Developing Teachers for Social Justice

By Kohl, Herbert | Radical Teacher, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Developing Teachers for Social Justice


Kohl, Herbert, Radical Teacher


Over one quarter of the public school teachers in the United States will be retiring in the next decade. This can provide a great opportunity for the development of energized young teachers who, as future leaders, might revitalize public education and redefine progressive education according to current needs and struggles. However, it can also be an opportunity to mold a new teaching profession that only knows increasingly parsed standards, high stakes testing, a rigidly structured Euro-centric curriculum, English-only learning, and a highly controlled punitive banking system education.

In California, the State Board of Education is aware of this condition and has consciously chosen to follow the latter option. Through directives, legislation, and the redefinition of teacher credential programs, the very words "bilingual education" will be formally eliminated from the vocabulary of schooling in California, replaced by "English language learning." Bilingual classes will abandon the use of first language teaching and students will be taught and tested in English only. Phonics is already the religion of the early grades, and multiculturalism is back in its place as holiday celebration time. There will be no more bilingual education credentials (called BCLAD credentials) and teacher education students will be subject to high stakes tests on phonics, English Language Learning, lists of standards, and even rigid forms of classroom management. The legislation of life in the classroom is being shaped by the makeover of teachers. The border between teaching students and testing is becoming increasing ly unclear and the performance gap is increasing. Many people already teaching are demoralized. In addition, there is an assault on the very enterprise of public education emanating from the Far Right. The "Small Schools" movement, a ray of hope in a slough of despond, is struggling along.

Any radical teacher education program in the State of California at this time has to consider the tension between developing critical, perceptive, skilled, and motivated new activist teachers and the grim realities and struggles they will likely face working in poor urban public schools. When I was asked by the Dean of Education at the University of San Francisco to develop and direct a new teacher education program, these realities were clear to me. It made sense to develop a program that was focused explicitly on issues of social justice as they relate to life in the school. This implied at the least developing anti-racist curriculum, working through what can be called the problem of "teaching other people's children," and confronting the damaging aspects of high stakes testing. It also meant helping student teachers develop the concrete skills that would enable them to teach to very high standards while they developed material that respected the knowledge and experiences of the students and the school's co mmunity. And finally it implied preparing, as much as possible, for them to be working against the grain and be willing to see themselves as agents of change and organizers.

Fortunately the University of San Francisco, which is a Jesuit university, has an institutional-wide commitment to infusing issues of social justice into all of its programs, and so the orientation I chose for the program was welcomed by the administration. Since I chose to be explicit about the goals of the program, it is very unlikely that any state supported institution of higher education in California would have touched it.

The Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at USF is now going into its third year. We had a cohort of twenty credential and Masters' students the first year, twenty-three the second year, and hope to have twenty-five, the program's limit for now, in the coming year. One of the goals was to develop each cohort as a learning community and a peer support group. I hoped that the students would see each other as comrades fighting similar battles, though likely in different schools. …

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