Gloria Swindler Boutte
Department of Instruction & Teacher Education
University of South Carolina
Columbia, South Carolina

George L. Johnson, Jr.
Associate Professor
South Carolina State University


The present study surveyed 111 student teachers (preservice teachers) at two Historically Black Colleges and Universities and one Predominantly White Institution in the southeastern U.S. regarding their perceptions regarding preparation needed to effectively teach African American P-12 students. All of the respondents were female. Most of the respondents were Elementary Education (n=54) and Early Childhood (n=18) as well as a host of other majors. The majority of the respondents felt that they were prepared to teach African American students. This was particularly true when thinking about African American children in general (84%) and African American females (86%). However, fewer respondents felt that they were equipped to teach African American males (69%). Most of the respondents (97%) reported having had at least one practicum or student teaching placement which involved more than five African American students. When queried about the cause of the Black-White achievement gap, most respondents named poverty and home environmental factors as the leading causes, though numerous respondents noted the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.

Keywords: African American students; culturally relevant teaching; culturally relevant pedagogy


Posing a compelling question that subtextually undergirds much of the educational research on African American students, Martin (2007) unapologetically asked, “Who should teach … African American children?” (p. 6). Martin‘s question is particularly compelling to us as educators whose work unapologetically focuses on African American students, families and communities. Indeed, we find the commonplace assumption that anyone can teach African American students to be both provocative and problematic.

Our deliberate and sustained focus on African American students is the result of our ongoing, reflective surveillance of the educational landscape and our intent to focus on the ethnic group whose needs are least likely to be met by schools. Based on the extant literature, educational outcomes, and social trends, we have unequivocally concluded that for a number of complex, structural reasons, not inherent to the children, families, and communities themselves, the needs of African American children have consistently be unmet by U. S. schools (Hammond, Hoover, & McPhail, 2005; King, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 2002). As Perry, Steele and Hilliard (2003) explained, “For no other group has there been such a persistent, well-articulated, and unabated ideology about their mental incompetence” (p. 105). So while believing deeply in the humanity and success of “all children”, we are haunted by four decades of educational research and practice demonstrating that the needs of Black children have been pervasively and persistently ignored. Congruent with the belief of many scholars (e.g., Bakari, 2003; Hale, 2001; 2013; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003; Watson, Charner-Laird, Kirkpatrick, Szczesiul, & Gordon, 2006), we suggest that conceptions about the effective teaching of African American students are inadequate if they do not consider the ways in which teachers‘ attitudes about race are intricately intertwined with student achievement and classroom dynamics.

The present study examined prospective teachers‘ perceptions about preparation needed to teach African American students as well as their beliefs regarding the importance of using culturally relevant teaching methods with African American students. A major impetus for this line of research is our frustration with the lack of sustained and focused research, policies, and practices that are directed towards meeting the needs of African American students (Boutte, 2012). With the exception of occasional glimpse and pauses which superficially focus on African American students, the research and teacher gazes are quickly averted from a specific focus on African American students to an (often political and rhetorical) interest in “all children” which ends up homogenizing children from very divergent demographic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds—an approach which decades of educational outcome trends has demonstrated to be woefully unsuccessful. In order to address the needs of African American students, a concerted and targeted focus is necessary. The political and educational realities undergirding this lack of focus on African Americans are beyond the scope of this article, but are comprehensively addressed in Black Education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century (King, 2005). Before discussing the present study, we first provide a brief rationale for the focus on Black students as well as the conceptual framework for the study.

Why Focus on African American Students?

