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November 30, 2009

Decoding Teacher Training

By KC Johnson

Thanks to the efforts of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education---and a rare, if welcome, instance of Congress standing up for students' rights in higher education---the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) abandoned its de facto "social justice" criterion. Yet while the development made it harder for Education schools to use "social justice" and "diversity" to demand ideological fidelity from students, the ideologues that populate such programs have hardly ceased their efforts. Only now they must take accountability for their actions.

A good example of the continuing problem is the renewed emphasis on "cultural competence"---a term, much like "dispositions," which is meaningless to anyone outside the academy but has a specific, and ideologically charged, designation to those familiar with Education code. Take, for instance, the Education Department at the University of Minnesota whose activities were exposed by Katherine Kersten in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Kersten uncovered a report prepared as part of the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative, which is reorienting the U of M's teacher-training curriculum.

The intellectual interests of the report's authors not only preview the group's recommendations but also give a sense of what passes for the ideological mainstream in Education departments on the nation's college campuses. The work of Professor Tim Lensmire, who says that he uses the classroom to promote "radical democracy" through embracing "various progressive, feminist, and critical pedagogies," sets the ideological tone: Lensmire notes that his "current research and writing focus on race and education, and especially on how white people learn to be white in our white supremacist society." The report's other authors include Bic Ngo, whose research examines "the ways in which the education of immigrant students are shaped by dynamic power relations as they play out at the intersection(s) of race, ethnicity, class and gender" using "critical, cultural and feminist theories" to explicate "the role(s) of critical multicultural education"; committee chair Michael Goh, whose research explores "multicultural counseling"; and two non-tenure track figures, Mary Beth Kelley and Carole Gupton.

The report abandons any pretense that traditional principles of academic freedom---which, of course, reserve control of classroom content to individual professors---matter to those who represent the contemporary academy's majority viewpoint on issues of race, class, and gender. As part of this "HUGE undertaking," the Goh Committee declares, "Every faculty member at our university that trains our teachers must comprehend and commit [emphasis added] to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently, frame their teaching and course foci accordingly." Imagine the (appropriate) outrage from the AAUP and other defenders of the higher education establishment if an Education program at a major state university demanded that all professors commit to framing their classroom goals and content around, say, the centrality of free enterprise and religious freedom.

I e-mailed Chairman Goh to ask whether he believed that his committee's recommendations respected academic freedom. He did not reply.

"Let there be no doubt," added the Goh Committee, "that we consider cultural competence to be an indispensable characteristic of all beginning teachers and, hence, an obligatory goal of teacher education." A layperson encountering a term like "cultural competence" might assume that the phrase means understanding more about the backgrounds of different groups. And in our increasingly diverse country, who could object to making sure that all prospective public school teachers have the knowledge to deal with students of all backgrounds and from differing types of families?

Along these lines, the report includes some unobjectionable---even admirable---recommendations, dealing with the relationship between future teachers and their students. For instance: "Teachers will demonstrate knowledge about the cultural aspects of the environment and one's place within it, and broadly encompasses both cultural universals and cultural differences. It also reflects a level of knowledge about students' culture, including but not limited to values, norms, and environment."

Yet these common-sense recommendations are bracketed by three other sets of demands---addressing what the future teacher needs to believe; the relationship between future teachers and their schools; and the clearly political concept of how future teachers should view the society in which they live. The result is nothing less than a requirement for all prospective public school teachers to show fidelity to a set of beliefs far outside the nation's (and Minnesota's) ideological mainstream.

The first three "outcomes" -about the teacher's "SELF"---demand that:

- "Our future teachers will be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression."

- "Future teachers will recognize & demonstrate understanding of white privilege."

- "Future teachers will understand that they are privileged & marginalized depending on context."

And how would the state's future public school teachers reach these understandings about themselves? Not through encountering a pedagogically and ideologically diverse array of readings. Instead, the Goh Committee recommends only two books for students to absorb: Takaki's A Different Mirror, the bible for multicultural advocates; and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

I e-mailed Chairman Goh to ask how his committee chose the Zinn book---among the most one-sided and ideologically extreme interpretations of the American past---and why the committee didn't recommend exposing prospective public school teachers to multiple, differing viewpoints about U.S. history. Goh did not reply.

The guidelines for the relationship between the future teacher and his or her school are equally extreme and equally one-sided:

- "Future teachers are able to explain how institutional racism works in schools," appreciating "how dominant pedagogical styles, school curricula, behavioral expectations, personal prejudices of school personnel (among other things) often convey overt and covert messages that devalue the culture, heritage, and identity of minority students." (This revelation undoubtedly comes as news to the Minnesota state legislature, which has final responsibility for setting curricular goals in the state.)

- "Future teachers create & fight for social justice even if it's just in their classroom"

- "Future teachers understand resistance theory."(!!)

