Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Competency and Comfort: Teacher Candidates' Attitudes toward Diversity

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Competency and Comfort: Teacher Candidates' Attitudes toward Diversity

Article excerpt

Abstract. The purpose of this study was to identify and describe teacher candidates' perceived levels of competency and comfort in teaching diverse student populations. For three semesters, teacher candidates (n = 221) volunteered to complete questionnaires at the beginning of their professional education courses. A second group (n = 242) completed questionnaires as they exited student teaching. Although the majority of teacher candidates have limited professional and life experiences, findings indicate both groups feel both competent and comfortable interacting with diverse populations.

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Since the 1960s and the onset of the Civil Rights Movement and resulting federal mandates, public school districts have been held to more equitable instructional and evaluative standards for minority students than before. More than 40 years later, however, a disproportionate number of minority students continue to be unsuccessful in school achievement (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2001; Nel, 1992; Perez, 1994). Nearly 40 years ago, Duma (1968) recognized the high placement rates of racial minority students in special education classes. More recent findings indicate minority students continue to be over-represented in special education classes (Agbenyega & Jiggetts, 1999; Smith-Deutsch, 2001). While these achievement gaps narrowed in the 1970s and 1980s, they stabilized or widened in the 1990s (Lee, 2002).

Although the society and home life cannot be discounted, these factors do not solely determine student behavior (Sleeter & Grant, 1999). Rather, students determine their own behavior as they make sense of the daily experience of schooling. That is, students' values and beliefs are shaped as much from within as from outside the school (Sleeter & Grant, 1999). These school experiences vary by race, social class, and gender. Another factor has been the gap between teachers and students, "resulting at least from age and role and often compounded by differences in cultural background. This gap has recently been expanded, as an increasing number of students come from homes that have alternative life styles and family arrangements" (Sleeter & Grant, 1999, p. 29). If education is to enable students to access the larger society and participate in the democratic process, the dynamic between minority student populations and the teacher work force warrants investigation.

The number of minority students has increased dramatically across the last decades. Although not meeting the prediction that public school classrooms would shift from a nonwhite minority to a nonwhite majority (Hodgkinson, 1985), students of color make up more than 30 percent of the school-age population (NCES, 2001). Therefore, public school teachers are faced with a greater range and complexity of issues. However, 85 percent of public school teachers in urban areas are women, European American, and middle class (Campbell, 1996).

Although some teachers are able to bridge this disparity, others are not. Some teachers believe it is their role to control, limit, and discourage the differences they encounter (Sleeter & Grant, 1999). Yet pluralism is the cornerstone of democracy. Therefore, the ways in which teacher candidates perceive and interact with diverse student populations hold the potential to influence future societal expectations.

Background

Critics of the American public school system acknowledge that any viable attempt to reform education must address the issue of teacher preparation programs (Giroux & McLaren, 1986). In particular, teachers should be educated to function as intellectuals. To this end, it is believed that teacher education is directly linked to critically transforming the school setting as it is the teachers who can make changes toward the larger social structure. Giroux and McLaren (1986) believe the place to start is by linking the purposes of public schooling to the importance of economic and social reform. …

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