Having decided to become a high school teacher, I was excited to be accepted 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 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 interested in politics or controversy, and I derive no pleasure in creating difficulties for the UW out of personal resentment. But whenever family and friends ask me about graduate school, I have 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 emotions in order to punch home its ideological message. As a consequence, the key components of teaching as a vocation—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 is a serious shortcoming. 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 how social justice activism in the academy has a high opportunity cost.
To put this in context, STEP’s approach to education deserves some explanation. Public schools haven’t done a great job of bridging ugly chasms in American life, such as the racial academic achievement gap between black and white populations, which has hardly narrowed since the Civil Rights Act. Discrimination based on gender and sexuality remain impediments to equality of opportunity and the way children are currently treated in public schools is clearly a part of that. The statistics on these matters are appalling, and slow progress is no excuse for complacency. Additionally, teachers should work to cultivate catholic tastes, and in light of demographic changes, white Americans shouldn’t expect the literature and old-fashioned narrative history of Europe and the United States to be considered the normal curriculum, with a few token “diverse” authors 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, anyone in the graduate school class who does not identify as a straight white male is encouraged from the outset to present themselves as a victim of oppression in the social hierarchy of the United States. And so a culture emerges rapidly in the 60-student cohort in which words and phrases fall under constant scrutiny, and ideas thought to be inimical to social justice are pounced on as oppressive. Moreover, instead of imparting knowledge about the rudiments of pedagogy or how to develop curriculum content and plan for high school classes, the faculty and leadership declare that their essential mission is to combat the colonialism, misogyny and homophobia that is endemic in American society. The logic here is that if teachers are immersed in social justice ideology they will then impart these ideas to young people at all levels of K-12 and post-secondary education. This lofty aim explains why the program focuses so heavily on training students in the discourse of far-left identity politics and why it demands total intellectual acquiescence. When you consider that STEP’s ostensible purpose is to prepare graduates to become novice high school teachers, this approach 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,” the vast majority of their content is essentially political. 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 classroom teachers. Practically speaking, the purpose is to have teachers acknowledge and embrace a broad variety 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—equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity—ought to be the primary goal of public policy.
A good illustration of this ideology in practise is manifest in ‘The Case of Carla,’ a Science Education paper that has gained something of canonical status at the UW. After observing a sixth-grade classroom, the authors of this study conclude that the subconscious privileging of white students’ behavior by a white teacher and her white students is the cause of an African-American girl’s relatively low academic performance. In this article, sweeping conclusions about the impact of racial and gender dynamics in science education across the public school system are based on the observation of four elementary school students over a few weeks, which doesn’t seem like a very robust approach. Nonetheless, the faculty of UW’s Ed School treat it as an intellectual lodestar. In one of our classes, students were asked to parse a transcript from the classroom of a white American teacher in which she challenged 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 impress upon us that she was perpetuating oppression because she had rejected the spiritual beliefs of a non-Western culture.
STEP’s relentless assumption is that group identity is the most important determinant of success or failure in public education and in civic life, and that all inequality can be attributed to discrimination, conscious or unconscious, perpetrated primarily by straight white men and other reactionary elements. Because STEP subscribes to the dogma that every social interaction should be analyzed through the dynamics of power and oppression, it demands the exploration of identity politics ad nauseam, for months on end, from the first week to the very last. The aim is to make sure that students conclude that all the problems in public schools stem from oppression.
This focus on ideology comes at the cost of studying the craft of teaching or how to productively deal with difficult social problems on a small scale. Much of the practical teaching guidance we were given has no demonstrable efficacy or validation in the peer-reviewed literature. Most of the classes at the UW require little if any academic work and they often resemble group therapy sessions along with activities like personal journaling, which I tried to undertake with an open mind, despite my sense that these tasks are far removed from the vocational demands of teaching. STEP is a travesty in its disservice to its own students and, because the program neglects the practice of teaching in favor of pontifications on social justice, it lets down the disadvantaged children it purports to serve. Each year it sends out a cohort of graduates who, due to a lack of preparation, are likely to become overwhelmed in a profession already suffering from alarming rates of attrition, particularly in high-needs schools.
