Sacramento State student-professor conflict questions education model

A Chico State professor incorporates an unconventional seating arrangement into his lesson plan on Monday. Photo credit: Alicia Brogden

Earlier in September, Chiitaanibah Johnson, a Native American student, claimed she was threatened to be expelled from a U.S. history course at Sacramento State for questioning her professor’s refusal to consider the wipe out of Native Americans during European colonization as genocide.

The idea that a student could be scolded for initiating educational discourse has drawn the attention of scholars nationwide to the faults of the current American education model, including Chico State faculty.

Lisa Emmerich, history professor with an emphasis in American Indian studies, believes that under different circumstances, the teacher at Sacramento State would have been able to calming discuss terms like genocide. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Emmerich).

“It’s always my desire in a situation where a student raises a question to try to have it be not just a dialogue between me and the student, but maybe a dialogue that the whole class can jump in on,” said Lisa Emmerich, history professor with an emphasis in American Indian studies.

Emmerich believes that if the situation played out differently, it could’ve been an opportunity for the U.S. history professor to demonstrate to the class how historians deal with the fluidity of terms such as “genocide.”

The professor’s reaction to the incident was autocratic, said Dan Pence, sociology professor.

“But that’s what our model is, we’re waiting for experts to tell us what the truth is,” he said.

Dan Pence, sociology professor, expresses his opinions on the Sacramento State incident, standardized testing and the current education model on Sep. 24. Photo credit: Cheyanne Burens

Pence argues that the incident is reflective of the anti-democratic turn the education system has taken since adapting a model reliant on standardized tests over the last couple decades.

“It teaches us to be passive receptors and a democracy is messy, it requires involvement and effort,” Pence said.

The debate on the efficacy of standardized testing is as old as its subject which was first introduced to American education in the mid-1800s. However, the use of these tests didn’t become the heart of the education system until the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act mandated nationwide annual testing for K-12 public schools.

Christine Connerly, Student Learning Center coordinator, understands the value in having everyone tested to the same standard in K-12 since the grading and teaching standard varies for every high school.

“However, it alone should not be the basis of people being tracked into specific educational opportunities and things like that,” Connerly said.

Christine Connerly, Student Learning Center coordinator, understands the importance of standardized testing at an early age, but not in college. Photo credit: Cheyanne Burens

Many scholars argue that the standardized test model hinders the development of critical thinking and it doesn’t adequately prepare students for the real world.

“[Standardized testing] certainly seems to de-emphasize reading retention and analysis and things as simple as vocabulary,” Emmerich said.

Pence also argues the model creates unrealistic expectations of students.

“We can’t think for ourselves, we can’t ask critical questions. None of that fits into the standardized testing model,” he said.

A 2012 report by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education has shown that state tests over-represent basic skills and knowledge and do not measure the higher-order thinking, problem solving and creativity needed for career readiness.

“A career implies that you’re on a professional or semi-professional ladder. Well, that’s just a low percentage of us,” Pence said. “Most of us just work for wages, so we’re not into career readiness.”

Emmerich shares her colleague’s skepticism of an over-emphasis in standardized testing.

“I think that it’s a challenge for students to become aware of places where, when they arrive to college, their education has left them a little high and dry in terms of skills necessary to engage in critical thinking,” Emmerich said.

There’s a consensus in the debate that most professors try their best to have class discussions that build critical thinking and analysis.

“As faculty we try very hard to create environments where students can exercise their ability to form judgments in response to arguments,” Emmerich said.

However, class sizes have proven to be a problem when advocating for critical thinking.

“You have to look at the size of the classes,” Connerly said. “If we’re talking about anatomy and physiology, there are 300 people in those classes— it’s not like you can do a whole lot of subjective kind of stuff.”

Critical thinking is necessary for the positive sort of educational discourse, which Emmerich believes could’ve been a happy alternative to the events that played out in the Sacramento State incident.

“Had circumstances worked out differently, it might have been an opportunity for a discussion that would have been enlightening for everybody in the class,” Connerly said.

Cheyanne Burens can be reached at [email protected] or @cheyanne_burens on Twitter.