Teaching In Dangerous Times

In this era of demands for teacher quality, it is crucial to develop culturally relevant ways to assess teachers.

By Gloria Ladson-Billings

In the popular book, Dangerous Minds, the former-Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson is credited with turning around the “class from hell” – a group of urban African-American and Latino students on the road to failure in school and life. This book and the subsequent motion picture were more of the “teacher-as-savior” genre that constructs an image of teachers, particularly white teachers, as “rescuing” urban students of color from themselves, their families, and their communities.

Unfortunately, most of the teachers in this genre pay little or no attention to the academic achievement of their students. Thus, while many audiences applaud the Hollywood teacher-images’ amazing social work, interpersonal, and cross-cultural communications skills, few real-life educators would point to any of these histrionic teachers as exemplary classroom instructors.

Given the changing demographics of the student body in the United States and the bifurcation of public school student populations into groups of haves and have-nots, it is important to understand that, rather than confront dangerous minds, teachers of urban students of color are teaching in dangerous times. One of the most urgent issues facing this perilous era and the cadre of teachers who serve in it is that of being able to more accurately measure what students know and are able to do.

Communities of color, which historically have raised questions about the potential biases built into traditional test measures, have challenged the purpose and design of many of the new assessments. This scrutiny has been accompanied by a focus in the educational community at large on teacher assessment.

Rather than rely on the old “input” model, in which teacher-worthiness is judged by the kinds of courses teachers have completed, there have been increasing calls for more authentic forms of assessment for teachers. These new assessments target “outputs” – what teachers know and are able to do.

Educational researchers and scholars of color have long suspected that traditional teaching assessment techniques systematically screen out teachers of color from the teaching field. For example, in 1997 I was personally told that during a recent round of testing for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, no candidates of color passed the Early Adolescence/English Language Arts Assessment.

Do proposed new “authentic” teacher assessment techniques continue in this vein? And, if so, do alternative assessments need to be formulated, and what proficiency or skill areas must these assessments address?

In this article, I would like to look briefly at problems in some of the most popular teacher assessment techniques and then propose other possible measures that can be used to assess teachers.


Since the mid-1980s, the nation has seemed fixated with testing its teachers. Predictably, these testing measures have had an adverse impact on the already shrinking pool of African-American teachers. Though none would argue that school districts certify incompetent teachers, those states calling for teachers to be tested typically fail to engage in a process that holds schools and colleges of teacher education responsible for ensuring that their graduates meet minimum standards.

The problem of teachers not passing competency tests seems inconsequential when compared to the larger issue of what these tests reveal about teachers’ ability to teach. For example, all California teachers who have received regular teaching certificates within the past 10 years have passed that state’s teacher competency test. Yet would one argue that all of California’s teachers are good teachers? Creating tests as screens or barriers to admission seems to appease the public outcry for higher standards, even when those standards have no relationship to performance.

The more relevant question might be: How equitable and reliable are teacher assessment measures for ensuring that teachers will be effective in classrooms of urban children of color?


Many new teacher assessments fail to consider the very different contexts in which teachers find themselves. More pointedly, teachers of color are more likely to find themselves in poor, urban school communities than are white teachers.

The example of one assessment center activity that I personally critiqued describes a case in point.

In this instance, the videotape prepared and presented to the assessors by an African-American teacher who taught in an overcrowded, underfunded urban public school yielded assessor discussion only about how stark and bare her classroom seemed compared to those of other examinees. This teacher did not have an intricate, handmade “spider’s web” draped across her classroom as a visible reminder of a reading unit’s insect theme, as did the suburban teacher who submitted a video. Nor did the African-American teacher have a big comfortable sofa, beanbag chairs, pillows, and a carpeted floor, as did the teacher from a school in a college-town district.

In my later conversation with the African-American teacher, I learned that because of overcrowding she did not have a real room for her classes and instead taught out of a makeshift closet. Additionally, the school was on a year-round schedule. This meant that every nine weeks she was required to take down everything in her “room” and reassemble it after the break. Nothing in the teacher assessment process was designed to take into consideration teaching under these circumstances. Further, if new assessments continue to discount the inequities already built into schools by virtue of unequal funding and other material resources, they will continue to discount the creative ways some teachers deal with scarcity and push students to higher intellectual heights.


I’d like to briefly touch on two popular innovations in teacher assessment – videotapes and portfolios.

Because videotaping gives us the luxury of “seeing” teaching, it has gained increased credibility. However, videotaping a classroom also reveals how cameras do, indeed, lie.

At best, a video is an artificial representation of teaching. Even unedited, a video reveals but a partial view of the classroom setting and what transpires there. It can capture only selected slices of classroom life.

Teachers cannot yell “cut” and re-teach a “scene” each time a student is confused or behaving inappropriately. Teaching is more episodic, random, and unpredictable than movies. The dynamic of the classroom creates ups and downs, zigs and zags, that may come across as confused and unfocused through the flat, unforgiving lens of a video camera.

