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Guest Blogger Sol Stern Weighs In on Social Justice Teaching

Sol Stern, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, responds both to my post and Bill Ayers's post on social justice teaching.

Thanks for posting my articles on social justice teaching and for being willing to open up this space for more discussion of what I regard as a retrograde education movement.

Unfortunately you [eduwonkette] avoid dealing with the harm done by this movement when you suggest that there’s really no “coherent and distinctive pedagogy that’s taught at schools of education across the country.” If you believe that, you’re somewhat out of touch with some of the biggest stars of the Ed schools. If you can stomach it, I suggest reading the works of Maxine Greene, Michael Apple, William Ayers, Peter McClaren, Carole Edelsky, Henry Giroux, Eric Guttstein, and their many epigones. Several years ago, David Steiner, presently the Dean of the education school at Hunter College, published a study of the syllabi of the basic “foundations of education” and “methods” courses in 16 of the nation’s most prestigious Ed schools. The mainstays of the foundations courses were works by Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux and Jonathan Kozol (who wrote one of the earliest manuals on how American teachers can sneak left wing social justice lessons into the classroom.) For the methods courses, Bill Ayers’s To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher tops the bestseller list. Among those education writers who are almost never included on course lists are advocates of a knowledge-based and politically neutral curriculum, such as E. D. Hirsch Jr. or Diane Ravitch.

You also minimize the problem by suggesting that even if it could be shown that social justice teaching was a significant part of the Ed schools’ agenda, “they largely have been unsuccessful.” I don’t know how we might measure success or failure in this regard. I do note that just two months ago, The Nation, always on the alert for signs of resurgent leftism in our civic institutions, celebrated the growth of the social justice education movement. In my City Journal articles I have cited numerous examples of New York City schools devoting their curriculums to social justice themes and have described specific units taught to children (including in elementary schools) that clearly fall under the rubric of political indoctrination. For example, the radical education group NYCoRE created a “Katrina curriculum” that has been piloted by one of the group’s leaders in the fourth grade of a Manhattan elementary school. The curriculum leaves nothing to chance, providing teachers with classroom prompts designed to illustrate the evils of American capitalism and imperialism. One section, called “Two Gulf Wars,” suggests posing such questions to the kids as: “Was the government unable to respond quickly to the crisis on the Gulf Coast because the money and personnel were all being used in Iraq?”

So it seems to me that the question isn’t precisely how widespread social justice teaching is right now (although more studies would be welcome) but rather what public school leaders – state education commissioners, teachers union leaders and district superintendents – might do to make sure that intrusion of left wing or right wing political ideology into the classroom doesn’t spread any further. We need a professional code of ethics for teachers, a Hippocratic Oath if you will, that makes clear that our public school classrooms are not laboratories for social and political change, with the kids serving as guinea pigs. Perhaps Stanley Fish put it best: “Teachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or antinationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk show host.”

Unfortunately, in his recent New York Times column, Professor Fish somewhat hypocritically ignored his friend Bill Ayers’ blatant violations of this injunction. So it’s useful that Ayers surfaces here and proudly affirms that he is “in favor of teaching for social justice.” Still, he’s unusually reticent in this post and comes close to defining the social justice teaching he advocates as nothing more than mom and apple pie. He denies that he is out to indoctrinate students in left wing ideology. This is understandable, considering the current news cycle and the public tribulations of Ayers’ Hyde Park neighbor Barack Obama. I admire Ayers’s loyalty to Obama and his sense of political discipline (unlike Reverend Wright.) I assume that after November 8th we will be getting the full, unexpurgated Bill Ayers again. In the meantime I offer a few more snippets from Ayers academic corpus:

For a course called “Social Conflicts of the 1960’s” Ayers posted his introduction to his collection of Weather Underground agitprop —called, with no intended parody, Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970-1974. “Once things were connected,” Ayers’s introduction recollects, “we saw a system at work, we were radicalized, we named that system—imperialism—and forged an idea of how to overthrow it.” If this isn’t an attempt at indoctrinating students, I don’t know what would qualify for that characterization. Similarly, Ayers offers these comments about the role of K-12 teachers for his course on Urban Education: “Homelessness, crime, racism, oppression—we have the resources and knowledge to fight and overcome these things. We need to look beyond our isolated situations, to define our problems globally. We cannot be child advocates . . . in Chicago or New York and ignore the web that links us with the children of India or Palestine.” So, not only should public school teachers be working to overcome racism and oppression in Chicago but they should be advocating for the “children of Palestine.” Considering that Ayers’ website includes rants against Israel and Zionism, we can just imagine what he means by that exhortation. And here is the entire required reading list for that same Urban Education course:

- Freedom School Curriculum (Distributed in class).
- Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.
- bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress, Routledge, 1994.
- William Ayers. Teaching Toward Freedom, Beacon Press, 2004.
- William Ayers, Pat Ford. City Kids, City Teachers, New Press, 1996.

