Roosevelt House Faculty Forum Posted on Thursday, April 06, 2017

Rocking the Institutional Diversity Boat in Teacher Preparation

As a new tenure track assistant professor, I have observed that many teacher preparation programs in special education do not focus on the culturally responsive instruction that is needed for teachers to meet the needs of the diverse student population in special education. As a graduate of the University of Miami, a doctoral program where race, equity and social justice were focal, I was exposed to an academic culture where white privilege was constantly deconstructed, where we engaged in constructivist approaches to knowledge, and truly embraced a strengths based perspective that led to an equity oriented research agenda. My dissertation and work done in the doctoral program focused largely on how best to prepare teachers within a culturally competent framework. Underlying most of our work at the University of Miami was a firm belief that being part of our program meant that you understood and subscribed to the importance of equitable education. Those of us who were part of the SELDS (an Office of Special Education Programs federally funded grant for Special Education Leaders for a Diverse Society [SELDS] led by Drs. Beth Harry and Wendy Cavendish) program were taught the most valuable of all lessons–we were taught how to reconceive who we were and what we “might be able to accomplish academically and beyond” (Gutierrez, 2008, p. 43). Coming to Hunter College, I realized that my goal would be to ensure that teacher preparation in New York City demanded a commitment to equity and diversity, particularly for historically underserved students.

Contrasting Worlds and Values in Academia

My graduate education instilled in me the belief that teacher education should prepare teachers to create democratic spaces and understand their role as change agents. However, many teacher preparation programs across the nation follow traditional forms of preparing K-12 teachers. These programs are focused on instructional strategies for skill building and content knowledge, often with social justice principles as an “add-on.”

This year, as a result of the reaccreditation process for NCATE, several colleagues and I came together to engage in a self-reflective process of how to address diversity in our department and the School of Education.  Through careful syllabus review, we observed many gaps in culturally responsive content. Through self-reflection and conversations as a faculty, our department has embarked on important work to address the absence of issues of equity related to race and diversity within our program focus. It seems inevitable that the challenging political and social events going on in the nation and world at large would be reflected in our work as academics. In fact, in our department and the larger School of Education, colleagues have begun to collaborate to address issues of equity. However, like many other minority faculty who are vested in diversity work and a reflective curriculum overhaul, there are still significant challenges. Like Diggs, Garrison-Wade, Estrada, and Galindo (2009), I too wonder how we will move faculty from beyond their comfort zone to make substantial changes.

Bringing Teacher Reform to Special Education

Teacher preparation programs must move beyond a singular focus on expert, pedagogical content knowledge, and also develop teachers to act as change agents who teach in ways that uphold democratic values (Bransford & Darling-Hammond, 2005). Teachers should be equipped to challenge rhetoric and to eliminate educational disparities through transformative practices. Teachers, even first-year teachers, are responsible for the many purposes of schooling as outlined by John Goodlad (1984). Goodlad posited that the function of schooling includes 1) the social function of schools, which is to prepare people to be citizens, and 2) the personal function of school, which emphasizes the development of the individual. Teachers must understand the social purposes of education in supporting and developing a more equitable society by gaining knowledge of policy and school cultures in order to fulfill both the social function and the personal function of schooling for diverse students. Teachers are charged with the responsibility of working within stratified and racialized school systems (Artiles, Harris-Murri & Rostenberg, 2006), thus they must understand that school culture and standardization practices are often antithetical to the very same principles of democracy that they should be upholding and instilling in their students (Bransford & Darling-Hammond, 2005). Yet Education Departments at many universities across the country are only in the beginning stages of following a multicultural education framework (Banks, 1993).

Addressing Diversity

While working on this newly formed diversity initiative in our department, I turned to Banks (1993) and other resources to guide our work to help better prepare our teacher candidates for working in urban settings with diverse students. As coordinator of the Adolescent Special Education Program, I spent the first year trying to understand and improve the program, which demographically mirrors those of other programs across the nation: 80 percent white females, which does not match the demographic makeup of the students they will serve. This cultural, ethnic, and racial divide can be a potential barrier to teachers connecting meaningfully with students, and my role as teacher educator was to help my students navigate those complexities and become advocates for change.

Last semester I began to embark on this work by asking my students to consider Darling-Hammond’s framework for teachers as change agents. I asked my students if it was their responsibility to teach for social justice and if they were responsible for creating classrooms that explicitly dealt with racial justice. I also had students consider Ladson-Billing’s (1995) recommendation that teachers “must help students to recognize, understand, and critique current social inequities. This notion presumes that teachers themselves recognize social inequities and their causes” (p. 476-477). The answers from many were not surprising: Although they understood the value of racial justice, they did not feel they were personally responsible. This made my mission and role even more apparent if I was to help them see the importance of their roles as advocates for their students.

Change Agent Spokesperson

At department meetings and at larger School of Education meetings, I have become the change agent spokesperson, and I am slowly becoming much more comfortable in that role. Thankfully, enacting that role comes from my doctoral training where a social justice, equity focused approach was central to everything we did. As an Assistant Professor at Hunter College, my work entails modeling critical pedagogy from the work of Porfilio and Mallot (2011) in having my students come to understand that no curriculum is neutral and that they either create curriculums “that changes the world or keep the same institutional arrangements in place” (p. 68). Doing diversity work, as Sara Ahmed (2012) describes, means acquiring “a critical orientation to institutions in the process of coming up against them” and that doing diversity work is “an experience of encountering resistance and countering that resistance” (p. 174-175). The work ahead must center diversity explicitly by bringing about institutional change.



Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. United States:Duke University Press.

Artiles, A. J., Harris-Murri, N., & Rostenberg, D. (2006). Inclusion as social justice: Critical notes on discourses, assumptions, and the road ahead. Theory into Practice, 45, 260-268.

Banks, J. A. (1993). Multicultural education: Historical development, dimensions, and practice.In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Review of Research in Education (Vol. 19, pp. 3-49). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Bransford, J., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Diggs, G. , Garrison-Wade, D. , Estrada, D. , & Galindo, R. (2009). Smiling faces and colored spaces: The experiences of faculty of color pursuing tenure in the Academy. The Urban Review, 41(4), 312-333.

Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1992). Culturally relevant teaching: the key to making multiculturaleducation work. In C.A. Grant (Ed.), Research and multicultural education (pp. 106-121). London: Falmer Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465- 491.

Gutiérrez, K. (2008). Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space. Reading Research Quarterly, 43, 148-164.

Porfilio, B. J. & Malott, C. S. (2011). Guiding white pre-service and in-service teachers toward critical pedagogy: Utilizing counter-cultures in teacher education. Educational Foundations, 25, 63-81.


This article is part of a series of faculty commentary around issues of equity and justice in education policy. Click here to read the full series.

Xuchilt Perez, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Hunter College.

Dr. Perez has worked in the field of education for 15 years as a classroom teacher, teacher coach, professional development specialist, adjunct instructor, and full time professor. In her school teaching career, Dr. Perez taught English Language Arts to students with learning disabilities in inclusive classes. Professor Perez received a B.A. with Honors in English from the University of Miami; a M.S. in Special Education at University of Miami; and a Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Miami.

In the Special Education department, Dr. Perez teaches Methods of Reading, Methods of Writing, Mathematics, & Organization, and Research Seminar. Dr. Perez’s research interests include student teaching, urban teacher education, learning disabilities, and inclusive education.