Further, when a videotape is used for assessment and evaluation, teachers, as vested participants, often choose to “create” a tape that features the best of their teaching. Schools and districts with resources and personnel equipped to produce high-quality videotapes can make mediocre teaching appear much better than it really is. Conversely, excellent teachers with limited access to good equipment and videographic skills may be left with poor-quality tapes that fail to illuminate any of the magic that transpires in the classroom.

Similar problems can emerge with portfolio assessment.

On the surface, this seems a fair and equitable way to assess teaching: Allow teachers to show what they believe is their best work, and/or the products of that work, and judge it.

However, this also has its equity pitfalls. Imagine, for example, a teacher who was prepared at one of the nation’s Research I institutions. She probably heard about teaching portfolios; perhaps she was both taught and required to construct a portfolio during her student teacher semester. By contrast, her colleague who was prepared at a small, historically Black college did not have the same access to portfolio preparation training. Both are good teachers, but one is more capable of using a portfolio to document her abilities and skills.


If the most common teacher assessment techniques fall short, especially for students and teachers in urban areas, what proficiency or skills areas must the assessments address?

My previous work with teachers who are successful with African-American students suggests that some ways to rethink teacher performance include looking at teachers’ abilities to engender success among their students in three key areas:

  • academic achievement, 
  • cultural competence, and 
  • sociopolitical consciousness.

Additionally, assessments that consider aspects of teachers’ culture might prove more equitable for teachers of color.


Regardless of the elegance of one’s teaching performances, the bottom line is always how much learning takes place. Do students demonstrate competence in academic areas? Are they able to formulate questions, propose solutions, apply knowledge to new and different situations?

Most portfolio assessments require teachers to supply examples of individual students’ work. Rarely do they set performance criteria for a teacher’s entire class. However, a central focus on helping as many children as possible achieve academically is one of the hallmarks of culturally relevant teaching. Consequently, assessment of culturally relevant teaching practice would require teachers to show evidence of academic achievement for all their students or to provide educationally defensible explanations of why any students do not meet this criteria (e.g., consistently poor attendance, identified special needs, and so forth).

One way to determine teachers’ ability to enhance students’ academic achievement is to collect baseline data at the beginning of the school year and compare those findings to end-of-year- data. Often, students from upper-income, dominant-culture communities come into a classroom knowing much of what their teachers purport to teach them. Thus, their typically superior performance on standardized measures is actually an indication of what they already know.

Unless a teacher’s students are demonstrating academic progress, one cannot contend, with good conscience, that the teacher is exemplary. Indeed, it is not the teacher method or strategy that should be the criteria for good teaching, but rather the academic accomplishments of students. Do students who were previously unable to read demonstrate an ability to read after spending a year in a teacher’s classroom? Can students who were not able to compute and solve problems at the beginning of the school term provide evidence that they can do so by the end? These students’ performances should be the benchmarks upon which we put our confidence in teacher effectiveness, and they do not have to be demonstrated solely on standardized tests. However, effective teachers must be prepared to provide powerful examples of what their students know and can do.


This second area does not lend itself to conventional forms of measurement. Its goal is to ensure that teachers support the home and community cultures of students, while helping students become proficient in the cultures of schooling and education.

What makes this difficult is the finding that far too many teachers in U.S. schools possess only a surface understanding of culture – their own or anyone else’s. As noted in another of my earlier studies, many middle-class white American teachers fail to associate the notion of culture with themselves. Instead, they believe that they are “just regular Americans,” while people of color are the ones “with culture.” This notion of regularity serves a normalizing function that positions those who are “not regular” as “others.” Not recognizing that they, too, are cultural beings prevents these teachers from ever questioning taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of human thought, activity, and existence.

Culturally relevant teachers know when to introduce relevant examples from their students’ backgrounds and experiences to make learning more meaningful. For example, when the African-American students of a teacher I will call Ms. Deberaux indicated that the only females who could be princesses were white, blond-haired, and blue-eyed, she quickly brought out a copy of John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters for them to read. This lavishly illustrated children’s book, with its richly detailed story of African royalty and traditions, provided her students with the necessary counter-knowledge to challenge their misguided notions about nobility and people of African descent.

The goal of fostering cultural competence requires teachers to help raise students’ awareness of prejudice and discrimination as well as their ability to react to and constructively cope with these negative social realities. For example, before a teacher I will identify as Ms. Lewis took her inner-city African-American students on a camping trip, she talked candidly with them about the fact that they would be coming in contact with white students and counselors. She encouraged them to think proactively about what they might do if any white person exhibited insensitive or racist attitudes toward them.

Fostering cultural competence also requires teachers to support students’ home language/dialect while simultaneously teaching them Standard English. That is, rather than chastise students for using the language/dialect they use when speaking with family and friends and in their communities, effective teachers help students understand when and where code-switching, or the alternate use of Standard English and home language/dialect in formal and informal settings, is preferable or necessary.

