New Education Dean Takes Social Justice Into the Classroom

Anne-Marie Devine

Kevin K. Kumashiro
May 13, 2013

Kevin K. Kumashiro, who is 43, will become dean of the University of San Francisco's School of Education in July. Mr. Kumashiro, who is a proponent of what he calls "anti-oppressive education," is a professor of education and Asian American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the National Association for Multicultural Education. This is his account of how he developed his approach to teaching, as told to Ben Wieder.


My first teaching job was in the Peace Corps, in Nepal, after I graduated from Pomona College. We got very little training in the Peace Corps in terms of curriculum development, theories on how students learn, or classroom management—all the things that you really should know. We were explicitly told that the American school system should be a model, and that anything we brought from our own experiences would help.

It really wasn't until I immersed myself in the research in graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, that I started to see that so many of our commonsensical practices really don't make the most sense. We need to look to the research to suggest how we should approach a lesson, not just fall back on our gut instinct. I think a lot of my drive to question how we do things is based on the recognition that when I was doing things as a classroom teacher, I could have and should have been a lot better.

Students are often acutely aware of how schools are plagued with inequities. At Wisconsin, I was trying to understand how we think about the intersection of different forms of oppression, like how race and gender interact with social class and sexuality. My dissertation became my first authored book, Troubling Education, which was very theoretical. It was really in the book that came next, Against Common Sense, where I tried to say how we can teach in ways that challenge different forms of injustice. It's important to engage students by making learning as relevant and connected to their everyday lives as possible, in a way that also connects to these broader questions of inequity and injustice.

After grad school, I worked in teacher-preparation programs at Swarthmore College and Bates College, and then I departed from the typical professor path. I left higher education for four years and did consulting work. That's when I started the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education, holding workshops and conferences for professors about how we prepare teachers for issues of diversity, equity, and social justice in our nation's schools. That led me to my next job, which was at the National Education Association doing very similar kinds of professional development for public-school employees. Now I'm at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I direct a $4-million U.S. Department of Education grant to support Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and English-language-learner students, and teach Asian-American studies and educational policy.

During the past two years in Chicago, I've helped develop this network called CReATE, the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education. It has over 100 professors, from every university in the Chicago area, trying to speak collectively about what the research says on topics like school closures and teacher evaluations based on high-stakes testing, rather than what the rhetoric used to support those policies says.

There's a lot of criticism of higher education, and rightfully so, that says we are disconnected from what's actually going on in the real world. What draws me to the University of San Francisco is that it has an incredibly rich history of working with local communities. The faculty at the School of Education is really trying to push the envelope in terms of offering alternative ways of thinking about teaching and school reform. My hope is to create an institution where we can act collectively to effect local policy changes and produce teachers who walk out with this really personal commitment to social justice.