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.
The irony is not lost on me that [pullquote]in the midst of Black History Month, people—primarily white people—continue to debate the relevance of culturally responsive teaching.[/pullquote] 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.
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.
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.
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, [pullquote position="right"]the ability to reach students from a variety of cultural backgrounds is an essential skill to succeed as an aspiring educator in Illinois.[/pullquote]
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.
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?”
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, [pullquote]this should not be a partisan issue, especially for educators.[/pullquote]
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.
[pullquote]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.[/pullquote] 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.
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach Plus Policy Alum, and she is an Advisory Board Member for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center. She has over 15 years of educational experience, holds a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Southern Illinois University, a master’s degree in secondary English education from Oakland City University, and she is finishing her doctorate in the fall of 2020 in teaching and learning from Illinois State University. In her free time, Lindsey travels the country speaking and engaging in educational advocacy. She has delivered over 100 keynotes at Northwestern University, SXSWEdu, The National Association of Teacher Educators Conference, The Raising Student Achievement Conference, and WITCon. She is a proud public school teacher and academic dean in Dwight, Illinois.
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