Officials Wary of Placing Faith in Teachers' Judgment

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Protests from community members and pressure from district officials didn't stop Mike Dunlap from delivering a lesson to his 10th grade World Cultures class last month. During a day the local teachers' union set aside as a teach-in on capital punishment, the Oakland, Calif., teacher and his students discussed the justice system, stereotyped images that police officers and urban residents have of one another, and the pending fate of some death-row inmates.

Mr. Dunlap concluded that a thoughtful and balanced discussion on such serious issues--and his right to teach them-- was important enough to ignore the groundswell of public debate the event had stirred up. In the end, the Oakland Technical High School teacher decided, administrators would have to trust he would use his expertise and good judgment in presenting an appropriate lesson.

"It is our responsibility to take these things on," said Mr. Dunlap, 51, who has been teaching at the school for seven years. "If anyone gives me a controversial issue, I'm not going to dodge it. I'm going to use it for all it's worth to engage these kids."

But how teachers address such issues is subject to debate. Whether discussing literature, history, or current events, they must tread through minefields of potentially sensitive material. Teachers say their professionalism and acumen should grant them wide latitude in designing coursework that both challenges students and meets curriculum requirements.

In a climate, however, in which what is taught--and, increasingly, how it is taught--is under close scrutiny from parents, policymakers, and various interest groups, many districts are wary of teaching materials and methods that may be deemed too provocative.

"Nobody wants to offend anybody," said Leon Friedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who has represented teachers in court after they were disciplined for using controversial materials. "Eventually, we are going to have the most bland teaching materials around, and students are going to feel that school has nothing to do with their lives or the outside world," he argued.

Educators who have acquired a deftness at bringing subject matter to life, without crossing the line that can sometimes draw well-intentioned lessons into the maelstrom of moral, social, or political debate, have often earned a degree of autonomy, some observers say.

Administrators, however, say it is their responsibility to ensure that teachers follow some guidelines because, like people the world over, not every teacher has good judgment.

"We expect that the various sides of an issue are addressed, that the community norms and expectations are not violated to a huge degree, and that teachers use good taste and good judgment in the classroom," said Katherine A. Wright, the assistant superintendent for education services in the 17,000-student Alvord district in Riverside, Calif.

A year ago, a high school teacher in Ms. Wright's district drew the outrage of parents by administering a mathematics test that asked students to compute the value of specified measurements of cocaine and the cost of living of welfare recipients, among other questions.

Not only did the teacher use "very poor judgment," Ms. Wright said, he also compromised the district's stand against illicit drug use. He has since left the district.

Who's in Charge?

Such missteps can result from simple mistakes, according to Edwin C. Darden, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association. But teachers' actions can also amount to insubordination, gross misconduct, or plain incompetence, he said.

In dozens of recent incidents, teachers--intentionally or inadvertently--have used books, films, concepts, language, or activities that parents or community members considered offensive. Within the past year or so alone, for instance:

  • A New York City teacher was reprimanded for asking his 10th grade English class to read and analyze a classmate's poem that graphically described sex acts.
  • Parents in Germantown, Ohio, complained that a guest speaker at an elementary school class deviated from the planned topic of local history to discuss her own involvement with witchcraft; the teacher did nothing to stop it.
  • And a teacher in Anchorage, Alaska, assigned a book of American Indian myths to his 10th grade English class that included some sexually explicit stories. The teacher said he hadn't read the entire book and didn't know it contained questionable material.

Such headline-grabbing episodes do little to quell the tension between teachers, who fear micromanagement of their classrooms, and administrators, who have to handle the fallout from bad decisions.

Policymakers and administrators ever further removed from the classroom have gained increasing command over the curriculum in recent years with the proliferation of state and local standards, high-stakes tests, and control of textbook and trade-book selection.

But teachers still exert some degree of control, depending on district policies and the management style of the principal, according to Vito Perrone, a professor of education at Harvard University.

Many districts have strict curriculum-writing protocols that engage both teachers and administrators in choosing acceptable instructional materials, Mr. Perrone said. Moreover, most districts and schools require teachers to submit lesson plans, with a general outline of what they intend to teach, throughout the school year. They also may require teachers to consult colleagues or gain a supervisor's approval when they plan to use materials other than the approved text.

