As a young man, President Lyndon Johnson taught desperately poor children in South Texas and would often reference this eye-opening experience during his time in the White House. Johnson also returned to the site of his teaching stint to sign into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a key pillar of his “War on Poverty.”
A new study out of Vanderbilt University suggests that policymakers from presidents to school board members would benefit from work experience with people of different races and classes. It will not only foster more enlightened policies, but also make them more aware of their inherent bias, a first step to reducing prejudice.
Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, who co-authored the study along with Katherine Conn, grew up in a working class suburb of Los Angeles. Her parents were both educated but, at times in her life, she qualified for free- and reduced-price lunches, which put her just a few rungs above poverty.
After college at the University of Southern California, Mo taught for two years in South Central Los Angeles through Teach For America (TFA), a national service program with the twin goals of recruiting high-performing college students to teach in low-income communities and grooming its participants for leadership in education, politics and other fields to help close the achievement gap. Indeed, hundreds of TFA alumni today serve in elected office and other leadership roles.
Mo, who is Asian-American, eventually left teaching for academia. A few years ago, she approached TFA about doing a study to determine if young people in the program were more likely to empathize with low-income people than similar young people who were not admitted to the program.
Sure enough, the study found that TFA alumni are more likely than non-participants to believe that persistent poverty and social problems stem from racism and institutional failure rather than simply individual shortcomings. They are also more likely to see the education system as inequitable and unfair.
Mo’s study suggests that national service programs like Teach For America can help reduce prejudice and foster greater awareness of our natural bias towards people of different races and backgrounds.
Other studies show that White middle-class teachers tend to have lower expectations of children of color, starting as early as pre-school. This is important, given the fact that children of color make up more than half of all public school students in the nation while more than 80 percent of public school teachers are White.
Many districts, charter school networks and teacher training programs are now trying to recruit more teachers of color. The most recent corps of teachers in Teach For America, for example, was about 50 percent people of color and nearly 50 percent people qualifying for Pell grants in college, which puts them fairly low-down on the income scale.
In an interview, Mo said that the field of “prejudice reduction” has mostly, “Come up empty-handed with effective interventions to reduce tribalism.”
She explained that some previous studies have looked at the impact of racially integrated schools and integration in the armed forces. In some cases, she said, forced contact between races had a more polarizing effect and some indicators of civic engagement, like voting and volunteering, actually declined in more diverse environments.
Studies of income inequality also found that, “when people are exposed to income inequality, high-income people are more likely to believe they got where they are because of hard work and low-income people are more likely to believe that the American Dream is not reachable by them.”
On a positive note, one study suggested that White police officers paired with officers of a different race, working side-by-side in high-pressure situations, were more willing to acknowledge and confront their own prejudice.
“We should not just throw our hands up and say there is nothing that can be done. This study speaks to the powerful impact of people coming together, learning each other’s life narratives, and having them work in a collaborative way,” Mo said.
“The majority of kids graduating from elite institutions still live in a bubble as it relates to poverty in the United States, so I am not surprised that there is potential for a large effect. It’s the first time that many top college graduates are having deep and meaningful conversations with the most disadvantaged segments of our population,” she said.
Mo believe there’s a strong case to be made for a national service program that explicitly aims to reduce prejudice and brings together people of different races and backgrounds, and the time to make the case is right now.
President Donald Trump, a real estate developer who grew up in privilege and has not taught poor school children, has proposed eliminating the Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds Americorps and programs like Teach For America.
“When you compare the policy priorities of President Trump versus those of President Johnson, you see the difference,” she said.