Teachers of Color

You can research the racial makeup of educators in any number of places, such as this study, this study analysis, or this 2015 NY Times article that asks, “Where are the Teachers of Color?” The numbers change depending on the years and the part of the country, but the fact is, American educators are disproportionately white, even in areas that are majority minority.

Surely, it’s clear I care because I’m an educator of color myself, but if it were just a fact, and it had no impact on outcomes, it wouldn’t really matter that much. There are plenty of career tracks that correlate strongly with particular demographics, and sometimes for perfectly innocent reasons. But, as many of those pieces show, there are real issues in a monochromatic group of educators – not the least of which is that, just by nature, most people struggle with cross-racial empathy and understanding – especially considering that so many minority students lack support.

My question isn’t really about whether or not it would help to have more teachers of color. If we go along with the premise that it would be beneficial (disagree if you’d like), my question becomes, how do we make the job and the career more attractive to different demographics?

“It’s the money!” you say.

Yeah, okay. But aside from that – and teacher salaries, while not high (it depends on the state and county, of course), are not as low as many other common careers – what makes someone choose a job? And what is making minority college graduates choose other careers?

It could simply be that there are only so many graduates. People of color graduate at lower rates that white students, and black men in particular have the lowest rates of any racial/gender group.

With that said, in that same article you can see that graduation rates are increasing, bit by bit, over time, for all groups and even for the groups who tend to struggle. I am hesitant to say that the best remedy might simply be to wait for college graduation rates to pull even, but that far-off hope may be the likeliest option.

But what do you think?

The Other Skills

If you read through this article from The Economist, you will see that it’s becoming readily apparent that, especially as technology develops more and more rapidly, simply finishing college and expecting your life to unfurl in front of you is not something that holds true any longer. Whether it’s degree-granting programs or those mentioned in said article, people are shelling out the bucks to become more attractive in their careers, on top of the potential joy realized by actively learning.

Most of these schools teach coding, but that will change. Something else might yet become more valuable in 2023, or 2030. And some version of these schools, or MOOCs, will teach that.

There are, of course, online courses that are essentially college lectures, offering great literature and language learning for a discount.

But I wonder if there is a way to find a different route. Maybe there’s a different set of skills to be taught, a set that is unlikely to vanish.

The term “soft” skills is rather pejorative, and I suspect used because the skills are typically assocated with women. But, dismissive though we might be about them, they are necessary. Look here: 

Regardless of location, it is important for young professionals and seasoned professionals to understand that the dynamics of the workplace require the use of myriad soft skills. While no particular area is more important than the next, it is important that the skills be used in tandem.

The problem, among many, is that these skills are hard to quantify, and thus hard to measure. Yet ultimately, aside from a handful of positions, what we tend to interview for is indeed these sort of skills.

Maybe there is a way to actually quantify such skills, to innovate therein, and to forge ahead with this very particular sort of lifelong learning. Or maybe I’m just dreaming.

Massive OECD Study, Minor Focus on Education

I believe strongly that behavioral insights can have an impact on educational outcomes. It is, of course, much of what I write about. But, understandably so, most of the impact that behavioral insights have had has been through other fields.

I found an extensive study yesterday, published this past year on results from across almost all OECD countries. It is nearly 500 pages long, and the evidence is rock-solid, to say the least. But unfortunately for my purposes, there are only two small studies cited on education.

These studies (all of which you can read here, education begins on page 95) are useful. The first concerns an afterschool program in South Africa, where participants are reminded in personal text messages that include specific information. As you might expect, significantly more attended once reminded – and the reminders were personalized, referencing how often they had attended in previous weeks – and their educational outcomes improved once they attended. It was also particularly successful at bringing non-attendees back into the program.

The study admits its own limitations, as it was a short period of time. But I see such studies and I want to take it further. Attrition is a major issue, of course, and no one can learn if they don’t attend in the first place. But what of that next step? What about the students, particularly adults, who make just enough effort to show up but aren’t engaged? How can behavioral insights reach and connect with them?

That’s where I want to go.

The second study centers on adult literacy in the UK, and includes the accepted finding that persistence in education is closely tied to the beliefs that what they are learning is important, that they have the ability to succeed, that practice and effort matter (because why do it otherwise?), and that they feel like they are welcomed and belong. This study sent messages to students, seeking to increase these beliefs, and indeed it significantly (36%) lowered the dropout rate.

Again we have the same issue, though, in that these studies are, in my view, first drafts. They are great, and proof of concept. But if and when I get a chance to be involved in my own work, these will serve as building blocks for the path I want educational research to travel.

Stay tuned.

On Authenticity

So last weekend, I was a bit under the weather (I had tripped and hurt myself), and I helped emcee my family’s holiday party. When my role was complete, a few folks who weren’t close relatives complimented me on how well I had done, and I was a bit surprised, considering it had felt like an intellectual challenge to me.

I thought about that, and throughout this week I’ve been thinking about why this surprised me. Most of my best public speaking has come after days, weeks, or months of preparation, and I’ve long thought it was the time that led to such things. But in retrospect, perhaps it was truly the authenticity that led to connecting with the audience.

I ask you today about your best experiences as a member of an interactive audience. As a student, or as a paying customer, or as a partygoer. The way we conceive of such events, it’s something ineffable like “charisma” or “showmanship” that we think leads to success. But I think it might be authenticity, emotional honesty clearly conveyed. This doesn’t mean every possible nook and cranny must be revealed, but it also means a deliberate distance can backfire.

This may not be true for everyone or every situation. For some, perhaps a distance is necessary. But I would argue that for those men and women, said distance is indeed authentic. Whatever level of openness works for you is what you should seek to attain.

If you think back to educators you’ve had – or been – and remembered your best experiences, I suspect a vibrant authenticity was present in their every choice. And I also believe that, if ever you were let down, it was likely because they tried to play a role they didn’t actually fit.

Sometimes you have to do things outside of your comfort zone in education. The response isn’t to simply give up, of course. But as educators, we have to think consciously about how our tasks can match up with the authentic people we otherwise are, and align ourselves with every part of our work. We’ve all had teachers who were clearly going through the motions, and I’d argue that those teachers were considerably more damaging to our learning than those who genuinely struggled with the materials they were handed. To return to my original example, I genuinely struggled at the party last weekend, but the honesty and openness shone through nonetheless and carried me through on its own.

There is more to being a great educator than authenticity. You can be wonderfully true and not know how to manage a classroom. You can be extremely real and yet be bowled over by our many cognitive biases and heuristics. But without authenticity, we do our students, our colleagues, and ourselves a massive disservice. So on this New Year, I wish only that we can find a way to imbue our output with the spirit of the authentic people we are at the moment we wake up every day.

Peace and love.

Hello

We are Justin and Alissa, and we have spent enough time in the public sector to offer our thoughts and ideas about how to make this field into the very best version of itself.

We’ll spend time discussing news, trends, studies and personal experiences, and share our analysis of the sector. We will also, we hope, have some fun along the way, although that was probably the least fun way to say that. We’ll do better!

Anyway, we do this not to criticize or disparage but out of love, as the public sector is where we’ve long felt at home and we want it to reach its full potential.

Stay tuned for more posts, and thanks for reading.