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John Henning Counters Opposition to Critical Race Theory in Teacher Preparation

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In a recent article, “To Tackle Critical Theory in the K–12 Classroom, Start with Colleges of Education,” the author shares the view of someone who opposes training teacher candidates in critical race theory. AACTE Board member John Henning, dean of the School of Education at Monmouth University, refutes these opposing views and explains the value of including CRT work in education preparation programs.

The author of the article states that critical race theory (CRT) “amounts to an unremitting attack on all of America’s norms and traditions.” How would you respond to this statement?

John HenningThe purpose of critical race theory is to examine the role of race and racism in society. And it is helpful for raising awareness so that we can identify the existence of structural racism. It is not part of the curriculum; its purpose is not to question American norms and traditions. However, because racism is widely acknowledged to still exist in the United States, it can cause us to reflect both on our past and current practices. But it should be remembered that it is a theory, and, like all theories, it can be accepted partially, mostly, or fully. It is appropriate for teacher preparation programs to discuss this theory as part of their coursework because of the increasing racial diversity in schools. Most teachers are White females (around 80%) and critical race theory provides teachers, whether they are White or another race, with perspectives that allow them to gain insights into their students.

And so the purpose is not to disrupt or contradict the values of teacher candidates or the parents of children, but instead to allow them to be more empathetic to their students’ experience. That empathy and connection with students can improve learning. I think what it does is give teacher candidates insight into their students that may have an important impact on how they connect with them. That connection is all important to how much those students learn.

Do you agree or disagree with the view that our children’s schools are especially vulnerable because of a campaign to rewrite the past?

I disagree. One reason I disagree is because I think there is a fundamental, inner misunderstanding or lack of acknowledgement of how curriculum is developed for schools. Teachers do not develop their curriculum apart from school boards, the county educational offices, the state departments of education, and the United States Department of Education. So, the idea that teachers are empowered to independently teach curriculum that has not been approved by a wide body of educational experts and that somehow that curriculum can be perceived as being injurious to children is misguided. There are many safeguards in place to check an authorized curriculum, and many of them involve local control.

I was a high school teacher for 21 years, and I can confidently say that teachers make a special effort to present their ideas without bias. There are two immediate reasons for doing so: 1) it promotes student learning to let students think for themselves. If teachers make statements that conflict with the beliefs that students have learned at home, it can cause the students to shut down completely. That is why teachers have to approach subjects like critical race theory or other subjects that might be perceived as controversial with a great deal of sensitivity and discretion. 2) As someone who taught in a rural white conservative community, I understand that if children feel an idea is not right they will complain to their parents, who will bring it to the attention of school administrators, or they will take it to the school board. And at that time, the teacher is obliged to say how what they were teaching fits into curriculum and why they were doing it. They have to explain the methods that they used, and whether it was presented in a way that was open and allowed students to think for themselves. The idea is to give them different perspectives and encourage higher level thinking.

And again, I want to stress, there is a lot of local control in the process. The educational curriculum is ultimately controlled by voters, school boards, legislators, and educational agencies. It is also anti-American to shut off discussion of critical race theory, because it would eliminate the conversation. That is not consistent with our ideals as Americans.

What would you say to those who, like the author of this article, believe that “colleges of education are the training grounds for translating the leftist academic theory into K-12?”

It is a misconception to think that colleges of education are trying to accomplish a political agenda through their teacher candidates. Anyone who holds that view has very little familiarity with the work of teacher preparation and limited understanding of its mission. Teacher preparation programs spend most of the time preparing future teachers how to motivate students, how to manage classrooms, how to individualize instruction for students with disabilities, and how to foster higher level thinking. Successful teaching in the United States of America is not based on blind obedience and subservience to the teacher. Instead, we are preparing new teachers to question ideas, and to think for themselves, and they cannot do that unless they are critical thinkers, unless they can question ideas. We have to prepare high-level thinkers to create high level thinkers. Having critical race theory as part of that discussion helps foster that willingness to consider ideas that have an emotional impact on us in some way. We think through them, we consider them, and we discuss them as a way of advancing our thinking.              

Some suggest and agree with the author’s conservative belief that ending state requirements and enabling public schools to hire teachers based on expertise in content matter rather than credentials would be the solution. How would you argue this point?

This seems far-fetched. Eliminating oversight of who enters our children’s classrooms would inevitably create havoc in our educational system. It is incredibly short-sighted and immensely disrespectful of the teaching profession. I thought, how could you arrive at that conclusion? There were maybe two lines of reasoning. The first is that teaching is easy and anyone who has sufficient content knowledge can teach. The falsity of that statement can be demonstrated easily enough by simply recalling a bad teacher from our own experience and, perhaps more generously ,recognizing that we encounter teachers at different skill levels all the time. There is a specialized knowledge associated with teaching.

The second line of this reasoning is that great teachers are born not made—that you have it or you don’t. In other words, professional development, teaching experiences, professional reading have little impact on one’s ability to teach. That certainly appears to be counter intuitive and certainly contradicts my 21 years experience as a teacher and my 21 years experience as a teacher educator. 

Rather than moving away from the idea of teacher preparation, we should be investing more into research and development around teacher preparation. The future of the United States of America depends on the quality of teaching our children receive. The idea of this attack is that we don’t need universities to prepare teachers. But the fact is that most ideas about teacher preparation come from universities.

The article refers to research that demonstrates there is no connection between teacher certification and a teacher’s impact on student academic achievement. In essence, the author states there is no difference in ability between teachers who are traditionally certified, alternatively certified, and uncertified. Are you familiar with such research findings?

First, I am not familiar with uncertified teachers in the state of New Jersey, but there are private schools [who accept uncertified teachers] and I’m not sure how well they do. Second, there is research literature from Linda Darling-Hammond that clearly shows that teacher preparation, teacher certification has a positive impact on the quality of teaching in classrooms. Third, it’s true that there are currently a number of pathways into education such as traditionally certified and alternatively certified. And so it is possible to enter the teaching profession through pathways other than the traditional one and become a great teacher. But I am not familiar with any pathways that do not involve extensive learning of pedagogy. Further, they are not all equally accessible to the profession. For instance, there is a higher attrition rate among alternative license teachers than traditionally-prepared teachers, probably because the lack of preparation in pedagogy prior to entering the classroom made the experience much more difficult and far less successful. 


Katrina Norfleet

Content Strategist, AACTE