The details matter in cultural competency training

The latest debate at the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board reminds us that we will never overcome the challenges facing our students if we are too afraid to name them.

The PESLB wants to give precise definitions to the cultural competency training educators will need to earn their new, tiered licenses. The spirit of the old human relations requirement lives on in the proposed rule.

The board suggests Minnesota teachers should have an academic introduction to concepts including implicit bias, systemic racism, gender identity, sexual orientation and other cultural barriers between students and their educators.

Critics on the right oppose those specifics and prefer windy political language, which George Orwell once wrote consisted “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Education Minnesota supports the more precise definitions developed by PELSB after consultation with education groups dedicated to improving the success of students on the margins.

Students and their families see themselves in the details. And, it must be said, teachers have learned through experience that lofty administrative goals with vague directions often end in frustration and failure.

At the heart of the debate is whether the PELSB may approve a set of rules to clarify terms in statute. This is the statute. Imagine trying to write a lesson plan around such broad language.

“For purposes of statewide accountability, ‘cultural competence,’ ‘cultural competency,’ or ‘culturally competent’ means the ability of families and educators to interact effectively with people of different cultures, native languages, and socioeconomic backgrounds.” 

That’s a fine, aspirational definition, but it fails to give enough details to ensure consistent quality across training programs. It may also let educators go through the training without ever leaving our comfort zones; a tempting trap that prevents us from growing into the best educators we can be.

The PELSB wants to the flesh out requirements for cultural competency training with the following rule.

“‘Cultural competency training’ means a training program that promotes self-reflection and discussion on all of the following topics: racial, cultural, and socioeconomic groups; American Indian students; implicit bias; systemic racism; gender identity, including transgender students; sexual orientation; language diversity; and individuals with disabilities. Training programs must be designed to increase teachers’ understanding of these topics and their ability to implement this knowledge with students, families, and the school community.” 

That definition not only acknowledges the very different needs of students with varied life experiences, but also nudges educators toward a greater understanding of how school policies have contributed to the inequalities in our society.

We cannot hide from the truth that a lack of understanding of our student’s lives outside of school can result in misinterpreting student behavior, which turns into unfair discipline, excessive referrals to special education for students of color and too few referrals to gifted and talented programming.

An administrative law judge, who has already heard testimony from interested groups, including Education Minnesota, will decide the question of whether the PELSB can implement the rule.

The opponents couch their criticism in dry, legal language. They say the board doesn’t have the authority to pass the rule, but I doubt that’s the real motivation. Instead, I see people so defensive about their view of the world that they can’t acknowledge the existence of fluid gender identities, unconscious bias, socioeconomic classes and institutional racism.

How else to explain to the horror-struck tone of the arch-conservative Child Protection League’s take on a proposed rule for training educators? The group says on its website that the rule “violates every tenet of freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience. It uses intimidation and fear against students and teachers alike to push an ideology that clashes with mainstream Minnesota beliefs and values.”

The CPL is the same group that bought a fear-mongering full-page ad in the Star Tribune to dissuade the Minnesota State High School League from producing guidance for coaches of transgender athletes. That was in 2014. They were wrong then, too.

Everyone who steps into a Minnesota school with the intention to educate every student who comes through the door accepts the responsibility to do their best. That commitment naturally includes seeking out the resources and training to improve their practice. And in our time of rapidly diversifying student populations, we must have the courage to support the precise definitions for cultural competency training developed by the PELSB through its open process.

As one middle school teacher testified in June, “Most teachers I work with desire to learn more history, more skills, more strategies and techniques for how to navigate intercultural differences with respect and honor.”

If we, as a profession, don’t insist that teachers receive the tools they need to challenge implicit bias, or the training they require to connect with students on the margins, we can say, “we treat all kids fairly” all we want, but we won’t actually do it, no matter our intentions.


Twitter: @DeniseSpecht