Pa. releases anti-racist guidelines as part of teacher-prep overhaul

Classroom during coronavirus pandemic

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The Pennsylvania Department of Education has released new standards that ask teachers to interrogate their biases and recognize inequality in schools and school systems, including institutional racism.

The standards require teachers to identify and disrupt racist practices, and make sure their approach to teaching incorporates a variety of perspectives.

This is the first time the state has included what educators refer to as “culturally-relevant and sustaining education” guidelines as part of its requirements for teacher-preparation programs.

Tanya Garcia, deputy secretary for the department’s Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education, said the new standards are meant to address the changing demographics of students who attend Pennsylvania’s public schools.

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“We are becoming a much more multiracial society, so cultural competencies are part of what new educators and existing educators need to acquire in order to perform their roles,” Garcia said.

Students of color made up nearly 37% of Pennsylvania’s public school enrollment during the 2020-21 school year, up from 30.5% eight years ago, according to a report from the non-profit Research for Action. Among teachers, the figure was just 6.2%, an increase of less than one percentage point over the same period.

Research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color, and students of color often benefit more.

Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Philadelphia-based Center for Black Educator Development, told state board members last week he expects the new standards to benefit both students and teachers.

“Many of the new teachers who come out of Pennsylvania’s educator prep programs say that they are not prepared to teach anyone, but particularly not prepared to teach students that come from culturally diverse backgrounds,” he said.

El-Mekki said the standards go far beyond race and are relevant even if a district has no students or teachers of color.

“We are talking about any marginalized students,” he said, adding that the standards allow teachers to be better prepared to support any group that is “disenchanted,” or not having “accelerated outcomes.”

In addition to race, the standards identify students and families who are multilingual, live in poverty, or have “varying sexual orientations and gender identities” as being potentially marginalized.

“This document is part of our work to ensure equity and promote success for all students in the commonwealth,” state Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty said in a Tweet.

El-Mekki said he believes the new standards will help attract and retain more teachers of color — something the state has long struggled with — by placing more value on their experiences.

In Philadelphia, where most of the state’s teachers of color are concentrated, the number of Black teachers has been falling in recent years. The city had 1,200 fewer Black teachers compared to two decades ago, though the overall number of teachers hadn’t changed.

Garcia, with the state’s Department of Education, said a longer-term hope is that better trained teachers will lead to more positive school experiences for all students making the students more likely to become teachers themselves.

The adoption of what is clearly anti-racist standards isn’t remarkable on its own, but is notable given the broader political climate in which the standards were developed.

Former state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera started amending the state’s requirements for teacher-prep programs in late 2018 and the state Department of Education completed the process last spring.

Protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 led to efforts to address racial justice in schools and other spaces. Since then, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction with recent attacks on anti-racist teaching practices and social-emotional learning, among other topics.

Sandra Dungee Glenn, a member of the state’s board of education, acknowledged during last week’s meeting that the department’s work took place in a “very contentious environment.”

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When officials presented the standards to the state Legislature, Dungee Glenn said, the only thing elected officials focused on “with all of the breadths of issues we raised was their interpretation of critical race theory.”

“That gave me a lens about the anxiety out there about how race is talked about,” she said.

Garcia said the adoption of the new competencies is significant and speaks to the state Board of Education’s commitment to listening to and supporting teachers.

She said the standards are more than just anti-racist, adding that they promote “an educational profession that honors and preserves the dignity of each student in their classroom.”

El-Mekki’s organization, which was not involved in the creation of the standards, is preparing materials for teacher-prep programs to use in order to fulfill the new requirements.

He said he hopes the state ultimately approves 10 hours of required training instead of 5.

“This is deep work that has to occur in order for us to be able to make the moves and reach the goals that we all desire,” he said.

Pennsylvania hopes to boost its percentage of new teachers of color from 13% to 25% by 2025, according to the Department of Education’s plan to tackle the state’s teacher shortage.

Other additions to the state’s teacher-prep requirements include ethics guidelines and science-backed standards on how to teach students to read. The state last updated teacher preparation standards in 2008.

Teacher-prep programs are required to include the new standards no later than the 2024-25 school year and continuing professional development programs must implement them a year sooner.

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