The What/Why/How of Cultural Mismatch in Chicago Public Schools

By: Ana Pyper

The What

Chicago Public Schools District (CPS) serves around 400,000 students in neighborhoods of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, immigrant groups, and life experiences. To do this, CPS employs roughly 22,000 teachers (depending on what cuts they’re making each year).*

CPS Student Demographics by Ethnicity:

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CPS Teacher Demographics by Ethnicity:

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*All data from Illinois Report Card, CPS 2013-2014.

The data show that 45.6 percent of students in CPS are Hispanic and 39.9 percent are Black. The data also tell us that 51 percent of CPS teachers are White and 22.6 percent are Black. In other words, there is a stark difference between those serving and those being served.

These pie charts begin to give us a statistical idea of the cultural mismatch in Chicago Public Schools. They do not, however, touch on neighborhood, socioeconomic status, or the many life experiences that form our identities. In fact, the pie charts don’t even tell us the demographics of those in power on the various Boards of Education that affect school reform, new district policies, and overall change in Chicago’s school system.

The Why

The issue with this mismatch is not that white people are teaching students of color. That’s not it at all. How beautiful an opportunity for the teachers to learn from the students and the students to learn from the teachers! Diversity is not an issue — it is something to be celebrated.

The issue is that students of color are not set up for success when our systems, districts, schools, and classrooms are made from stencils of people who are not like them. When children of color see their teachers, principals, police officers, and governors all as white people, they grow up with a mindset that places of power and prestige belong only to white people.

The How

Now the way to solve this problem is not through firing all of the white teachers and putting people who may be inexperienced or bad teachers in place just to fill a quota. Corporations do that, and schools should not be run like corporations. We must consider, though, the importance of creating space and opportunities for teachers of color to come into the district. This can be done in how we network, being aware of prejudices, recognizing how hiring and interview processes may be stacked against people of color, and simply being open to a school that has teachers who not only provide quality teaching but can create the quality relationships and rapport that students need to succeed. There are monumental changes that must be made as a society to change our school districts. Unfortunately, those transformations require more than the Band-Aid fixes that we’ve been trying. They require reform at every level (and not just for the sake of reform).

Here are some practical ways that you, if you are a white teacher, can use the privilege you have as a white person in a place of power to benefit your students as they become beautiful members of our society. If you are not a white teacher, here are some practical steps to integrate a more student-centered curriculum.

  • If you want to teach about safety in neighborhoods to your older students who are being groomed to join gangs (or have already joined), bring in someone from Ceasefire or a similar organization in your area to talk about their experience in a gang. DO NOT pretend that you know what it’s like to be in a gang if you never have been. Also, do not assume that your student is in a gang because of their skin color or neighborhood.
  • If you want to teach on one of the cultures represented in your classroom (and you should preferably teach on all of them at some point during the school year), ask your student to be the Teacher of the Week on that culture. Ask them to bring in food, recipes, clothing, photos, family members, videos, etc. on their culture to educate you and their peers. Don’t just print out a Wikipedia article and stick it on a PowerPoint. This should be an experience that both that student and their peers see as meaningful and memorable.
  • Take notice of systemic racism in your city and your school and find a way to insert it into your curriculum. As teachers, it is our job to educate our students not only on how to succeed in academia but also on how to advocate for themselves using their education.
  • Ask the students what they want to learn about! I know we have Common Core, IEP goals, district policies, assigned textbooks, McGraw-Hill, etc., but I cannot tell you how much more my high school students participated when I give them the opportunity to take charge of their learning. We studied health and nutrition in science, talked about Laquan McDonald and civil rights (beyond MLK) in history, read articles about people who have been unfairly accused while reading a book about Amanda Knox, and done so many other little things. They loved calling the shots and I was able to align CC Standards and IEP goals to work with it.
  • Feature people of color, women, and members of marginalized religions who work in fields like engineering, health services, business, contracting, real estate, teaching, and government to show your students that people who look like them can have such careers. So many of my students have always said they wanted to be professional athletes or rappers or club promoters because that is where they see people who look like them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but how beautiful it would be to see our nation’s diversity represented in professional arenas across the US.

Unfortunately, it may take time for cultural mismatch to diminish. With social justice organizations protesting and advocating for change, I hope that every day we grow nearer to a society that is more representative of the people in it. Being a teacher in CPS is certainly challenging, but if we as educators look closer, we can contribute to the cause of making it a better school district for ourselves and, more importantly, our students.


Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 7.22.07 PMAna Pyper, senior at Illinois State University, majoring in Special Education. I have had the opportunity to participate in two semesters of pre-service teaching at two different CPS schools over the course of this school year. I wholeheartedly believe that each and every person matters, and one of the most tangible ways I get to live out that belief is in my teaching. I value rapport, relationship, social justice, and culturally relevant teaching. I look forward to being an official CPS special education teacher in the fall! When I’m not writing lesson plans or reading books on urban education, I am retweeting Greg Michie on Twitter, drinking coffee, and probably attending yet another wedding.

One thought on “The What/Why/How of Cultural Mismatch in Chicago Public Schools

  1. I like your imagery — your writing invokes a deeper vision of how our school system is forced into creating and sustaining inequities. Too often the only goal of a test-based “standardizing” school reform is simply that of protecting and creating yet more social “stencils” to stand in front of and instruct our otherwise uniquely individual students.


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