Teaching The Underprivileged

student_desk_booksWe know that the underprivileged are badly served by their schools, and that this contributes significantly to their inability to rise in society. This wasn’t always true. In big city slums during the great influx of migrants during the early 20th century, the schools were often far better than their counterparts today. Not that they were lavishly appointed or funded, but that they were served wonderfully by many skilled and dedicated teachers.

Upgrading the teaching cadre for those who need their help so badly is crucial. One part of this is devoting more money and using these scarce resources more effectively to attract and retain skilled teachers. But that challenging problem is for another discussion. First we must acknowledge that hiding behind this barrier is a real conundrum that has never been fully acknowledged.

Teaching involves more than skill and subject matter mastery. It also involves being able to connect with the students on a personal level. This is usually interpreted as requiring a cultural and historical affinity. That leads to the belief that we must have mostly black teachers in predominately black schools, and the equivalent rule for mostly Hispanic schools. For mixtures of minorities, the rule is unclear, but in any case whites are deemed fundamentally incapable of making the necessary connection. There is some dispute about this analysis amongst academicians but this remains the prevailing view at present.

But here’s the rub. Where are you going to get the skilled and motivated teachers? There are pockets of excellence in academia where these are available, but at least now they are overwhelmingly white. This is a “chicken and egg” problem. Without the flow of minorities through good schools into good teacher training, there will never be the kind of cadre that is needed.

There was an alternative that was tried and found wanting for many reasons. We hoped that busing students to break the effects of housing segregation patterns would solve this problem. This would put minority children in schools environments that obviously served white children better. While well-meaning, this is in direct opposition to the whole idea of cultural affinity. Both concepts can’t be simultaneously valid.