“Culturally Responsive Teaching” – Putting Activism Before Learning

Writing in Education Week last February, Bettina Love, professor at the University of Georgia and co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, declared that “Anti-racist teaching is not a teaching approach or method, it is a way of life.” That thinking has landed here in Illinois.

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Like every state, Illinois requires that programs for developing teachers adhere to a defined pedagogy by which certain standards of competency in the subject matter are to be taught and which assure mastery of the means of imparting that knowledge to students. Our standards are laid out in 23 Ill. Adm. Code 24. Section 24.130 contains the minimum requirements for any program leading to teacher certification, such as mastery of subject matter, varying plans of instruction for diverse students and the like.

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This month, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (of which I’m a member) will be asked to approve an amendment to Section 24 which layers “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” onto the minimums established in Section 130. “Culturally responsive teaching” (also called culturally relevant teaching), is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. To give you a flavor of what JCAR is being asked to consider, I’ve excerpted certain sections from the amendment:

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Section 24.50 The Illinois Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards

a)  Self-Awareness and Relationships to Others – The culturally responsive teacher and leader will:

1)  Understand and value the notion that multiple lived experiences exist, that there is not one “correct” way of doing or understanding something, and that what is seen as “correct” is most often based on our lived experiences;
10)  Assess how their biases and perceptions affect their teaching practice and how they access tools to mitigate their own behavior (racism, sexism, homophobia, unearned privilege, Eurocentrism, etc.).

b) Systems of Oppression – Culturally responsive teachers and leaders understand that there are systems in our society that create and reinforce inequities, thereby creating oppressive conditions. The culturally responsive teacher and leader will:

4) Know and understand how current curriculum and approaches to teaching impact students who are not a part of the dominant culture.
5) Be aware of the effects of power and privilege and the need for social advocacy and social action to better empower diverse students and communities.
7) Know and understand how a system of inequity reinforces certain truths as the norm.

e) Leveraging Student Activism – The culturally responsive teacher and leader will:

5) Create a risk-taking space that promotes student activism and advocacy.
6) Research and offer student advocacy and activism content with real world implications.

g) Content Selections in All Curricula – The culturally responsive teacher and leader will:

5) Embrace and encourage progressive viewpoints and perspectives that leverage asset thinking toward traditionally marginalized populations.
9) Ensure teacher and students co-create content to include a counternarrative to dominant culture.

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You get the picture. If adopted, these standards will lard our teaching programs with additional mandates just at the time when Illinois is suffering from a shortage of teachers. At the start of the 2020 school year, there were 2,000 teacher vacancies reported in Illinois schools. With these new requirements, we risk increasing the teacher shortage and losing quality, new teachers. But what we’re really seeing here is not so much an attempt to expand our teacher rolls as it is a means by which those who set education policy are cementing social activism into our schools. I don’t say this solely based upon what the amendment itself says, but also upon an examination of the reading list upon which ISBE relied in creating the standards, among them:

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The General Assembly has created a number of mandates for schools to teach students about racism, sexism, and other biases including, but not limited to:

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  1. Character education so that students are taught respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, and citizenship intended to raise pupils’ honesty, kindness, justice, discipline, respect for others, and moral courage for the purpose of lessening crime and raising the standard of good character.
  2. Holocaust and Genocide Study.
  3. Black History, including history of slavery and the contributions of African Americans in Illinois and U.S. history.
  4. History of Women, including women’s contributions and the fight for suffrage and equality.
  5. U.S. History and the role and contributions of a number of defined ethnic groups made to Illinois and the U.S.
  6. History, roles, and contributions of the LGBT community.
  7. Civics education so that students are well-informed and can be productive citizens.
  8. Violence prevention and conflict resolution.
  9. Anti-bias education so students can understand differing groups.
  10. Anti-bullying prevention and education.
  11. Disability history and awareness.
  12. Social and emotional learning.

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This amendment does not establish a “woke” curriculum on its own. What it does is create a vehicle by which curriculum will be curated to conform to the standards, which will ultimately have the same effect. In a recent article in National Review, the author examined the trend of creating new history and civics standards for which this amendment will be the implementing vehicle, using the initiatives that are found in IllinoisCivics.org as an example. The Chicago Public School system has begun to implement The 1619 Project Curriculum as part of its curriculum, even though the assertions in the 1619 Project as credible history have been strongly and effectively rebuffed. This amendment is nothing more than a Trojan Horse which will only accelerate the movement to get an undefined progressive agenda permanently into our schools.

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Section (g)(5) of the amendment, quoted above, requires the culturally responsible teacher to “(e)mbrace and encourage progressive viewpoints and perspectives” without defining the term “progressive”, leaving one to infer its meaning. Requiring all new teachers to teach from a “progressive viewpoint” is simply wrong. There should be no political viewpoints required or taught in any manner in Illinois’ public schools, nor should teacher licensure be dependent upon embracing them.

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This amendment does no favors to the children who will be taught to think that 2+2=5 because to do otherwise would be to buy into the notion that they’re caving into the “dominant culture”. Education is power, and those we put in charge of public education hold great sway in what is and is not taught. What this amendment really does is condemn students to failure when they come up against the harsh realities of a world that hires people who know that 2+2=4. When that happens, will those who advocate for this be held to account? I doubt it.

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