Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Social Justice, Sexual Orientation, and Teacher Education: Organizing AERA to Stand Up to NCATE

Ever wonder what it would be like to organize against two of the most powerful educational organizations in the U.S? Read on!

In September 2006 Erica Meiners and I sent a letter with over 300 signatures from colleagues across the U.S. and Canada to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), requesting that sexual orientation and social justice be kept and strengthened, and gender identity be added, to NCATE’s accreditation standards. This letter was a response to an open call by NCATE for feedback on proposed changes to the standards posted on its website, revisions that erased the phrase “social justice” and facilitated the de facto elimination of sexual orientation through the addition of various phrases and qualifiers.

Through listserv circulations, several SIGs and Committees within AERA expressed interest in signing onto the letter, but, in an email dated Sept. 27, 2006, the President of AERA, Dr. Eva Baker, asked us to not include these groups as signatories because it would be “inappropriate” for “entities such as committees, divisions, and special interest groups” to attempt to speak as “subparts of AERA.” We were asked to submit a request to Dr. Baker, for discussion by the executive board. We did this, sending the letter to Baker and the Social Justice Director, Dr. George Wimberly, requesting that the organization take a stand opposing NCATE’s proposed revisions.

We received no acknowledgement of our feedback from NCATE and Dr. Wimberly’s only response was an e-mail informing us that the organization was “aware” of the issue.

There was no response from AERA, either, until the January/February 2007 issue of Educational Researcher, which featured a column by Baker and a statement titled "Key Policy Documents on Position Taking and Policymaking and Social Justice." The column revealed that AERA’s board had voted unanimously against opposing NCATE’s deletions of social justice and sexual orientation. The statement laid out a “position-taking” rationale: AERA failed to offer feedback to NCATE regarding sexual orientation and gender identity because these issues lacked "compelling significance," “legitimacy,” and "adequate research." We think that most teacher educators are aware of the importance of addressing sexual and gender identities in school, but include here a sampling of the research we cited in our letter:

The population of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is large.
In a 2003 survey conducted by the Chicago Public Schools and the Center for Disease Control (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) 6.3 percent of high school students attending Chicago Public Schools identified their sexual orientation as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Schools are unsafe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.
According to the 2005 School Climate Report conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN):
--64.3% reported feeling unsafe in their school because of their sexual orientation.
--45.5% reported being verbally harassed and 26.1% had experienced physical harassment in school because of their gender expression.
--40.5% reported that teachers never intervened when hearing homophobic remarks.

Negative school climates affect LGBT youths’ well-being and academic success.
According to the 2001 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, LGBT students are more likely than the general student population to:
--attempt suicide (32.7% vs. 8.7%),
--skip school because they feel unsafe (17.7% vs. 7.8%).

Teachers are ill-equipped to confront issues that contribute to anti-LGBT hostility.
--81.7% of LGBT students reported that they had never learned about LGBT people, history, or events in any of their school classes (2005, School Climate Report, GLSEN).
--In a study of pre-service teachers, 57% indicated that they needed more training or education to work effectively with LGBT youth and 65% reported that they needed more specific education to address homosexuality in their teaching (Koch, 2000).

If the hostile schools, physical and emotional danger, and poorly prepared teachers and administrators experienced by LGBT students and documented in this research fail to offer a “compelling” and “powerful moral reason” for AERA to offer feedback to NCATE to retain and strengthen sexual orientation and include gender identity in the professional standards, what would?

Furthermore, Baker’s column stated that it is "inappropriate, except in the rarest of circumstances, for AERA to comment on the procedures of processes of any other non-profit or private-sector organization." This response is disingenuous: While NCATE is a private organization, it directly shapes public policy. Since the 1990s, NCATE has replaced the accreditation functions that used to be the province of state departments of education. Quite bluntly, NCATE functions as a sub-contractor for state departments of education. Also, NCATE solicited open feedback on its proposed “standards” changes. So, how would AERA’s feedback on these revisions be “inappropriate”? How could it be “inappropriate” to comment on the decisions of a quasi-public organization—NCATE—that shapes the work-life of the majority of its members and all children attending public schools?

In response to Baker's column and the revelation of the "down" vote, we wrote an open letter to Dr. Baker, which we also sent to Educational Researcher, inquiring about the process and expressing our dissatisfaction with the contents of her column. Silence. Next, we issued a Call to Action: A RED Campaign for Social Justice and Queer Lives (noted in previous posts), to take place at the 2007 Annual Meeting in Chicago. We asked all meeting participants to wear red throughout the conference as a sign of anger at AERA's decision to remain silent on LGBTQ issues and of our passion for justice. This generated a response from the organization: a mass email send out by the current, former and future presidents of AERA, announcing the organization’s commitment to diversity and a panel discussion to air what it described as "both sides" of the NCATE issue at a business meeting on the last day of the conference.

We asked Bill Ayers represent the goals of the RED Campaign at the meeting: the inclusion of social justice, sexual orientation, and gender identity in NCATE’s standards. He spoke first, reminding the roomful of attendees, many wearing red, of the context of NCATE's deletions: endless war, scapegoating, increasing poverty, weakened rights. He called on AERA to push beyond bureaucratic constraints to act: "Whatever procedures are in place," he said, "we expect leaders to lead."

After Ayers, the designated AERA representative, Adrienne Dixson, elected not to speak. That left the podium to NCATE's representative, Donna Gollnick, who stated that social justice had been removed because it was a "lightning rod" and potential trigger for lawsuits. She denied the removal of sexual orientation, but agreed with us, after the meeting, that revisions directing readers to use census categories might make it seem that way. She closed her talk by inviting feedback from AERA and its members. Many in the room added their strong statements to the public record, including the president of Div. B, David Flinders, who described his vote for inaction as a mistake that he would do everything he could to correct. Baker refused to state that AERA would act. Incoming President Tate said that he “always thought AERA was a research organization,” a position we heard many times from organization functionaries. Then, echoing a strand of related excuses offered by AERA for why it could not act—we didn’t follow correct procedures; our request wasn’t submitted properly; the organization had no process to address these kinds of issues—he committed himself to work on organizational procedures and transparency during his yearlong presidency.

Nearly three months have passed, and the primary issue--AERA members' wish to speak back, organizationally, against NCATE's removals of social justice and sexual orientation from its Professional Standards--remains unaddressed by AERA's "leadership." We hoped that statements from the meeting—Ayers, AERA’s, and NCATE’s—would be published, perhaps in Educational Researcher, but there are no minutes, according to Felice Levine, and AERA’s journals only print research. We think it is important to note and discuss these events, decisions, and positions, and thus offer this record. Still, archives and testimonies are not enough.

Unlike our AERA colleagues who urged us toward policy, not protest, we think the time for action is now. In the spirit of pushing back against all who want to keep queer lives invisible and tone down social justice agendas because they are too threatening, we contend that the “professional standard” for all educators should be to speak against injustice, exclusion, and silencing, wherever they occur. Please ask Arthur Wise (art@ncate.org) and the new president of AERA, William Tate (wtate@wustl.edu), to respond to the letter signed by over 300 educators. Tell them that you support the inclusion of social justice, sexual orientation, and gender identity in NCATE's standards. Speaking and acting for social justice; it’s what education and real leadership is all about.