Now that’s real intellectual diversity. No left wing ideology, no indoctrination here. Perhaps Professor Ayers’ Urban Education course answers Eduwonkette’s question about whether “teaching for social justice involves a particular pedagogical approach?"

Sol Stern's comments don't comport with my experience teaching in schools of education. I do not believe that there's a coherent pedagogy in teacher education in the U.S., although there certainly are individuals whose works are read widely, as is true in most fields of study. I've never even heard of some of the people that he cites -- maybe he's better read on social justice teaching than I am. (And just so there's no misunderstanding, it's not E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch that I've never heard of -- I'm a longtime admirer of Diane's.)

I think it's difficult to argue that ed schools are really, really good at teaching one thing (political indoctrination of prospective teachers, in the service of political indoctrination of kids) but really, really bad at teaching virtually everything else (i.e., how to teach particular school subjects). Isn't it more likely that ed schools, like most educational institutions in the U.S., are only moderately successful at teaching anything? Stern grants ed schools remarkable power over their students in this one domain.

He also awkwardly sidesteps eduwonkette's assertion that ed schools have been largely unsuccessful in promoting a social justice agenda. "I don't know how we might measure success or failure in this regard," he writes, and then cites the fact that The Nation approvingly published an article on the rise of social justice education a few months ago. This is evidence? Of what? Nor am I persuaded by a few juicy anecdotes about school units with political overtones. Do such units exist? Sure. Does the fact that they exist demonstrate the prevalence of social justice teaching in U.S. schools, however one might define it? Certainly not.

"So it seems to me," Stern writes, "that the question isn't precisely how widespread social justice teaching is right now..." I beg to differ. That's a very good question to ask, and one that is crucial to judging whether there's really something worth attending to here -- whether one is on the left or the right.

Hi Sol, Thanks again for joining us. Lots of things to respond to, and skoolboy jumped in with even more as I was writing (skoolboy, I'll respond to your comments later on). Let me share the questions I’m mulling over:

1) How might we verify the existence of a “coherent and distinctive pedagogy that’s taught at schools of education across the country?” Surveys/interviews of ed school faculty or ed school students? I am skeptical of seeing syllabi as a smoking gun, but in conjunction with other forms of evidence, I might be more convinced.

2) If such a pedagogy/movement exists, how might we measure its reach? For example, that federal funding is directed towards abstinence-only sex education is strong evidence of that movement’s success. Perhaps state standards offer a parallel – to what extent is social justice incorporated?

3) With regard to indoctrination, you don’t say a lot about teachers’ agency. Are we to believe that teachers at education schools parrot everything to which they've been exposed?

4) Where is the line between exposure and indoctrination? Take Katrina – the most catastrophic natural disaster in this country is an important topic for K-12 classrooms to cover. Is the disparate racial impact of this disaster, which stems from multiple causes, fair game for a social studies classroom?

5) Which books would readers like to see in a “foundations of education” course?

And let me hit one larger point that I’ve already expressed to Sol off-blog – here and in the City Journal article, you make too much of Bill Ayers himself (his syllabus, his history, etc), and it distracts from the critical questions you are asking about how we teach contested issues in the classroom. My hope for this discussion is that we don’t waste our time holding a referendum on any one individual, but instead focus on the issues at hand.

Sol, while your naming names of your most-hated social-justice teachers, don't forget, Dr. King, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine ("Rights of Man"), Ghandi, Tolstoy, Dr. DuBois, and Abe Lincoln, just to name a few who hopefully, are still major parts of the public school curriculum. And by the way, as to your claim that your pal Diane Ravitch isn't a social-justice propagator (I know she's an anti-social- justice-math warrior), pick up a copy of her textbook: "The Democracy Reader: Classic and Modern Speeches, Essays, Poems, Declarations, and Documents on Freedom and Human Rights Worldwide." It's pure social-justice propaganda.

Closet Social-Justice terrorists?

"Why, it may be asked, do students need to know about the history of union membership? Because the free trade union movement is one of the bulwarks of a democratic society and because some of the fundamental economic and social reforms of the past century—such as the banning of sweatshops and child labor—can scarcely be fathomed without knowing something of the saga of the labor movement. The labor movement story is one of men and women, laws and campaigns, ideas and conflict. This is the stuff of history."

Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr. What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know: A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature. (NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), p. 69."

Sounds like Ravitch and Finn are secret Ayers-ite Weathermen.

I'm confused. What is "social justice teaching" exactly?

Arguing whether it's good or bad based on different definitions seems silly to me.

