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Race and Ethnicity in the Teacher Education Curriculum

by William Trent - 1990

William Trent presents a series of arguments for his proposal that the importance of race and ethnicity in education should become a primary area of study for the prospective teacher. Trent notes recent research showing that blacks and Hispanics are among those groups least well served by schooling in the United States, yet these groups will constitute an ever-increasing proportion of students. The problem is exacerbated, in Trent’s view, by the opposite trend in the proportion of minority students who will be teachers, necessitating new understandings and new approachesfor majority-population teachers who will be called on to teach increasing numbers of minority youth.

It seems unnecessary today to write an article addressing the need for the explicit, informed treatment of the issues of race and ethnicity as a part of the curriculum in the preparation of the nation’s teachers. We are, after all, thirty-five years beyond the Brown decision, twenty-five years beyond the 1964 Civil Rights Act; we have fair housing laws and we have affirmative action legislation, Time does not heal all wounds, however, nor does time erase centuries or years of lived history, and change has been painfully slow.

It is out of respect for the lived history of minorities in America that I argue for the necessity of including scholarship on race and ethnicity as a core part of the preparation of teachers. There are five compelling reasons that support this recommendation. The first is demographic: We are going to have an increasingly diverse nonwhite student population. Second is an economic incentive: We cannot compete in the modern world if we ignore the educational needs of a third or more of our future labor force. Third is the trend in the composition of the teaching force, which is increasingly female and white. Fourth is the idea of competence; no occupation should lay claim to the title “profession” if its treatments fail for a third of its clients or if the incumbents believe themselves to be unable to treat more than a third of its potential clients. Fifth, and in my estimation most important, is the imperative to protect the human and civil rights of the clients. In this article, I will elaborate these reasons with evidence gathered from a variety of research efforts (my own and those of others) following a few prefatory comments.


Despite the positive advances of the late sixties and early seventies, which created a very narrow window of opportunity, we have also had benign neglect of minorities: the Bakke and Weber legal decisions, which weakened affirmative action efforts; a declining rate of postsecondary enrollment for blacks; limited advances in enrollment of Hispanics and American Indians; a Justice Department bent on dismantling any efforts aimed at affirming civil rights; the recent demonstrations of overt racism brought to mind by names such as Howard Beach, Willie Horton, and skinheads; and finally a Supreme

Court apparently constituted along ideological lines, decisions of which have substantially constrained, if not crippled, affirmative action. The past forty-five years have brought about more school desegregation, but not substantially more societal desegregation and certainly not the pervasive integration that many assumed would occur. Inequality in educational and employment opportunity is still a reality.

In many ways the conditions we confront in examining the nation’s minority community are far more complex than was the case when the war on poverty was launched, due to the even more diverse composition of that community. The racial and ethnic composition of the minority community is today more diverse in national and geographic origin, political history, social and cultural history, language, and political and social vision. Each of these sources of diversity is further complicated by past and current conditions of social class and gender unique to each group.

One result of these aspects of social context is an increasing awareness of the embeddedness and pervasiveness of racism. There is also a growing understanding that the differences among and between us require special recognition and treatment. Research illuminating the latter point makes clear the need to prepare teachers differently if they are to handle diversity better.

Research by sociologists modeling the status-attainment process has shown explicit differences among the experiences of blacks, Hispanics, and whites.1 Results of such studies have consistently revealed that the fairly logical socialization-based, contest-type model (which assumes a meritocratic process) has not held for blacks and Hispanics as it has for whites. Rather, a sponsorship type of explanation seems to best characterize the attainment process for them. For example, socioeconomic status does not have the inter-generational significance among blacks and Hispanics that it does for whites. Nor does the role of significant others. Instead, avoiding disciplinary problems, adopting the right attitudes, and performing well seem to identify blacks for “sponsorship,” or selection for upward mobility.2

These results, from quantitative studies of attainment, have been made clearer by the qualitative work of Cicourel, Rist, and others pointing to the ways in which teacher-held conceptions of capable students vary by race, ethnicity, and social class.3 These latter works have heightened our attentiveness to teacher expectations as a critical factor in the educational success of different groups of students. Finally, European social scientists and others have led a sustained challenge to the meritocratic characterization of the educational process in Western, capitalist societies.4

The combination, then, of the continuing societal inequalities and the research underscoring the ways in which schooling contributes to their persistence suggests a compelling argument for changing the way teachers are prepared to handle racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. This argument becomes even stronger when demographic, economic, professional, and ethical dimensions of the current situation are made explicit.


