CHICAGO — As dean of Illinois’ largest teacher preparation program, Jim Wolfinger works to cultivate socially aware educators who can inspire students in any setting — whether that’s an urban neighborhood with racially diverse families or a small farming community.
“The literature for a long time has told us: If we think of teaching as simply delivering the content, then you’re going to struggle with many of the kids in the classroom, because it’s not connected to their personal lives,” said Wolfinger, who leads the College of Education at Illinois State University.
But in recent weeks, a political maelstrom has ensued as the state finalized a broad overhaul of rules for teacher training programs that reflect this culturally sensitive approach.
The idea of cultural competency has been embraced in educational circles for years. But Illinois’ new rules — which cite potential teacher biases like racism, homophobia, unearned privilege and Eurocentrism — have become another flashpoint in an increasingly polarized debate over public education and the broader culture wars. Critics claim such movements suppress conservative or religious-based viewpoints.
The most recent tensions relate to training programs at colleges and universities, where future educators can graduate with state teaching licenses.
Under Illinois’ new “culturally responsive teaching and leading standards,” approved Feb. 17, teacher training programs will be expected to cover concepts such as implicit bias, historic inequities, social-emotional development and student advocacy. The standards apply to programs for future teachers, principals and school administrators but do not dictate the curriculum for public schools, which state officials stress remains in the hands of local school boards.
Still, conservative media and other detractors have accused the Illinois State Board of Education, which drafted the standards, of imposing “woke indoctrination” on public schools. And local Republican lawmakers objected to key tenets of the standards that require colleges and universities to teach education majors about “systems of oppression” and “multiple lived experiences,” among other topics.
Per the standards, future educators should, as one example, “understand that there are systems in our society, especially, but not limited to, our school system that create and reinforce inequities, thereby creating oppressive conditions. Educators work actively against these systems in their everyday roles in educational institutions.”
State Rep. Steve Reick, a Republican from Woodstock who led the opposition with critical blog posts, said the measure “creates an atmosphere of social activism that goes way beyond what a teacher is supposed to be doing.”
Noting that some students in the state cannot meet basic proficiency standards for reading and math, Reick said, “The last thing we need is having kids taught social activism before they learn how to read.”
Another critic, education policy researcher Nathan Hoffman, also said that the new standards are misguided.
They “ignore what is most important for our students — that is, increasing the quality of education — and instead force onto teachers a singular view for some of our country’s most-heavily debated topics. … As a Black Illinoisan who cares about the education of our children today, I am deeply concerned with these proposed standards. Even if well-intentioned, these standards impose one view of our culture and politics,” Hoffman, who works for Empower Illinois, which focuses on providing tax credit scholarships for needy students to attend private schools, wrote in a Tribune guest op-ed.
But Northwestern University senior Lauren Reynolds sees value in the new standards. The 22-year-old music education and social policy double major said the culturally responsive teaching methods woven through her coursework the past four years have been critically important, especially as she hopes to work in Chicago Public Schools after she graduates.
“It’s so important to understand your students as people … to make connections that are about more than academics,” said Reynolds, who said she was first introduced to culturally responsive teaching in her introduction to music education class her sophomore year.
Having grown up in a comfortable home in a predominantly white southwest suburban area, Reynolds said as an educator, she needs the tools to understand students whose culture and childhood experiences are far removed from her own.
“There are different rules and expectations in different cultures, and it’s extremely important as an educator to be aware of that, and know how connect with all of your students,” she said.
Illinois’ superintendent of education, Carmen Ayala, acknowledged the political controversy surrounding the standards but said in an online statement that she supports their passage “despite a coordinated misinformation campaign by opponents.”
“This misinformation campaign ended up demonstrating exactly why we need the standards: to clarify what cultural responsiveness means, how it benefits all students, and how to practice it effectively,” Ayala said.
ISBE maintains the new standards do not dictate how local elementary and secondary schools operate.
