Do Ask, Do Tell

What's professional about taking social justice and sexual orientation out of classrooms?

By Therese Quinn, Erica Meiners

Illustrator: Roxanna Bikaddroff

In the fall of 2006, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) solicited feedback on proposed revisions to its “Professional Standards, 2002 Edition.” The organization responsible for accrediting colleges and programs for teacher education wanted to erase the phrase “social justice” and facilitate the de facto elimination of sexual orientation through the addition of various phrases and qualifiers.

While NCATE’s deletion of social justice was clear and outright, the way it has marginalized sexual orientation is more complicated, or perhaps just really sneaky. Sexual orientation is included in the Standards’ glossary definition of diversity, but the 2006 revisions added this text to the definition: “The types of diversity necessary for addressing the elements on candidate interactions with diverse faculty, candidates, and pre-K–12 students are stated in the rubrics for those elements.”

A review reveals that sexual orientation is not included in any of those rubrics. In another explanation posted on its website in 2006, NCATE notes that it “expects the institution to provide candidates with opportunities to work with diverse higher education and school faculty, candidates, and students in pre-K–12 schools so that the candidates are ready to help all children learn. In this context, diversity is defined according to U.S. Census categories (gender; racial/ethnic background) socioeconomic status and exceptionalities.” Again, as it is throughout the 2006 edition, sexual orientation is absent.

These are not merely bureaucratic shifts or language games. NCATE’s standards have direct consequences for students, teachers, and schools. The standards reflect and contribute to a larger culture that actively attempts to erase our histories of social movements for change and LGBTQ lives. In particular, without the “tool” of inclusive and social justice-focused standards, teacher educators will have a more difficult time advocating for social justice and broader definitions of diversity in their programs.

As teacher educators concerned about social justice and LGBTQ youth, families, and teachers, we felt professionally obligated to challenge these proposed changes and to request the addition of gender identity. We drafted a letter to Arthur Wise, president of NCATE, pointing out that the “absence of sexual orientation and gender identity in the body of the standards, where other aspects of diversity are listed, sends the message that the needs and identities of LGBTQ students, families, and teachers are not important.”

Using statistics compiled by Chicago’s Coalition for Education on Sexual Orientation, our letter highlighted the urgent need for schools and teachers to be better prepared:

The population of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth is large.
In a 2003 survey conducted by the Chicago Public Schools and the Center for Disease Control (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) 6.3 percent of high school students attending Chicago Public Schools identified their sexual orientation as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Schools are unsafe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth.
According to the 2005 School Climate Report conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN):
—75.4 percent of LGBT students reported hearing remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often.
—45.5 percent reported being verbally harassed and 26.1 percent had experienced physical harassment in school because of their gender expression.

Teachers are ill-equipped to confront issues that contribute to anti-LGBT hostility.
In a study of preservice teachers, 57 percent indicated that they needed more training or education to work effectively with LGBT youth and 65 percent reported that they needed more specific education to address homosexuality in their teaching.

The letter was sent to a wide range of listservs. Within a few days, our letter collected over 300 signatures from faculty and administrators in teacher education programs across the United States and Canada. We snail-mailed, e-mailed, and express-mailed the letter to NCATE. We also sent the letter to Eva Baker and George Wimberly, president and social justice director respectively of the American Educational Research Association, the primary North American professional association for educators, asking the organization to support the call for NCATE to include social justice, sexual orientation, and gender identity in its professional standards.

In February 2007, six months after sending the letter, we noticed that NCATE had posted a new set of revised standards on their website. In a clear attempt to mollify critics, Wise wrote that NCATE has added a definition and a new “professional disposition” for fairness to the standards. However, fairness is an inadequate replacement. Social justice connotes movements and people working — acting — together; it aims at systemic change. Fairness, like personal responsibility or tolerance, is a term suited to the needs of those who wish to avoid conflict. It attempts to transform public policy issues into individual concerns.

As for AERA, we noticed a column by Baker had been posted on the association’s website, along with a statement titled “Key Policy Documents on Position Taking and Policymaking and Social Justice.” These statements revealed the process by which AERA will take action on social justice issues to be both arbitrary and capricious.

For example, the documents claimed that AERA is only able to act when issues are “monumental” and “sufficiently compelling,” or of “compelling significance,” or when issues are “compelling and fundamental.” After reading the column and the policymaking article, we felt compelled to observe that AERA was not standing up for social justice or even advocacy. We weren’t surprised that the executive board rejected our request that it comment to NCATE on its standards. One could infer from the statements that the organization takes a “majoritarian” position—it will only act when a majority of members are concerned. But we wondered: Since when is social justice a popularity contest?

In response to Baker’s column and the revelation of the “down” vote on our letter’s request to AERA, we called for action at its April 2007 meeting in Chicago, with a “RED Campaign.” We asked all participants to wear red throughout the conference as a visible sign of anger at AERA’s decision to remain silent and of our passion for justice. 

The organization also scheduled a meeting to air what it described as “both sides” of the issue. At the invitation of the RED Campaign, Bill Ayers spoke first, reminding us of the context of NCATE’s deletions—war, scapegoatism, growing poverty, weakened rights. He called on AERA to push beyond bureaucratic constraints to act: “Whatever procedures are in place,” he said, “we expect leaders to lead.”

His talk was powerful. And apparently, an older, straight, famous, white man was able to explain things in a way that the younger, unfamous female queers who called the action, and the 300-plus allies who participated in it, could not. Afterwards, Baker thanked Ayers for making the issues, finally, clear. In fact, even before the meeting started, the NCATE representative invited Ayers to speak on the topic at headquarters in Washington.

After Ayers, the designated AERA representative elected not to speak, leaving the podium to the NCATE’s representative, Donna Gollnick, who stated that social justice had been removed because it was a “lightning rod” and potential trigger for lawsuits. She denied the removal of sexual orientation, but agreed with us, after the meeting, that revisions directing readers to use census categories might make it seem that way. She closed her talk by inviting feedback from AERA and its members. Many in the room added their strong statements to the public record, including a member of AERA’s executive board, David Flinders, who described his vote for inaction as a mistake that he would do everything he could to correct. Baker, and incoming president William Tate refused to state that AERA would act. Tate did commit, though, to work on organizational procedures and transparency during his yearlong presidency.  Clearly, the work isn’t over.

Unlike our AERA colleague who urged us toward policy, not protest, we think the time for action is now. Neither fairness nor silence will serve the needs of children and staff in our public schools and in our universities; we deserve radical changes and justice. In the spirit of pushing back against all who want to keep queer lives invisible and to “tone” down social justice agendas because they are too threatening, we contend that the “professional standard” for all educators should be “do ask, do tell.” Ask Arthur Wise ( and the new president of AERA, William Tate (, to respond to the letter signed by over 300 educators, and tell them both that you support the inclusion of social justice, sexual orientation, and gender identity in NCATE’s standards. Do ask. Do tell. Take action.

Therese Quinn and Erica Meiners are Chicago-based educators who work on a range of social justice issues.