The 1787 U.S. Constitution was ratified to establish justice, liberty, and prosperity, but not for all Americans. Like the Constitution, early American educational practices were based on a system of whiteness and elitism. Justice and prosperity for those who comprise marginalized groups have remained largely unfulfilled. We know for certain that we are a pluralistic society. No one group has singularly built this nation, secured its borders, nor defended its values. The plurality of our nation is our strength. As educators, particularly who prepare America’s future teachers, we must double down, now more than ever, on what Horace Mann said, “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
Dr. Jacob Easley II
America has yet to become an equal society, and these societal ills create the need for scholar activism embedded in Critical Race Theory (CRT), which historically documents and names the atrocities carried out in this country in the name of freedom, liberty, and democracy. America’s struggle to uphold the Constitution for all its citizens makes it necessary to examine the structural oppression that encumbers the United State from fully living up to its democratic ideals. Through CRT, scholars across higher education have researched racial inequality that emerged from the social, economic, and legal differences created between races to maintain elite, white interests in this country. If our national laws and practices are to ensure justice and equity, then educators have a great deal of work to do in ensuring the American ideals we teach youth to value in school are a reality for all.
As the dean of a school of education, I am pleased to see other leaders of educator preparation programs publishing public statements for advancing racial justice in today’s society and education. As next steps, I believe educator preparation programs must: 1) redesign curriculums centered on racial and social justice; 2) model and impart skills needed for educators to engage in inquiry, instruction, and advocacy for educational equity; and, 3) provide greater access for minority aspirants to address the current rate of racial teacher disparity. While not exhaustive, this strategy outlines activities that all educator preparation programs can implement.
It is vital for future educators to critically understand the systematic ways in which identity politics and elitism have created canonized curricula often devoid of the harsh treatments and contributions of many other people comprising our pluralistic society. I am reminded of my advanced placement American history course in high school, where only one paragraph of more than 700 pages in the required textbook mentioned the plight of enslaved Africans brought to this country. The single paragraph chronicled the abolitionist efforts of John Brown, a White man. His story was not balanced with the legacy of the many others, Black and White, who toiled tirelessly for the freedoms and equity of America’s enslaved peoples. Richard Rothstein, in his book, The Color of Law, accounts similar treatment regarding segregation among current U.S. history books and calls the omissions mendacious. This limited curriculum is unacceptable and must change.
All future educators must be better prepared to address curricular mythologies that undermine the conditions of marginalized communities in order to confront the complexities of American society. An accurate and culturally responsive curriculum is a starting point that will enable future educators to critically connect content instruction with the history and lives of students to help ensure an informed, anti-racist, and justice-minded citizenry.
Becoming a culturally responsive and socially just educator is no simple feat. Beyond content knowledge, future educators need strong inquiry skills for critical analysis of self, curriculum, and instruction, also known as critically reflexive practice. Teacher educators must model and teach aspirant educators methods that require questioning of one’s assumptions, biases, values, and taken-for-granted actions, all of which are informed by one’s lived experiences and relations with communities different from their own. Future educators must learn to continually explore who they are, and who their students are, through critical questioning. They must learn to accept the moral implications of their actions in classrooms as a process of critically reflexive practice in order to demonstrate a deep understanding of all students and their cultural assets.
Geneva Gay reminds us “culture is deeply embedded in any teaching.” As such, neither educators nor students are able to check their identities and cultural histories at the door. We must teach future educators that instruction is never neutral, devoid of culture nor judgments. In short, instruction based on deep learning employs interdisciplinarity to connect curriculum with the personal lives of students and their communities. This approach seeks to engage students as empowered change agents in society, often working alongside their teachers and community members, to answer questions about learning, curriculum, and/or the social conditions deeply connected to their lives.
Educational equity in the form of cultural congruence between the lives of students, curriculum, and school culture is not fully possible without parity between the cultural, racial, and linguistic composition of the student body and the educators serving them and their communities. Teachers of color make up approximately 18% of the national workforce. Conversely, students of color comprise slightly more than half of the total student population. A growing body of research demonstrates there is a positive effect on the academic achievement, sense of belonging, and overall school experience of students of color who study with teachers of color. In addition, teachers of color are rated highly by students of all races. Yet, in many parts of the nation, students may graduate high school, including students of color, without ever having been taught by a teacher of color. Similarly, research shows that Black and Latinx administrators serve as role models for minority students. While several universities and their educator preparation programs have experienced economic challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it is vital that institutions not wane in their commitment and investment to equity and access and the recruitment and development of racial minority teachers.
Education is a true equalizer of the conditions of men. Future educators must learn how to use the power within their voices and actions to effectuate positive social change for anti-racism and a just society. Educators’ ability to advocate for educational excellence and equity defines professionalism at its best. Such advocacy occurring at the school level and beyond underscores the value of education in American society and its aims for positive effect on the lives of learners and their communities.
Dr. Jacob Easley II is the dean of the Graduate School of Education for Touro College in New York. He serves on the board of directors for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.