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Can ‘cultural proficiency’ among teachers help close student achievement gap?

Racial disparity in academic achievement remains a leading problem in American education, both at the K-12 and the college levels. A number of studies show greater diversity in the teaching profession can address some of those concerns. Hari Sreenivasan has a look at a teacher training program that is aiming to increase diversity in the classroom and improve results all the way through college.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Racial disparity in academic achievement remains one of the leading problems in American education, both at the K-12 and the college level.

    A number of studies show greater diversity in the teaching profession can address some of those concerns.

    Hari Sreenivasan has a look at a teacher training program that is aiming to increase diversity in the classroom and improve results all the way through college.

    It is the latest story in our special series on Rethinking College, and part of our regular education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Francisco Martinez will earn his teaching certificate this month, but the 26-year-old teacher-to-be wants to be more to his students.

  • Francisco Martinez:

    My goal is to be a good role model.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Martinez, who was born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, says that his own teachers in school were overwhelmingly white. He hopes his background will resonate with elementary school students in Fresno, California, where the district's enrollment is 67 percent Hispanic.

  • Francisco Martinez:

    I feel like I can relate a lot to the students. Some of the experiences they're going through, I have seen myself. And I guess, in a sense, I can help kind of provide another ear or another person to rely on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Martinez may be right. Cassandra Herring heads an alliance that helps prepare teachers for diverse student classrooms.

  • Cassandra Herring:

    We know from research that having a teacher of color actually can move student achievement. It actually can help keep kids in school and persist to college.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of all public school students in America are racial or ethnic minorities, and that number is only rising.

    At the same time, 80 percent of their teachers are white. Experts in higher education are trying to fix that gap.

  • Cassandra Herring:

    We need to make sure that every single ed prep program is training every single teacher candidate to bring about student achievement gains for all learners.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While minority students have made gains in recent years, an achievement gap still exists between the races. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in some grades, the gap in reading and math achievement between whites and their Hispanic and black classmates remains in the double digits.

    Herring's alliance, called Branch Ed, launched a new initiative with colleges across the country to improve teacher preparation programs.

  • Cassandra Herring:

    When we go into our classroom, capture what you see and hear teachers saying and doing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This month, the alliance met in Fresno at Vang Pao Elementary School to observe student teacher candidates from California State University-Fresno, including Francisco Martinez's class.

  • Francisco Martinez:

    How many of us thought that was false? Raise your hands.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Observers used a rubric to assess the role of diversity in teaching and learning.

  • Cassandra Herring:

    By looking through the lens of that tool, it gives educators, these faculty, the opportunity to reflect back on what they're doing on their own campuses.

  • Man:

    When we come back from our observations, we want to process the information, and then go deeper with it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One observation came from Nakeshia Williams, an assistant professor from North Carolina A&t State University.

  • Nakeshia Williams:

    There was one black female in the classroom. She didn't participate in sharing out. I didn't hear that girl's voice in the classroom holistically at all.

    There's research that supports this marginalization of black females, particularly as it relates to math, and it struck me that, as a teacher, you think about, how you can be more inclusive? How can you dispel myths? How can you support this disproportionate representation?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Does teaching need to change, as our demographics and as our country changes?

  • Cassandra Herring:

    I think it does. I think the race-blind, colorblind, language-blind, culture-blind educational system of the past is failing us. It's obsolete.

    Because our classrooms are becoming so diverse, to not equip teachers to know how to really leverage that diversity in a positive way, to move forward student achievement, is only going to increase the achievement gap.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A shift toward what's called culturally responsive teaching, or cultural proficiency, is gaining traction among educators.

    To better serve students of color, teachers create conversation about inequities and cultural relevance. Francisco Martinez uses Spanish references in his lesson plans.

  • Francisco Martinez:

    For example, there was one math lesson I led once, we were working with distances, so I said, so and so wants to go get an horchata beverage. How long does so and so have to walk to get that beverage? Before I could finish the sentence, so many kids were saying, oh, I have had horchata. I have had horchata. Horchata is great.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While California State University at Fresno has been successful at recruiting many minority teacher candidates, enrolling African-American males is still a challenge.

  • Laura Alamillo:

    We do need to improve on how we recruit African-American males. I think nationwide, that should be at the forefront of the discussion.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Laura Alamillo is the dean of the school of education at the university. She recently visited local black churches to try and attract more African-Americans toward a teaching career.

  • Laura Alamillo:

    I think it's time to reach out to this particular community to see if there — maybe it could spark some interest. It's not only the presence of a teacher of color. It's the lens, it's the mind-set of coming with these, you know, just really valuable assets.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ultimately, cultivating great teachers is likely to be the best recruiting tool of all.

  • Nakeshia Williams:

    Most teachers, if you ask a teacher, why did you become a teacher, their why is because they had a teacher, one teacher, that inspired them, that encouraged them to be the best that they could be and pushed them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Fresno, California.

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