A title like this sounds as though it comes from the fringes of society, maybe a dark YouTube or something called Neoflix, doesn’t it? Is it nuance or is there really opposition to educating children? I have challenged local school officials on whether reducing academic rigor was the best strategy for reducing racial predictability of achievement.
However, I have never been able to convince myself the system truly wanted less for any student. Not until now. Not until reading an amendment to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Administrative Code where partisan politics are cloaked in new culturally responsive teaching standards.
“Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards For All Illinois Educators” are requisite standards adopted by every institution capable of Illinois licensure for teaching. They shape teachers and, by default, shape students. Instead of conserving longstanding and effective standards, improving clarity, or upgrading with edits, the liberal machine hit Ctrl Alt Delete and started over. The new standards include important upgrades that should better serve an increasingly diverse demographic, and incorporating a new category, “Leveraging Student Advocacy,” seems critically important.
Wait, is that teaching students to advocate for their own education? How to ask for more time with a teacher, or better curricula in reading, writing and arithmetic?
The category on curricula initially required teachers to “Embrace and encourage progressive viewpoints and perspectives that leverage asset thinking toward traditionally marginalized populations” until Republicans pushed back and the word “inclusive” was substituted for “progressive.” My argument is, every student loses when adults play politics, and pulling prospective teachers through the eye of any partisan needle only stands to diminish and distort an already anemic pool of teachers.
Education research shows it takes just one relationship to positively affect student outcome. Not long ago I traveled 1,500 miles to say thanks to a professor who changed my outcome. I graduated from a small rural high school where only half the students went on to college, with only half of those going to a four-year school. Not every student is destined for college, but I wanted it and my general lack of achievement led me to a two-year technical school where I trained for a career as a sewage treatment plant operator. Sounds crappy, huh? I transferred schools and eventually met Charlie, my data point in that education research.
His systems ecology class started with a field trip, sampling a stream and spending the rest of the semester writing a computer program to mirror what we measured: How the riffle at the edge of the woods was oxygenating the water, and how this explained what we found in our nets. How that same water later curved through a prairie, rose in temperature, teemed with aquatic plant life becoming depleted of oxygen, and left our nets empty. We formulated hypotheses on land and water use, tweaked parameters and simulated responses, gaining foundational knowledge of stream systems.
We learned to use tools for exploring truth back then. Now, on a walk in Montana with Charlie as a friend, I had another question: What changed most from beginning to end of your teaching career?
“It used to be students showed up wanting to learn how to conduct science so they could apply it to topics important to them, their family or plans for future work,” said Charlie, whose teaching career spanned about 40 years. “I began to notice in the later years students increasingly showed up with conviction for pre-conceived ideas and wanted to learn how to support them with science.” He lamented the order of things, and how the lack of open-mindedness complicated teaching a discipline.
His answer seems eerily correlated with the direction of public education.
An upgrade to teaching standards seems normal. Changes to reflect advances in understanding or to benefit a changing population makes sense. I am afraid of the nuances in these new standards though, the vagueness that seems to confuse the position of student and teacher. There is risk in putting answers before exploration, activism before foundational knowledge. Our way out of most messes comes from diversity of thought, education is no different, and anything otherwise seems in opposition to good education.
On other matters …
Four more years! Cathy Adduci has this way of bringing people together, leveraging her experience and her board and village resources, and finding the best path forward. Decisions, by definition, will not make everyone happy. What makes me extremely happy about Cathy is she is always available, listens intently, involves many, and has unbridled passion for the future and people of River Forest.
Steve Lefko is a 2010 transplant to River Forest, husband and father, and a former corporate scientist who has traded up for the role of Director of Character Development, Lefko Inc.