Does being educated by someone belonging to your race make a difference?

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Pradip Rodrigues

Recently the Peel District School Board (PDSB) approved a motion to start hiring more black and indigenous teachers. This to me is a good start, although it would be great if they made a concerted attempt to recruit great teachers regardless of race. But the reason the PDSB is considering this race-based hiring is troubling and quite possibly misguided.

It is a known fact that black and indigenous students are underperforming academically compared to students of other racial groups. The solution? Hire more black and indigenous teachers. If only it was so simple.

Back in 2006, the Toronto District School Board reported that Portuguese students had a troubling dropout rate of 42.5 percent making it nearly 20 percent higher than the municipal average, and almost four times the rate for Chinese students. But no one believed even for a minute that the solution was to hire more teachers of Portuguese descent.

Different theories were put forward to explain the high dropout rate of Portuguese students, one theorized that it was the curriculum that focussed on the accomplishments of dead white males. Another theory was that discrimination faced by these students forced them to drop out but there was another theory that made more sense- many students of Portuguese descent had relatives and friends who had also dropped out and were making a lot of money in the trades and construction. Since many of these young students were inclined toward the trades, they didn’t value a high school diploma. One of the reasons floated was that Portuguese parents didn’t care about their kids’ education but since it wasn’t politically correct to point that out as a possibility it was quickly shot down. It was easier to blame the curriculum and the system.

To justify hiring more black and Indigenous teachers, the PTSB trustee Kathy McDonald who put forward the motion, points to a Johns Hopkins University study which found that a low-income black student’s probability of dropping out of school lessened by 29% if the student had even just one black teacher in elementary school. Apparently seeing yourself reflected in the classroom is important for students’ success. Indian and Chinese students it appears function just as brilliantly with teachers that don’t look anything like them. However, no one has launched any particular study as to why these students excel.
Nicholas Papageorge, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor who co-authored the study, in an interview with Quartz acknowledged that the huge jump in success of black students who are taught by a black teacher was still murky but reasons that it could be a case of the “race match effect”: Students are encouraged to work harder when they see someone like themselves in positions of prestige or authority.
He concedes more research is certainly required. But the study adds to previous investigations noting there are benefits to students being paired with teachers of the same race; it’s also the first of its kind to show noticeable effects of having just one teacher of the same race. It is a far cry from the PDSB Trustee who went on record stating that ‘countless’ studies had irrefutably proven the link between having black and Indigenous kids taught by black teachers.

I am not sure having black and Indigenous children or for that matter South Asian students taught by teachers belonging to the same race results in better academic performance. What I am convinced of is that having one inspirational teacher regardless of race is what often makes the difference in the lives of students, especially those at risk of dropping out.

The study emphasises the importance of race over the quality of the teacher.

I would think that a white teacher who can inspire black students would be more effective than a black teacher who lacks passion.

The problem with Canada and the west is that whenever an ethnic group fails, there is introspection and soul-searching. Educators, politicians and intellectuals end up blaming the system which is ‘white-oriented’, racism and discrimination for the failure of students or adults. When black and Indigenous students fail, the academic course is blamed, followed by the teachers who have unconscious biases and discrimination. However, no one looks at the family.

Why is it that South Asians and Chinese immigrants consistently outperform whites and other races in the western world? It has to do with the importance families from these backgrounds place on education. It is seen as a ticket out of poverty, it is a means to freedom and an opportunity to re-define themselves.

I know Indian Dalits living in Canada, being considered a backward class in India they often faced discrimination which they stoically bore but persevered anyway.

When you come from countries like India and happen to be from a lower class or caste, no one feels sorry for you. You don’t have the opportunity to feel sorry for yourself and if anything, you view education as a way to re-invent yourself and escape the past. Here in Canada, disadvantaged groups are not encouraged to take responsibility for their situation but instead society and the system is blamed for their situation.

When an Indian kid fails to make the grade in school, the parents will push them hard, enroll them in classes and ensure they put in the hard work. No one will blame the ‘racist’ education system, or the race of the teacher or even the really bad teachers, they blame themselves. They take responsibility and get ahead anyway.

I do agree that having more teachers from diverse backgrounds is a good thing, but not if that means they are being hired only to teach students belonging to similar backgrounds. You may as well start segregated schools for students belonging to different ethnicities because they do better when surrounded by students who look like them and are taught by teachers belonging to their ethnicity. I strongly believe that the quality of instruction is more important than the color of the educator. And sadly, there are very few teachers out there who teach passionately. -CINEWS

Comments: 1

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  1. Dear Editor,
    Good write up on the subject. I agree with you that an inspirational and passionate teacher would make better teacher than belonging to a particular race. Yes, Chinese and Indian students excel in any environment. Of course, higher education is not important for those who want to go in trades. Maggie McDonnell, Canadian, who was Global Teacher Prize Winner 2017, is making difference in the lives of Inuit students in Arctic in her own way.
    In my view, Can-India is one of the best ethnic newspaper. I like it for its content, editorial, colors, and compact size – equivalent to Metro newspaper.