LTE: The Master of Science in Education program is too white

In March of 2018, I found myself in a top floor Annenberg Hall classroom attending an admitted-students info session, where staff from the Master of Science in Education program welcomed a packed room of soon-to-be teachers. It was clear that as a cohort we were passionate, bright-eyed, gregarious and overwhelmingly — I quickly noticed — white. Almost immediately after entering the room, I felt on edge; was anyone else seeing this? Were they going to talk about “diversity?” They didn’t.

As an admitted student, I took part in two days of icebreakers and get-to-know you activities, all the while meeting and greeting more and more white faces. For what it’s worth, I too am white, so my feelings here were not discomfort per se, but rather frustration, outrage and, sure, guilt. I had essentially already decided I would attend Northwestern’s teaching program after receiving a scholarship offer, and this latest realization did not change my mind.

But since that day, I have thought about what I could do to help make sure the program would not remain such a bastion of whiteness. Fortunately, one required course, “Social Contexts of Education,” encouraged my classmates and me to voice biting critiques of white supremacy in society, our personal lives and teaching practice, giving me hope we could find a common ground from which to critique our program. One aim of this letter is to build on that common ground.

The MSEd program does not live up to the lessons of perhaps its most important course. Sure, I have little hard proof to substantiate my perception that the program is overwhelmingly white, but only because the MSEd program does not publish data about its racial demographics for its professors, staff or students. Nor does it include any mention of diversity in its list of “Distinctions of the Elementary and Secondary Teaching Concentrations,” the closest thing the program has to a public mission statement. Silence reduces critics like me to looking at pictures of faculty and MSEd staff to make sure I haven’t imagined some sort of “white scare.”

It should be obvious why such silence is pernicious, not to mention maddening. Nonetheless, it’s worth repeating: silence is not just complicity in white supremacy but also one of its most insidious tools. Silence precludes reflection and works to prevent critique. Silence is often worse than lying, which at least acknowledges the possibility of a problem.

But, an oblivious person might ask, is this really such a big deal? As long as we teach white people how to teach well, isn’t everything fine? Both the overwhelming whiteness of the U.S. teaching force and the benefits of employing more teachers of color leads me to answer with a resounding no.

According to the U.S. Education Department, about 80 percent of the U.S. public school teaching force is white compared to about 50 percent of their students. While we should not need research to tell us that teachers and school administrators should reflect and represent our students, racially and otherwise, skeptics need not look far for empirical support for such a goal. For just one example, young black male students who encounter even just one black teacher are significantly much more likely to graduate high school. Everything is not fine when programs complacently produce more and more white teachers without making an effort to make our teaching force more representative of students.

And yet the MSEd program has made no statement acknowledging its complicity in perpetuating this problem or offered any contribution to solving it.

The context of higher education would seem to make such silence increasingly difficult. Universities across the country, including Northwestern, have announced lofty goals related to diversity, inclusion and equity. The Office of the Provost’s website claims the University is “committed to increasing our faculty diversity and enhancing our climate of equity and inclusion.” Northwestern both openly touts the diversity of its undergraduates and publishes relevant data, despite Latinx and Black enrollment being significantly lower than the proportions of students graduating high school. For Northwestern at large, at least I can point to its own stated values and data. But for the MSEd program? Crickets.

So… is the MSEd program too white? Yes. To pretend otherwise is at best to fantasize and at worst to lie.

Yet, as a starting point, I simply call on the MSEd program to publish data on its racial demographics. By making what should be an uncontroversial and easily achievable demand, I hope to crack open the door to a more profound discussion about our program and who we want to teach our youth.

It is clear we all have a lot of work to do.

— Jake Gogats, MSEd candidate in secondary social studies