Reconceptualizing Teacher Education as a Social Justice Undertaking: Underscoring the Urgency for Critical Multiculturalism in Early Childhood Education

Article excerpt

The field of early childhood education is currently at an important historical and political juncture. While children entering our education systems are increasingly culturally diverse, the field itself has come under siege from standardization and accountability proponents touting a "one-size-fits-all approach to early childhood education and seeking to impose a similar testing regime to that currently engulfing later grades. Thus, educators are under pressure to create academic environments that are inherently inhospitable to the increasing diversity.

This situation has fueled what the Alliance for Childhood terms as a "crisis in the kindergarten," which has been in the making for over two decades (Miller & Almon, 2009). Frost (2007) likened these factors affecting education as the "perfect storm" (p. 225) and Pelo (2008a) has called for a critical educational response, framing the task as a social justice undertaking. The implications for teacher education are both crucial and clear: Teacher preparation programs should be re-conceptualized around principles of critical pedagogy and social justice (Pelo, 2008a; Ramsey, 2004), whereby teachers are empowered to challenge the edicts imposed on them as professionals, especially those that run counter to developmentally appropriate practice and culturally responsive pedagogy. This responsibility rests heavily on the shoulders of teacher educators, who must develop programs that are critically responsive to these imperatives.

To that end, the author responds to this changing climate through her positioning within three intersecting professional fields central to the concerns of teacher preparation in the context of diversity. She is a teacher educator in the area of multicultural education, who works with preservice and inservice teachers at the undergraduate, master's, and doctoral levels; a community volunteer/research partner in a family literacy program dedicated to serving pre-literate Guatemalan Maya immigrants (the term "preliterate" refers to those who have not acquired formal literacy and whose first language does not have a written form); and a co-researcher in two university lab schools (an early childhood education center and a K-8 school).

Early Childhood Education as a Social Justice Undertaking

Employing a critical perspective about early childhood education (ECE) and multicultural education (MCE) reminds us that education is a political act, implying that it can be used for both oppressive and liberatory purposes (Freire, 2000). Therefore, to ensure quality educational programs for all children, a critical perspective requires awareness of the power dynamics involved in the making of education policy, as well as an understanding of those practices that may lead to an unjust system (Pelo, 2008a). Yet, research points out that MCE specifically, and teacher education generally, have fallen short of fostering critical perspectives (McDonald & Zeichner, 2009; Nieto, 2000; Sleeter, 2008). Moreover, given the recent assault on education (Apple, 2004a; Giroux, 2002; Sleeter, 2008), replete with discourses of standardization, testing and accountability, and "best practices," it is urgent that multicultural education move beyond education about diversity and toward education that is grounded in social justice (Schoorman & Bogotch, 2010).

To advance an education that is rooted in social justice requires a movement toward critical awareness, or what Freire (2000) describes as a process of conscientization.

That is, preservice teachers and inservice teachers should become aware of the politics of education, and recognize that education is not a neutral process. Moreover, historical and contemporary patterns that perpetuate the marginalization of non-mainstream groups need to be recognized (Spring, 2010). In so doing, teachers should be taught to constantly consider their possible role in that perpetuation, critically reflecting on whether they are de-skilled purveyors of compliance-oriented practices dictated by externally imposed, unquestioned standards and benchmarks, or instead are agents of a liberatory education (Apple, 2009). …