The UW’s teacher preparation program is a militant immersion in social justice activism and identity politics that almost entirely neglects the study of pedagogy, intellectual inquiry, and the development of academic expertise.
I’ve always had great reverence for the teaching profession, so I was excited to be admitted to the University of Washington’s Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP), which awards a masters degree in teaching and bills itself as a 12-month combination of theory and practice. Cognizant that in just over a year I would be responsible for teaching students on my own, and because of the university’s laudable reputation, I expected the program to be grounded in challenging practical work and academic research, both in terms of how to develop academic skills in young people, and also in the crucial role public education has in overcoming some of the most grave and intransigent problems in society.
I am not especially interested in politics or controversy, and I derive no pleasure in creating difficulties for the UW out of personal resentment. Nonetheless, whenever I am asked about graduate school, I am dismayed to explain that rather than an academic program centered around pedagogy and public policy, STEP is a 12-month immersion in doctrinaire social justice activism. This program is a bizarre political experiment, light on academic rigor, in which the faculty quite consciously whips up a fraught emotional climate in order to underline its ideological message. As a consequence, the key components of teaching—pedagogy and how best to disseminate knowledge—are fundamentally neglected. With little practical training or preparation, graduates of the program begin their teaching careers woefully unprepared. Even for the most ardent social justice activist, STEP’s lack of practical content offers a value to its graduates little more than as a barrier to entering the teaching profession. I found the program so troubling that I have decided to write this first-hand account with specific examples of the daily experience to illustrate the high opportunity cost of social justice in the academy and how the program has become almost entirely untethered from its mission.
In the interest of context and because its intentions are not always subversive, STEP’s approach to education deserves some explanation. Public schools have failed to bridge ugly chasms in American life, such as the academic achievement gap between black and white populations, which has hardly narrowed since the Civil Rights Act. Discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality remain impediments to human equality and the socialization of children in schools clearly contributes to that. The statistics on these matters are appalling, and slow progress is no excuse for complacency. Additionally, teachers should work to cultivate catholic tastes, especially in light of demographic changes, and white Americans should not continue to expect the literature and classic narrative history of Europe and the United States to be considered the normal and ever-static curriculum, with self-congratulation that a few token “diverse” authors might be studied alongside Shakespeare and Hemingway. Nonetheless, while these challenges exist, and although public education is a vital mechanism in the struggle to resolve inequality and to further the development of an open cosmopolitan culture, the program’s attempts to address these issues are deeply disturbing.
Organized according to the standard tenets of social justice theory, those in the graduate school class who do not identify as a straight white male are encouraged from the outset to present themselves as victims of oppression in the social hierarchy of the United States. So a culture emerges rapidly in the sixty-student cohort in which words and semantics fall under constant scrutiny, and ideas contrary to the ascendant ideology are rooted out in order to advance the high cause of social justice. Moreover, instead of imparting knowledge in pedagogy or working with graduate students to develop academic content and lesson-planning for high school courses, the faculty and leadership declare that their essential mission is to break the colonialism, misogyny and homophobia to which the important civic institutions and those at the top of the social hierarchy as they define it (white, male, straight) in American society are currently engaged. The logic being employed here is that an entire profession of teachers fluent in social justice will have the effect of reordering society itself by educating young people at all levels of K-12 and post-secondary education under this framework. This lofty ethos explains why the program focuses so heavily on training students in the discourse of far-left identity politics, and with such serious outcomes at stake why it demands the total intellectual acquiescence of those within it, with a consequently high drop-out rate and a chilling of frank discussion. When you consider that STEP’s purpose is to prepare graduates to become novice high school teachers, such an acrimonious and psychologically manipulative environment in a public university is difficult to justify.
The first three of STEP’s four quarters address social constructivism, postmodernism and identity politics through flimsy and subjective content. With a few notable exceptions, the content one might expect to study at graduate school is absent. Although the classes have names like “Teaching for Learning,” “Creating Classrooms for All,” “Teaching in Schools,” and “Adolescent Psychology,” it is appropriate to describe the vast majority of the content explored here as essentially ideological. These classes are difficult to distinguish from one another, each experienced as a variation on the theme of imploring students to interpret every organization and social structure through the paradigms of power and oppression via gender, race, and sexuality. Students are expected to demonstrate that the attributes of their personal identity (always reduced to race, sexuality and gender, and sometimes disability status) will shape their assumptions when they work as a classroom teacher. Practically speaking, the purpose is to have teachers acknowledge and embrace a broad range of behavioral norms and activities in the classroom and to explore a wider range of academic content than has traditionally been the case in American public schools. Above all, the program emphasizes that diversity and inclusion are the most important considerations in education, and that equity – in other words, equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity – ought to be the primary goal in public policy. A good illustration of this ideology in practice is manifest in The Case of Carla, a Science Education journal article that has gained something of canonical status. In their observation of a sixth-grade classroom, the authors of this study suggest that the behavioral patterns of white students were the cause of an African-American girl’s relatively low academic performance, based on the de-privileging of African-American participatory and cultural norms, which were considered by her white peers to be disruptive and inefficient. In this article, enormous inferences on racial and gender discrimination in the practice of science education in the United States are drawn from the subjective observation of four elementary school students in one classroom over a few weeks. This is considered scholarship in faculties of education throughout North America. Similarly, in another class, students were asked to parse a transcript from the classroom of a white American teacher in which she dissuaded one of her Native American students who had claimed that water is biologically alive. Rather than analyzing her academic aims, how she came to develop her lesson plan, or her pedagogical techniques, the purpose of this session was to draw the conclusion that the interaction was a microcosm of a greater trend wherein the dominant culture perpetuates oppression by casually rejecting the beliefs and knowledge of a non-Western culture.
