Changes would strike ‘diversity’ from Georgia’s educator prep rules

The state commission that oversees Georgia's education preparation providers, including education colleges who train future teachers, proposed striking "diversity" from its rules. BOB ANDRES /AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The state commission that oversees Georgia's education preparation providers, including education colleges who train future teachers, proposed striking "diversity" from its rules. BOB ANDRES /AJC FILE PHOTO

The state commission that oversees Georgia’s teacher preparation programs has proposed stripping mentions of “diversity” from its rules, a removal critics have decried as politically motivated.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission’s suggested rule changes would strike out definitions of “diverse” and “diversity,” as well as erase examples of individual and group differences such as race, sexual orientation and gender identity that were added in 2016.

In a few places, the new language would use the word “different” instead of “diverse.” In another section, the phrase “all students” would replace a reference to “diverse students.”

The educator preparation rules detail the standards that programs, including dozens of colleges that train future teachers, must meet to earn and maintain the commission’s approval.

A sample of the proposed Georgia Professional Standards Commission rule changes that remove references to "diversity."

Credit: Georgia Professional Standards Commission

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Credit: Georgia Professional Standards Commission

Agency documents state the reason for the proposed revision is “to remove and/or simplify ambiguous terms.”

The commission’s 18 members, appointed by the governor, are scheduled to vote on the changes May 11. Members include K-12 teachers, university employees, school administrators, school board members and business leaders.

The commission’s chairman, Brian Sirmans, an assistant principal in Lanier County Schools in South Georgia, referred comment to agency administrators. Executive Secretary Matt Arthur declined to be interviewed.

In an email, Arthur said: “The synonyms used in lieu of ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity’ will allow program providers to continue preparing educators who are equipped to meet the learning needs of all students.”

Some observers say the proposed rewrite is the latest push against diversity efforts, a recent target of Republican lawmakers who last year passed a state law banning what they contend are divisive teachings about race in K-12 classrooms. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones recently told the University System of Georgia he wants to know how much its 26 schools are spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

The commission’s rule revisions have sparked concern from some experts and professors who teach education courses at Georgia’s colleges.

“It’s virtue signaling of being tough on what the right would call ‘wokeness,’” said T. Jameson Brewer, an assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia.

Brewer said the new rules wouldn’t prevent professors from discussing diversity in their courses. But schools may voluntarily stop having those conversations, and he fears it could set the stage for more attempts to control what professors teach.

“Understanding students and understanding their backgrounds and lived experiences and realities – that is the most important part about teaching,” he said. “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Many of those training to become teachers are white women, while many of the schools most in need of teachers are in low-income communities of color, said Max Altman, research and policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation. Those future teachers must be equipped to work with children from different backgrounds, he said.

He also worries that removing diversity references will deter some from entering the teaching profession.

“With all the teacher shortages in Georgia, the last thing we need is for fewer people to want to enter teacher preparation programs,” Altman said.

He added that the proposed rule changes are creating confusion and fear.

“People are going to err on the side of doing what’s most safe, and clearly in this climate… what will seem most safe is limiting or eliminating discussions of diversity,” Altman said.

Arthur said the process to amend the rules began when the University System asked the commission “to clarify expectations” for programs that train educators. He said the rules also are amended in response to recent changes in the law.

Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 1084, dubbed the “divisive concepts” law, which limits how K-12 teachers can talk about race in the classroom. The law also states that an educator’s state certification, issued by the commission, cannot be dependent on participation in any training program that advocates for “divisive concepts” about race. Those include assertions that the United States is fundamentally racist or that someone should feel guilty because of their race.

The University System did not respond to questions about cutting “diversity” from the rules. Instead, the system released a statement saying it asked the commission for improvements in literacy education, including expectations for how colleges train their students to teach children to read.

In addition to erasing references to “diversity,” the proposed rule changes include new language about the teaching of reading and dyslexia. They also swap out a nationally developed set of standards that spells out what teachers should know and be able to do for Georgia-specific standards.

If approved, the new rules would go into effect June 15.