Bridging the Culture Gap

Teacher training programs strive to bridge culture, racial gaps in the classroom

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford lectured incoming Teach for America recruits in Nashville about how to address race and culture in their classrooms.

A week after nine black people were shot and killed during a Bible study inside their church in Charleston, S.C., Donna Ford stood in front of a packed lecture hall at Lipscomb University, talking to Teach for America’s Nashville corps members about how to address race in their classrooms.

“Let’s go to Charleston,” she said of the June 15 attack, in which a 21-year-old white man has been charged with the killings. “The world seems shocked that the families (of the victims) are forgiving so quickly.”

Ford, who is black, attributed part of the families’ spirit of forgiveness to a virtue that she considers a cornerstone of African-American culture: a strong sense of spirituality.

“So how is this going to play out in your classroom?” she asked her students.

Ford is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, where she specializes in cultural competency: the ability to collaborate with people across cultures. She also instructs incoming Teach for America of Greater Nashville recruits on the topic twice a week during their summer teacher training.

Teacher preparatory programs such as Teach for America, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, are focusing on cultural competency more than ever.

Last school year, for the first time, most U.S. public school students were non-white. That’s been true for much longer in districts such as Memphis-based Shelby County Schools, which is 80 percent non-white, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which is 55 percent non-white. Research shows that, even 50 years after de jure school desegregation, low expectations from teachers contribute to the racial achievement gap by hindering achievement for non-white students, especially black students.

Vanderbilt’s Peabody College addresses classroom diversity in several programs, and almost all of its graduate students study the topic in at least one class.

Teacher training schools don’t have a choice but to address racial and cultural differences if they want to be successful, according to Ford.

“If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you,” she said.

Recruiting more teachers of color is important, she says, but it’s not enough. Teachers and students of all races and cultures must be equipped to have productive relationships. Ford talks with her students about the importance of being sensitive to differences in language, nationality and sexuality, but she especially highlights the treatment of black students.

“People are just so unaccustomed to talking about African-Americans and African-American culture,” she said.

During a recent TFA training in Nashville, Ford walked through some behaviors that teachers might misinterpret from black students. Black students, for example, might be more likely to talk when the teacher is talking, mimicking call-and-response, a common practice in traditionally African-American churches in which the congregation punctuates a minister’s remarks with verbal exclamations. However, some teachers would perceive such behavior as simply talking out of turn.

One white Teach for America recruit told Ford he was wary of stereotyping his students when he starts teaching on his own in the fall. Ford responded that being conscious of cultural differences doesn’t interfere with teaching students as individuals first. Everyone is different, she said. However, being educated about culture might help explain some student behaviors.

Elizabeth Self, a doctoral student studying cultural competency at Vanderbilt, says that even the most well-intentioned teachers can fall prey to unconscious biases. The key to thwarting them is looking introspectively before a teacher ever steps in the classroom, she said.

“There are certain things that are not totally going to click until you get out into the classroom,” she said. “But we need to move the bar in how far we get teachers, at least in their thinking, before they ever get there.”

Self, who is white, knows from experience. She went from teaching at a predominantly white school to a predominantly Hispanic and African-American school in Chicago. Now, she’s researching ways to prepare teachers for the realities of U.S. schools. Teachers-to-be improvise conversations with actors based on real-life classroom experiences, such as situations where a student might feel singled out because of race, or a conference with an immigrant parent.

“I know the damage that I did as someone who was unprepared on these issues, and so part of what I want to do is make sure that the teachers that I train go into the classroom better prepared to respond to these things than I was,” Self said.

"If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you."Donna Ford, Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education

Teachers and students often are reluctant to talk about race, or even angry about it, according to Ford.

“Many people believe they’re bias-free, or they can’t possibly be racist or classist or sexist,” Ford said. “To help teachers acknowledge that they have biases is the first step to letting them have some sense of relief.”

Ford also conducts professional development through school districts across the country. She would like to do more such trainings in Tennessee school districts — not after racial tension flares, but before it happens.

“We need to stop being reactive, but being proactive,” she said. “Diversity is here to stay. It is inevitable. We have to keep the conversation going.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.