African American students represent the second largest ethnic group in U.S. schools, comprising 17 percent of the student enrollment (U. S. Department of Education, 2008-09). Yet, the educational and social needs of the African American children have consistently and pervasively been unmet. That is, despite decades of school reforms, African American students continue to fare poorly in school (Baugh, 1999; Boutte, 2012; King, 2005; Lewis, 2008; McDermott & Rothenberg, 2000). This dismal trend is hardly a revelation and is frequently recounted in educational circles and discussions of the “achievement gap” (Boutte, 2012; Buendia, 2011; Lewis, James, Hancock, & Hill-Jackson, 2008). Pervasively and persistently, on virtually every measure, African American students consistently perform significantly lower on standardized achievement tests, drop out of school at higher rates, and are disproportionately placed in remedial or special education programs as compared to their White counterparts (Boutte, 2012; Delpit & Dowdy, 2002; McDermott & Rothenberg, 2000). While some gains have been made in the academic achievement outcomes of African American students, these increases are sporadic and inconsistent (Grigg, Donahue, & Dion, 2007). For example, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the score gaps between White and African American students and White and Latino students in reading have been relatively unchanged since 1992 (Grigg, Donahue, & Dion, 2007). As conclusively noted by the former Secretary of Education, Margaret Spelling, “too many African American students have been shortchanged by our nation‘s schools” (“How No Child Left Behind Benefits,” 2010). A primary factor in the continued existence of such inequities is the pervasive and rarely examined deficit perspectives used to judge children of color (Boutte, 2002; Volk & Long, 2005). Additionally, many educators and non-educators alike do not view African Americans as a distinct cultural group and the academic teacher education literature rarely expressly addresses effective education of Black students (Ladson-Billings, 2002; Ladson Billings, 1994/2009). Because the culture of African American students is typically delegitimized, they are often treated as if they are corruptions of White culture (Boykin, 1994). The consequences of such misperceptions and corollary treatment contribute to negative performance trends in school and later inequities in life (Boutte, 2012).

National efforts and publications echo the immediacy of addressing the needs of African American children and families (e.g., the American Research Education Association‘s Commission on Research in Black Education, King, 2005). Hence, there remains a pressing need to understand, value, center, tap into, and learn about and from the strengths of African people‘s cultural being.

One of the biggest challenges faced by teachers is the effective education of students of color (National Collaborative on Diversity, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 2000; Delpit, 1995). Although the so-called Black-White achievement gap is a multi-faceted educational problem, teacher quality has been identified as a potential factor which can reverse current trends. For example, a policy report, A Call To Action (National Collaborative on Diversity, 2004) which resulted from a national summit of 41 of the nations‘ leading education and advocacy organizations, foundations, and universities (e.g., the National Education Association (NEA), Educational Testing Services (ETS), the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME), Carnegie and Ford Foundations, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, American Indian Higher Education Consortium, National Urban League) identified one particular aspect of teacher qualifications that deserves closer inspection. The report concluded that although teacher quality has been accepted as a critical factor for school reform, “little attention has been paid to the issues of cultural competence and diversity in the teacher workforce--critical factors in improving the performance of students of color” (National Collaborative on Diversity, 2004, p. 3). This theme was also echoed by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education‘s panel of experts who concluded that teaching quality must necessarily include culturally responsive teaching practices (American Association of Colleges For Teacher Education, 2003). More recent scholarship echo this theme (Milner, 2010; 2011).

Indeed, it is widely recognized that conventional teaching methods have proven to be largely ineffective with non-mainstream populations as substantiated by decades of negative performance trends (National Collaborative on Diversity, 2004). Although research suggests that alternative and culturally relevant strategies for teaching students of color are effective (Boutte & Hill, 2006; Ladson-Billings, 1994/2009), preservice and inservice teachers often operate on the misconception that no additional preparation is necessary to teach African American students (Bakari,2003). In one study, Bakari (2003) found that White inservice teachers who had the most exposure to African American students were least willing to teach them in comparison to other teachers with less exposure. One inference of this finding is that teachers who work with African American students without the requisite preparation, understanding, dispositions, and familiarity with the existing knowledge base on educating African American students are likely to view Black students via a deficit lens and to have a preference for not being in schools with large populations of African American students. Additionally, Bakari found that the 415 preservice teachers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) did not see the need to use culturally relevant pedagogy. While students enrolled at HBCUs expressed more willingness to teach African American students than did students at PWIs, they indicated little sensitivity regarding the cultural needs of African American students. Like Bakari‘s study, the present study also surveyed preservice teachers‘ regarding their perceptions of their preparation to teach African American students. It also examined preservice teachers‘ views about the cause of the persistent racial achievement gap between Black and White students.