If the preceding depiction of inequality and schooling is an accurate one, the demographic realities we confront are cause for major concern. Writing in 1985, Hodgkinson reported that

today we are a nation of 14.6 million Hispanics and 26.5 million blacks.

But by 2020 we will be a nation of 44 million blacks and 47 million Hispanics - even more if Hispanic immigration rates increase. . . . At the moment . . . [Asian Americans] are a much smaller group than Blacks or Hispanics (about 3.7 million in 1980), but their growth potential from immigration is very great for the next decade- they currently represent 44% of all immigrants admitted to the US. However their diversity is very great.5

It is not the population mix itself but what it portends for schools that captures our attention. In 1984 there were sixteen states in which minority public school enrollment exceeded 25 percent. Ten of those states had the highest dropout rates during that period, ranging from a high of 43.7 percent to a low of 35.4 percent. Simply put, minority students are now, and seem increasingly likely to be, those who experience the least success in our schools. Failure to prepare teachers responsibly for the existing conditions will at least perpetuate if not exacerbate the current conditions of high dropout rates and low levels of educational attainment or achievement that characterize the minority educational experience.

At the very least, prospective teachers need to understand why the school classroom composition they envisioned is less likely to be available to them now or throughout their careers in teaching. Not just central city urban schools but also suburban schools are increasingly diverse in racial and ethnic terms. In many instances the diversity is more complex due to the added factors of poverty, single-parent female-headed households, and language differences. The content of instruction in teacher education, moreover, must be very clear with regard to the distinctive groups of students, for few generalizations will hold either within or between groups. No single set of assumptions about student learning, and no one instructional approach, will adequately serve the learning needs of all students in our schools. Fundamental to the content of instruction in teacher education will be the knowledge and experience necessary to enable teachers to envision and implement a model of excellence to which all students are entitled.


Almost without exception, the economic necessity of better preparing a broader group of students follows closely on the heels of the presentation of the demographic realities. It is a return to the theme of enlightened self-interest stated so clearly in A Nation at Risk, which, despite its narrow ideological framework, merits our attention.6 Because of the historical patterns of economic discrimination against minorities, combined with the declining ratio of earners to retirees, we now entertain arguments that make minority human capital a greater resource in constructing the nation’s market competitiveness and hence our quality of life. This is not a new condition. It has always been the case that minorities have been a core supply of labor even if only in the tertiary or reserve labor pool.7 Support for the education of minorities, particularly blacks, has often been cited as a quality-of-life issue for this nation,8 but only in recent times have the demographic data become so compelling as to require that we address their educational needs from the standpoint of inclusion in the primary labor force. This necessitates examining the adequacy of teacher preparation in equipping teachers for this task. It should be done, however, so as to avoid the traditional mistake of assuming that vocational education is the solution to the educational problems of minority students. If Weisberg is correct in his finding that “general literacy skills are more likely than any other factor to yield success in the labor market,”9 then the economic imperative, too, suggests that new ways must be found to facilitate all students’ learning in communication and computational skills.10 To teach teachers that high schools are a place for minority students to learn specific job skills in an increasingly service-oriented economy is to divert attention from the basic educational needs that will have the best “pay-off” for all students in the future.


The third reason for preparing teachers to understand race and ethnicity centers on who our teachers will be, based on studies of the composition of the teaching force, college enrollment, and degree attainment. Schlecty and Noblit are most often cited for their finding that the best and the brightest leave teaching sooner and at a greater rate than their peers. They also reported that the teaching force will increasingly be comprised of young white females.11 With declining black enrollment in higher education and fairly stable Hispanic and American Indian enrollment, combined with fewer students choosing teaching as a career, it is imperative that nonminority teachers be better prepared to address the educational needs of minority students.

