Too Little, Too Late?

    You could say that I sit on the fence when it comes to issues of affirmative action and diversity in college admissions – not because I’m not drawn in either direction, but rather because I feel a pull from both sides. On one hand, I agree with the pro-affirmative action camp that our public institutions should promote diversity and equality, and that our university student bodies should more closely represent the demographics of the community as a whole. On the other hand, I agree with the anti-affirmative action partisans that race is a highly flawed and inadequate criterion for addressing fair and equal college admissions, and that when some individuals are given preference for factors unrelated to academic standards, this happens at the expense of other individuals better prepared for college.

    It’s not that I’m entirely opposed to minority status being considered in admissions. Rather, trying to remedy social injustice with quotas or systems that grant "points" depending on where your ancestors came from is, at best, a sort of Band-aid to help keep a few promising students from slipping through the cracks. At worst, it’s a divisive policy that increases rifts between ethnic groups, encourages racial stereotypes, and potentially devalues the university experience as a whole.

    So should the government take some kind of "affirmative action" to promote greater diversity in higher education, so that campus demographics are more like off-campus demographics? Yes, but the time for these interventions is not when students are graduating from high school and looking to go on to college. The most effective way to approach equality in higher education is to strive for equality in lower education.

    Back in the heady days of the Clinton administration, I worked for a while as a substitute teacher. I didn’t do it for long, as it didn’t suit me, but it was valuable for the perspective it gave me on public education in America today.

    I worked in a suburban school district in Northern California. Even the word "suburban" represents, at best, a sort of average of the environments that the district encompassed. In addition to fairly average middle-class, middlebrow developments, there were schools in the midst of open farmland – or at least, what looked like open farmland to my urban eyes – affluent bedroom communities, and decaying neighborhoods with the emphasis distinctly on "hood" more than "neighbor." The racial demographics were distributed pretty much as one would expect. Such is life in the land of the opportunity.

    What was most striking was the great economic disparity between schools. Of course, it’s no secret that school funding and quality vary widely in our supposedly egalitarian society, but this was one school district, ostensibly pulling money from the same pot intended to serve the community as a whole. It was clear that students in the lower strata could not be said to have the same educational opportunities as those in the higher strata. Though some schools had far more melanin than others, I think that the differences in racial representation were largely a byproduct of economic class, rather than the primary problem.

    Though the ethnic makeup of the student bodies varied from school to school, and the campus facilities themselves ranged from state-of-the-art to state-of-Bosnia, one factor was remarkably consistent from the poorest to the richest schools: the teachers were uniformly, and almost exclusively, white.

    Once, I was trying to calm an unruly elementary school class, and one little boy was still out of his seat and noisy after most of his peers had settled down. I gave him a second warning, and he said, "Sure. Pick on the black kid." From my perspective, his race had nothing to do with my decision to single him out, but I can see that from his perspective, it would look like one more example of a white authority figure telling him what to do. I thought at that moment, and still think, that it would have been highly valuable at that moment for a black teacher to tell him that he wasn’t being discriminated against, he was being a bother.

    When these kids grow up in a world full of images and examples of people that look like them either as perpetual underdogs or as succeeding through unrealistic goals that have little to do with education – hip-hop and pro sports, for example – one can see how it might be hard for them to discern potential role models in a bunch of young middle-class white folks fresh from graduate school. A few more faces of color in positions of educational authority could have gone a long way toward making these kids think that maybe education could be something to them besides an annoyance. I thought then, and I think now, that the kind of racial preferences that would make the most difference in the educational system would be steps to diversifying the population of teachers, particularly though definitely not exclusively in so-called "inner city" schools, i.e., those in which minorities make up the majority.

    Proposals like this get into some ethically iffy territory. I certainly don’t think that blacks can only be taught by blacks, or whites by whites, or that young teachers should face the same de facto segregation as their students. I also think that having more people of color teaching in majority-white schools would have a benefit for those students as well. If there were some form of "affirmative action" to get more people of color into teaching programs and then into classrooms, this could be the most effective way for racial considerations to be applied. If the pool of future teaching professionals became more diverse, some would gravitate to poorer schools and some to richer, for any number of different reasons. Certainly not all of the ethnically diversified pool of teachers would end up teaching poor students of color, but the overall representation would go up, and even a few more faces of color could make a big difference in the morale of "at-risk" students.

    PSU’s Graduate School of Education has projects in place to help foster a more diverse workforce of teachers. The Portland Teachers Program exists to recruit and support teachers of color, the Bilingual Teacher Pathway targets bilingual/bicultural teachers, and the International Teacher Education Program works with teachers who already have teaching credentials in other countries.

    Diversifying the teaching workforce in K-12 schools is hardly the only thing that needs to be done to reform our schools and promote more diversity at the college level, but it would be a positive step toward equality in higher education.