Why Focus On African American Students in the South?

There is a need for scholarship that specifically situates the contemporary South as an important region in understanding African American identity and schooling experiences. Morris and Monroe (2009) identified two reasons why researching issues faced by African Americans should be conducted in the south: 1) the south has a long history of racial inequities and problems; and 2) for the first time in the nation‘s history, children of color comprise the majority of students enrolled in the South‘s public schools (Also see the report on A New Diverse Majority, 2010). Both of these conditions position the south as a place for addressing racial inequities. Additionally, 55 percent of African Americans in the United States live in the south (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005) and most African Americans have roots or ties to the south (Morris & Monroe, 2009). With the exception of Florida and Texas, African Americans are the largest non-White racial or ethnic group of students in each Southern state, as has been the case for well over 140 years (A New Diverse Majority, 2010).

The context for the present study was located in a southern state in which 42 percent of the general population and 40 percent of the student enrollment is African American. As researchers, we are committed to addressing the void in conceptual and empirical research which examines how the nexus of race and regional place contribute to educational student outcomes. While we do not believe that the findings of this study are unique to the south, the south remains an important site for this research.

Conceptual Framework

Martin (2007) concluded that teachers need three types of knowledge/skills to effectively teach African American students: 1) deep content knowledge; 2) strong pedagogical content knowledge; and 3) strong culturally relevant pedagogy. The first two are frequently assumed as necessary in most teacher education programs. However, culturally relevant pedagogy is typically thought of as a “nice” or “politically correct” add-on”, though not one that is central to students‘ academic success (Boutte, Kelly-Jackson, & Johnson, 2010).

The present study is guided by a Culturally Relevant Pedagogical framework. In our work with preservice teachers, we are guided by the belief that culturally relevant pedagogy is important and necessary to counter the negative academic and social outcomes faced by African American and other minoritized students. Although Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) is generally misunderstood as a non-substantive approach to affirm the cultures of students of color, it has three dimensions: 1) academic excellence that is not based on cultural deficit models of school failure; 2) cultural competence which locates excellence within the context of the students‘ community and cultural identities; and 3) critical consciousness which challenge inequitable school and societal structures (Ladson-Billings, 1994/2009). Despite the widespread attention and recommendations from a variety of educational and non-educational constituencies alike, application of culturally relevant strategies remain absent or minimal in most schools (American Association of Colleges For Teacher Education, 2003; Boutte, 2012; Center on Education Policy, 2001; Irvine & Armento, 2001; King, 1994; 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1994/2009; Milner, 2011; National Collaborative on Diversity, 2004; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Hence, an important subtext of our research and teaching is to foreground culturally relevant pedagogical methods.


The present study is the first part of a larger multi-phase study designed to ascertain the perceptions of preservice and inservice teachers regarding effective teaching of African American students. The first phase which sought the perceptions of preservice teachers regarding their preparation to teach African American students is reported in this article. The second phase surveyed 417 inservice teachers regarding their perceptions about culturally relevant teaching. The third phase included a 5-8 month professional development at two different schools (one majority White and another majority African American). The central focus of the Professional Development was a course on “Educating African American Students” and its efficacy on teachers‘ beliefs and changes in their classrooms. The final phase of the study involved working directly with two classrooms to measure the impact of implementing culturally relevant pedagogy on student outcomes. This phase will also result in the development and validation of culturally relevant protocols/modules of lessons, units, and activities which can be used in pre-K-12 classrooms.

The present study examined preservice teachers‘ perceptions about their perceived preparation to teach African American students. The primary research question for the present study was: “How prepared do prospective (preservice) teachers feel to effectively teach African American students?”


