Illinois lawmakers to vote on controversial ‘culturally responsive’ education rule

Illinois lawmakers to vote on controversial ‘culturally responsive’ education rule

The Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules will vote Feb. 16 on whether to suspend a rule that would require Illinois teacher training programs to adopt ‘culturally responsive teaching and leading’ standards.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered schools throughout Illinois, with 1.2 million of the state’s 1.9 million students still fully remote as of Dec. 18. In Chicago Public Schools, Illinois’ largest school district, the teachers union is in a showdown with the district’s CEO and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot over the district’s plan to reopen schools for elementary school students.

Against this tension-filled backdrop stands another controversial education issue: in December, the Illinois State Board of Education, or ISBE, passed a new rule that would require culturally responsive teaching and leading standards to be incorporated in all Illinois teacher preparation programs. Critics of the proposed standards 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.

Unless the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR, which consists of 12 lawmakers from the General Assembly, votes to suspend the rule at its meeting Feb. 16, these standards will apply to all Illinois professional educator licenses endorsed in teaching, school support personnel and administrative fields.

What is the proposed rule change and what would it do?

The proposed rule would amend the section of the Illinois Administrative Code that governs standards for Illinois teachers to require all teacher training 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 would affect training for the vast majority of the state’s primary and secondary school teachers.

The stated reasons for the new standard are to: “prepare future educators to teach diverse students [and] to foster classroom and school environments in which every student feels that they belong.” Dr. Ivette M. Dubiel, a member of the Diverse and Learner Ready Teacher Network, which developed the standard for ISBE, also noted the provisions “emphasize the responsibility of PreK-12 education institutions to affirm, validate, leverage, support, and listen to students’ backgrounds and lived experiences … [and] challenge us to be anti-bias, anti-racist, mindful, and inclusive of our most marginalized populations.” 

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.”

Unless eight of the 12 members on JCAR vote to suspend the rule, it will become effective in October 2021 for new programs, and previously approved programs will have to conform to the requirements by October 2025. JCAR is composed of six Republican and six Democratic members of the General Assembly.

Rule draws increasing criticism

Many provisions in the rule are not controversial and do not differ significantly from existing guidelines that acknowledge the need for educators to engage with and appreciate the families and communities from which Illinois’ diverse student population comes.

But other provisions have increasingly raised concerns since the rule was first proposed in fall 2020.

Wirepoints has noted that, as a procedural matter, it is concerning a rule with such wide-ranging effects on Illinois’ students, education professionals and schools should be promulgated by an unelected administrative body through rule-making, rather than passed through legislation by elected officials after debate in the General Assembly.

Critics have pointed out that 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 new rule brought public attention to the language, the word “progressive” was replaced with “inclusive,” but this has not alleviated the concern that the standard is aimed at pushing a political agenda on Illinois educators and schools.

Given Illinois’ teacher shortage, imposing ideological requirements through teacher training programs could drive still more people away from the profession. ISBE reports nearly 4,500 unfilled positions in school districts across the state in 2021, and in a 2019 survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, 85% of Illinois school districts reported a “major or minor problem with teacher shortages in their schools.”

Critics of the new rule have also expressed concern that at a time when so many Illinois students are failing to achieve basic competency in reading and math – exacerbated by pandemic-related learning loss – pushing regulations on “politically-charged topics, including race, gender identity and the role of power, privilege and student activism” is not the proper focus of Illinois’ education establishment. As of 2019, only 38% of Illinois students in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded Illinois Assessment of Readiness standards for English language arts, according to ISBE, and a mere 32% of students met or exceeded standards in math.

Similarly, “leveraging student advocacy” is not necessarily a commonly accepted purpose of PreK-12 education among parents of schoolchildren, particularly when basic reading and computational skills are not being uniformly transmitted. The original version used the term “activism” rather than “advocacy” in this section, but “advocacy” is used as a synonym for activism elsewhere – for example, where the rule admonishes educators to be “aware of the effects of power and privilege and the need for social advocacy and social action.”

Nor are most parents likely aware that under the rule, teachers would be called on to “curate the curriculum” and work with students to “co-create content to include a counternarrative to dominant culture.” The standard further directs educators to “implement and integrate the wide spectrum and fluidity of identities in the curriculum” but does not provide specifics to give parents an indication of what this might mean for their children’s instruction.

The vagueness of the mandates will also make it difficult for teachers to know whether they are meeting the new standards. What should a teacher do to overcome his or her “biases and perceptions” such as “unearned privilege [and] Eurocentrism”? What does it mean to “know and understand how a system of inequity reinforces certain truths as the norm”? The rules do not specify.

Illinoisans concerned about this proposed rule can contact members of JCAR to ask them to suspend the imposition of the rule.

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