Soft bigotry of low expectations has no place in Connecticut

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Johns Hopkins University

I have been a certified teacher. I now lead an education advocacy organization.  I am a mother of small children. I am a white woman.

To me, the results of a new study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, titled “Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations,” feels like a punch in the gut.

The study presents stark differences in how African-American teachers versus non-African-American teachers view the potential of students of color. One alarming statistic from the study: Non-African-American educators were 40 percent less likely to believe a student of color would graduate from high school than African-American teachers.

By contrast, African-American women educators were found to be the most optimistic about a student’s high school outcomes. Specifically, African-American female teachers are about 30 percent less likely to say a child wouldn’t graduate high school than their male, African-American counterparts.

We know that this study does not reflect the totality of all educators, but it does affirm a startling gap in expectations that surely leads to gaps in student outcomes. This is the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in action. We all should take notice, especially those of us in Connecticut, which has made significant strides in helping educators better understand the children they teach.

Public Act 15-108, passed during the 2015 legislative session, sought to improve cultural competency training for our state’s educators so that, regardless of what type of school or what neighborhood teachers would work in, they will be best prepared to work effectively with their students. Furthermore, the legislature established the Minority Teacher Recruitment Task Force, which has worked diligently this year to identify ways to recruit and retain highly effective educators of color.

That’s the good news. However, the recent Hopkins report reminds of the need for all of us to do more.

More than 40 percent of students in Connecticut’s public schools are children of color, but fewer than 10 percent of the educators in our state are of color. If our state leaders are serious about creating an environment in which all kids have access to great educators and great schools, they would expand and pass Senate Bill 379 in this session.

Right now, the bill extends the task Fforce and requires the State Department of Education to conduct an annual survey of students regarding the effectiveness of minority recruitment programs in the state. We can do more now, at no cost to the state.

The Johns Hopkins study only reinforces the glaring need for more teachers of color in our schools. A teacher and leader of color can provide an adult role model in the classroom for students rarely have an opportunity see or hear them. This should be a top priority for our state’s leaders when considering policies to improve student achievement.

I urge lawmakers to take steps this year to amend and improve Senate Bill 379 to once and for all remove the punitive teacher licensure policies that hinder the state’s ability to recruit great teachers from outside our borders.

Connecticut is a great place to live, work and learn. We’re home to some of the most cutting-edge technology companies, exemplary colleges and universities, and a K-12 system that is seeding 21st-century leaders. We undermine this promising future as long as we are satisfied with a only a portion of our children reaching their full potential.

While the Johns Hopkins report felt like a kick in the gut, its impact is not about me — it is about our students. It must be a wake-up call to all of us. Our focus must be on making sure our kids have teachers who can reach them where they are and who can inspire them to fulfill their greatest potential.

Clearly, we have much more work to do.

Jennifer Alexander is chief executive officer of New Haven-based ConnCAN, the state’s largest education advocacy organization. 

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