Letter to the Editor from Professors in the Department of Elementary and Special Education

by The Cowl Editor on October 24, 2019

Letters to the Editor

by Drs. Jeri Gillin, Laura Hauerwas, Susan Skawinski, and Marcy Zipke

The members of the Elementary and Special Education Department would like to respond to the recent article that appeared in The Cowl regarding racism in our department.  

We are one of the only four-year programs in the country that offers dual certification in both elementary and special education. Educators on our faculty have been fighting for inclusion for all learners throughout their careers. We all come to Providence College with a wide range of teaching experiences from elementary, middle, and high schools across the country. A commonality we all faced, no matter the grade level we taught or the positions we held, was that our students were almost always the children who were discriminated against in schools and communities, and it was part of our jobs and our commitment to those students and their families to assure that they received equity within the system. This is why it is so crucial to our department that we address issues of equity, diversity, social justice, and inclusion. This has been a mission of our department from its very beginning.

We all remain committed to equity today. Equity, it must be noted, is not the same as equality. Equality means that everyone gets the same thing; equity, on the other hand, means that every student receives what he or she NEEDS, and this may be different for one person than for another. Therefore, if a student, as The Cowl noted, says that he or she was provided with an extra course (actual tutoring in writing; besides the essay required by the department, all state teachers’ tests include a writing component), in truth,  that student was receiving an equitable education because the department was assuring that the student was receiving the necessary services to succeed in the field of education. These services were not decided by skin color, as stated by The Cowl, but rather by previous scores on such tests, and were provided to ALL students in the education department who had not passed those tests. 

Similarly, the aforementioned writing test that was previously administered was designed to provide additional assistance to teacher candidates who struggled with writing. It had nothing to do with dialect or whether a student was bilingual, as The Cowl stated (“English language learners who wrote in non-traditional grammar were required to perpetually rewrite their essays or were rejected from the program entirely. Some bi-lingual students who wrote using non-traditional grammar were required to attend a non-credit-bearing course conducted by a professor within the department in order to gain entrance to the program.”) In truth,  ANY and ALL students who demonstrated that they needed assistance with writing were provided with writing support in order to be able to teach writing and to pass the state tests required for certification, just as those who require(d) help in math have been provided with assistance so that they can pass the mathematics sections of those exams.

All students in the elementary and special education program are provided with a wealth of field experiences throughout their four years in the program. All methods courses contain a practicum component, and the professor of the course accompanies the students to the school where the practicum is held. Some of the practica take place in urban schools and some in suburban schools. The Director of Field Placements maintains a record of where each student has had placements so that we can be sure that every student has had both urban and suburban placements. During student teaching, every student teacher is required to complete one semester in an urban classroom and another in a suburban classroom so that we can assure a wealth of experiences for students when they apply for jobs. The exception to this rule is for students who may request two urban placements because they want to become urban teachers. All students have the opportunity to request placements, and many ask to be placed with teachers with whom they have established relationships during previous practicum experiences.  Others merely ask for a particular grade range, town or city, or express no preference at all. 

Placements are never made based upon race or ethnicity.  The Cowl noted that “Students of color within the elementary and special education program are also placed in predominantly deficit-focused classrooms during their student teaching experiences, while their white peers are placed with classes of advanced or college preparatory students.” This is not only false, but is also impossible, as students in elementary schools are not tracked in this way; classrooms are of mixed levels and there are no advanced or college preparatory classes in elementary schools.

We, as faculty members of the education department, completely agree with the Coalition Against Racism that we need more teachers of color within, not only the Providence Schools, but in all public schools throughout the country. Unfortunately, until education becomes a respected profession, it is difficult to attract well-qualified students of color, who may have many other options, into education. Teachers are belittled, whether they serve at the elementary, secondary, or college level. Teachers are underpaid. According to the National Education Association, “… researchers found that teachers, compared to other college graduates, are paid nearly $350 less per week in salary in 2017, or 23 percent less.” It is a profession that has long been held by women, and it is well-established that women are paid less than men. Therefore, this is a national issue, with which we and our colleagues in the field of teacher education constantly struggle.

As PC becomes a more diverse community, we in the elementary and special education department are committed to working with the admissions office to attract new students of color to our department. We also are working with them to ensure that new students understand state regulations for teachers that might not be the same as those required for admission to Providence College. Such misunderstandings may have led to misconceptions that the elementary and special education department has, itself, instituted policies (GPA requirements, the passing of tests, etc…) that are set by the state, not by individual institutions.  

Institutional racism has prevailed at this college and at other colleges and universities across the country throughout American history. The Coalition Against Racism has brought these issues to the attention of all. It is because of our fight against the ideals of racism that many of us in the elementary and special education department have served on College-wide diversity and RI education advisory committees throughout our tenure at the College. 

Thus, as educators who have devoted our lives to the field of education, we are disheartened to find that our colleagues, none of whom have even spoken to us about this issue, would make the claims noted in The Cowl. Providence College can only become a truly diverse institution when it treats all people as respected members of this campus.