And while the academic-standards movement has brought new mandates to the classroom, it has also prodded teachers to enliven textbooks and design lessons that engage students in "real world" learning. Such pressure may have increased the risk of missteps.

"Any teacher who decides to try to relate the academic content to the world is open to some criticism, because the world is messy as can be," Mr. Perrone said. "If you try to present a wide range of issues, someone is likely to be offended."

Setting Parameters

Objections to lessons come from all ideological quarters.

"There are more politically active groups on both the left and right attacking teachers and libraries," Hofstra's Mr. Friedman said. "Teachers are left in the middle."

Even the use of books widely viewed as classics--such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little House on the Prairie, and The Diary of a Young Girl--are routinely challenged by parents and community groups. That situation has prompted many school boards and administrators to review instructional materials before they are introduced into the classroom.

"Courts have been quite consistent about recognizing the ability of districts to set parameters as to the structure and content of courses," Mr. Darden of the school boards' association said. "Such policies are not meant to be so confining as to constitute tyranny, but rather they are meant to give some general guidelines."

Without boundaries, some experts say, teachers may be taking a risk when addressing contentious matters. But districts' guidelines for dealing with potentially sensitive materials are not always clear and consistent. And such policies, if too prescriptive, may detract from student learning, teachers warn.

"Academic freedom honestly doesn't exist" for K-12 teachers, charged Cissy Lacks, who has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court over her firing from the Ferguson-Florissant, Mo., district in 1995. She allowed her juniors to use profanity on a videotape they made for her English class. In her suit against the district, Ms. Lacks, a teacher for 22 years, claims she was not given fair warning that the district could discipline her for using such techniques.

Besides, she argues, the exercise was a powerful learning experience for her students. "There is no way there is going to be good teaching in schools without [that freedom]," she said. "You start to second-guess everything you do."

In the Contract

Lower courts have generally sided with districts on such issues. Yet Mr. Dunlap, the California teacher, had little reason to worry about his lesson on capital punishment. The 3,700 teachers in the Oakland district have protections written into their contract that permit "academic freedom," or the leeway to "introduce political, religious, or otherwise controversial material, provided that said material is relevant to the course content and within the scope of the law." Teachers there are also free to express their own opinions on all matters relevant to the course content.

Consequently, even though the superintendent threatened disciplinary action if teachers persisted, the contract gave her little recourse. A district official who sat in on Mr. Dunlap's class pronounced the lesson "quite balanced."

Such contractual agreements are not uncommon, especially in districts with strong teachers' unions. But administrators are sometimes reluctant to grant teachers such broad powers, said Barry Abel, an organizational specialist with the National Education Association.

Critics of the Oakland teach-in, which was sponsored by the local teachers' union, said that some teachers abused those rights by focusing on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A former journalist and Black Panther, he awaits execution in Pennsylvania for the death of a Philadelphia police officer. His case has drawn attention nationwide.

When one union representative in Oakland circulated information that implied the death-row inmate had been framed and that questioned police tactics, the teach-in became a pretext for advancing the union representative's political agenda, contends Shannon Reeves, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Furthermore, Mr. Reeves says, the teachers were insensitive to the timing of the event, which, though scheduled in advance, took place the same day as the funeral for a slain Oakland police officer.

"The teach-in was a gross misuse of academic time and a gross misrepresentation of academic freedom," Mr. Reeves maintained. "It was clearly biased."

Core Issues

Even more disturbing, Mr. Reeves said, was the message teachers were sending in choosing to focus on an issue that failed to address the district's greatest problem: low student achievement.

"There is no political or social issue or current event more important than the basic and fundamental education of these children," said Mr. Reeves, who lamented that most of the district's 52,000 students are below grade level in math and reading. "There is no justification with those types of test scores to suspend a single minute from the core curriculum."

But several of Mr. Dunlap's students said that they believed the topic was an important--and relevant--one for them to tackle.

"A lot of my classmates brought in personal accounts" of their own confrontations with the police, sophomore Shariffa Wilson said. "The class made us realize there are lots of flaws in the [justice system]."

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Pages 1, 12-14

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as Officials Wary of Placing Faith in Teachers' Judgment
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Web Resources
  • "Teaching Controversy," from the Utah Society for Environmental Education, addresses the difficulty of teaching controversial topics and offers suggestions for classroom guidance.
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