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No Academic Freedom for Teachers

By Walt Gardner — June 19, 2017 1 min read
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Despite the argument that critical thinking is the most important outcome in public schools, teachers’ hands have been effectively tied in achieving that goal as a result of court decisions (“On Teaching Controversy,” Education Next, Summer 2017). I have specific reference now to the U.S. Supreme’s Court’s ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos in 2006.

In that case, the high court held that teachers’ speech is what school boards have hired and therefore own it. In other words, academic freedom in K-12 has no place in public schools in this country. (I’m not talking now about colleges and universities, although academic freedom is under attack there.)

When I began teaching English in the Los Angles Unified School District, the free speech movement that began in Berkeley was just gaining traction. Students demanded the right to express themselves in the school newspaper and in what was emblazoned on their T-shirts. Despite their sincere interest in the nation’s involvement in the Viet Nam war and in other issues, the principal made it clear that we were to adhere strictly to the prescribed curriculum.

The results were predictable. Students rebelled. For example, they published an underground newspaper called The Worrier, which was a parody of the school’s mascot The Warriors. Textbooks were so outdated that students quickly became bored. In trying to teach my students how to make a persuasive argument on paper, I finally gave up and brought in newspapers. I’m convinced to this day that if I hadn’t done so, I would have completely lost their attention and respect.

Fortunately, a new principal realized the price paid for censoring material was too great. The new climate made a huge difference. But my point is that to this day, teachers in K-12 public schools have little legal protection if a complaint is made. I seriously doubt if teachers accused of violating district policy about teaching controversial issues would prevail if they tried to justify their decision by arguing that they were hoping to develop critical thinking skills in their students.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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