General patterns with regard to degree attainment indicate that bachelor of arts degrees in education have been declining overall, and sharply for selected groups of students:

From 1976 to 1981 the total number of bachelor degrees awarded in education went from approximately 151,000 to 105,000, a 31 percent decline.l2

Females continue to dominate among education degree recipients both in total number and in percentage across all major fields.13

Consistent with the forecast of low numbers of minority teachers by the year 2000, blacks show a greater rate of decline in their concentration in education from 1975 to 1981 compared with whites, and black and Hispanic females show a greater rate of decline during that period compared with white females.14

Combining these trends with the renewed emphasis on teacher competency as determined by the National Teacher Examination and state testing procedures, the predictable results are that the teaching force will be both more female and more white than Schlecty and Noblit speculated.

Even without regard to race, ethnicity, or gender, the need for better preparation of the future pool of teacher candidates is clear. Especially because of the disparity between the demographics of students and those of teachers, race and ethnic differences and their consequences for education must receive more explicit treatment in the teacher education curriculum. At the same time, we need to redouble our efforts to increase the supply of minority educators. This should not be taken to mean that the minority educator, male or female, will necessarily be a better teacher without a reformed curriculum and other changes needed in the public schools. Minorities too harbor misconceptions and stereotypes. Thus if the implicit assumption is that minority teachers will “naturally” do better, then I think the evidence for that is less than clear.15 Nor should it be held that hiring minority educators will absolve others of responsibility for educating minority children, an attitude that in itself reveals the need for a reformed teacher education curriculum.


The fourth reason undergirding the recommendation for change results from ongoing research focusing on problems in the teaching profession and the perceived consequences of selected teaching reform policies for minority educators. A pilot of a recent national survey revealed that teachers report their belief that their competency with blacks and other minorities is limited.16 Inadequate undergraduate exposure to course content familiarizing them with the experiences of minorities and limited cross-race contact or multicultural experiences in or outside of school were given as primary reasons for this belief. In other research we were able to identify “training in sociocultural understanding, as a major area of need for teachers.17 Each of these tentative findings underscores the need to improve the sense of competence that teachers bring to their work.

Earlier I introduced the idea that no occupation merited the status of a profession if its practices were unsuccessful for a third of its clients. While such a statement may sound alarmist, the statistics that are regularly cited suggest that it may be an understatement. For example, the following are reported in Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk:

Studies conducted in urban high schools have revealed dropout rates as high as 85 percent for native Americans, and between 70 and 80 percent for Puerto Rican students.

The national dropout rate for blacks in high school is nearly twice that of whites.

Black students are more than three times as likely to be in a class for the educable mentally retarded as white students, but only half as likely to be in a class for the gifted and talented.

At the high school level, blacks are suspended three times as often as whites; while minority students are about 25 percent of the school population, they constitute about 40 percent of all suspended and expelled students.

In our own research focusing on black male students, we find limited evidence of the “criminalization” of these students, a process whereby teachers are at least implicitly communicating their fear of black males.18

These “educational” experiences of black and other minority students suggest that our current strategies for treating their educational needs consist largely of removing the students from what we would consider an effective learning environment. Paraphrasing the often cited declaration in A Nation at Risk, these conditions amount to a declaration of war against minority students. It is clear from these conditions that our current reparation of teachers falls far short of most definitions of adequate.

It is interesting to note that the debate over professionalism seldom addresses the transportability of teaching skills. Most education graduates seem to envision themselves returning to the schools they know, not just to any school where the jobs and need for their services exist. I contend that preparing teachers to apply their skills in a wide range of contexts will both improve their sense of personal competency and reduce the stress related to teaching in racially diverse school contexts.


My fifth and final reason for urging systematic attention to race and ethnicity in teacher education programs is that it is the only way to protect the human and civil rights of the students in our schools. In a recent study I interviewed administrators from my hometown school district in Virginia who reminded me of the mission-like and visionary quality of the teachers in my segregated school system. I have since wondered what it was that sustained their ability to teach us despite the overt racism of the separate but (un) equal system and their ability to inspire us to aspire to and prepare for careers that were effectively closed to us. While I have no evidence to substantiate it, I am increasingly convinced that their knowledge of our circumstance and conditions fueled their hopes and aspirations for us, which shaped how they taught us. In many instances these educators were victims of racism and discrimination and had personally experienced denied opportunity despite having fully prepared themselves for excellence. Their intimate understanding of the community, its strengths and constraints, provided them the insights to student needs and potential out of which they taught and with which they nurtured success. Much has changed in the past thirty years, including many human rights accomplishments. Nonetheless, as one respondent put it, “We don’t seem to demand as much from or want as much for our students as we did with your group.”19

