WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: Preparing Teachers for Diverse Student Populations

Feb 15, 2021

Recently there has been a great deal of talk about the new proposed Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards. There are questions and concerns about what these standards will mean for students and what they will "learn" or not "learn" once the standards are put into place. It seems as though a bit more context is needed to help us all clarify our understanding of these standards.

We use standards in many different fields. Standards drive business and industry. We wouldn’t fly on a plane or drive in a car if it didn’t meet certain standards. When we talk about standards in education, we are talking about frameworks. Frameworks for teachers, learners, administration, and teacher preparation programs. Sometimes these standards are national standards which are required for all programs or schools across the country. Often, they are state or local standards that are met by all students, teachers, schools, or districts.

It is important to understand that there are some things standards do not do. Standards do not prescribe curriculum. They are benchmarks. They tell educators, parents, administrators, and other stakeholders what students should be able to do by a certain grade level or determine best practices for effective teaching.

For teacher preparation standards, it tells those of us who work with future teachers, what we should make sure teachers are knowledgeable about in order to be prepared for the rigor and challenges of the classroom. But standards NEVER tell us how to incorporate this into our curriculum and or how the teachers we work with should incorporate what they learn into their future classrooms and curriculum.

Illinois already has professional teaching standards. We require teachers to have both content area and pedagogical knowledge. We want them to be able to differentiate instruction, create collaborative relationships, know best practices when it comes to assessment, and create learning environments that support all student learners.

In the state of Illinois, we have almost 2 million students enrolled in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade public schools. We have students who come to schools speaking over 24 different languages other than English and the majority of students do not identify as White. (Find more data at the ISBE Annual Statistical Report: https://www.isbe.net/Pages/Annual-Statistical-Report.aspx).

In contrast to students, Illinois teachers are over 80% white. This means that we have a more diverse population of students than we do teachers. For students, having more diversity in teachers is beneficial. Having teachers in the classroom who look like and reflect the rich diversity of students raises retention and graduation rates. Because we do not have a teacher population that mirrors our current student population, a number of groups got together over two years ago to start to ensure that all our teacher education candidates leave teacher preparation programs ready to fully support their students. The goal was to make sure that support was available no matter what a students’ race, ethnicity, gender, income status, physical ability, language, sexual identity, or religion.

The CRTL standards have been through a number of revisions since they were first introduced. The latest version, set to go into effect in October 2021, asks teacher education programs at Illinois colleges and universities, not prek-12 schools, to make sure that all teacher education candidates, no matter what their content area or grade-level, are able to do the following:

  • Approach all students with an asset-based mindset. This means that no matter what students’ experiences are outside of school, they are getting the education they deserve in the classroom. It asks for teachers to be aware of the varied lived experiences young people and their families have and to make sure that they are educating all students, regardless of their background. The standards are asking teacher education programs to educate our future Illinois teachers about a wide range of cultures and values and how these might be different than their own.
  • Learn about the different ways that systems of oppression impact students of color. In the state of Illinois, a majority of students identify as students of color (around 58%). This means that they are impacted by discrimination, prejudice, and racism both in and outside of schools. Becoming aware of power and privilege and how it often negatively impacts students of color is important in creating an equitable learning environment. Through the standards, future teachers will learn about how they can better serve students of color in these situations.
  • Focus on students as individuals. Students are not blank slates. They come into the classrooms with families and communities they love and value. These standards ask for teacher preparation programs to make sure that future teachers are given tools to create open lines of communication between teachers and parents/caregivers. They are asking for families and communities to have a role in teaching students about their traditions and cultural backgrounds.
  • Support student advocacy and investment in learning. Educators have long known that people learn better when they are interested in what they are learning. The standards are designed to make this an important part of educating young people. Teachers should engage students in their learning. Students should set goals for themselves; they should have opportunities to learn about things that relate to their lives and their experiences. They should have high expectations for their own learning. All students should be encouraged to be active learners in the classroom where their needs and knowledge are prioritized and valued.
  • Make sure all students are represented in their learning. Students should be able to see people who look like them in what they study. They should be represented in their classrooms. And, they should also learn about a wide range of people and cultures, whether or not they are represented in the school population. The more people learn and see other cultures and experiences, the more empathetic and understanding they become. It is important for teacher education candidates to learn how they can be sure to give students experiences to learn about the ever growing and diverse world around them.

The argument about these new standards by some groups is that they are “politicizing” the classroom. They are not. They are not telling teachers what to teach. Instead, they are asking teacher education programs to prepare teachers for teaching in classrooms that are more diverse than ever before. They are asking teacher education programs to make sure that future Illinois teachers put students first, no matter the background, race, ethnicity, income status, religion, sexual identity, physical ability, or language of origin that student and their family may have.

In no way are these standards a “distraction” from making sure that young people have the English language arts and math readiness they need. Instead, they are a way to make sure that all students have the best learning environments and that all families and communities are involved in the learning environment in order to better meet those readiness needs. If we, as a state, continue to value one type of educational readiness over others, we will never be able to ensure that all students have equitable experiences in the classroom. If we start to think about how we can teach and reach all children and show them we care about them as human beings and members of our communities, maybe we will start to create citizens who are active and invested members of our communities.

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.