Prospective Teachers' Attitudes toward Urban Schools: Can They Be Changed?

By Mason, Terrence C. | Multicultural Education, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Prospective Teachers' Attitudes toward Urban Schools: Can They Be Changed?


Mason, Terrence C., Multicultural Education


Much of the research on preservice teachers' attitudes and beliefs about teaching suggests that altering those beliefs constitutes a difficult, if not impossible, task (Richardson, 1996). On the other hand, we know that beliefs influence teacher behavior and expectations (Cooper, Baron, & Lowe, 1975), and that an important goal of teacher education is to lead prospective teachers toward developing beliefs about teaching that will maximize learning for all students. Current demographic changes are producing a student population that is increasingly diverse; even the meaning of the term minority must now be reconsidered. Meanwhile, the ethnic and cultural composition of the teaching force remains relatively unchanged.

Under these circumstances, educators must continue to ask whether those entering teaching hold attitudes about cultural and socioeconomic diversity that will enable them to meet the needs ofthe students they will encounter in the classrooms of the 21st century. Some who have studied this issue conclude that they do not (Garcia, 1994; Gomez & Tabachnick, 1992; Haberman & Post, 1992), and that being white and middle class presents a serious obstacle to becoming a successful teacher of minority children.

A key question one might ask here is, "Why be concerned about urban schools?" This question can be answered by citing the demographic shifts referred to above and the impending high demand for teachers in urban areas populated largely by non-white, low-SES students. But such pragmatic justifications fall short of identifying the real reason why educators should care about the educational futures of inner-city children.

In a recent doctoral seminar discussion, I was reminded by one of my students that sometimes educational practices need not be supported by elaborately constructed logic or reasoning. To advocate for quality schooling for urban students, or any students for that matter, is, as she put it, "just the right thing to do." A similar view was advanced by John Goodlad in his 1990 book, Teachers for Our Nation's Schools. One of 19 postulates for reforming teacher education articulated by Goodlad recommends that teacher education programs be infused with the understanding of and commitment to the moral obligation of teachers to ensure equitable access to and engagement in the best possible K-12 education for all children and youths" (p. 292).

In keeping with this principle, the American Educational Research Association's Division on Teaching and Teacher Education (Division K) has recently adopted an equity policy urging teacher educators to respond to the disproportionate representation of poor, non-white students among low achievers, non-academic tracks, and drop outs. According to this policy, "Failure to do so threatens the stability of democratic societies and mocks the principles of equity and social justice upon which these societies are founded" (American Educational Research Association, 1998). Thus, if we are to take at all seriously the responsibility of educating children in a democratic society, we cannot pursue policies that ignore the needs of all its children.

In 1979 Vivian Paley published White Teacher, an account of her career as a school teacher and the development of her understanding of how her own cultural biases affected her teaching. Paley candidly relates how her unconscious stereotyping of African-American students interfered with her ability to treat them as individuals and meet their needs. Through a critical examination of her own teaching practice, however, she gained valuable insights into the meaning of diversity and offered an example of how, at least for one teacher, differences in culture need not impose a barrier to becoming a successful teacher of "other peoples' children" (Delpit, 1988).

If not all teachers possess Paley's extraordinary reflective capacity, how can we bring about fundamental changes in teachers' beliefs and attitudes? …

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