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States Have Restricted Teaching on Social Justice. Is Teacher Preparation Next?

When Andrew Spar first started teaching music to elementary students at Turie T. Small Elementary School in Daytona Beach, Fla., he assumed they all would know to be gentle with instruments.

Spar, now president of the Florida Education Association (FEA) and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), quickly learned the importance of understanding the differences between his upbringing and that of the students he served.

He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the suburbs of New York City, and was a trained violinist from an early age. But Spar was teaching in a school where he said a majority of students lived in poverty, he said, and his students hadn’t had the same opportunities to play instruments like he had.

The concept of preparing teachers to understand their students’ backgrounds—and how systemic racism and sexism impact those backgrounds—has been a growing feature of many teacher-preparation programs, some of which pride themselves on integrating social justice themes into their coursework.

Now, that’s being called into question as more state legislatures take aim at how those issues can be taught in teacher preparation. The efforts have left educators and advocates concerned it will encompass culturally responsive teaching methods, and fearing it will ultimately negatively impact student learning.

Earlier this month, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure prohibiting teacher training and education preparation programs from delving into “identity politics,” and teaching that “systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”

The measure was part of an effort to “fight back against indoctrination in education and the workplace,” DeSantis said in a news release. It appears to build on the state’s other similar efforts, including a law that restricts what teachers can say about LGBTQ+ individuals in their classrooms.

(DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment before publication.)

Republican Florida Rep. Berny Jacques, a sponsor of the legislation, said in an email to EdWeek that the legislation addressed concerns lawmakers have about teaching about race and oppression.

“This legislation will allow students to be taught by teachers focused on delivering exceptional education,” he said.

The recent Florida law is part of a larger, years-long effort to restrict discussions of racism or sexism in schools, taking particular aim at educator preparation. Broadly, at least nine states have enacted legislation in the last three years to prohibit mandatory professional development or training of public school teachers on topics such as racism or sexism, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislation is pending in at least four others.

Several states have introduced similar bills or taken other steps that would limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom. Those efforts have faced legal challenges in some states, even as some social studies groups have started training teachers to navigate these so-called “divisive concepts” laws. However, momentum has largely been slowing for measures targeting “divisive concepts,” and research has found most lessons are kept politically neutral.

Spar said he had to learn to adapt to his students’ backgrounds to effectively teach them early in his teaching career. (The FEA, a major political opponent of DeSantis, criticized the Florida legislation as harmful.)

“I think it’s just so important, and it required me to really open my horizons and open my view of the world so that I could better interact and support the students I was teaching,” he said. “It’s something you have to be able to do if you’re going to truly connect with the kids, and it doesn’t happen unless we’re deliberately having that discussion.”

Educators worry the legislation will impact student learning

Dr. Kai Mathews, the director of the California Educator Diversity Project at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for the Transformation of Schools, says it’s taken time for teacher-preparation courses to begin embedding culturally responsive teaching. The 2020 racial reckoning following the public killing of George Floyd and protests of injustices against Black people nationwide fueled that work, she said.

“It’s not just for the historical knowledge and facts. It is also when we’re including students from a diverse background, to see themselves in the making up, and in the composite of, history and of society, and we’re bringing it into the classroom,” Mathews said. “There’s a relatability that then comes with the content that we’re teaching. It’s not just math for math’s sake.”

With schools facing a student chronic absenteeism crisis and competing with student apathy, connecting students to their education is even more vital, she said.

“I don’t know how many more ways students need to show us that disengagement is attached to our inability to make our education relevant and meaningful,” she said.

Dr. Omiunota N. Ukpokodu, a professor of education at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, said so often she hears from student teachers that their classes are struggling academically, with many testing two grades below their level. She pointed to the 2023 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed a significant decrease in 8th grade students’ civics scores.

There’s a gap caused by teachers being afraid to teach critically about racism in the wake of laws restricting class discussions, she said. That’s troubling when the U.S. is multicultural and multiracial, and the world is becoming more and more interdependent, she said.

“How are they being prepared to take this responsibility of preparing the young for the world that we live in, that they will be part of in a workforce that is diverse? How can they learn to become participatory citizens when they don’t have the critical thinking skills that they need to engage?” she said.

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