It almost sounds as if the U of M Education Department expects to send its students out into a guerrilla warfare campaign. Again, are these sorts of initiatives what the state legislature expects when it involves schools of education in the teacher-training process?

And the requirements for instructing future teachers about their relationship with the society at large are little more than a mandate for the students accepting extreme left-wing ideology. Future teachers must acknowledge the:

- "myth of meritocracy in the United States"

- "history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class, Christian meanings and values"

- "history of white racism, with special focus on current colorblind ideology" [emphasis added]

It comes as little surprise that a program with such a pedagogical agenda also demanded effective "diversity" quotas in the personnel process: "The recruitment and composition of our students and faculty must reflect the diversity represented in our classrooms, schools, and communities." According to the 2000 census, the population of Minnesota is 85.4 percent non-Hispanic white. Somehow, however, I doubt that the Goh Committee believes that departments whose ratio of non-Hispanic white professors is less than 85.4 percent require some affirmative action. Nor, I suspect, does the Goh Committee envision a faculty that reflects the ideological "diversity represented in our . . . communities." Minnesota, after all, is a fairly closely divided state politically and ideologically

What can be done about such deeply troubling programs? For starters, as Erin O'Connor recommends, "someone should make sure that the folks in the ed schools understand what the legal consequences are likely to be if they go forward with their plan to compel prospective teachers to declare their loyalty to a highly partisan view of the United States."

More important, some hard questions need to be asked of Minnesota politicians. Governor Tim Pawlenty is a likely candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. He's been governor of Minnesota for seven years, and should be pressed as to why he's done little or nothing to remove the teacher training process in his state from the grips of ideologues like the Goh Committee. And candidates---of both parties---running for Pawlenty's seat should be asked what, if anything, they plan to do to protect the academic freedom and First Amendment rights of the next generation of Minnesota's public school teachers.



Comments (7)

very disturbing...

I have always believed in public schools, but I have come to recognize that more and more the public schools have lost their original reason for being.... to prepare our future citizens to become productive members of society.

Could this finally produce the death of public schools?

Jonathan Cohen:

The reports about the University of Minnesota's School of Education are troubling but not surprising. I have been listening to these ideas at all levels of faculty governance at my school for the past fifteen years.

It is hard to say which is worse; the malign nature of their view of American society or the damage they will do by teaching an ideological agenda rather than the content and pedagogy of what our future school teachers will be teaching.

Students do poorly on standardized tests if they do not know how to answer the questions. While this is something of a tautology, that doesn't make it a meaningless statement. If you want to improve the performance of underrepresented groups on standardized tests, you have to teach them how to answer the questions given on such tests.

Forcing education students to confess to the sin of "whiteness" isn't going to help them explain to a fifth grader why 3/5 is greater than 4/7.

The failure of their teachers to understand the content of elementary school mathematics has a lot more to do with the poor performance of school children than the failure of their teachers to adhere to the ideological leanings of their ed school professors.

Patrick Kavanaugh:

I am not surprised at all. When I transitioned into HS education through the UNC system, we had our required portion of the program dedicated to just such indoctrination, right down to the use of Zinn's text.

What strikes me most powerfully from what Professor Johnson writes is the absolute degree of certainty displayed by these academics. They haven't the slightest doubt, or modesty. They hold their views with the tenacity of a fundamentalist -- a comparison that would of course horrify them -- the main difference being that a fundamentalist might be certain, but he does not seek to force others to share that certainty.
Harvey Silverglate
Cambridge, MA

Jimbo:

As an engineer who is an adjunct at a business school, I would like to suggest that schools of education stop all of this crap and teach their students how to teach algebra. I know that it is possible because I had wonderful teachers who taught me algebra. However, based on evidence obtained first hand from my students, this is in decline.

As nearly as I can tell, algebra has sufficient influence from non-white, non-Christian sources that it can avoid criticism for a, "history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class, Christian meanings and values."

Plus, as an added bonus, any student who masters algebra can, literally, write their own ticket. I'm sick of thinking to myself when I look at exams, "boy, your teachers really screwed you over while they were pretending to teach you algebra. You should go ask for your money back."

Anonymous:

Is Prof. Lensmire a radical feminist anti-capitalist who opposes white supremacy and imperialism, with a central commitment to creating a sustainable human presence on the planet?

The story here is one of delinquency on the part of institutional trustees, on the part of state legislatures, and on the part of regents. If Thomas Sowell and others are correct, what is served up by teacher-training faculties induces no identifiable improvement in student performance. If that is the case, why not close down the ed schools? If you insist on deputizing public agencies to provide schooling, why not certify teachers who a.) have a degree in the academic or vocational subject they intend to teach; b.) have taken a few courses in educational testing and the psychology of learning; and c.) completed an apprenticeship in which they are drilled in lesson planning, lecturing, criticism, and control of the classroom? All that needs to happen is for the governor and the legislature to condition state appropriations on the closure of the teachers' colleges. Of course, it will never happen.

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