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Disrupting Inequities: Shared Responsibility in Diversity, Equity, and Social

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During the virtual AACTE 2021 Annual Meeting, attendees are invited to join their peers at the Learning Lab session, Disrupting Inequities: Local and Global initiatives for Shared Responsibility in Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice on Friday, February 26, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. AACTE member

Michael W. Apple of the University of Wisconsin addresses this topic in the following thought leadership article. 

Schools, particularly public schools, are under a great threat right now. And as education leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the current environment. There is a growing anger towards our educational system that is visible statewide and at a national level. Fueled by restorative politics, many of those who have lost their faith in public schools believe that educators place too much emphasis on equitable education. Yet, while much more needs to be done, the simple fact that some people are criticizing schools must mean that we must be doing something right already. If we weren’t working at interrupting racial injustice many people, especially those who are ultra-rightists, wouldn’t be so angry at schools and teachers.

Before we discuss what’s possible, we need to examine the real forces making it difficult for schools to embody the equity gains that have been made. To start, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the education landscape. There are a growing number of parents who are justifiably concerned about virtual learning and don’t want their children to be part of the ‘remote learning experiment.’ Many of them have lost their commitment to public schools—which has increasingly stimulated the growth of voucher schools and privatization. Secondly, we are witnessing a devaluation of teaching as a profession. For example, in the State of Wisconsin teacher unions have lost a good deal of their power. The groups that brought us the attack on teachers and public schools now want legislation to say that anybody can teach and are engaged in the defunding of teacher education. They believe that institutions that promote equity in education are “tools of liberal forces.” Finally, many school districts have noticed that they can save money by engaging in what often feels like forced retirements and replacing veteran teachers with novice teachers. While these actions save districts a good deal of the cost of salaries, it also means they’re getting young teachers who may be deeply committed, but often do not have expertise in the history of education or in the use of schools for social justice.

All of these forces occurring simultaneously means we must think tactically and carefully. Can we do some things in schools and communities that will garner support but also transform or enable schools to participate in the transformation of social inequalities? The first lesson is that we aren’t acting in a vacuum. People do make their own histories, but not under the conditions of their own choosing. We shouldn’t be pessimistic. Rather we should be optimistic about the fact that so many of these groups are saying, “don’t do that” to us. They are worried about what committed educators can do and are doing. And that means that teacher education has become even more important than before., This requires that we are prepared to act against those things that are not going on in classrooms to get to those things that we do want to go on in classrooms. 

Throughout the United States there are large numbers of schools that have enacted aspects an anti-racist curriculum, and where schools, parents, community leaders, teacher associations, and schools of education are all working together to transform many things, including more funding for schools where social justice is a key commitment and where there is social justice unionism. We are also seeing media taking a stance with the growth and popularity of the New York Times’ The 1619 Project and journals such as Rethinking Schools. There are powerful things going on and that imparts responsibility on those of us in teacher education in profound ways.

This responsibility is becoming harder to act on at times.  The tenure rules at universities are becoming increasingly stricter, requiring research to be published frequently in high-status journals, and at times devaluing  teacher-oriented journals and similar publications. That “publish or perish” emphasis is very worrisome since this pressure also means that long-term projects count less than short-term projects. At the same time, however, there are positive movements as well.  There is a growing emphasis on members of teacher education organizations to act as the critical secretaries of the gains that are being made in real schools and communities. This means that doing research with, rather than  only on, becomes an ethical responsibility. It asks us to then change the rules about what counts as good research and what counts as evidence. Take for example La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, a school that focuses on multiculturalism and collaboration with parents and the community. At the school, two-way bilingual immersion allows English-speaking students to learn Spanish as their Spanish-speaking classmates learn English. Teachers teach for each student every subject in Español for a period of time and then every subject in English for the next period of time. It may seem transgressive but when tested, a large percent of the students are doing much better each year. That’s why it is important in our research to not only document the reasons why we are doing these things but also to document the powerful gains we are achieving.

I have been working in some of the poorest areas of Brazil since 1986, and in the City of Porto Alegre there is a brilliant critically democratic educational program in place that is now beginning to affect schools and school systems in the United States and elsewhere. In Porto Alegre the curriculum is no longer dictated from above but cooperatively built by parents and community members who elect representatives to have curriculum power on what their children should learn. Not the power of veto, but a collaboration between schools, parents, and community activists. They’ve put in place participatory budgeting where each school has a committee made up of parent and community activists as well as teachers and an elected principal who must have a program that the community supports. The teachers unions have made a commitment to go into the communities to gain community knowledge which in turn becomes the base of the curriculum. In the U.S., many schools are trying to implement community knowledge in our teacher education programs but it has not always been easy. We have much to learn from Porto Alegre’s success. With Jair Messias Bolsonaro and the far right now in leadership in Brazil we also can learn from Brazil and other nations about how to defend creative, critical, and democratic educational  gains against vicious and growing attacks here.

Building substantive collaboration with parents and the communities not only takes patience but also embodies a different definition of professionalism. Remember, the idea that teachers should be treated as professionals is crucial. It took more than 100 years of continuous work and commitment on the part of teachers for that to happen and we don’t want to lose that.  But a professionalism that is guided by a deep commitment to social justice and a much clearer picture of the inequalities that characterize our society is required. Part of the ways we disrupt inequities is to redefine professionalism so that we become teachers as learners and learners are teachers. That requires taking risks and trusting in parents and communities, especially those marginalized parents and communities whose voices have not been heard. It must be a two-way street. We must be willing to learn from each other and that learning process begins with honest and deeply respectful critically democratic dialogue.

Michael W. Apple is the John Bascom Professor Emeritus of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Hui Yan Chair Distinguished Professor of Education at Beijing Normal University. He has written numerous books on educational reform and education for social justice, among them Can Education Change Society? and The Struggle for Democracy in Education: Lessons from Social Realities. Named one of the 50 most important educational scholars in the 20th Century, Dr. Apple’s books and articles have won numerous awards. He has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Educational Research Association, and the UCLA Medal for “Outstanding Academic Achievement.”


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