Unfortunately, nothing in the current teacher assessment battery addresses how well teachers foster cultural competence within their students. Perhaps this is because few test constructors have ever considered the importance of cultural competence for students, nor would they even recognize it when it is being demonstrated by teachers.

One example that came to my attention involved an art teacher in a predominantly African-American high school. The classroom video submitted by this teacher depicted a demonstration lecture by a cosmetologist whom the teacher had invited to her class to discuss the intricate hair braiding done by Black African women as an art form. The assessors rated this teacher’s submission poorly, claiming that cosmetology belongs in vocational education, not art. Their lack of understanding of the relationship between hair and art in African societies kept them from accepting a broader notion of the relevance of this demonstration.


In addition to ensuring that students achieve academically and are culturally competent, culturally relevant teachers develop a sociopolitical consciousness in their students. The use of the term “sociopolitical consciousness” is important, lest readers equate it with the more simplistic, almost vacuous term “critical thinking.”

Whereas there certainly is nothing wrong with critical thinking per se, what often masquerades as critical thinking in most classrooms is a set of prescriptive steps and practices that may reflect important processes but that are attached to relatively inane content. For instance, students might be asked to imagine that they are legislators who must decide whether or not to provide aid to a country that is deforesting its rain forest. Although this is a serious ecological issue, how can students come to think critically about it given only vicarious knowledge?

A different kind of critical thinking – what I term sociopolitical consciousness or an activist civic and social awareness – is demonstrated by Tate (first name) in his focus on a teacher he calls Sandra Mason. According to Tate, Ms. Mason’s middle school mathematics students came to class upset each morning because their route to school was impeded by indigent panhandlers who aggressively approached them for money to purchase cheap liquor from one of the many liquor stores near the school. Instead of ignoring the students’ concerns, Ms. Mason decided to incorporate the problem of negotiating around these alcohol-dependent throngs into a classroom lesson. Her students examined city zoning ordinances and learned that their city was divided into “wet” and “dry” zones that determined where alcoholic beverages could be sold. The schools that served poor communities of color were located in wet zones. The students calculated the amount of money that was being generated by the liquor stores in the school neighborhood (and lost to the community since most of the store owners lived elsewhere), and they developed an action plan for rethinking zoning in the city. This involvement with real problems raised the students’ sociopolitical consciousness and made mathematics a more meaningful activity for the students. It also made teaching more challenging for Ms. Mason, but it enabled her to help her students understand that what happened in school had relevance for their everyday lives.

How should teachers’ abilities to develop students’ sociopolitical consciousness be assessed? Certainly, this is a more complex skill than can be exhibited on a pencil-and-paper test. Yet, if we say that students must exhibit this trait, then teachers have to demonstrate their ability to teach in ways that support that kind of learning.


In the longer essay upon which this article is based, I outline some possible ways in which one might promote assessments for teachers that value and reward culturally relevant teaching. Here, I want to underscore a question that looms over any assessment practice: Who gets to handle whose business?

If assessment practices both powerful and subtle enough to evaluate academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness could somehow be devised, who would carry them out?

The complexities of the new types of assessments required will demand assessors who are capable of cultural translations of pedagogical expertise. These assessors would have to be able to answer several questions, such as the following:

  • When is direct instruction the right methodology to use? 
  • How does one determine the difference between a teacher who is unduly harsh or one who is warmly demanding? 
  • What difference does it make if teachers slip in and out of a students’ home language to make a point to their students? 
  • Can all assessors determine the pedagogical significance of teachers’ culturally specific behaviors?

How is it that African-American teachers so regularly and predictably fail current assessments, yet the presence of white teachers is no assurance that African-American or other students of color will achieve? What is the nature of the technical problems related to designing culturally relevant teacher assessments? Can teacher assessments be considered without a concomitant look at student assessment? In other words, can failing students have successful teachers? These questions are important because more states and local districts are looking at new ways to assess both pre-service and in-service teachers. What these assessments will look like, what opportunities teachers will have for demonstrating teaching competence, and how these assessments will include or exclude potential teacher candidates need careful and critical examination.

The work of teaching is both complicated and complex. How we educators come to understand it has implications for how we assess it. If we construct teaching as a set of technical tasks, then we will devise assessments designed to score these tasks. However, if we understand teaching as a highly complex endeavor undertaken by professionals, then we are compelled to develop assessments that are highly sophisticated and nuanced. Regardless of how we construct teaching as a profession, the challenge of ensuring high-quality performance from teachers and students remains. Without improvement in both, we will continue to live in dangerous times.

Gloria Ladson-Billings is in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Senior Fellow in Urban Education at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

This article is condensed from a longer piece in The Journal of Negro Education, 67(3), 255-267. Copyright © 1998 by Howard University. All rights reserved.