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Harper: Prepare All Teachers to Discuss Race, Champion Equity

The Welcoming Session at the AACTE 69th Annual Meeting featured guest speaker Shaun Harper, professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. In his presentation, “Ed Schools and the Mis-Education of White America,” he discussed diversity, equity, and race issues in education and the obligation of universities – especially educator preparation programs – to address them.

He emphasized the critical role for schools of education in preserving and advancing democracy in America: As preparers of teachers for the public schools, they are in a position to ensure that every student is educated with the proper consciousness and skills needed to raise race questions and pursue greater equity. Harper said that most teacher preparation programs do not currently live up to this objective, as their curricula contain very little about cultural diversity and fail to challenge racial biases.

“Many students can come to colleges and universities for 4-6 years without taking a sociology of race course or ethnic studies course and may never engage in a substantive conversation in a classroom throughout the undergraduate experience about race,” said Harper. “This is part of the failure of our democracy.”

He encouraged attendees to reconsider how to effectively prepare educators to teach students from a variety of cultural backgrounds by pondering six assumptions that he characterized as “alternative facts”:

  • Schools of education effectively prepare students to be highly skilled teachers of ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse learners.
  • Schools of education can effectively prepare teachers to serve racially diverse learners by talking generically about diversity and multiculturalism but never explicitly talking about race, racism, and racist practices, structures, and implicit biases.
  • Schools of education can do racial equity work without a racially diverse teacher education faculty… a mostly White faculty can do it.
  • The diversity imperative is all about preparing teachers for work with ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse learners and families.
  • Having a more racially diverse teaching workforce will solve longstanding racial problems in schools.
  • A race-less focus on content expertise and practices is enough to prepare highly skilled teachers of all learners.

Harper’s address built on parts of his forthcoming book, Race Matters in College, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press later this year, which contains a chapter titled “The Mis-Education of White America.” Harper cited recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics showing that educators and school leaders are still predominantly White – including 69% of postsecondary student services professionals, 80% of elementary and secondary principals, and 82% of PK-12 teachers. Rather than expecting educators of color to be the torch-bearers for equity and race conversations, he urged, schools of education must prepare all of their candidates to address these issues, and White people need to learn more about people of color throughout their schooling.

“Colleges of education graduate thousands of educated people, mostly White, without a proper course of study on race, people of color, and structural racism,” Harper said. “This makes them partly responsible for the perpetuation of racial inequity in schools and our society.”

These inequities are brought to light throughout Harper’s research. For example, in a 10-year study on race in higher education graduate programs, he discovered most students expect their school of education to challenge their thinking and equip them with effective strategies to address diversity, yet most of them feel they leave unprepared. Another of Harper’s studies looked at the disproportionate suspension rates of Black students in school, especially in the South. He found 55% of all Black student suspensions from U.S. public schools occur in 13 southern states (see graphic). The study also showed that White teachers discipline Black students more harshly than White students committing the same offenses.

While Harper delivered a sobering speech in Tampa, he concluded with a powerful message of hope. Since all Americans go to school and are taught in classrooms by teachers who attend schools of education, he said, teacher educators have a terrific opportunity to raise race questions and change how racial inequities are addressed in schools, communities, our nation, and the world.

To view a recording of the session and other content from the 69th Annual Meeting, visit the AACTE Learning Center.

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Jerrica Thurman

Director of Marketing & Communications, AACTE