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What is Social Justice Teaching, Anyway?

By Eduwonkette — April 29, 2008 3 min read

The blogosphere never passes up an opportunity to swing at an education professor (see Still a Public Menace and Bill Ayers is Worse Than a Terrorist. He’s an Ed School Professor for representative headlines.) After reading Sol Stern’s article about Bill Ayers, I was still unclear about what “social justice teaching” actually means, and he kindly pointed me to his previous work that provides concrete examples (see here, here, and here).

As I understand it, Stern’s argument about “social justice teaching” has four parts:

1) Education school professors have indoctrinated their students to “teach for social justice.” As a result, social justice teaching is widespread in our schools.

2) Social justice teaching involves feeding “left-wing, anti-American ideology” to students across the curriculum.

3) Social justice teaching reflects a pedagogical approach grounded in the work of Paolo Freire, which rejects the “banking” approach to education and is radically student-centered.

4) Social justice teaching does not impart usable skills or knowledge and thus deprives poor and minority children of the opportunity to succeed.

Regarding Stern’s first point, I question whether “teaching for social justice” has one meaning. Like the terms social capital, globalization, and neoliberalism, social justice teaching means many things to many people. Many Teach for America corps members have social justice motivations for teaching; the leaders of Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem, which turned its kids loose to remind adults to vote on primary day, may also see their approach as “teaching for social justice.” In short, it’s not clear that “social justice teaching” is a coherent and distinctive pedagogy that’s taught at schools of education across the country . It’s also worth noting that teachers are relatively conservative. If education schools have been engaged in an active project to disseminate social justice teaching, they largely have been unsuccessful.

Second, I agree with Stern that some projects flying under the flag of social justice cross the line of political neutrality in the classroom. In my view, social and political issues have a rightful place in the classroom; Stern and I likely disagree on this point. However, lessons that lead students to the “right” answer on politically contested issues cross the line. For example, this abstract from the Radical Math conference does not imply that there is one right answer to these economic questions:

This session will focus on how financial literacy and justice topics can be incorporated into the math classroom. These topics include calculating the true cost of rent-to-own stores, comparing check cashers versus banks or credit unions, understanding credit card offers, and assessing the benefits and dangers of tax refund loans. Using these day-to-day examples not only prepares students for real-life math but also enables discussion around broader economic justice issues that particularly affect low-income communities and neighborhoods of color, including redlining, community reinvestment, and income inequality.

On the other hand, projects with titles like, “Using Mathematics as a Weapon in the Struggle for Social Justice: Free the Jena Six!” (also from the Radical Math conference) do suggest one right answer. But framed differently, this project is a benign mainstay of statistics problem sets: if chosen at random, what is the probability that x jurors would be white?

Third, it is not clear to me that teaching for social justice involves a particular pedagogical approach. Wouldn’t KIPP teachers claim to be teaching for social justice?

Finally, to Stern’s claim that social justice teaching robs poor kids of a good education: it is impossible to know whether this is the case. To the extent that these projects engage disengaged kids and prepare them to participate in our democracy, they don’t. To the extent that they supplant the teaching of skills that kids need to be successful, they do.

Rather than focusing on whether education schools eat children and kill puppies, I would like to hear more from opponents and proponents of social justice teaching about 1) whether controversial social issues have a rightful place in K-12 classrooms, and 2) what general guidelines we might endorse for these projects.

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