STEP’s relentless assumption is that group identity is a priori the most important determinant of success or failure in public education and in civic life, that all inequality can be attributed to overt discrimination, perpetrated primarily by straight white men and other counterrevolutionary elements, and these people as individuals (ie, not structure) represent the gravest barrier to equality in social life. Because it follows the postmodernist assumption that every social interaction should be analyzed subjectively and primarily through the dynamics of power and oppression, STEP demands the exploration of identity politics ad nauseam, for months on end, from the first week to the very last, in order to ensure that students conclude that the fundamental problem in education lies somewhere in faulty ideology and oppression from above. This focus comes at the cost of studying the art and craft of teaching, how to productively deal with difficult social problems on a small administrative scale and, still worse, via some truly lamentable teaching practices with no demonstrable efficacy or presence in the peer-reviewed literature. Most classes require very little if any academic work and they often resemble group therapy sessions with useless activities like personal journaling that are far-removed from teaching’s vocational demands. STEP is a travesty in its disservice to its own students and, moreover, because the program neglects the practice of teaching in favor of social criticism, it lets down the disadvantaged children it purports to serve by graduating an annual cohort of unskilled novices more likely to become overwhelmed in a profession already suffering from alarming rates of attrition that impacts high-needs schools above all.
One of the more peculiar and contentious requirements in STEP is called “Caucusing.” The sixty-student cohort is divided into smaller caucuses based on race, sexuality, and gender. In the first quarter, students are segregated by race to discuss their place within social power and oppression. White students are required to demonstrate contrition for white privilege with examples of how whiteness, latent racism and America’s institutionalized racism (this was not debatable) has benefited them personally. Essentially, in these classes white people are asked to sit around to free-associate and feel bad about race relations in America. Students of color are lumped together in a separate caucus out of solidarity. At the close of the first quarter, the white students and the students of color are united into one caucus and, convening in a large circle, we were asked to stand up to pat our thighs, rub our palms together and click our fingers – to create the sound of a thunderstorm, for some reason. Next, the students of color regaled the group with their painful experiences and excoriated the white students, making accusations of racism and subconscious marginalization. After tears and public apologies, the caucus finished with everyone being asked to hug one another, in order to soothe the tensions and anger the faculty had contrived over several weeks. The consequences of this racial acrimony were realized in the following quarter, as the students of color instigated walk-outs in one class to protest the manner in which a white instructor and various white students had chosen to discuss the fatal police shooting of Charleena Lyles, a black woman who had been living close to the university campus, which led to further apologies, crying, hand-wringing, mandatory contrite letter-writing for white students, and a deep sense of foreboding each week as the class descended further into chaos and uncertainty from which it never recovered.
In the gender caucus, men were required to think about and discuss how women are disadvantaged in society in an unstructured series of loose conversations with little relationship to secondary education. The appalling educational disparity between girls and boys that has emerged in recent decades was not discussed, presumably because this trend falls outside the paradigm of male privilege and female oppression. Again and again, for months on end, several professors addressed the concept of microaggressions, always in a blatantly accusatory manner, as if graduate students in Seattle are likely to tell a female student that “You’re smart, for a woman” or ask an Asian-American person, “But, where are you really from?” Eventually you learn that who you are is irrelevant because all that really matters is what you are in terms of your group identity. In STEP it is considered wholly appropriate to attribute to the individual the characteristics of group identity, a frightening concept indeed, which obviously has a real effect on how students conduct themselves towards one another, and, presumably, their future students.
Another lengthy feature in STEP are ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ workshops. These mandatory theater performances stretch on for weeks, and in them straight white male students are asked to act out scenes in which they are cast as racist, homophobic or misogynistic characters. Students and instructors parse the performance and discuss the dynamics of identity borne out in each scene. Eventually, when I questioned the pedagogical rationale of the Theater of the Oppressed and the inordinate amount of time being spent on these workshops, I was told that it would help me as a classroom teacher to avoid the ‘violence’ shown in the drama scenes. When I pressed the TA to show me the evidence for this being an effective method, I was told that these workshops are considered valuable and that I should “work through the discomfort.” Obviously, no evidence for their efficacy was ever presented.