Surveys were sent to all known Student Teacher supervisors at three universities in the southeastern United States (two Historically Black Universities/Colleges—one private and one state) and one state-supported Predominantly White Institution. A copy of questions on the survey can be seen in Appendix A. Supervisors were asked to obtain informed consent and to distribute the surveys to student teachers who agreed to participant in the study.

Responses from 111 student teachers (preservice teachers) at three institutions were received. Two respondents were enrolled in the private HBCU, 16 were from the state HBCU, and 93 were from the PWI. All of the respondents were female. Most of the participants were White (n=65); 25 were African American; three were Latino; one was Asian American; one was biracial; and one was an international student. Fifteen students did not indicate their ethnicities. Most of the respondents were Elementary Education majors (n=54), followed by Early Childhood (n=18), and a host of other majors (see Figure 1).

What is your major? Pie chart.

Figure 1. Respondents‘ Education Majors.

Most of the respondents were undergraduates as shown on Figure 2. Yet, others were enrolled in initial certification programs at the graduate level.

What is your degree program? Pie chart.

Figure 2. Respondents‘ Degree Programs.


Returning to Martin‘s (2006) question, “Who can teach African American students”, most of the respondents felt that they were prepared to teach African American students. This was particularly true when thinking about African American children in general (84%) and African American females (86%). However, as seen on Figure 3, fewer respondents felt that they were equipped to teach African American males (69%). Most of the respondents (97%) reported having had at least one practicum or student teaching placement which involved more than five African American students. Perhaps this experience contributed to the respondents‘ perception that they were prepared to teach African American students.

Perceived Preparation to Teaching African American Males, Females, and African American Students in General. Bar chart.

Figure 3. Responses to Perceived Preparation to Teaching African American Males, Females, and African American Students in General.

When queried about the preparation that they had to teach African American students, books and articles were reported as the most frequent preparation method (51%) (see Figure 4). Other preparation methods included: taking two or more courses (37%); involvement in workshops, conferences, or other professional development (28%); taking one course (19%) or other (unnamed experiences) (28%). Yet, 34 percent of respondents reported that they did not use books which focused on African American culture to plan lessons and only two percent of the respondents reported that they had used 10 or more books which focused on African American culture during their student teaching experience.

Preparation for Teaching African American Students. Bar chart.

Figure 4. Preparation for Teaching African American Students.

Most of the respondents (61%) reported using imagery in their classrooms which positively reflected African and/or African American culture. More than half of the respondents (55%) said that they did not use any specific methods or strategies to teach African American students. Half of the respondents said that they had studied African American language and culture.

As seen on Figure 5, most of the respondents felt that the number one cause of the Black/White achievement gap was home, parental, and Black community factors. As several of the respondents explained,

  • “I believe it begins in the home.”
  • “Lack of Parental concern”
  • "Family influence”
  • “I feel that the main cause is a negative attitude toward education that many black students start school with.”
  • “From my classroom experience, I see a huge difference in parent involvement between black/white parents.”
  • “Environment in which students grow up. There also seem to be lower standards set for African American students, especially males, so it is not as surprising if they do not finish high school or go onto college.”
  • “(P)arent involvement levels, and education levels (not help kids with homework if not know how to do it) …think teacher is babysitter, no respect for education”
  • “Socioeconomic status is part of it, as that seems to be the single most important predictor of a student's success. Additionally, there are cultural differences in terms of how education is viewed.”
  • “Cultural background. Support at home or lack thereof.”
  • “It all depends on the support that the children get at home. I don't believe that the gap is due to a one is smarter than the other issue. It has to do with the culture and home life.”

These comments are not surprising and, indeed, direct us back to pervasive deficit perceptions that exist about African American students.

