Nevada Succeeds Tuesday Conversation
The Tuesday Conversation

The question hung there for Dr. Allison Smith. Why don’t young students of color go into the teaching profession? The career choice may get ripped in some quarters, but it’s important, professionally challenging work just like any other profession.

And yet, when you look at the national, state and local demographics for students enrolled in college education programs, a disproportionate percentage (when measured against national census figures), tend to be white.

So Smith, the Director of Assessment and Teacher Education at the University of Nevada Las Vegas College of Education, proposed a research project last year, in 2016, that has received $335,000 from Nevada’s Great Teaching & Leading Fund (GTLF) to conduct at least a year-long study into the issue at six Clark County School District high schools and then develop a teacher pipeline curriculum around the research findings. The GTLF was created during the 2015 Nevada Legislative Session.

Through the Abriendo Caminos/Opening Pathways Project, Smith, a former high school teacher in one of the poorest, most ethnically diverse schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, has worked with a team of colleagues to interview 2,000 juniors and seniors at six majority-minority high schools within CCSD: Chaparral, Legacy, Valley, Sierra Vista, Rancho and Desert Pines. Each was selected for its demographic mix.

“The teaching profession is predominantly white despite the student population being predominantly minority-majority,” she notes. “If students can see themselves in their teachers, they’re more likely to be engaged in the education process.”

Smith argues that such interpersonal dynamics would likely lead to stronger high school graduation rates for minority students, with increased percentages of such graduates entering the teaching profession.

Smith notes that the grant researchers have carefully crafted their questions for students to avoid socioeconomic stereotypes, false assumptions and misperceptions.

“We are researchers and we have a constructivist approach that builds on the research,” she says. “I don’t want (questions) to come from my perspective, my background. I want to take the time and ask the students and their families, as well.”

The goal is to wrap up the initial round of work by June with research conducted by faculty and PhD students from multiple colleges within UNLV. The team may seek an additional round of student, private sector or non-profit funding to continue the work.

“This project would not have been able to function at all without the state funding,” Smith said. “We have the funds to go into six different schools and conduct research that doesn’t exist at all about why students of color do or do not go into education – and most do not.”

Smith is unwilling to publicly share details of the findings until the initial round of work is completed this spring. Instead, she speaks in broad narratives about the initiative.

“We have a great opportunity here. We have a lot of interest from across the nation,” she said. “There is no reason why students of color can’t succeed in this environment, too.”

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