The Role of Social Foundations in Preparing Teachers for Culturally Relevant Practice

Article excerpt

The 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth grade reading results indicate that while 75% of white children across the nation read at or above a basic level-partial mastery of knowledge and skills required for grade level work-only 40% of African American and 44% of Latino fourth graders do (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003a). Results were similarly discouraging for children from low-income families of whom 45% scored at or above a basic level, while 76% of those not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunches scored at or above a basic level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003b).

The entrenched social inequities responsible for this crisis of access and equity in education are historically rooted in broad social and institutional issues that influence the pedagogical practices of schools and teachers. They play a significant role in shaping teacher beliefs, teacher attitudes, and teacher expectations of students of color and those in poverty and how they should be taught.

To leave these socialized beliefs unexamined can produce devastating consequences, as evidenced by the over-representation of African American children placed in special education. In 1998, while representing only 17% of the total school enrollment, African American children accounted for 33% of those labeled mentally retarded (Losen & Orfield, 2002, p. xvi). In a qualitative study of the special education referral process in a particular district, Harry, Klingner, Sturges, and Moore (2002) found that teachers referred children seen as behavior problems and oftentimes blamed that behavior on what they perceived to be dysfunctional families (p. 78).

In this process, teachers often made "implicit or explicit references to ethnicity, culture, and/or socioeconomic status of the families" in explaining the reasons for students' behavior (Harry, Klingner, Sturges & Moore, 2002, p. 79). Many preservice teachers hold similar beliefs about students of color and those in poverty. Bondy and Ross (1998) found that these misguided beliefs contribute to a notion that many African American children require special education.

These myths held by teacher candidates include believing that poor African American students fail because their parents do not care about their education; that they are unmotivated and uncooperative; and that they have grown up with few literacy experiences (Bondy &, Ross, 1998, pp. 243-246). These notions, derived from social stereotypes of African Americans and low-income families, perpetuate low teacher expectations and intensify an already disturbing picture of over-representation in special education and low student achievement in general education settings.

Addressing the issue of teachers' low expectations of students of color and those in poverty poses significant challenges to teacher education. The growing body of research focused on this issue documents ways teachers can make a real difference in the educational lives of children. Ladson-Billings' (1992; 1994; 1995) and others demonstrate that teachers can work with students to challenge socio-economic inequities, succeed academically, and retain pride in their cultural backgrounds.

Based on a review of literature about preparing culturally competent teachers, this article argues that social foundations courses, especially courses in the history and sociology of education, are critical for teacher candidates to understand the power of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic inequities and the relationship of these factors to the pedagogical practices of schools and teachers in order for teachers to engage in culturally relevant practice.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Much of the literature addressing the challenges of preparing teachers for teaching students of color and those in poverty is increasingly focused on culturally relevant pedagogy.1 Ladson-Billings (1992) defines culturally relevant pedagogy as that which empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes (p. …