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The education pipeline needs to be fixed.

By Ellen McGirt
June 29, 2016
June 29, 2016

For smart companies, talent — and the talent pipeline — is a preoccupation bordering on obsession. But companies looking to diversify their future ranks are going to be facing some serious headwinds, if the ongoing racial divides in the public school system aren’t fixed.

In the fall of 2014, the nation’s public school population was, for the first time, “majority-minority,” a phrase that should finally call into question the definition of minority once and for all. And kids of color are not faring as well they should.

Since then, schools have made little progress either re-training white teachers or recruiting ones who look more like the populations they serve. (Latino and Asian students are among the fastest growing parts of the population.) It makes a difference. One example: New Department of Ed data confirms that black pre-schoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, starting them on a track to failure early.

And low expectations persist. Another recent study from Johns Hopkins showed that when evaluating the same black student, white teachers were about 40% less likely to think that the student would finish high school than black teachers.

“The vast majority of K-12 teachers are white women, under pressure to provide an orderly classroom,” says Dr. J. Luke Wood, an associate professor and researcher who runs a doctoral program that helps train professionals to lead at the community college level. He is an expert on the issues facing boys and young men in the education system. “It’s important to realize how unprepared teachers are for the complicated lives of boys of color.”

 

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Black and brown boys who do stay in school report feeling invisible to teachers and alienated from outdated curricula that doesn’t seem to include their experience. And, the pressure to police the parts of their identities that trigger anxiety in their white teachers, leaves all kids of color feeling conflicted and drained. “It’s important to shift the narrative around to what these kids need,” he says.

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The issue only gets more extreme as students reach the university level and find teachers who are subject matter experts but who “may never have taken a class in teaching.” Relationships first, pedagogy second, when facing a diverse student body, says Wood. “We have to get to know each other,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how good your lesson plan is, if you can’t relate to your students.”

Part of his advocacy and research work is in association with RISE Boys and Men of Color, a $10 million interdisciplinary effort to study and disseminate best practices for improving the lives of black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian boys and men in the U.S. at every level of their lives, from education to workplace.

But he says, more data is needed, and stat.

“Academia doesn’t value work on black males, for example, and that’s a challenge,” he says. “They tend to do work on white populations.”

But he has one proven practice that can be useful to anyone who mentors students, interns or first time employees, immediately: Be intrusive. “Boys and men in this population are reluctant to seek out help or show any weakness at all,” he says. Check in, often. “And if something is important to their success, like meeting with a faculty member or attending an orientation,” don’t assume they’re comfortable enough to join in on their own, he says. “Make it mandatory.”

 

When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.

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