Illinois lawmakers approve controversial ‘culturally responsive’ teaching rule

Illinois lawmakers approve controversial ‘culturally responsive’ teaching rule

Illinois state lawmakers recently approved a rule requiring Illinois teacher training programs to adopt ‘culturally responsive teaching and leading’ standards. Critics say a political litmus test is the wrong focus when students are underachieving on the basics.

A new rule that requires “culturally responsive teaching and leading” standards to be incorporated in all Illinois teacher preparation programs will take effect in 2025, because the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted to approve the proposed rule on Feb. 17. Eight of the committee’s 12 members would have needed to vote to suspend the rule to prevent its implementation, and only the six Republican members voted to do so.

The Illinois State Board of Education adopted the new standards to “prepare future educators to teach diverse students [and] to foster classroom and school environments in which every student feels that they belong.”

Critics of the new standards, however, have said they require educators to embrace left-leaning ideology and prioritize political and social activism in classrooms at a time when Illinois students are underperforming on basic skills tests. Others, such as the Chicago Tribune, have praised the goal of preparing teachers to engage with students from diverse backgrounds, while also warning that there is reason to worry the new rule “embeds politics into teacher training” and that it is unwise to impose controversial new standards in “today’s highly charged political environment.”

What is the rule change and what will it do?

The Diverse and Learner Ready Teacher Network developed the new standards at the request of the Illinois State Board of Education, which adopted the rule Dec. 16. The standards will apply to all Illinois professional educator licenses in teaching, school support personnel and administrative fields.

The new rule amends the section of the Illinois Administrative Code that governs standards for Illinois teachers to require all teacher training programs in the state to adopt a set of “culturally responsive teaching and leading” provisions. As all public school teachers in Illinois must be licensed, and many private schools prefer their teachers to have licenses, the rule will affect training for the vast majority of the state’s primary and secondary school teachers.

ISBE also plans to offer optional courses on the new standards to current teachers through professional development programs. The board has noted decisions about professional development training are subject to local control by educators and school districts.

The rule replaces existing guidelines aimed at training teachers to engage with children from diverse backgrounds. Provisions that define the competent teacher as one who “understands cultural and community diversity … and how to learn about and incorporate students’ experiences, cultures and community resources into instruction” as well as “facilitates a learning community in which individual differences are respected” will be replaced by the new rules.

The standards are broken into sections that address: educators’ “self-awareness and relationship to others,” “systems of oppression,” “students as individuals,” “students as co-creators,” “leveraging student advocacy,” “family and community collaboration,” “content selections in all curricula” and “student representation in the learning environment.”

Rule draws criticism

Opponents of the new standards have said the requirements essentially impose an ideological litmus test on educators, making any teacher who does not espouse certain views unwelcome in Illinois schools. In their original form, the provisions were explicitly left-leaning, and educators were required to “embrace and encourage progressive viewpoints and perspectives.”  After opponents of the proposed rule brought public attention to the language, the word “progressive” was replaced with “a balance of viewpoints and perspectives.” However, this wording change has not alleviated concerns that the standard is aimed at pushing a political agenda on Illinois educators and schools.

Moreover, despite ISBE’s insistence to the contrary, the rule seems certain to affect the substance of what is taught to Illinois students. Under the rule, teachers in training are called on to “curate the curriculum” and work with students to “co-create content that encourages critical thinking about culture and that includes counternarratives to dominant culture.” The standard further directs educators to “implement and integrate the wide spectrum and fluidity of identities in the curriculum” – yet does not provide specifics to give parents an indication of what this might ultimately mean for their children’s instruction. 

ISBE has pushed back against criticism that the rule improperly focuses on “politically-charged topics, including race, gender identity and the role of power, privilege and student activism”

At a time when so many Illinois students are failing to achieve basic competency in reading and math. Dr. Carmen Ayala, the state superintendent of education, countered that implementing “strategies like cultural responsiveness could not be more important” in addressing the state’s achievement gaps between students of color and white students, as well as pandemic-related learning loss.

The effects of the new standards on Illinois teachers and students remain to be seen. ISBE will now begin implementing the standards in coordination with Illinois teacher training programs. The rule takes effect for new programs in October 2021, and existing programs have until October 2025 to align their coursework with the new rule.

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