Raising expectations, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, encouraging the most talented teachers to work in the neediest schools, and focusing on early childhood education are all ways that educators can work to ensure minority and low-income students are receiving a good education, speakers at a recent conference said.

“To make progress, we have to address standards and accountability,” said Janet Murgia, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza. “There are too many minority and low-income kids with low expectations.”

Panelists who met July 24 at a town hall event sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noted that teachers often have high expectations only of the students who already do well, not expecting students who struggle academically to improve. The town hall discussion took place in Chicago at the quadrennial convention of UNITY: Journalists of Color.

Beverly Hall said that when she began as the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, a district with a large black and low-income population, a survey of kindergarten teachers showed that many of them didn’t think their students would graduate from high school.

“Teachers weren’t confident in themselves,” she said, noting that many of them were overwhelmed and intimidated by how poorly prepared for learning the children seemed as they were entering school. “So we’ve invested in teaching teachers how to teach.”

Hall said Atlanta’s teachers have done intensive work around literacy for the past few years and are now focusing on improving their ability to be confident in teaching science and math.

One of the reasons some minority students have trouble learning is because studies have shown that children of color learn better when learning visually and in a collaborative environment, whereas white children are able to learn linearly, speakers said.

“The styles of teaching are outdated and not flexible,” said Patty Loew, associate professor of life sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s a cultural disconnect.”

To ensure that all children receive a high-quality education, Hall said, there must be a focus on improving the caliber of teachers.

“The most important issue is teacher quality,” she said. “Teachers need to have the ability to teach and know the subject matter that they are teaching.”

And this isn’t always the case.

“Accelerated courses in Hispanic high schools have more teachers who don’t have a degree in what they’re teaching [than in mostly white schools],” Murgia said.

But it’s not because there aren’t qualified teachers out there, it’s just that they aren’t going to the schools that are struggling, said Allan Golston, the U.S. program president at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The best teachers are sent to the best schools where they’re not needed. The less qualified teachers are at schools that perform more poorly,” he said.

Once high-quality teachers are in place, school systems need to do what they can to make sure those teachers stay at the schools. Hall suggested looking at teacher residency programs, where young teachers work under a mentor for a year at a full teacher’s salary.

“If you attract quality teachers, you won’t be able to keep them if you don’t have quality leadership,” she said.

Besides making sure students are nurtured and challenged once they get to school, Murgia said, she supports promoting universal preschool.

“Students need to have early childhood education. When kids go to preschool, they have a better chance for success,” she said.

Hall said the extent of a student’s success can often be determined by the time they reach the third grade.

“Parents need to make sure that their child can read and do math on their grade level by the third grade,” she said, adding that when choosing a school, knowing how many third-graders are performing at grade level is as important as knowing graduation rates.

But even graduation rates can be misleading, Golston said.

“A high school diploma has to mean something. It can’t just be someone getting a piece of paper. It has to be that the education was rigorous enough to prepare [students] to go to college,” he said, adding that often students who do everything they’re told to do are able to get a high school diploma but are not prepared when they get to college.

Only one-third of students graduating from high school are ready for college, and only one in 10 children who come from low-income households get a college degree, Bill Gates said in a video presentation at the beginning of the town hall meeting.

Gates left software giant Microsoft Corp. last month to devote his full attention to the foundation he created with his wife. One of the foundation’s missions is to prepare all students for college, careers, and life in the 21st century.


Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

National Council of La Raza

UNITY: Journalists of Color