda found that most new teachers (76 percent) said teaching an ethnically diverse student body was covered in their pre-service training, but less than half said this training helped them “a lot” when they got into actual classrooms.
But we have to do something, right? Our nation’s education system has an undeniable problem with race. For decades, white students have enjoyed better academic outcomes than most students of color. A similar gap exists between middle-class students and students who live in poverty. These gaps are measured in test scores and dropout rates, but their impact goes far beyond education statistics, affecting who goes to college and who doesn’t, who makes a living wage, who becomes the line worker and who becomes the manager. The “achievement gap,” as it’s known, is arguably the greatest barrier to true equality in America.
Enter the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative.
Undertaken by Teaching Tolerance, in partnership with the National Education Association, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, prominent scholars and excellent teachers, TDSi offers a suite of free online professional development tools designed to help educators improve their skills in working across lines of race and ethnicity.
“We recognize that it’s not enough for teachers to examine their own beliefs and learn about the effects racial and cultural differences have on learning,” said Lecia J. Brooks, former classroom teacher and interim director of Teaching Tolerance. “We also need to know what to do once we’ve begun this soul-searching. TDSi’s tools give teachers the skills to improve instruction.”
TDSi is embedded within a larger framework of best practices for teachers. Through the TDSi tools, educators can learn about concepts such as flexible heterogeneous grouping, culturally responsive pedagogy and collaborative problem solving between teachers and administrators. Ideas such as these are central to effective teaching, and they can improve instruction at any school, regardless of its demographic makeup.
Teacher work groups, teacher-leaders, district-level trainers, school leaders and others can hand-pick material best suited to the immediate and ongoing needs of their school communities — whether that’s an interrogation of colorblindness or the common belief that teachers should tailor instruction to students’ “learning styles.” Special guides for facilitators offer suggestions for peer-led professional development. There are also tools to help teachers, school leaders and school improvement teams assess whether school policies, processes, cultures and leadership support effective teaching and student learning.
Further, while examinations of prevalent attitudes or beliefs about race are central and important, TDSi purposefully leverages such inquiries to focus on instruction and learning outcomes in the classroom. If a teacher is mandated to use ability grouping, what should she do — if anything — when that grouping results in racial segregation? What about the teacher who wants to reach emerging readers — and it’s his African American students who are struggling most?
“Educators prefer professional development that’s based on classroom realities — and they value learning from each other,” Brooks said. “That’s what the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative promotes. Our hope is that the readers of Teaching Tolerance will take up this work purposefully and lead their peers in examining race and in improving the educational and life opportunities for our nation’s children.”
Jennifer Holladay contributed to this piece.