Election Renews Controversy Over Social-Justice Teaching

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 28, 2008 9 min read
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The cost of maintaining a household and the inadequacy of the minimum wage provide grist for a middle school algebra lesson in Tumwater, Wash. In a class titled the Chemistry of Bling, students at a Chicago high school investigate the properties of precious metals while studying the political, economic, and social consequences of the diamond trade. Fifth graders in Milwaukee debate the Iraq War and examine anti-war movements of the 1960s and today.

Those topics offer just a few examples of the infusion of “social justice” concepts into the curriculum, a decades-old approach that has drawn in a new generation of educators, often those who teach large numbers of low-income and minority students.

The diffuse movement to address social issues, historical conflicts, and multicultural viewpoints that have not been part of the traditional curriculum has often attracted controversy and derision, however. And proponents of what is often called critical pedagogy are finding themselves on the defensive once again, amid a new round of attacks related to the presidential campaign.

“Social-justice teaching is ... about teaching kids to question whomever happens to hold the reins of power at a particular moment. It’s about seeing yourself not just as a consumer [of information], but as an actor-critic” in the world around you, said Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools, a Milwaukee-based organization that publishes instructional materials and policy papers related to issues of race, equity, and education policy.

The former high school history teacher said that rather than a radical exercise, critical teaching is essential to ensuring students have both the knowledge and skills to be active and productive citizens.

“It’s not a subversive act, and it is a subversive act in some respects,” Mr. Bigelow said, “because it is not always encouraged by the curriculum.”

Social-justice teaching has been under an especially harsh spotlight in recent months because one of its exponents is William C. Ayers, a leader of the violent Weather Underground of the Vietnam War era whose ties to Sen. Barack Obama have become a prominent issue for opponents of the Democratic presidential nominee.

Mr. Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has argued in books and articles that the curriculum needs to be guided by social-justice principles. He and Mr. Obama served together on the boards of a Chicago school reform project and a charitable foundation. (“Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’,” Oct. 15, 2008.)

In a Wall Street Journal opinion essay this month, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a regular critic of what he sees as ill-conceived notions of education reform, described Mr. Ayers as one of the leaders in “bringing radical social-justice teaching into our public school classrooms.”

As such, Mr. Ayers, he wrote, “is not a school reformer. He is a school destroyer.”

Defenders and Detractors

A wave of such disparaging commentaries and blog entries has brought renewed attempts by social-justice educators to explain their methods and motives.

Social-justice lessons are rarely taken from textbooks. They generally reflect multiple perspectives, particularly those of disadvantaged groups; question government policies and actions; and incorporate content and activities that encourage students to share their own experiences and participate actively.

Mr. Bigelow, the author of the 1991 book Rethinking Columbus, said that during his 30 years in the classroom in Portland, Ore., he would encourage his students to walk in the shoes of groups that have been oppressed or disenfranchised. In a lesson about the World Trade Organization, for example, he would assign groups of students to represent the viewpoints of poor farmers in rural India, low-wage workers in Mexico, or corporate executives in the United States.

The critical tone of such lessons, with their tendency to highlight the more unseemly details of U.S. history as well as the nation’s enduring problems, is what most disturbs critics of the movement.

As a result, teachers who describe a mission that seeks equity for all students, classrooms that are sensitive to the cultural and social contexts of the communities they serve, and rigorous study of subject matter from multiple perspectives find themselves with other labels, such as radical, extremist, unpatriotic, even dangerous.

Social justice is “a shorthand for opposition to American traditions of individual justice and free-market economics,” according to David Horowitz, the director of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based organization that aims to preserve what it describes as traditional constitutional values. In a 2006 article, Mr. Horowitz called social-justice education “the gravest threat” to public schools.

“Proponents of social-justice teaching argue that American society is an inherently ‘oppressive’ society that is ‘systemically’ racist, ‘sexist,’ and ‘classist’ and thus discriminates institutionally against women, nonwhites, working Americans, and the poor,” he wrote.

Mr. Horowitz argues that such an approach violates teachers’ responsibility in a democratic society to provide “a solid academic education for all the nation’s children.”

But teachers who subscribe to the principles of social-justice education say they epitomize American values and present the ultimate in democratic exercises.

“The United States promises equal educational opportunity to everybody, but we don’t have it. It’s not unpatriotic or un-American to say that,” said Patricia H. Hinchey, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, who is active in the social-justice special-interest group affiliated with the American Educational Research Association.