In one session, the instructor rejected all gender pronouns and required that we dance to Beyoncé songs while discussing instances of heteronormative behavior and homophobia. In another class early on in the second quarter we were required to bring in items that represented us – a task that proved out to be nothing more than Show & Tell, a prescient harbinger of the academic rigor to come. The main assessment in a class ostensibly about using technology in schools was to draw a bird’s-eye view picture of a classroom showing computers and other technologies that I would like to use as a teacher. These tasks, which require precisely no academic work, would be almost comical if graduate school was tuition-free.
Another issue with STEP is that it woefully misallocates resources and time, even if the content under consideration is reasonable in and of itself, which very well can be. For instance, one class focused on the historic discrimination against African-Americans in Seattle through practices like red-lining, wherein banks would refuse to grant mortgages to qualified black customers in certain neighborhoods, thereby inhibiting the accumulation of intergenerational wealth in black communities. This class went on for an entire quarter, with presumably no purpose other than to demonstrate reasons for the educational achievement gap and the related wealth divide between black and white populations in the United States. I was shocked at the level of ignorance assumed by the faculty in a cohort of graduate school students—as if educated adults would have been hitherto unaware of the effects on contemporary society of historical atrocities and racism. However, openly disputing the academic program would have drawn social stigma and accusations of racism or “white fragility,” which proved to be a powerful incentive to slog through the content, regardless of its relevance to pedagogy or the dissemination of academic knowledge to young people.
In most classes, students are not free to sit wherever they like. The instructors tend to curate the groups with careful consideration of race, gender and sexuality, and students find out where they are to sit by locating their name on a Popsicle stick laid out on each desk. In one class, students in small groups monitor how much each person speaks, and for how long, in order to collect data on the participation rates of the various racial, gender or sexuality categories. Incredibly, several instructors’ chosen teaching method is to put students in groups to create a poster using a sheet of butcher paper and colored Sharpies in reference to an issue raised in the week’s readings. After several three-minute lectures, students then mill around the room with Post-It Notes to make anodyne comments. These kinds of ridiculous juvenile tasks and restrictions, put on by professors with little or no work experience outside K-12 education, make a mockery of graduate school, remind you of the worst teachers you had growing up, and in some perverse way teach you exactly how not to manage a classroom.
The program does have some elements of practical merit. A few sessions on how to create academic assessments for students were engaging and useful. I took two social studies methods classes and found them to be excellent. These classes teach you what methods to use to engage students in critical thinking and historical debate. One method, called Inquiry, calls for the teacher to ask a question, present different hypotheses and data sets, and has the students work together to construct arguments for the validity of each side in a debate. Compared with lecturing, in this method, students are much more likely to engage with the content and to understand that history is debatable, authority should be challenged, opinions have to be grounded in data, and that engaging with the other side is critical in the development of academic expertise and authority. This is backed by decades of pedagogical research and development, and is the content that one might expect would typify the teaching in the college of education in a major research university. Unfortunately, the professor who teaches these classes, who has been at the UW for more than thirty years, is set to retire, and there is no reason to expect him to be replaced by someone with a similar approach. And although he has garnered immense respect from decades of teaching and research, the moral panic of identity politics was drawn in to his classes, too. Students complained of prejudice because he asked us to consider various plausible reasons for the sinking of the Titanic as an illustration of how to debate a well-known historical narrative with high school students—this, apparently, is Eurocentrism.
At the University of Washington, the social justice zeitgeist has transformed a vocational program into something unrecognizable to anyone unfamiliar with the modern campus politics. To dispute the UW’s received wisdom that a cohort of sixty graduate students should spend most of their year in graduate school discussing identity politics would be tantamount to opposing the dream of ending discrimination and inequality in American life. This is how a pervasive intellectual orthodoxy emerges and remains unchallenged. And this is why the social justice elements in STEP are each year ratcheted up by a small, noisy group of committed activists who intimidate their peers into agreement and silence. Indeed, the program prides itself on its innovative and extreme measures to incorporate social justice activism into the academy with an almost theological confidence that this panacea will finally resolve the problems in contemporary public education after decades of slim progress. In the final assessment, I think that anyone wishing to become a teacher is better off avoiding ed school altogether, and should instead find an alternative method of accreditation, such as that offered by WGU, and paired with easily-attainable reading materials develop their expertise organically through field experience and trial and error and advice from veteran teachers who live and work in the real world. This is a terrible conclusion to come down to, because teaching is an immensely difficult undertaking, and graduate school programs with a focus on pedagogy and academic excellence could be a vital resource for novices to transition into a successful teaching career. If they did so, they might even attract more talent and begin to resolve the social problems they claim to care so deeply about.