Teachers do have a vision for minority students today but it is not one shaped by an informed and intimate knowledge of the students and their circumstances. If we are to change that vision in a positive way, to one that will nurture and sustain aspirations for and commitment to excellence, we must provide teachers with a far clearer and more intense curricular experience focused on race and ethnicity and their implications for education.


1 See, for example, Alan Kerckhoff, “The Status Attainment Process: Socialization or Allocation?” Social Forces 55, no. 2 (1976): 368-89; idem and Richard Campbell, “Race and Social Status Differences in the Explanation of Educational Ambitions,” Social Forces 55 (1977): 701-14; idem, “Black-White Differences in the Educational Attainment Process,” Sociology of Education 50 (January 1978): 15-27; Alejandro Portes and Cynthia Truelove, “Making Sense of Diversity: Recent Research on Hispanic Minorities in the United States,” Annual Review of Sociology 13 (1987): 359-85; Alejandro Portes and K. L. Wilson, “Black-White Differences in Educational Attainment,” American Sociological Review 41 (June 1976): 414-531; W. Tenhouten et al., “School Ethnic Composition, Social Context and Educational Plans of Mexican-Americans and Anglo High School Students,” American Journal of Sociology 77, no. 1 (1971): 89-107; and G. E. Thomas, “Race and Sex Differences and Similarities in the Process of College Entry,” International Journal of Higher Education 9 (1980): 179-202.

2 Kerckhoff and Campbell, “Black-White Differences in the Educational Attainment Process.”

3 See Aaron V. Cicourel and John I. Kitsuse, “The School as a Mechanism of Social Differentiation,” in Power and Ideology in Education, ed. J. Karabel and A. Halsey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 282-92; and Ray C. Rist, “On Understanding the Processes of Schooling: The Contributions of Labeling Theory,” in ibid., pp. 292-305.

4 See, for example, Michael Apple, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1977); Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America (New York: Basic Books, 1976); Henry Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education (South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, 1983); Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1977); and Michael F. D. Young, Knowledge and Control (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1971).

5 Harold Hodgkinson, All One System (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Educational Leadership, Inc. 1985).

6 The National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983).

7 See, for example, William Julius Wilson, “Segregation and the Rise of the White Working Class,” in The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978); and James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), esp. ch. 1.

8 Anderson, The Education of Blacks, pp. 27-32.

9 A. Weisberg, “What Research Has to Say about Vocational Education in the High Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 64, no. 5 (1983): 59.

10 The National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk.

11 Philip C. Schlechty and George W. Noblit, Policy Research, Vol. 3 of Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1982), pp. 283-306.

12 William T. Trent, “Equity Considerations in Higher Education: Race and Sex Differences in Degree Attainment and Major Field from 1976 through 1981,” American Journal of Education 92, no. 3 (1984): 280-305.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 For an insightful discussion of this point, see Lisa Delpit, “Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator,” Harvard Educational Review 56, no. 4 (1986): 379-85; and idem, “The Silenced Dialogue," Harvard Educational Review 58, no. 3 (1988): 280-97.

16 Harry Broudy, Steven Tozer, and William Trent, “The Illinois Project on Professional Knowledge in Teacher Education: A Pilot Study of Core Problems in Teaching” (Unpublished Report, University of Illinois College of Education, Champaign, Ill., 1986).

17 William Trent, “The Implications of Reform for Minority Educators” (A presentation to the American Educational Research Association, Washington, D.C., 1986).

18 Barriers to Excellence: Our Children at Risk (Boston: National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1985); see also Broudy, Tozer, and Trent, “The Illinois Project.”

19 Trent, “The Implications of Reform for Minority Educators.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 91 Number 3, 1990, p. 361-369
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 410, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 10:59:55 PM

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  • William Trent
    University of Illinois-Urbana

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