Poverty was the second reason given, follow by lack of cultural relevance and a complex array of factors which included racism and tracking. Since prospective teachers believe that factors outside of schools are the reasons for nonsuccess often experienced by African American students, this may explain why they tend to see that no special preparation is needed to teach the students. We conjecture that respondents who acknowledge the roles that schools play in the achievement gap (e.g., curriculum; teacher expectations) are more likely to recognize that targeted preparation to teach African American students may be useful. Open-ended responses about the achievement gap suggested that African American students‘ socioeconomic status was the culprit in the achievement gap (rather than race). As one respondent concluded, “Economic hardships and Lack of parental involvement with education.” However, while acknowledging that social class is a factor, much of the academic literature suggests that even when social class is held constant, racial differences in achievement still exist (Milner, 2013).

The preservice teachers‘ explanations about the achievement gap reflect culturally sanctioned and often espoused beliefs about inequities and why they persist for African Americans. Such beliefs, as noted by King (1991) assume that White norms and privilege are givens; that is, achievement gaps are the natural order of differential cultural and social backgrounds of Black and White students. King labeled such perceptions as “dyconscious racism.” She explained that “(d)yconsciousness is an uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given” (p. 135).

Causes of the Black-White Achievement Gap. Bar chart.

Figure 5. Causes of the Black-White Achievement Gap.

Overall, the results of the study indicate that preservice teachers do not see the need for special preparation to teach African American students. Many noted in their comments that no special methods are needed.

Sadly, this message resounds in teacher education programs since most do not seem to consistently and systematically address teaching African American students in their coursework and practica in schools.

Yet, refreshingly, the third most frequent response indicated a need for culturally relevant classrooms. Many comments from respondents acknowledged this need.

  • “I believe that stereotyping is the biggest cause of the gap. I do not think that the African American students are given as much of an opportunity as non-African Amercian students because of the poor stereotypes that the group has.”
  • “I believe that stereotyping is the biggest cause of the gap. I do not think that the African American students are given as much of an opportunity as non-African Amercian students because of the poor stereotypes that the group has.”
  • “Stereotypes and required school texts that are not approachable for African American students.”
  • “How teachers teach culture. What culture the teachers bring and use in the classroom.”
  • “Education is catered towards the "white" students. For instance, the African American perspective is not often emphasized enough in social studies education. I believe a course should be taught on culturally relevant teaching.”
  • “Lack of understanding of African American's culture in learning, tests, and society.”
  • “Lack of culturally relevent materials in the classroom, lack of experience dealing with black students on behalf of the educator and a general distrust between the two groups. expectations.”


If we were to facetiously summarize the predicament of teacher education‘s response to the needs of African American students in a multiple choice test question, it would read something like this:

African American students consistently and pervasively perform less well than any other ethnic group in the U.S. Therefore, teachers and teacher educators should:
  1. Continue using the same methodologies and strategies.
  2. Educate oneself on the knowledge base about effective methodologies and strategies.
  3. Blame the students and their families.
  4. None of the above.

While the answer (B) seems obvious, too many educators, like the preservice teachers in this study, behave as if A, C, and D are the correct and logical answers and continue on a predictable collision course which will result in failure for them as teachers and for their African American students.

We know that conventional teaching methods have proven to be largely ineffective with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) populations as substantiated by decades of negative performance trends (National Collaborative on Diversity, 2004). Evidence suggests that alternative strategies for teaching students of color such as culturally relevant pedagogy are effective (Ladson-Billings, 1994/2009; Milner, 2011). While recognizing that conventional teaching methods have not achieved the desired goal of reducing the “achievement gap” and bringing about equity for African American students, many educators are reluctant to use promising culturally relevant instructional methods (Boutte & Hill, 2006). Continuing to use ineffective approaches or doing nothing at all (obviously) will not resolve the myriad of issues faced by African American P-12 students.

When discussing, African American students‘ school performance, a familiar mantra is that families must change or need to do more at home with their children. While not debating this ideal and acknowledging that it would be idyllic, this alternative effectively relinquishes schools from the responsibility of educating all children, regardless of their background or perceived preparation (or lack thereof). That is, this position advocates for students who come to school essentially knowing everything that schools are supposed to teach (or for only teaching students who have parents who can teach the children the funds of knowledge that schools focus on). It begs the question, “Is this really what teaching should be?”

