Earlier this week a group of university educators – Education Deans for Justice and Equity – released a “Declaration of Principles” that called on federal leaders to “improve public education.” This declaration “on Public Education, Democracy, and the Role of Federal Government” has been signed by over 200 education deans and appears to be a direct response to the incoming Trump presidency and Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Education.
The declaration lays out several key principles: to “uphold the role of public schools as a central institution in the strengthening of our democracy,” to “protect the human and civil rights of all children and youth, especially those from historically marginalized communities;” and to do so through “a democratic vision for public education,” “sound educational research,” and with the support and partnership of colleges and schools of education.
As a former dean myself, I am sympathetic. But I am also frustrated that this is as far as we get in our national dialogue. I am frustrated exactly because these are such seemingly obvious principles. Why go through the trouble of stating, defending, and promulgating them? The reason is that this group – and unfortunately, many others in the field of education – believe that they are not being listened to.
Will a “declaration of principles” help their cause? Will it further a useful dialogue? In both cases, I doubt it. So let me offer a different way forward.
As I mentioned, I am no longer a dean. Instead, I am back to being a faculty member and teaching. And tomorrow I start a new semester, teaching “Foundations & Principles of Education” to about fifty first-year students and sophomores interested in becoming teachers. This is an introductory course taught in many teacher preparation programs; sometimes it is called “Introduction to Education,” or “Social Foundations of Education,” or “Schools and Society.” Such a course is a ubiquitous yet all too often overlooked component of teacher preparation. Indeed, it is all too often dismissed -- by teachers, administrators, and even other researchers -- as somehow too theory-bound or too unhelpful for the day-to-day realities of the classroom.
I would suggest, though, that such a course is actually the strongest possible way for us in the education profession to fundamentally impact how to attain such lofty principles. The stark reality is that new teachers feel deeply unprepared for their new roles, the systems they are in, and the children they are teaching. In fact, much of teacher preparation more often than not reinforces rather than modifies teachers’ preexisting beliefs and dispositions toward teaching and learning.
This is the gap into which the Foundations of Education class can make an impact.
The key is to realize that future teachers almost always have the “opportunity to learn” and the “opportunity to practice.” The opportunity to learn is the chance to gain pedagogical and pedagogical content knowledge (above and beyond one's specific content area); the opportunity to practice is the chance to use such knowledge in clinical field-based experiences. Yet far too few teachers are given the “opportunity to change.” This is what Foundations of Education is all about.
By this I mean that such a course should give future teachers the chance to be exposed to and to grapple with counterintuitive ways of thinking about and engaging with our educational system. There are many ways one can talk about this, such as “teaching against the grain” or “learning to think otherwise.” Ultimately, it's about helping students to see the deeper issues and dilemmas within American education through distinct perspectives -- philosophical, sociological, historical, anthropological, and political -- and giving them the chance to reflect on how this impacts their perspective of themselves as future teachers and the role of schools in society.
This stepping-outside-of-oneself, moving outside of one’s comfort zone and opening up to those “aha moments” of discovery offers a way forward. This is, I should acknowledge, a difficult process. Most teacher preparation is a "downstream" structure that "goes with the current" of future teachers preparing to enter their anticipated profession. Foundations, though, is an "upstream" endeavor exactly because it challenges the taken-for-granted ways that most of us have ever thought about and enacted education. Yet the Foundations of Education gives us the chance to thoughtfully and critically reflect on and engage with key issues in education. Such reflection and engagement, in turn, is key to understanding one's future role in a highly complex and bureaucratic educational system that is itself within our contested and pluralistic democratic society.
Education is fundamentally is journey into the unknown, as it helps (and forces) students to confront new knowledge, new ways of thinking, and differing perspectives. These are not simple things; they require discomforting moments. But this is exactly what the Foundations of Education hopes to foster in the service of better preparing future teachers.
So if we truly want to strengthen our democracy, the place to start is with ourselves. It is to help our future teachers learn how to develop the habits of mind and repertoires of action that can actually make them thoughtful and engaged citizens.
So wish me luck tomorrow as I start this process.