Ivey forces Early Childhood Education Secretary to resign over teacher training book
Updated On: May 24, 2023

Governor says book encouraging teachers to be aware of children’s backgrounds and challenges has ‘woke concepts’

By JEMMA STEPHENSON (ALABAMA REFLECTOR) | Re-Published on April 25, 2023 | Originally Published on April 21, 2023

ov. Kay Ivey Friday forced Secretary of Early Childhood Education Barbara Cooper to resign over a book designed to train teachers to be aware of the different backgrounds and challenges of their students.

In a Friday afternoon news release, Gina Maiola, communications director for the governor’s office, said Ivey had accepted Cooper’s resignation after learning of a pre-K educator resource book that included “woke concepts.”

The book is the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Developmentally Appropriate Practice Book, 4th Edition. It focuses on teaching children up to age of 8.

Cooper was unable to be reached Friday afternoon. The NAEYC said in a statement Friday evening that the program had been used for almost four decades and served as “the foundation for high-quality early childhood education across states and communities.”

“While not a curriculum, it is a responsive, educator-developed, educator-informed, and research-based resource that has been honed over multiple generations to support teachers in helping all children thrive and reach their full potential, ” the statement said. “Building on the good work that is happening in states and communities, NAEYC looks forward to continuing its partnership with families, educators, and policymakers to further our shared goals of offering joyful learning environments that see, support, and reflect all children and their families.”

In her email, Maiola said the governor’s office received a complaint about the book teaching white privilege, structural racism and messaging promoting “equality, dignity and worth” around LGBTQIA+ identities.

‘A place of affirmation’

An Alabama Reflector review of the book, running over 800 pages in electronic form, found it focused on encouraging teachers to be aware of inequities, implicit bias and the diverse backgrounds of children in order to be better teachers and create welcoming environments for their students. 

The book does not appear to tell teachers to discuss these issues with children directly.

“Teachers need to be particularly aware of providing supporting environments and responses to children who are members of marginalized groups and those who have been targets of bias and stereotyping,” one passage said.

2022 University of California Irvine study found that roughly 30% of the gap between Black and white young adult criminal justice outcomes can be linked to school discipline. A 2021 study from the American Psychological Association found 26% of the Black students in their sample received a suspension for a minor infraction, while only 2% of the white kids did.

Discussions of white privilege were included in a passage that said equity allows students to reach full potential. A discussion of “structural racism” was included to tell early childhood educators to make their classrooms welcoming to all children.

“Early learning settings are one of the central handful of places where children begin to see how they are represented in society,” the book says. “Thus, the early learning setting can be a place of affirmation and healing for children, or it can be a space of trauma, terror and exclusion. Educators must work to ensure that it is the former.”

The book also reminds teachers that Black students suffer far severe disciplinary actions than white students, and encourages them to be mindful of those disparities. A 2021 study from the American Psychological Association found 26% of the Black students in their sample received a suspension for a minor infraction, while only 2% of the white kids did.

The book says this makes Black students “less likely to be actively involved in acquiring academic knowledge and skills, socializing with other children, and interacting with teachers.”

“As a result, far too many Black boys are denied genuine opportunities to achieve at high levels because of an unwelcoming classroom climate that contributes to inequity and negative assumptions based on race and gender,” the book says.

When LGBTQIA+ identities are mentioned, it is a reminder to teachers that families are different.

“Children from all families (e.g. single parent, grandparent-led, foster, LGBTQIA+) need to hear and see messages that promote equality, dignity and worth,” the book said. “Providing support and encouragement for personal expression and nongendered play – that is, honoring children’s ideas and choices with respect to gender roles and play – also teaches children acceptance and communicates their value within the classroom community.”

The book promotes teaching understanding.

 “An affirmation of children’s identities is critical because children derive a sense of pride, self-worth, and consistency from their social and cultural identities,” the book said.“For example, including books that explore and celebrate different types of hair, different skin colors, and a range of abilities helps to shape a child’s positive self-identity, contributing to feelings of belonging and fostering a sense of caring for others.”

A sudden break

Cooper was appointed by Ivey to the position in 2020. The pre-kindergarten program has received national attention and high ranks under Cooper’s tenure.

Maiola’s statement Friday praised Cooper for putting “an increased focus on students in lower-performing areas and has even been a champion for computer science education in the state.”

“However, Governor Ivey strongly believes that woke concepts have no place at any level of education in the state of Alabama and should not be taking away from the overall mission of improving educational outcomes for students,” the statement said.

Cooper was elected to the NAEYC National Board of Directors last year and is currently in the middle of a four-year term. 

““No doubt, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is top of the line and helping many of our youngest citizens receive a strong start to their educational journeys,” Ivey said in a statement at the time. “It is only fitting to see our own Dr. Barbara Cooper selected to serve on this national board. Dr. Cooper continues taking our state’s program to the next level, and I know she will be a tremendous asset to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.”

Prior to her appointment, Cooper had served as the director of the Office of School Readiness and the Birth to Grade 12 advisor for the Alabama Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation. She was also the chief administrative officer during the state intervention in Montgomery Public Schools.

Her other experience includes serving as deputy state superintendent andchief academic officer of the Alabama State Department of Education and deputy superintendent of Huntsville City Schools.

Cooper said in statement on the NAEYC website that the textbook that it “fully supports our practice in the field of early learning and care.”

“Educators of children from birth to age 8 will use this information to learn applicable skills for teaching through developmentally appropriate practices that build brains during the critical first five years of life,” the statement said.

Maiola did not immediately respond when asked to address the Reflector’s interpretation of the book. 

Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said that she does not know specifics on the situation but she believed that data spoke for Cooper’s work. She said that Alabama’s education “plus” is its pre-kindergarten program.

“I certainly think that before such a measure was taken,” she said. “We should look at the success of our pre-K program and its success and the data shows that that is an asset to the state of Alabama and Dr. Cooper is an asset to the state of Alabama.”

She said there appears to be a “movement” where “educating our children seem to be taken a backseat.”

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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