Pennsylvania Takes Valuable Steps Forward to Help Teachers Create Anti-Racist Classrooms

Education writer Peter Greene takes a look at the state’s “culturally-relevant and sustaining education” guidelines, and what the anti-“CRT” crusaders are likely to target in response.
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Across the country, a panic over critical race theory has been broadened into laws that restrict teaching about the history of race and racism in America. Programs that emphasize culturally responsive teaching or diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have been targeted, attacked, and rolled back. 

But in Pennsylvania, the Department of Education has chosen to go in another direction.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has released standards for Culturally-Relevant and Sustaining Education. This will mark the first time that Pennsylvania has included these sorts of standards in its requirements for teacher preparation programs. 

Tanya Garcia, deputy secretary for the department’s Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education, has noted that the standards are meant to address Pennsylvania’s changing demographics. In the 2020-21 school year, students of color were about 37 percent of the student population in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania faces unique challenges when it comes to diversity in schools. The nonpartisan group Research for Action found back in 2020 that Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest gap between students of color (SOC) and teachers of color (TOC). Nationally, the share of SOC was 2.5 times the share of TOC. But in Pennsylvania, the percentage of SOC was 6 times the percentage of TOC. 

Of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, RFA found that 184 employed zero teachers of color. Only around 25 districts in the state have staffs that are more than 5 percent TOC. By building it’s even more stunning; RFA found that of the 3,200 schools in Pennsylvania, 1,500 had all-white teaching staffs. A dozen schools in the state were 80 percent students of color and 0 percent teachers of color.

READ: Anti-Critical Race Theory hysteria revives McCarthyism, Klan politics

Formal approaches for preparing teachers for diverse classrooms have been hit and miss. In the late 1970s, the small Northwestern Pennsylvania college where I prepared to become a teacher placed student teachers in Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland. Our preparation was to read Herbert Foster’s Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens. We read about how “Your mama is so….” wasn’t always a sign of trouble. We read about a new music called “rap.” And we learned about the debate concerning whether it was worse to tell Black students to drop the “incorrect” Black English they spoke at home or worse to deny them the Standard English tools of power and mobility. That wasn’t much, but it was more than some other teacher prep programs in the country were doing at the time. That was more than 40 years ago, and the state has not done much to move culturally sensitive teacher training forward since then. 

There are groups, like the Center for Black Educator Development, working to improve the pipeline for teachers of color. But in the meantime, Pennsylvania has a marked need for culturally sensitive teaching. At the same time, conservatives in Pennsylvania have made attempts to ban the teaching of divisive concepts that critics “trace to critical race theory,” and those folks are unlikely to give these new standards a warm greeting. Yet, these standards represent a real attempt to address the need to approach teaching from a more culturally responsive place.

The nine new standards have been adapted from Jenny Muniz’s Culturally Responsive Teaching: A Guide

Here’s a quick look at what the standards say, and what the anti-“CRT” critics are likely to flag in response. 

Competency 1: Reflect on one’s cultural lens. 

Consider and reflect on personal biases that one may have, particularly as a member of various identity groups, such as race, skin color, ethnicity, gender identity, age, nationality, language, class, economic status, ability, level of education, sexual orientation, and religion. Identity politics are frequently a target of conservatives who consider them divisive. 

Competency 2: Identify, Deepen Understanding of, and Take Steps to Address Bias in the System.

This standard asks educators to recognize that “biases exist in the educational system,” to spot the “social markers” that factor into these biases, and make efforts to remove the bias and “disrupt harmful institutional practices, policies, and norms by advocating and engaging in efforts to rewrite policies, change practices, and raise awareness.” We can expect big objections to this standard, as opponents object to the idea that bias can be systemic and therefore see attempts to disrupt and dislodge that bias as inappropriate.

Competency 3: Design and Facilitate Culturally Relevant Learning that Brings Real World Experiences into Educational Spaces

A portion of this represents ideas that should already be part of all teachers’ practices — recognizing that your students live in the world and that your teaching works best when it connects to the world they live in. “Challenge their own beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors regarding the knowledge and backgrounds of dominant and non-dominant social groups” works in any school setting. But designing learning spaces “for learners to identify and question economic, political, and social power structures in the school, community, nation, and world” will strike conservatives as dangerous and inappropriate.

Competency 4: Provide All Learners with Equitable and Differentiated Opportunities to Learn and Succeed.

Teachers already learn to differentiate on the basis of cognitive and academic skills. This standard extends that idea of creating a level playing field by “challenging and debunking stereotypes and biases about the intelligence, academic ability, and behavior of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and other historically marginalized learners, educators, educational leaders, families, and caregivers.” That explicit requirement, plus a call to “provide multiple pathways and opportunities for students to achieve academic and social success,” will stir up pushback. Teachers themselves are going to see the requirement for multiple pathways as a requirement that makes more work for them. 

Competency 5: Promote Asset-based Perspectives about Differences.

This one is simple. Treat diversity as an asset, not a problem, and treat people with respect – even if they’re different. 

Competency 6: Collaborate with Families and Communities through Authentic Engagement Practices.

Connect with the community in which your students live. Connect with their families. View them as part of the teaching work. Opponents may bristle at the call to “identify systems, structures, practices, and policies that exclude and marginalize BIPOC and multilingual families, families living in poverty, and families with varying sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Competency 7: Communicate in Linguistically and Culturally Responsive Ways that Demonstrate Respect for Learners, Educators, Educational Leaders, and Families.

Understand, honor, and respect the home language of the student. This has echoes of the systematic eradication of indigenous languages in the West, as well as the long-ranging debate about American dialects (particularly Black urban ones) and the question of whether those dialects should be respected or replaced with more standard English usage. 

Competency 8: Establish High Expectations for Each Learner and Treat Them as Capable and Deserving of Achieving Success.

High expectations are, once again, Teacher 101. This standard articulates some ideas about holding and communicating those expectations, and it’s hard to imagine who anyone could object to the standard.

Competency 9: Educate Oneself About Microaggressions and their Impact on Diverse Learners, Educators, and Families, and Actively Disrupt the Practice by Naming and Challenging its Use.

A mini-course in micro-aggressions. The anti-CRT crowd will want to obliterate this one.

So far, no legislators appear to have spoken out against these new guidelines; they haven’t even made it onto the Parents Defending Education “IndoctrinNation” Map. But I expect they’ll make it there soon enough. 

Yet much in these standards falls well outside the usual complaints about CRT-ish material. Many of these items about cultural sensitivity would apply where Amish students are mixed into public schools, as well as in districts that serve rural poor (and mostly white) students. As Sharif El-Mekki of the Center for Black Educator Development has pointed out, “We are talking about any marginalized students.”

The standards are certainly not perfect. Many use verbs that education methods students would recognize as better avoided. “Know,” “recognize,” “value,” and “believe” may be noble goals, but they are impossible to assess. Does the aspiring teacher believe, or has she just learned how to pretend to believe? 

READ: Raising Our Children as Future Leaders in an Era Of Book Banning and Attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’

That speaks to a central problem of standards like these. Can an education program take someone who is 20-years-old and does not value diversity or respect other cultures and convince them to see and understand the world in a different way? Despite some people’s belief in the massive indoctrinating power of colleges, the fact remains that few students emerge from a four year college with values significantly different from the ones they started with. 

Nevertheless, the standards are still a valuable step forward. They speak to expectations of teachers, expectations that the work of teaching has to include the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. That is certainly a step forward from handing undergrads a book about Black kids and hoping they can figure it out.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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