Excellence and Equity for All: Public Education as the Bedrock of Democracy

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This year marks the 70th anniversary of AACTE’s founding. Created in 1948 as an alliance to boost the quality of teachers being prepared for the country’s growing public school system, our association remains steadfastly focused on the democratic ideal of providing all students equitable access to an excellent education.

AACTE’s platinum anniversary falls at a time when this ideal is still far from being realized, or even universally held, in our society. Many Americans seem to have forgotten what our nation’s founding fathers knew: that quality public education is an essential element of a democracy. John Adams called for the “whole people [to] take upon themselves the education of the whole people”; Thomas Jefferson insisted a civilization could not be both ignorant and free. Over time, persistent activism from the suffragette and civil rights movements expanded the nation’s understanding of whose voices count – of what “the whole people” really means.

Yet even as our policies and practices have become more inclusive, and our population has become more diverse than ever before, our democracy today is threatened by growing economic disparities and a disturbing drop in understanding of, and trust in, education and civic engagement. Schools have a vital role to play in correcting these trends by providing high-quality and safe learning experiences for all and by preparing every student to be an engaged citizen. The recent activism by students in Parkland, Florida, in the aftermath of the tragic shooting at their school demonstrates the power of equipping students to contribute to our nation’s well-being through peaceful protest and advocacy. Educators must work to both support students who engage in this way and advocate themselves for safe and equitable learning environments for all. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai has modeled in her brave and impassioned activism, “education for every child’s bright future” is an imperative whose promise is worth any risk to achieve throughout the world.

In our own country, the ideal of education for all got off to a solid start with the early “common schools” of the 18th and 19th centuries. These schools prepared the public – which initially meant White males – both to participate in the industrialized economy and to understand and carry out their role in a democratic society. To coordinate the preparation of the great number of teachers needed to educate this public, states set up and funded “normal schools” – the predecessors to today’s higher-education-based teacher preparation programs that constitute the membership of AACTE.

The organization and its member institutions continue to be deeply engaged in providing high-quality preparation for the professionals to educate our nation’s citizenry. Over 70 years, members of this association have achieved monumental progress in defining quality and innovating to meet the evolving needs of schools and their students. In fact, we commemorated our anniversary at last month’s Annual Meeting with the theme of “Celebrating Our Professional Identity: Shared Knowledge and Advocacy” to make note of the tremendous knowledge base and collaborative efforts developed to date.

Today, numerous promising practices in teacher preparation are elevating quality and equity. They include technological advances that use virtual reality to give prospective teachers more experience with various student and classroom issues before they even obtain their license. Teachers themselves are learning to personalize instruction for students using technology and to be ambassadors to help bridge America’s digital divide. Another promising development is grow-your-own-teacher programs in communities with staffing shortages, often supported by agreements between community colleges and universities to ease students’ transition between the two. And as schools face heightened concerns about violence and cope with its aftermath, colleges of education are doubling down on preparing teachers to address students’ mental and emotional health and advocating for improved school safety.

We also see programs collaborating across campuses and states, in the true spirit of democracy, to build networks and accomplish more effective improvements together. As a national organization, AACTE – like others in America’s civil society – supports this work to unite the varied knowledge and experiences of its constituents around common professional values, and then promotes the consensus platform to help the field advance as one.

This support includes sponsoring professional development and advocacy convenings, publishing a peer-reviewed journal, commissioning studies, and spotlighting outstanding practices and research through an annual awards program. We also offer special initiatives to address top issues of the times, such as our current focus on school safety and preserving the sanctity of the classroom, and programming to assist members in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as the AACTE Holmes Program and the networked improvement community investigating effective strategies to recruit and retain Black, Hispanic, and Latino men in the teaching profession. These initiatives are strengthening the pipeline of future teachers, increasing representation of educators from diverse backgrounds, and disseminating effective practices throughout the field.

AACTE continues to engage in the policy sphere on issues including improving quality and equity, which we strive to elevate by participating in a variety of coalitions and advocacy efforts. AACTE’s alliances span different domains with certain overlapping purposes, radiating from the intersection of PK-12 and higher education where teacher preparation sits. Our partners include university presidents’ associations, state education agencies, teacher and principal organizations, deans’ coalitions, as well as parent and student groups. The tie that binds us all – e pluribus unum – is our mutual commitment to improving quality and equity as one profession.

The U.S. political and social climate of today calls for a renewed commitment to providing both the civic education envisioned by the founding fathers and the well-rounded foundation students need to function in modern society, from the “3 R’s” to critical thinking, information literacy, communications skills, and more. Without these basics, students can’t engage effectively. Although widespread inequities in funding and other resources threaten progress toward this democratic ideal, AACTE and its members and partners won’t ever give up on its pursuit.

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