The following is taken from the Star Tribune’s online comment section for Jean Quam’s American Dream lives on at the U
I’d like to begin by pointing out what we, in education research and teacher education, refer to as the “demographic imperative.” Currently, 86% of all elementary and secondary teachers are white. Of these, most are women, from middle class backgrounds, and are mono-lingual speakers of English. At the same time, only 64% of K-12 students are white. The other 36% are distributed accordingly among groups of color: 17% African American, 14% Latinos, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, and 1% Native Americans/Alaskans (U.S. Department of Education). An article that ran this past Spring in USA today reported that “Roughly one-fourth of the nation’s kindergartners are Hispanic, evidence of an accelerating trend that now will see minority children become the majority by 2023.” What’s more, students of color are the majority in 70 of the 130 school districts in the United States with a student population of 36,000 or more. We are thus faced with the following: our future teachers are going to be asked to educate children who are unlike them, in schools unlike those they themselves attended.
This is not a condemnation of traditional American values or of white Americans or those with conservative ideologies. Rather, these are the realities facing young teachers today. To respond, teacher education has sought out new ways to engage students of color and erode the achievement gap, which despite every intention on the part of schools, remains drawn along racial and class lines. I agree with many of the comments here that identify non-school related social issues that keep certain students from achieving in our schools. However, the fact that something is outside the reach of schools does mean it is not brought into schools by the students and teachers who are to work together in our classrooms. Schools in the United States are committed to educating every child, regardless of disposition, race, class, creed, gender, sexuality, or disability. This is a wonderful part of our educational system. Because we educate every child, we must address that not every child comes to school with the same resources, experiences, and knowledges. While these things are not the fault of the school, they are nonetheless the school’s responsibility: again, we must educate every child.
Research over the last 30 plus years has demonstrated that an effective way to raise academic achievement is by valuing diverse students’ experiences and the knowledge that they already bring with them into our classrooms. In order to appreciate these alternative knowledges, teachers must learn how to be critical thinkers, able to evaluate their curriculum, the needs of their students, and the needs of their role in society. The most common way for this kind of thinking to take shape is by exploring and interrogating one’s own beliefs. Self-critique is not indoctrinating: it is liberating. As a teacher educator, I am teaching my students not to devalue the beliefs their students come to their classes with. It would be completely antithetical to the entire project were we to indoctrinate teachers not to indoctrinate their students.
A former student of mine, who now teaches in a charter school and self-identifies as “very conservative,” told me recently “your class actually strengthened my beliefs because I had to think about why I believed certain things.” I aim to change no one’s mind, only to give them tools for analyzing their future classrooms. Students ought to be exposed to traditional American values such as meritocracy. But, the idea that any alternative to a meritocratic understanding of society is indoctrination seems silly to me. How can we understand what meritocracy is if we do not understand other ways that societies can be organized? Examining alternatives and valuing many voices is a cornerstone of Democracy and a founding principle of our nation. To help students to critically reflect and interrogate their practice as teachers, teacher educators must design activities and assignments that push their students’ thinking. We would live in a sad and secluded world if we did not attempt to understand other’s viewpoints. We seek to understand, however, not so that we can abandon our own values and thoughts, but so that we can better communicate with others and better know ourselves. This is, at base, what the teacher education program at the University of Minnesota seeks to do.