21st Century Youth Policy

Educators must bridge the culture gap

05 January 2020
Educators must bridge the culture gap

Teachers work in high intensity, high workload jobs and are often unable to look around and to understand the types of policies that guide (manage) their professional lives. I am convinced that too many teachers are unaware of not only the range of divers

Sharon L. Nichols :
America's teachers do not reflect the broad diversity of the students they serve. Consider the following. There are approximately 50 million students attending public elementary and secondary schools. Half of them are White (49%) and half are Black (16%), Latin (25%), Asian-Pacific Islander (5%), American Indian/Alaska Native (1%), and those who identify as two or more races (3%).  The Latin population is one of the fastest growing groups in the US, estimated to reach nearly one third of the American population by 2060. Most Latins are from Mexico (65.5%) but many come from other areas including Puerto Rico (8.6%) and Cuba (3.7%). Almost 40% of the Latin population are immigrants. It is estimated that 58% of native-born Latin youth from foreign born parents still speak primarily Spanish at home and data suggest these students are more likely than other groups (e.g., Asian Americans) to retain their native language.  
Across the entire population of students, at least 20% (or 10 million students) speak a language other than English at home (Morales et al., 2016). Anywhere from 3-10% of students identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender (LGBT). Approximately 13% (or 6.5 million) are eligible for special education services and include students with physical (deaf, blind, and/or orthopedic visual, speech or language impairment) and cognitive challenges (e.g., intellectual disability, learning disability), or some combination of two or more of these. Approximately 15 million infants, toddlers, children and adolescents live in poverty and are subsequently more likely to experience associated challenges including homelessness, lead poisoning, food insecurity, and unstable homes and/or neighborhoods. In short, America's public education students are more culturally, ethnically, linguistically diverse than ever.
In contrast to this incredibly diverse student body, we have a 3.1 million full time teaching force that is mostly white (80%) and female (76%). This is a problem. Not only does it mean so many of our students are taught by teachers who do not look like them, but these teachers are unlikely to fully understand all the range of experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives these students bring with them to class.
I recently had the chance to work with scholars across the country who are doing important research aimed at the lived experiences of our more marginalized and vulnerable student populations. These scholars reminded me that many of our educational policies aimed at supporting these youth often times have the opposite effect of making life more challenging. For example, we know high-stakes testing has had the effect of restricting teachers' professional autonomy and decision-making in the classroom, disproportionately (and negatively) impacting poorer students. Similarly, the wide variation in state level language policies make it exceedingly difficult for teachers to follow best practice in educating students for whom English is a second language. However I was also reminded that ideologically-driven rhetoric, which forms the basis of many of our national policies, can pervade school climates as well. For example, the hostile attitudes surrounding our undocumented immigrant population exhibited in the highly watched Presidential election season pervades school contexts where it is a legal requirement to admit undocumented youth. In some cases, we know that teachers' animosity towards this population has a detrimental effect on how they interact with these youth.
Teachers work in high intensity, high workload jobs and are often unable to look around and to understand the types of policies that guide (manage) their professional lives. I am convinced that too many teachers are unaware of not only the range of diversity of youth they may encounter, but also the ways in which their professional discretion may be impacted by the proximal (and distal) policies that guide their work.
Whether or not the trend of the mostly white, mostly female teacher continues, the rapidly changing composition of our student population necessitates that we prepare teachers from all walks of life to face the growing complexity of what it means to be a young student in the 21st century. For example, Morales, Trujillo, and Kissell recommend that educators take time to understand who their students are and not be swayed by policies that force "adultification" of youth of color. Penn, Kinloch, and Burkhard point out that many young Black girls and boys are forced into silence due to their different languaging practices. Penn recommend ways educators can be better advocates for black youth in terms of ways to interact with administrators, with youth, and through curriculum. Alvarez Gutiérrez & Quijada Cerecer talk about undocumented youth and how public schools become hostile spaces when teachers grow intolerant and rejecting. They offer recommendations for ways teachers should engage with these youth who already come to school feeling marginalized, uncertain, and afraid.  
My hope that is we as educational psychology researchers will engage in meaningful research efforts aimed at better understanding 21st century students and their experiences. There are already many who have made the call to our community to engage in empirical inquiry that is more sensitive to student diversity. And I am sure there are many others. However, I hope more of us find innovative ways to address the teacher-student culture gap that continues to pervade our classrooms.

(Sharon L. Nichols, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dr. Nichols's research interests focus on educational policy and its impact on teaching, learning, and student motivation).

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