Teaching for Racial Justice

May 13, 2021

MSU leads national project to prepare teachers committed to equity

By Priscilla El-Achkar
Terry Flennaugh teaches MSU students including future teachers during the Early Success Scholars summer program in 2017.

The divisive state of the nation has brought many issues surrounding systemic racism to the surface within the past many months. As awareness continues to spread, it is important for Michigan State University, as a community, to discover processes that aid in enacting racial justice on a local and national level. Teacher candidates often leave teacher education programs underprepared to respond adequately or account appropriately for the racial realities of diverse youth and families in their professional decision-making. 

The MSU College of Education is taking action, in part, through its participation in a research project funded by a $450,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation. This project aims to give future teachers the proper tools to educate their classes about racial equity. 

Associate Professor Terry Flennaugh is the principal investigator and has partnered with various institutions for the project, including Minnesota State University, Mankato; California State University, Dominguez Hills; and FHI 360, a nonprofit organization. 

Together, this collection of institutions has launched a networked improvement community (NIC) to strengthen teacher education through a shared commitment to racial justice. Network improvement science is being used in this project to coordinate teaching efforts and prepare teachers to confront racial injustices in P-12 education. 

The NIC partners plan to use data to improve the racial equity of teacher education programs. This work aligns the P-12 teaching and learning strategy by focusing on preparing teachers who can create equitable access to education and career opportunities for all students. The project aims to train future educators to become more critically reflective about their own beliefs and practices to become professionals capable of framing and addressing complex problems in creative and defensible ways.

We need education students to learn what racial equity is and start thinking of social justice as teachers.

Associate Professor Terry Flennaugh

The project first took form due to a collective interest by a few universities to reorient teacher preparation programs to focus on racial justice and equity. So far, the participating institutions have developed survey tools to test delivering content focused on racial justice to educators. They have also completed focus groups with faculty and exit surveys with students to get a sense of how confident they feel in teaching these topics after completing their programs. 

The group worked with racial equity scholar and expert Shaun Harper for data collection and analysis. Now, the partnering universities are processing this information and using it to tweak teaching tools, along with presenting findings at several national conferences. Most significantly, they have created the infrastructure for leaders in the programs and are helping faculty to be in communication with each other throughout the institutions. The participating institutions are located all across the country, creating an intricate network of teachers to bring more social justice education to students.


In addition to being the principal investigator of this project, Flennaugh also serves as director of urban education initiatives for the College of Education. Urban education is a key priority for the college, and MSU has established many programs with this focus in mind. For example, the Urban Educators Cohort Program was created to prepare candidates to teach in urban school districts where resources and services are often most limited. Additionally, the Urban Education Speaker Series brings the nation’s leading experts in racial equity and social justice to East Lansing, Mich. for presentations. This series has recently been moved online to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. Recent speakers for the webinar series have included David Kirkland, Tyrone Howard, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Marcelle Haddix, Rita Kohli and Glenabah Martinez. As experts in their respective fields, these speakers have lectured about topics surrounding adjusting education systems to better fulfill the needs of students.

This NIC project builds on this, and other urban education work done by the college, to innovate the way teachers are trained to work with students of all backgrounds. 

“There has been continuous effort in the College of Education to prepare teachers to go into urban contexts and be the kind of educators who are needed in these spaces,” says Flennaugh. “We need education students to learn what racial equity is and start thinking of social justice as teachers.” 

All students should be taught the significance of racial equity and how they can advocate for racial justice. 

“This work isn’t only suitable or useful for students of color,” says Flennaugh. “Kids in mostly white schools need to think about this too, in an increasingly diverse society.” 

Events in summer 2020 surrounding the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have served as a reminder of the vast inequalities that exist and disproportionately impact people of color. Students of color are not getting their needs met in the American school system, while the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the situation further as schools struggle to reopen and operate. These injustices require dedicated attention to be corrected in the future. Everyone benefits from having teachers oriented toward racial equity who can enact those beliefs and values. 

“The only way institutionalized change is ever going to happen is with real action,” says Laurie Inman, partner researcher at California State University. “Our teacher candidates have seen the inequities in our education system and want to better influence the next generation of kids.”

Motivations for this project include preparing teachers for the realities of their students of color and showing them how to be agents of change. By preparing future teachers to educate their classes about racial justice, programs like these can ignite a change on both a local and national level through future generations of students. This project benefits students at MSU and across the country, preparing them to instill racial equity as a core principle during their careers in teaching.