By Steven Krolak
Elementary and secondary school classrooms across the country are becoming more ethnically diverse.
Yet diversity is actually declining within the teaching profession itself. This can lead to disconnects between increasingly white, middle-class teachers and their culturally varied students.
Teacher education programs strive to prepare their students to succeed in this environment. But how can they know if they are doing a good job, or need to do more?
One tool currently being researched at IU Southeast is a cultural proficiency survey that allows School of Education instructors to quantitatively measure personal and professional attitudes toward diversity among their students and eventually among working teachers everywhere.
Tough questions, tough choices
The survey is the centerpiece of a multi-year study of attitudes toward diversity conducted by a team of IU Southeast faculty led by Dr. Lisa Hoffman, assistant professor of education. Hoffman and colleague Robin Fankhauser, associate professor of education, will present results of the team’s study this week at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), the nation’s largest and most prestigious gathering of teacher educators. Appropriately, the conference will focus on “tough questions, tough choices” in meeting the demands of professional practice.
Cultural proficiency is commonly defined as a way of being that allows individuals and organizations to interact effectively with people who differ from them (Kikanza, et al., Culturally Proficient Instruction) In the classroom, it’s about the way that teachers teach, and how that is influenced by their attitudes.
Hoffman and research team colleagues Shifa Podikunju-Hussain, associate professor of education and Tymika Wesley (now faculty at California Lutheran University) are using a survey tool to assess the cultural proficiency of students in the teacher education program at IU Southeast.
The survey itself, incorporating and expanding on the work of researchers Cathy Pohan and Teresita Aguilar, consists of 40 statements that probe beliefs about diversity. Students indicate agreement or disagreement with statements like:
—The attention girls receive in school is comparable to the attention boys receive.
—People of color are adequately represented in most textbooks today.
—It is more important for immigrants to learn English than to maintain their first language.
The survey has been administered at the beginning and end of the semester in one diversity-focused class per program, providing a “before and after” image of students’ grasp of issues that are increasingly important to success in the workplace.
Overall the results show improvement in cultural proficiency over the course of the semester, especially in recognizing manifestations of systemic inequality, Hoffman said. In other words, diversity education courses are working.
Presenting the study at the AACTE conference will be an opportunity to gather feedback from peers, with an eye to refining the approach and broadening distribution.
“We’re presenting it as a possible model for other schools of education to consider, because everybody has to find a way of looking at this issue,” Hoffman said.
Profound and eye-opening classes
In a parallel project, Fankhauser is applying the survey to first-year teachers. Hoffman considers this data particularly valuable.
“The first year can be rough, especially if deep seated assumptions have not been transformed,” Hoffman said.
Jaime Whitaker, a graduate student at IU Southeast, has been teaching at Fairdale High School Magnet Career Academy in Louisville, Ky. for four years. She sees the value of her diversity education training on a daily basis.
“In my class, at any given time, I have students from all over the world,” she said. “Not only is the English language learner population growing, but there are a number of obvious regional differences within the classroom as well.”
Whitaker’s class includes students from South Korea, Cuba, China, Mexico and all parts of Africa. She estimates that 85 percent of the 115 children she teaches each day are in real need of the skills she has to offer by virtue of diversity education training.
She notes that diversity is not just ethnic, but cultural in the broadest sense.
“The lives my students have lived and made it through will never cease to amaze me,” she said. “From refugees and immigrants to homelessness and drug addiction, and far beyond those, each student has their own story, their own struggles and their own needs.”
She credits courses such as Education and Social issues – “probably the most profound and eye-opening courses I have ever taken” – for deepening her understanding of the contexts of the situations she faces in the classroom.
“You can’t really relate to or work with these kids until you get a glimpse of who they are and where they come from,” Whitaker said.
Hoffman is quick to point out that the research is just a first step toward overcoming a “deficit” view of diversity.
“The prevailing attitude toward students who are in poverty or who are culturally different sees them as lacking,” Hoffman said. “We’re trying to build an approach that recognizes their strengths, and the value they bring to the classroom environment.”
In the view of the authors, educators who understand all the social and cultural factors affecting schools and students are better prepared to become campus leaders, and advocates for their students.
Brittany Logsdon, another IU Southeast graduate student, teaches at Greenwood Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. Her classroom is also a microcosm of varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, requiring skills in cultural proficiency to unlock the potential of each student. Sometimes it’s as simple as using examples that incorporate the students’ prior knowledge and everyday life experience.
Fundamentally, it’s about valuing the contribution that diversity brings to the educational experience for student and teacher alike.
“It’s their individual differences that make them who they are, and those differences should be celebrated and not pushed to the side,” Logsdon said. “Teaching in a diverse setting has shown me how important it is to be educated in diversity and how to respectfully celebrate every student.”