One of the more peculiar and psychologically manipulative requirements in STEP is called “Caucusing.” The 60-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 in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression. White students are required to demonstrate contrition for their privilege with examples of how whiteness, latent racism, and America’s institutionalized racism has benefitted them personally. Essentially, in these classes white people are asked to sit around to free-associate and express how badly they feel about race relations in America. Students of color are put in a separate caucus and at the close of the first quarter the two groups are united into one caucus and, convening in a large circle, are asked to stand up and pat their thighs, rub their palms together and click their fingers—to create the sound of a thunderstorm, for some reason. If my experience is anything to go by, the students of color then regale the group with their painful experiences and excoriate the white students, making accusations of racism and subconscious marginalization. After many tears and public apologies, my caucus finished with everyone being asked to hug one another. The consequences of this acrimony were realized in the following quarter, as the students of color instigated walk-outs in one class to protest about the insensitive 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. This, inevitably, 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 I was required to participate in, men were asked 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 worrying educational disparity between girls and boys that has emerged in recent decades—whereby girls outperform boys in every educational phase—was not discussed, presumably because it 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 say to a female student “You’re smart—for a girl!” 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 saddle an individual with all the characteristics of their group identity, a frightening concept indeed, which obviously has a real effect on how students conduct themselves towards one another, and, presumably, their future pupils.
Another interesting and lengthy feature in STEP are “Theatre of the Oppressed” workshops. These mandatory theatre performances stretch on for weeks, and in them white male students are asked to act out scenes in which they are cast as racist, homophobic, or misogynistic characters. Students and instructors then parse the performances and discuss the dynamics of identity that play out in each scene. Eventually, when I questioned the pedagogical rationale of the “Theatre of the Oppressed” and the inordinate amount of time being spent on these workshops—I was paying good money for this course—I was told that it would help me as a classroom teacher to avoid the “violence” shown in the theatre scenes. When I pressed the TA to show me the evidence that this was an effective method, I was told that these workshops are “considered valuable” and that I should “work through” my “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 in the second quarter we were required to bring in items that represented us—a task that proved to be nothing more than Show & Tell, a harbinger of the academic rigor to come. These tasks, which require precisely no academic work, would be comical if graduate school was tuition-free and a lack of preparedness for teaching had no real-world impact.
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 it occasionally is. 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, 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 students—as if educated adults would have been hitherto unaware of the effects on contemporary society of the historic persecution of African-American people. 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 should 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, the chosen teaching method of several instructors 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, or after jigsawing a complex text between several students who have to explain it to one another. After several three-minute lectures, students then mill around the room with Post-It Notes making anodyne comments. These kinds of ridiculous juvenile tasks and restrictions, put on by professors with little work experience outside K-12 education, make a mockery of graduate school and remind you of the worst teachers you had growing up. I suppose they had one redeeming virtue: they teach you exactly how not to behave in 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 then ask the students to work together to construct arguments for the validity of each side in a debate. Compared with lecturing, 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 is the content that one might expect would typify the teaching in an ed school at a research university. Unfortunately, the professor who teaches these classes, who has been at the UW for more than 30 years, is about 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, identity politics encroached on his classes, too: students complained of prejudice because he asked us to consider the 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.”
To dispute the UW’s received wisdom that a cohort of 60 graduate students should spend most of their year in ed school discussing identity politics would be tantamount to opposing the goal of ending discrimination and inequality in American life. This is how a pervasive intellectual orthodoxy emerges and remains unchallenged. And this is how the social justice elements in STEP get ratcheted up each year by a small, noisy group of committed student activists who intimidate their peers and professors 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 all the problems in contemporary public education. At the University of Washington, the social justice zeitgeist has transformed a vocational program into something unrecognizable if you’re not already familiar with campus activism.
Unfortunately, the University of Washington is not atypical. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion 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 the courses offered by Western Governors University, an online college. A combination of that alongside easily-attainable reading materials and a chance to develop your expertise organically through field experience and trial and error and advice from veteran teachers who live and work in the real world is far more worthwhile. This is a terrible conclusion to draw, because teaching is an immensely difficult task and graduate school programs with a focus on pedagogy and academic excellence could ease the transition for novices into a successful teaching career. The instructors at STEP might even alleviate some of the social problems they claim to care about if they did.
Nick Wilson is a pseudonym. He is a graduate of the University of Washington’s secondary teacher education program.