“This whole business about why don’t teachers just teach the content,” she said, “presumes there is an apolitical body of content, and there’s not.”

The AERA special-interest group and Rethinking Schools are not alone in promoting social-justice teaching. Other groups, such as Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge, Mass., and Teaching for Change, in Washington, have taken up the cause, offering curricular materials, professional development, and online resources.

More than 1,000 educators attended a conference in Berkeley, Calif., this month sponsored by that city’s Teachers 4 Social Justice, an organization that offers professional development and instructional resources around themes of critical pedagogy. The Chicago-based Teachers for Social Justice sponsors a popular curriculum fair each fall.

Radical Teacher, a magazine founded more than 30 years ago as “a socialist, feminist, and anti-racist journal on the theory and practice of teaching,” publishes lesson plans and analyses of educational issues related to those themes.

Despite its history as a grassroots movement begun more than four decades ago, and the number of organizations and publications dedicated to promoting the concept, social-justice teaching is not easily defined, some observers note.

Radical or Practical?

Rooted in the struggles of the civil rights movement, and reflected later in the push for multicultural education, social-justice teaching can be viewed as a radical undertaking for educators helping disadvantaged students navigate a system that is not always equitable.

But many of today’s teachers, said Mr. Bigelow, see it in more practical terms—as simply a means of giving students the critical skills they need to take advantage of opportunities in an increasingly complex and competitive environment.

Mr. Ayers indicated in an e-mail that he was unavailable to comment for this story.

But in a message last spring to the blogger eduwonkette—hosted by edweek.org—the education professor said he wonders why critics are so upset about the idea of social justice in the classroom.

“All schools serve the societies in which they’re embedded—authoritarian schools serve authoritarian systems, apartheid schools serve an apartheid society, and so on,” he wrote in April. “Practically all schools want their students to study hard, stay away from drugs, do their homework, and so on. In fact, none of these features distinguishes schools in the old Soviet Union or fascist Germany from schools in a democracy.

“But in a democracy,” he said, “one would expect something more—a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation; a push for access and equity; a curriculum that encouraged free thought and independent judgment; a standard of full recognition of the humanity of each individual. In other words, social justice.”

Those ideas, reflected in the writings of other proponents of social-justice education, have their roots in the work of the late Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who urged adults from marginalized groups to overcome oppression through an educational process that develops critical consciousness.

Mr. Freire’s best-known book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1970, is considered a classic text of radical education and is still assigned in education schools.

Antonia Darder, a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a protégé of Mr. Freire’s, said there are varying interpretations of what it means to teach for social justice, but the structure of the classroom, as well as the content, should be part of the framework.

“Within the classroom, we need to create a type of learning community where students begin to practice a democratic process,” Ms. Darder said. “Teachers need to make it a habit that they ask students to think about consequences when they are looking at our role in the world, particularly when it produces human suffering.”

Specialized Schools

After making their way in the classrooms of teachers committed to the social-justice model, the values and structure have shaped specialized schools in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities.

The Social Justice High School in Chicago, for example, was born out of a community protest and hunger strike in 2001, when parents and activists pushed for a new high school for the largely Hispanic population in the city’s Little Village neighborhood.

“Our school, with its social-justice theme, encapsulates the very powerful notion that a community was able to rise up and galvanize itself around the view of education as a basic human right,” said Principal Rito Martinez. “But for us it means making sure that we’re educating children at high levels as a means of addressing the typical urban student maladies” they face, he said.

That means preparing students for college. The school’s college-preparatory curriculum meets state standards, but the lessons are often atypical, according to Assistant Principal Chad Weiden.

This year, for example, freshmen were learning about probability and statistics by calculating data on the relative likelihood of white, African-American, and Hispanic drivers’ getting pulled over by police in rural Illinois. Such a lesson, Mr. Weiden said, is relevant for the school’s 360 students, of whom 95 percent are considered disadvantaged, 70 percent are Hispanic, and 30 percent are black.

There is a plan to expand the school, district officials announced this month, to include the Pride Campus, a small secondary school program that would provide a safe, “gay friendly” atmosphere for homosexual and other students.

“Social justice is often perceived as a leftist perspective, but is it leftist to really have the opportunity for every kid in that neighborhood, if they want it, to get the knowledge and skills to succeed and come back and work in their community?” Mr. Weiden said.

“The most American of values is what we all rally around, which is the betterment and empowerment of our community.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Election Renews Controversy Over Social-Justice Teaching


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