“Total control over curriculum and instruction always has been local, and will continue to be local. … We don’t have that authority,” agency spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.
Superintendent Dave Schuler of Arlington Heights-based District 214, the state’s second largest high school district, said the rules appeared to be “primarily a higher education issue.”
His district recently hosted a virtual conference that echoed similar themes, such as equitable classroom management practices and linguistic bias. The event, attended by more than 300 high school students in the district’s future teachers program, was not in reaction to the new ISBE standards, officials said.
“We always comply with the school code and are awaiting additional guidance from ISBE regarding the implications for K-12 schools,” said Schuler, a nationally recognized advocate of using more than standardized tests to assess students.
The new standards, posted to the ISBE website, are organized in 13 broad themes, each of which has specific explanations. Some relate to engaging parents in their preferred language and soliciting student input, while others emphasize the responsibility to “empower diverse students and communities,” the need to “actively seek multiple perspectives” and to “create opportunities for student advocacy and representation.”
Supporters say the standards reflect best practices supported by research and can help close achievement gaps by engaging historically marginalized students.
Equality Illinois, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy organization, applauded the standards, saying on Twitter that Illinois must help educators create “safe and affirming” environments
“For LGBTQ youth, an educator may be the only person in their lives who supports them unconditionally,” the organization said.
According to ISBE, more than 52% of Illinois students identify as students of color while more than 82% of teachers are white. English learners also comprise the fastest growing segment of the student population.
Wolfinger, of ISU, said the standards will help train new teachers to work in diverse classrooms, better connect with students and plan inclusive lessons.
“I understand how these standards have gotten thrown into the political partisan blender, and it really is not so much about a progressive or liberal or conservative orientation,” he said. “This is really about helping future teachers think expansively about the work they do and the kids they are working with.”
That’s particularly relevant for ISU, which enrolls more than 3,000 students in its doctoral, master’s and undergraduate education programs. Last year, about 800 newly licensed teachers graduated from ISU, Wolfinger said, and about 25% of first-year public school teachers hired in Illinois earned degrees at ISU.
Research also shows that educators who espouse culturally responsive attitudes have more positive interactions with students, said Marie Ann Donovan, program director for early childhood teacher education at DePaul University. Donovan, who serves as a faculty representative on the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said many educators regularly use these concepts and now have a common language to discuss them.
“These standards remind us that we have to know ourselves, to understand our implicit biases,” she said. “We’re human, every one of us has them … and if you have to, work against them to make sure that they are not doing any harm to the children you are working with.”
ISBE unveiled the draft standards in November but has grappled with the ideas for years. Following a public comment period, officials tweaked the language and worked with stakeholders to “ensure the final language reflects our intent,” Ayala said.
One of those changes, some reports say, was replacing the word “progressive viewpoints” with “balance of viewpoints” when describing how teachers should build select course materials.
As the debate unfolded, ISBE has defended its authority to issue rules on teaching standards. Higher education programs have until 2025 to show compliance with the new provisions, though any new programs seeking approval must incorporate the standards starting this October.
The ideas for culturally responsive standards “are by no means new” and will create consistency for educator prep programs across Illinois colleges and universities, Matthews said. Illinois has collaborated with eight other states about the framework since 2018, she said.
“The whole point is entirely academic … to close the achievement gap,” Matthews said. “When students are more engaged and understood, they feel like they belong, and see value in their education.”
The partnership, however, wasn’t lost when the standards came up Feb. 17 for a vote at the The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative body that must approve agency regulations.
The state lawmakers who sit on the committee voted along party lines. Five Republicans, including Reick, opposed the new standards, while six Democrats voted for the changes.
In another layer of controversy, Reick questioned the process that allows state agencies to wield broad policy making power in any area.
“The legislature is abdicating its responsibility,” he said. “This is an issue that should have been on the floor of the House for a vote instead of a board of unaccountable bureaucrats.”
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February 28, 2021 at 04:49PM