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To the People Pushing Back on Culturally Responsive Teaching During Black History Month

A war has been waging in my home state of Illinois, and the battle lines have been drawn. In one corner of the ring—the “uber leftists” who justify the need for the Illinois State Department of Education’s newly proposed “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards.” In the other corner? Conservatives who tout, in fear, that the aforementioned standards are the beginning of the end—the indoctrinating of Illinois children by way of public education.

Once again, the decision to do what’s best for all kids has evolved into a polarizing, political issue. And quite personally, I’m sick of it.  

IN THE MIDST OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH, PEOPLE—PRIMARILY WHITE PEOPLE—CONTINUE TO DEBATE THE RELEVANCE OF CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING.The irony is not lost on me that in the midst of Black History Month, people—primarily white people—continue to debate the relevance of culturally responsive teaching. In fact, when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) shared the standards on social media recently, the responses were cringeworthy: 

Just another attempt to make teachers and kids more ‘woke’

Great. Now I have to apologize for being white.

Sigh…

I cling to the hope that these comments are rooted in a genuine misunderstanding about what culturally responsive teaching is (Although, unfortunately, I’m not that naive and I know better). After all, what’s so offensive about validating and reflecting the diversity, identities and experiences of all students? Inclusivity is not indoctrination. 

It is crucial to clear up a variety of misconceptions circulating about the proposed standards, which seem to be overshadowing their true intent: to help prepare aspiring educators for a world that is increasingly diverse.

WHAT IS CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING?

According to Understood, 

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a research-based approach that makes meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages and life experiences. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum, develop higher-level academic skills, and see the relevance between what they learn at school and their lives … Students bring this knowledge to the classroom every day, including their culture, language, and life experiences. When we acknowledge this background knowledge as assets and tap into it, we create an optimal environment for learning.

THE ABILITY TO REACH STUDENTS FROM A VARIETY OF CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS IS AN ESSENTIAL SKILL TO SUCCEED AS AN ASPIRING EDUCATOR IN ILLINOIS. Eighty percent of Illinois teachers are white and more than 52% of Illinois students identify as students of color. Furthermore, English learners make up the fastest-growing student population in our state. As a result, the ability to reach students from a variety of cultural backgrounds is an essential skill to succeed as an aspiring educator in Illinois. 

Additionally, Dr. Carmen Ayala, our state superintendent of education, explained that the standards are intended to help address the wide achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic student groups, which undoubtedly exist throughout our state. 

Cultural responsiveness is inclusive of all of the experiences our educators, students and families bring to the classroom.

Those opposed argue that “Teachers need to stick to reading, writing and arithmetic. Period.” But what many people—primarily non-educators—don’t understand is that culturally responsive practices actually help teachers to teach their respective content areas even better! Inclusivity and content are not mutually exclusive. We can teach both. 

ABOUT THE STANDARDS

  • The “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” DO NOT apply to K-12 curricula (Although, would it be so bad if they did?). They apply to educator preparation programs.
  • The Illinois State Department of Education WILL NOT require professional development on the standards for current educators (However, again, is this really such a bad thing?). School districts will maintain local control over the professional development they offer to their staff, and the proposed changes will not impact current teachers’ certification or employment. ISBE will offer OPTIONAL professional development to current educators, not a mandate.
  • If approved, the standards WILL NOT go into effect until October 2025, which will allow educator preparation programs ample time to incorporate the standards.
  • No educator will be forced to indoctrinate their students with specific political ideologies, and no educator will be forced to turn their students into activists. No educator will be forced to incite their students into participating in any protests, riots or insurrections. 

Despite all of the aforementioned, overwhelmingly, people—sadly, some of them educators themselves—have expressed outrage over the proposed standards, and it’s not a good look. Some argue that this is “one more thing” intended to micromanage teachers. Again, this DOES NOT apply to K-12 curricula—and the resistance is astounding. The general consensus seems to be, “Why fix what isn’t broken?” 

THIS SHOULD NOT BE A PARTISAN ISSUE, ESPECIALLY FOR EDUCATORS.Except here’s the thing: What if it is broken? The aforementioned achievement gaps suggest that it is. Moreover, being culturally responsive shouldn’t be synonymous with liberal ideology, despite the fact that people are working overtime to sell us the narrative that it is. In reality, this should not be a partisan issue, especially for educators.

In a world that is increasingly more connected than ever before, we should strive to broaden the cultural worldview and experiences of our students to make them more empathetic and understanding. Doing so equips students with the tools that they need to be productive global citizens. Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is an extension of the work that great teachers are already doing. These standards will prepare the future of our profession to meet the ever-evolving, diverse needs of our students even better in years to come. 

Furthermore, CRT could have a major impact on the recruitment of educators of color, especially considering that a primary indicator of whether or not students choose teaching as a profession often correlates to their own personal experiences in the classroom. If students don’t feel valued, understood, seen and heard, they won’t view a career in education as one that is inclusive of their culture, and that’s a major problem. 

BY EMPOWERING THE FUTURE OF OUR PROFESSION AND EQUIPPING THEM WITH THE TOOLS TO BE MORE INTENTIONAL ABOUT BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH ALL STUDENTS, WE SIMULTANEOUSLY IMPROVE THE EXPERIENCES OF STUDENTS.By empowering the future of our profession and equipping them with the tools to be more intentional about building relationships with all students, we simultaneously improve the experiences of students. This not only creates better learning experiences for students, but those experiences could lead to an increase in educator recruitment. 

On a final note, in my time traveling the state and speaking to teachers over the past three years, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard vulnerable educators admit, “I really want to do a better job of engaging in this work—in culturally responsive practices—but I just don’t know where to start.” If we truly believe that Black History should be taught in an intentional way beyond the month of February—and it absolutely should be—then one could assert we need Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards to equip aspiring educators with the skills to do so. Inclusivity is not indoctrination, and as a profession, we need to push back on ideologies that suggest otherwise.

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