The Integration of Social Justice in Teacher Education: Dimensions of Prospective Teachers' Opportunities to Learn

By McDonald, Morva A. | Journal of Teacher Education, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Integration of Social Justice in Teacher Education: Dimensions of Prospective Teachers' Opportunities to Learn


McDonald, Morva A., Journal of Teacher Education


Vanessa, a student teacher in Oakland, California, begins a writing lesson by reading The Owl Moon. She instructs her first and second graders to snap when they recognize a descriptive word. Initially, the students create a cacophony, but soon, taken by the story, they forget about snapping altogether. After the lesson, Vanessa reflects that she does not feel as if she connects with her students, and she wonders if her sense of disconnection stems from racial or class differences. All of her students, except one, are African American, and although she is mixed race, Vanessa is not African American. Whereas most of her students are from low-income backgrounds, Vanessa was raised in a middle-class household. She says that she hopes to continue teaching African American students but questions whether she will ever feel prepared to work well with those students. Enrolled in a preservice teacher education program that claims a commitment to preparing teachers for racially and ethnically diverse classrooms, Vanessa recognizes that inevitably, she will face the challenge of teaching students from diverse backgrounds, and she wonders, Will I be prepared? Will I know enough to reach all the students in my class? How will I relate to students who do not share my background?

It is likely that Vanessa, and the majority of prospective teachers currently enrolled in teacher education programs nationwide, will be called on to teach students who come from a variety of communities and whose lived experiences differ from their own. Demographic trends reveal that by the middle of this century, students of color will constitute more than 50% of those enrolled in public schools and that the number of English-language learners (ELLs) and students living in poverty will also continue to rise (Ladson-Billings, 1999b; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). In California, where Vanessa plans to teach, 62% of students are students of color, 25% are ELLs, and 47% qualify for the federally supported free or reduced-price lunch program for low-income students (Education Data Partnership, 2003). However, the pool of currently practicing and prospective teachers remains primarily White, female, and middle class (Cochran-Smith, Davis, & Fries, 2003). For example, in 2002, nearly 75% of the teachers working in California's public schools were White (Education Data Partnership, 2003). These demographic trends and Vanessa's experiences raise the question, How are teacher education programs preparing teachers to teach well in increasingly diverse classrooms?

This article addresses this question by examining how two teacher education programs aim to improve how they prepare prospective teachers to teach racially diverse and low-income students well. In the first section below, I review the literature on teacher education and show that historically, teacher education programs have aimed to address diversity with add-on or piecemeal approaches, with little success. However, in recent years, new approaches to multicultural education and diversity have suggested that programs that integrate a social-justice orientation across program settings are likely to fare better. This review raises the following questions: How do social-justice teacher education programs aim to achieve these goals, and what factors help and hinder them in the process? I then discuss how I drew on sociocultural theory and a theory of social justice as the theoretical underpinnings for a comparative, mixed-methods analysis of the implementation of an integrated social-justice approach in two elementary teacher education programs. My study revealed two types of findings. First, I found that these two teacher education programs had explicit commitments to social justice and equity. However, the implementation of this commitment in practice varied within each program along specific dimensions that help reveal in specific terms the range of ways social justice might be integrated in a teacher education program. …

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