Teacher Education, Diversity, and Community Engagement in Liberal Arts Colleges
reviewed by Dan Butin - October 28, 2010
Title: Teacher Education, Diversity, and Community Engagement in Liberal Arts Colleges
Author(s): Lucy Mule
Publisher: Lexington Books, Lanham, MD
ISBN: 0739134485, Pages: 172, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com
I was excited, I really was, to review Lucy Mule's book. The question of how best to prepare culturally competent teachers for the diversity of K-12 schools becomes ever more urgent as the demographic gap predominantly white, middle class teacher educators teaching predominantly white, middle class future teachers for K-12 schools that, within a generation, will have a majority non-white population continues apace. Mule, an associate professor of education at Smith College, approaches the issue from a seemingly fresh perspective. Namely, she suggests that teacher preparation programs can deeply and strongly support our future teachers understanding, embracing, and working with the diversity of our students through a two-pronged approach: highlighting the potential values and practices within small liberal arts colleges in preparing effective and culturally-responsive teachers; and embracing the community engagement movement, such as the practice of service-learning, which in the last twenty years has become a fairly common means across higher education to link theory and practice and colleges and communities.
Mule positions this linkage explicitly and clearly at the beginning of the book: "I argue," she states in the introduction, "that the nexus of these two trends [educating future teachers for diversity and the growing popularity of the community engagement movement] has important implications for educating teachers, especially in the small liberal arts college context" (p. 2). This book, she continues, "explores the extent to which this intersection can contribute to what I refer to as community engaged teacher education, which is used in this book to refer to the concept and practice of linking teacher education and diverse communities for the purpose of educating teachers for diversity" (p. 2).
This is exciting stuff. It is exciting because for all too long the fields of multicultural education and community engagement have lived in parallel yet almost never intersecting worlds. Multicultural educators have done superb work in bringing to the forefront issues of diversity, cultural competence, critical race theory, and a host of other critical lenses to teacher education; yet all too often they have done so in isolation from the communities within which schools operate. Conversely, the community engagement field has done superb work in bringing to the forefront issues of reciprocity, relevance, respect, and impact to the college-community partnership; yet all too often they have done so in isolation from any deep understanding of the power dynamics and racial and class complexities embedded in community work and empowerment. So here is Mule intimating that these two streams of thought can be addressed and accomplished within the liberal arts college context. Im hooked.
And yet, the deeper I went, the further I read, the sadder I became. Not because Mule doesn't have an argument. She does. The book is well written; it draws on much of the relevant literature in both fields; it offers useful syntheses of both the teaching-for-diversity and community engagement arguments, theories, and literature for teacher education; it provides useful heuristics and provocative rhetorical arguments for change. And perhaps that is reason enough to read the book and suggest it to friends and colleagues and service-learning directors and education department chairs and the head of the tenure and promotion committee and your friendly neighborhood Provost.
But what the book really does is demonstrate that liberal arts colleges are actually far, far away from embracing and effectively implementing her vision of community-engaged teacher education. Again and again she points out that such a vision is all too often predicated on a particular individual who has a particular vision in a particular department. The powerful work that Mule finds in her review of the literature, "while organized campus-wide...it is faculty members who develop and sustain the courses, CFEs [community-based field experiences], research, and programs" (p. 25). By which she really means that there are no institutional mechanisms, policies, or procedures in place to sustain a powerful initiative if a faculty member retires, leaves, or loses grant funding.
Mule uses an example from her own work with other Smith faculty where they created a campus-community partnership with a nearby school and its surrounding community that attempted to support students reading skills, engage in community work and outreach, and even secure an NIH grant that would help create a community literacy center. Yet today (after a fairly intensive search of the Smith website), few vestiges remain of this partnership, and the school does not list Smiths involvement anywhere on its site or in its archives. (Mule uses pseudonyms throughout, but it is not difficult to discover the actual school). More troubling from a community engagement perspective is that this school is 17 miles away, at least a half hour drive for undergraduates, which may feed into a drive-by service mentality. Mule acknowledges a similar point when she reveals that Smith students were only minimally involved in the research activities of this partnership and yet concludes that for all its inability to involve students more meaningfully, [this project] demonstrated for me the need to consider integration of border crossing CBR [community based research] in education (p. 101).
I am not so sure. In fact, Mules own concluding chapter made me doubly unsure. Mule concludes the book by highlighting three models the National Teacher Corps, the community schools movement, and the professional development schools (PDS) movement that she argues can reveal emphases of a community-engaged teacher education approach (p. 114). And yet all three models seem completely at odds with her overarching argument of cultural competence and community engagement within a liberal arts college context. The National Teacher Corps, a federally-funded project, was woefully inadequate on the community engagement side; she quotes one review of the program: In concept, community work was one of the most innovative aspects of the Teacher Corps but, in practice, it was one of the most difficult, varied, and controversial phases of the program (p. 115). She acknowledges that the community school model is almost completely absent in teacher education discourse and the only example she cites is of a well-known program at the University of Pennsylvania. And the community-oriented PDS movement, she informs the reader, remains in the theory stage (p. 120).
Mule concludes the book by briefly reviewing current and powerful political and economic contexts such as NCLB and high stakes testing, and the pervasive undermining of schools of education and notions of a high quality teacher that may hinder the growth of community engagement in teacher education (p. 126). Nod, nod. And so I ask, only semi-rhetorically and with no ill will, as to whether Mule read the conclusion of her book before she wrote the introduction. For Mule has raised all of the right issues about the importance of investing teacher education with notions of diversity and community. And she has suggested from the very beginning that liberal arts colleges such as hers can and should and do play an important role in leading the way to find a new model of the community-engaged teacher. We all struggle with and need help overcoming the boundaries of the four walls that enclose our classrooms, and, unfortunately, all too often, our notions of what it means to be a teacher in a school that is, yes indeed, in a community. We all need support in working with and for the communities where our students live. Mule sets the stage, but does not yet deliver, on what it might actually mean to have a deep, sustained, and impactful community-engaged teacher education program. I hope, for all of us, that Mule takes the next step in helping us understand what we can do better.