What’s the difference between diversity and difference? Would you rather your child’s teacher provide equity, inclusiveness and social justice, or fair access, opportunity and advancement for all students?
These questions and more will be before the Georgia Professional Standards Commission as they consider changes to the rules for educator preparation in the state that eliminate words associated with so-called wokeness, like diversity, equity and inclusiveness.
The changes would apply to positions including elementary education and reading and literacy specialists, who teach up to grade 12, as well as educational leaders like principals and superintendents.
Many of the proposed changes switch out words like “diverse” for similar words like “different.”
One change for elementary school educators would call on them to get to know the “unique contexts of children and families,” as opposed to getting to know their “diverse cultural contexts” under the current rules.
The rules for educational leaders now call on them to “confront and alter institutional biases,” but the new rules would not, presumably giving leaders more time to learn how to cultivate a “welcoming” school community rather than an “inclusive” one.
In other areas, including reading education and literacy specialist programs, passages about diversity and equity are crossed out entirely.
The proposed changes are open for public comment through May 23 and are scheduled to be considered at the commission’s June 8 hearing. They have a proposed effective date of July 1.
The move to make the changes began when the University System of Georgia asked the commission to clarify expectations for educator preparation programs, said Educator Preparation Division Director Penney L. McRoy.
“We were asked to remove or simplify words that in recent years, have taken on multiple and unintended meanings,” she said. “We were told these terms were leading to difficulty in interpreting program standards. As we don’t want these words to distract educator preparation
providers (EPPs) from their work of preparing effective educators, we replaced them with commonly understood terms.”
Debates over so-called wokeness in the classroom have become par for the course in recent years, with school board meetings across the state at times devolving into accusations of teachers attempting to brainwash white students into feeling guilty for racism.
In 2021, the Cherokee County School District hired Cecelia Lewis, a Maryland principal, for a new position as an administrator focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. But Lewis, who is Black, would step back from the offer after a group of white parents rose up against the decision, with many arguing without evidence that Lewis planned to bring critical race theory to the county.
As tempers flared at school board meetings across the state, the Georgia Board of Education voted to approve a resolution against a list of opinions members found unpopular, including that the United States is a racist country or that anyone ought to be made to feel bad for things people belonging to their race did in the past.
The following year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed bills aimed at keeping ideas like critical race theory out of schools, and other states have seen their own attempts at eliminating undesirable speech from classrooms.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently relieved that state’s Secretary of the Department of Early Childhood Education of her job because Ivey said she used a “woke” book to instruct teachers. In Florida, a bill supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit classroom discussions of LGBTQ+ subjects has led to a public feud and lawsuit from the Walt Disney Corp.
This year’s proposed changes may eliminate misunderstandings, but they will not change the way teachers interact with their students, McRoy said.
“These proposed rule amendments are not intended to redefine or remove the care preparation providers place on meeting students’ needs or prescribe the way EPPs choose to meet the program standards,” she said. “We still expect EPPs to prepare educators who are well equipped to address the learning needs of all students they may encounter, and who are well prepared to meet students where they are within a positive and welcoming learning environment.”
A matter of semantics?
Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner said the words one might use are less important than the care children receive.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re having to wrestle with those terms,” she said. “However, it is fortunate that we are recognizing the fact that there are differences among us, be it our sexual orientation, our ethnicity, our nationality, our physique. All of us are unique.”
Others, like 2020-2021 Georgia Teacher of the Year Tracey Nance, worry the proposed changes represent a step backward.
“I worked with representatives from the Georgia PSC and Educator preparation programs from across the state for more than two years, and they have wonderful hearts and are clearly dedicated to making sure that all children have the support they need to be successful. And so these proposed changes are really shocking to me. It does not align with my own experiences with the Georgia PSC and the trainings that they provide.”
Nance said research has shown for decades that being responsive to students’ diverse backgrounds results in better learning, and Georgia educators have been open to adopting those teaching methods, for example, by making sure students of all backgrounds have a chance to read books that reflect their own culture as well as books that teach them about other groups.
“The Georgia Department of Education actually commissioned me to give a talk to superintendents and principals, Georgia’s educational leaders, about how to monitor for culturally responsive teaching and social emotional learning in the classroom,” she said. “It was very much a type of learning that the state and educator programming were pursuing at the time, and I believe that the Georgia PSC does believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion. I think that this is a game of semantics.”
“What this does is make me worry that Georgia educators and the Georgia PSC, a group of professionals whom I greatly admire, they’re letting politics seep into our programming,” she added. “Educators and parents alike are ready for the politicians to leave the classroom. We want to get back to focusing on kids and what they need. And what they need are educators who are prepared to affirm and welcome the children who are in front of them.”