Race-Conscious College Admissions an Asset in Our Pluralistic Society

Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in admissions in its Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin decision. In our contemporary policy context of expanded civil rights—and their accompanying backlash—this ruling prompts reflection on the fundamental value of cultivating a diverse community, especially in educational settings, that includes but also extends beyond race.

Why is it important to give college students the opportunity to learn with peers from both similar and different backgrounds? For all students, having at least a “critical mass” of peers with shared characteristics boosts self-efficacy and academic success. Meanwhile, being situated in a heterogeneous learning community, particularly one that supports interaction both within and across groups, builds students’ interdependence, empathy, and fluency with “otherness.”

The cost of not cultivating these experiences is high. Most notably, the homogeneity of segregation fuels insular ignorance, which in turn feeds fear and hostility toward outsiders of any kind. From schoolyard bullying to adult manifestations of homophobia, racism, and anti-immigration and nationalist sentiments, we have plenty of evidence of the problems that arise from fear of otherness.

For teacher preparation, supporting human diversity in higher education is important in several ways and includes not only race-conscious policies but also programmatic emphases.

First, the nation needs a more diverse teacher workforce, including both PK-12 and higher education faculty, to better reflect the student population. Getting more underrepresented students to complete postsecondary degrees is a key step in the right direction.

Second, prospective educators must learn to empathize with their students and understand their context, but there is truth in the maxim You cannot know it until you live it. Teachers who have no experience with the range of diversity they are likely to encounter in their classrooms face a steep learning curve. (Look at the effort—noble, much-needed, but difficult—undertaken on campuses such as Pennsylvania’s Juniata College, where faculty recently participated in a 3-day “equity and justice retreat” to learn how to build inclusive classrooms. Or the frustrations of teachers and parents from different cultures who struggle to build trusting relationships so they can collaborate for the benefit of their children.)

In addition to these assets derived from learning with a diverse student body, future teachers benefit from course work that explicitly prepares them for the complex ethical, legal, and instructional environment they will soon enter. Carefully selected clinical settings and classroom simulators also build teacher candidates’ familiarity with a range of student and school profiles and give them opportunities to learn responsive practice.

Candidates have to learn about the increasingly complex legal influences on education, ranging from antidiscrimination laws to child-welfare and immigration policies that complicate teachers’ responsibilities and even compel some families to avoid engagement. Teachers must be prepared to shoulder these burdens while modeling tolerance and building interdependent classroom communities. The need for this work is evident in numerous recent analyses and resources, such as these:

  • A new report from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network finds that LGBTQ students face not only peer victimization but also high rates of detention, suspension, and expulsion from school. The report recommends that schools employ culturally responsive teaching, fair policies for addressing bullying, and restorative rather than punitive discipline in order to provide a less hostile environment.
  • The web site stopbullying.gov offers a wealth of resources for bullying prevention and response. Next month, the group Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention will hold its fifth annual prevention summit with a focus on promoting tolerance and inclusion among students.
  • New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights helps teachers to navigate the complexity of the experiences each student brings to school and understand where the boundaries lie. See these fact sheets for combating discrimination against Asian American and Pacific Islander groups, for example, which articulate scenarios that could violate the law.

In short, the vast diversity of the U.S. student population requires teachers to have deep awareness of what is required to make the classroom welcoming for all learners, regardless of their religious background, country of birth, language spoken at home, or any other characteristic. As clinicians, even novice teachers have to recognize and value each student’s context in order to provide a safe learning environment. If it feels overwhelming, that’s because it is extraordinarily complicated! But that is why they also must know when, where, and how to obtain support for the myriad situations that they won’t know how to address.

Pluralism is more of a professional imperative now than ever. In my view, race-conscious admissions policies are an important component of our broader action plan.

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Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE