Education Opinion

Teachers Pay Steep Price for Creativity

By Walt Gardner — December 11, 2015 2 min read
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Despite efforts to encourage teachers to be creative in the classroom, there’s no such thing as academic freedom in K-12 (“Students post ‘whites only,’ ‘blacks only’ signs around school -as assignment,” EAGnews.org, Dec. 7).

To teach students what government-sanctioned segregation felt like in this country, an Indiana high-school teacher had students post “whites only” and “blacks only” signs near school bathrooms and drinking fountains as part of social studies class. The signs were immediately removed, and the teacher was placed on paid administrative leave. The district issued a statement that teachers are encouraged to be innovative, but they must not use methods that are “harassing or discriminatory” to students.

I’m not at all surprised. In Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of Tipp City Exempted Village School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 2010 that only school boards of education can determine the curriculum and instruction. Academic freedom does not “readily apply to in-class curricular speech at the high school level.” The case involved a high-school English teacher who distributed a list of the 100 most controversial books, and asked each group of students to investigate the reasons. When parents complained at a school board meeting about some of the books on the list, their action set in motion a series of events that led to the teacher’s dismissal.

The fact is that when teachers attempt to be creative the law is firmly on the side of local boards of education who, in turn, are acutely sensitive to parents. It takes great courage on the part of teachers to depart from established policy. Although I commend them for their principles, I also wonder in today’s climate if some teachers have forgotten that certain topics are guaranteed to get them in hot water. Much also depends on where teachers are employed. Large urban districts tend to be more tolerant than small rural districts. But that is a broad generalization.

The most publicized example in this regard was in Riceville, Iowa. On Apr. 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Jane Elliott designed a lesson to teach her third-grade, all-white students the experience of “walking in the moccasins” of someone of color. She gave blue-eyed students privileges that her brown-eyed students were denied. The initial resistance to the lesson quickly disappeared. Those designated superior treated their inferior classmates differently. They became arrogant, and their grades on tests improved. The inferior group became timid, and their grades on tests suffered. Elliott was widely shunned by other teachers and townspeople.

Teachers today have to walk a fine line. They want to make their classes interesting, but they don’t dare go too far if they want to remain employed. It’s another reason why teachers feel so beaten down. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

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.