As educators, we must figure out how to teach children from many different backgrounds—even those whom we mistakenly think do not have the requisite skills and dispositions. If we truly teach all students (as the rhetoric goes), we should ask ourselves, “Given what I know about this child‘s home, culture, and community context, how can I best educate this child within my classroom?” “Are there differential patterns of performance among ethnic groups in my class?” “If so, what are they and what does this require me to do differently?”

Effectively teaching African American students will typically require that educators reconceptualize and rethink what is done in classrooms rather than trying to change familial and home contexts (which educators have no control over) or insisting that students have particular prerequisite skills or dispositions for being able to be taught (instead of figuring out how students can learn what is necessary and what funds of knowledge they already possess). The reality is that educators can only change what is within their power to do. Hence, it would be more logical for them to learn to see the strengths that children do bring rather than what they do not have. Part of this is the recognition that virtually all students have informal and cultural knowledge that can be used as a link to academic skills.

There is a need for teacher education programs to assist both preservice and inservice teachers in cultivating positive attitudes toward teaching African American students (Bakari, 2003). Castro, Kelly, and Shih (2010) summarized research findings between 2000-2007 and concluded that pre-service teachers lack a complex understanding of multicultural issues and diverse student populations and related issues in regard to social justice. Additionally, a survey of 641 new teachers from across the nation revealed that most of them did not feel prepared to teach culturally and linguistically diverse students (National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality and Public Agenda, 2008).

Yet, a major challenge to accomplishing the goal of preparing teachers to teach African American students is that many preservice and inservice teachers do not recognize the need for special preparation and many also seemingly believe that the educational problems faced by Black students are problems caused primarily by factors outside of the educational system (as seen in the findings for the present study).

The results from the present study directs us back to Martin‘s (2006) assertion that there is a need for culturally relevant pedagogy in order to effectively teach African American students. Without this necessary tool, in which understanding related historical and contemporary issues, structural inequities, racial identities and a host of other information is embedded, many educators will wrongly assume that anyone can effectively teach African American students and that no special preparation is needed.

We close with the important observation that there are many exemplars of educators who effectively teach Black students despite incredible odds (Boutte & Hill, 2006; Ladson-Billings, 1994/2009; Morris, 2004). These are encouraging and provide insights into competencies that effective teachers of African American students need. Such examples represent only a preview of the large range of promising possibilities. These efforts should be amplified and emulated as we ask what can these exemplars teach us about the necessary preparation and dispositions to teach African American students?


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Appendix A

Questions From The Inservice Teacher Survey

Description: This survey is designed to get information about preservice teachers‘ experience working with African American students. All individual answers are confidential and results will only be shared in aggregated form.

1. How many practicum/student teaching placements have you had which involved more than five African American students?
  None 1-3 4-6 7 or more
2. How effective do you feel teaching African American students?
  • Not effective
  • Somewhat effective
  • Effective
  • Very effective
3. How effective are you in teaching African American females?
  • Not effective
  • Somewhat effective
  • Effective
  • Very effective
4. How effective are you in teaching African American males?
  • Not effective
  • Somewhat effective
  • Effective
  • Very effective
5. How do you know that you are successful or unsuccessful teaching African American students?
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
6. What preparation have you had to teach African American students (a course; 2 or more courses, workshop(s)/conference(s)/professional development; read book(s) or article(s); or other?)
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
7. Approximately how many books which focus on AA culture have you used when planning lessons during your student teaching experience? (none, 1-2; 3-5; 6-9; 10 or more)?
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
8. Does your classroom have imagery which positively reflects African and/or African American culture?     yes    no

If you answered “yes ” to number eight, please give examples.
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
9. What are the causes of the Black/White achievement gap?
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
10. Do you use specific methods and strategies that you use to teach AA students? If yes, give examples. If no, explain why.
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
11. Have you informally engaged in the study of African American language and culture? Give an example.
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________
12. Have you formally engaged in the study of African American language and culture? Give an example.
  __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________

iThis study was funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative State, Research, Education and Extension Services.