What went wrong with American education? Why are preschoolers and kindergarteners being taught that they were born to combat racism and embrace transgender rights? How come concerned parents who oppose blatant indoctrination are now the bad guys?
Any keen observer of contemporary education policy would point out the role played by schools of education in creating a generation of woke teachers. Equipped with a neo-Marxist, or even nihilist, worldview, these teacher-activists have gone on to proselytize their beliefs in K–12 classrooms. A casual glance at any school of education website will reveal plenty of progressive buzzwords, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), anti-racism, and social justice.
Take, for instance, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE), America’s number one teachers college. One action item included in Penn GSE’s “Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion” is “preparing anti-racist educators and researchers” through “ongoing training in anti-racist pedagogy and racial literacy for students, faculty, and staff.” This pedagogy is the politicized belief that “America’s long history of anti-Blackness and the recent increase in bias incidents facing AAPI communities,” not empirically tested competencies, must guide teacher training.
Penn GSE’s anti-racist mission also includes a variety of “race- and diversity-focused centers, such as the Racial Empowerment Collaborative and HEARD: The Hub for Equity, Anti-Oppression, Research, and Development.” The school even has a program called “Visiting Scholars of Color,” which offers a platform for “doctoral student socialization and learning.”
The Association of Teacher Educators (ATE), the only national membership organization for teachers college faculty, has also been swimming with the ideological tide. Founded in 1920 as a voluntary membership organization “dedicated solely to the improvement of teacher education,” ATE’s vision today is to promote “advocacy, equity, leadership and professionalism for teacher educators.”
After the death of George Floyd, ATE issued a “Statement on Social Justice,” pledging to “foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in education” and to “address the mental health stress caused by senseless violence to black and brown people.”
As the number of crimes targeting Asian Americans increases, which is a result of rising threats to public safety in urban areas, ATE published a statement condemning anti-Asian racism and committing to “liberation, justice, and anti-racism.”
The infectious spell of race essentialism has even reached schools of education in conservative states. The Tift College of Education at Mercer University in Central Georgia, for example, prides itself on providing “equity oriented experiences” and upholding “equity and inclusion” as its “college identity.” The school defines “equity and justice” as “anti-discrimination, anti-bigotry, and anti-racism,” while Mercer’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion offers workshops in microaggressions, bias, “inclusive leadership,” and LGBTQ+.
It is hard to imagine that the predecessor of the University College branch of Mercer’s College of Education was Tift College in Monroe County, Georgia, where over 80% of registered voters are Republicans.
But critical pedagogy, a philosophy of education with roots in critical theory, was not always the North Star for teacher education. Not long ago, merit, standards, and excellence commanded the profession, which was laser-focused on preparing students for successful careers as educators.
Dr. Jim Buff, a well-respected professor of education, taught at Tift College between 1975 and 1995 and moved with the school to Mercer University in 1995 to help start the University College branch. There, Dr. Buff built an evening program for working adults who aspired to become educators. He based the program on what he calls “competency-based teacher education,” a mode of learning emphasizing outcomes and real-world performance.
Dr. Buff acquired this teaching philosophy from the University of Georgia, where he earned a doctorate in education in 1975. Dr. Buff credited his alma mater for instilling in him an appreciation for critical thinking and meritocracy. In 1986, while at Tift College, he pioneered Georgia’s first pre-professional test to evaluate new teachers. His students benefitted from the rigorous coursework he helped design.
One of them, who wishes to be identified by her first name, Phyllis, went on to become a life-long teacher. She taught in public and private schools for 42 years before retirement. Phyllis considers Tift College to be one of the best teacher training schools in the southeastern United States. She said that she received a “well-rounded and progressive education” that focused on character development, a strong work ethic, and a spirit of service.
When it comes to curricular development, Dr. Buff prioritizes local control and teacher autonomy, an idea counter to the top-down indoctrination that is prevalent today:
Teachers colleges should never exert influence [over how individual teachers and schools adopt their textbooks]. Rather, we should give future educators and schools the skills to deal with their local curriculums. We must encourage critical thinking.
Phyllis echoes the pivotal role of local control. Throughout her career as a public-school teacher in inner-city schools, she witnessed the school district successfully introduce more rigor into the math curriculum by adopting the Singapore Math model. The Singapore approach, when utilized by experienced teachers with proper training, has been proven to help students overcome anxieties associated with doing math and obtain grade-level proficiency incrementally.
Empowering teachers to shape their curriculums went hand in hand with a deliberate de-emphasis on politics. Dr. Buff said that he never encountered politics during his tenure. The focus was on identifying key success components that had been tested in real-world settings to train effective teachers.
When he retired from his professorship, Dr. Buff wanted to see for himself whether his teaching has worked. So, he became an elementary school teacher in a rural county in Central Georgia, where the school system has become the crown jewel of the state’s public education system despite serving an overwhelmingly working-class population. Here, political fashion trends that attack standards and equal access are nonexistent, but a culture of excellence has flourished. Many of the teachers are Dr. Buff’s former students. He is satisfied.
That was not too long ago, which should give us hope that we have a workable standard to which we may return.
In the face of the radical turn to progressivism and re-segregation in higher education, many have been frustrated with America’s schools of education. These institutions have become sausage factories that mass-produce ideologues and teacher-activists who knowingly or unknowingly harm our young, impressionable students. But those who are dedicated to teaching, like Dr. Buff and Phyllis, demonstrate the wonders and successes of this noble profession when it’s done right.
In turn, education policy reformers must set out to revive the merit-based, depoliticized education of teachers. Thankfully, one does not need to look far for a viable model. Earlier this year, the National Association of Scholars, joined by the California Policy Center, the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, the John Locke Foundation, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the Palm Beach Freedom Institute, and the Washington Policy Center, released the “Model Education Licensure Code.” It is a package of three model bills that state policymakers can use to reform schools of education and the education licensure process to shake the radical establishment’s stranglehold on American teacher training.
Within the package, the Education Licensure Nondiscrimination Act forbids a variety of methods used by activists to politicize teacher education. The Education Licensure Review Act gives state policymakers the power to veto politicized licensure requirements imposed by state education department bureaucrats. And the Education Licensure Certificate Act establishes a standard path toward licensure that bypasses requirements for an undergraduate degree and minimizes education-school requirements.
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