Since my name has been invoked in this discussion, I will add this comment. The issue about Bill Ayers is not whether he favors "social justice." We all favor social justice. I certainly do.
I do not favor propagandizing innocent children, however. I think it should be the mission of schools to teach children to think for themselves, to be fully informed and knowledgeable people, to be active in our democratic politics.
The issue with Mr. Ayers, I believe, is that he was a terrorist. He admits to setting bombs that might have (or did) kill people. So far as I know, he has never said this was a bad thing to do.
I don't know how one can teach children democratic values and respect for others without renouncing violence against one's fellow citizens.
Terrorism, I suggest, is incompatible with democratic governance.
Diane Ravitch

Actually, Diane, I think the issue is social justice: what does it mean in the classroom? who gets to define it? is there such a thing as a social justice pedagogy? I think it would be very easy to get pulled into a debate as to whether Ayers is a terrorist or not, and thereby ignoring the issue that eduwonkette put on the table earlier in the week: What is this "social justice" thing?

The issue is Ayers only to the extent that his view of social justice has been put on the table. As has Stern's (or rather Stern's so-called critique of social justice without actually defining it). I'm in agreement with skoolboy in that I'm not convinced that schools of ed have become these factories of indoctrination, and while I've read most of the authors that Stern cites, I've also spent a fair amount of time around colleges of ed, and while there are some places that are clearly out there in terms of a progressive curriculum, there are also many that aren't - including enough that are on the other end of the spectrum. Kind of in line with with what Lee Schulman has been talking about, in that probably the most important thing missing from teacher ed is a "signature pedagogy"

I also don't think we want to get into a debate about the relationship between renouncing violence and teaching democracy. While I'd relish the challenge, I think it's off topic.

I believe that it was Bertold Brecht who said "to say that art is not political is itself a political statement."

I think the problem here is not whether schools of education see themselves as agents of social change (or social stability, I suppose). What Dr. Stern seems to be arguing is what changes and whose definition of justice.

If we toss out as too radical every unrepentent American who has ever lobbed a bomb in the cause of justice there are a good many veterans who would be barred from Academia.

It is a sign of deep disrespect to students in a democracy to teach only one side of any issue. If we are not explicitly training students to weigh different points of view, analyze them according to the evidence on hand and their own personal convictions, and then either come to judgment or synthesis, then we are not preparing them be responsible citizens of a democracy. And I think that's true of any subject.

Unfortunately, we have too many teachers and professors who feel it is their duty to stand firmly against whatever Authority is in power and teach against it, rather then empowering their students with true critical facilities. These teachers may or may not be persuasive in the moment, but (in my experience) they certainly don't indoctrinate in any deep way. Students who believe what Professor X told them only because Professor X is charismatic and loaded his reading list with a single point of view will carry his views only until they confront Professor (or President, or Pundit) Z, who is equally charismatic but has different strong views.

Prof. Ravitch is right about Ayers, for sure. He deserves no respect, no credence, and no attention beyond that of which we'd give any common murderer. Let's not pretend that because his particular brand of psychosis is generally aligned with a political viewpoint that many of us share it's anything other than psychosis.

As for the topic at hand, I think there's a false distinction being made, and perhaps some room for the application of common sense. The false distinction is between teaching social activism and teaching a neutral and essential content, Hirsch-style. Many a rigorous charter school (think of the big boys: KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, etc.) are founded along both themes - they teach their students the importance of pursuing social justice, and they do so without sacrificing important skills and content.

Where common sense comes in is in the teaching of particular political views. Every viewpoint can be contested - I think it's fair to teach that slavery or the Holocaust were wrong, for instance, but I'm sure we could find a few loonies who would disagree. Similarly, some argue that evolution should be given no more time or credence than creationism or intelligent design; balderdash.

It's fair to teach our students to be socially conscious, to recognize inequity and how to do something about it. The "neutral" viewpoint on topics like racism and homophobia should not be tolerated - bigotry and acceptance are not of equal merit.

I understand where the anti- (teaching of) social justice crowd is coming from. When schools abandon rigor and necessary content in the name of pie-in-the-sky idealism and the teaching of impotent protest-activism, what they actually do is prevent their students from acquiring the skills and knowledge they'll need to be socially conscious adults. The answer, though, is not to apply a values-neutral education, because there's no such thing. The canon is slanted toward the majority, history written by the victors. In many cases, those victors who define our curricula are no less murderous than our own Mr. Ayers.

This is not a serious debate. First, Stern's claim that left education authors dominate the curriculum of education schools ("the biggest stars") is so preposterous it discredits anything else he might say. Secondly, even if left writers were to dominate foundations curriculum, which they don't, this would represent a tiny and rapidly shrinking fraction of what goes on in ed schools. Thirdly, Stern's suggestion that these authors represent a unified view indicates that either he has not read the authors or that he did but did not understand what they were saying or that he intends to willfully misrepresent the positions as unified. For example Stern's clumsily lumps together the liberal views of Kozol with the marxist views of McLaren. Stern should stomach his own reading list a little more before writing denunciations of it. I'm sure he would have a hard time stomaching if someone were to lump together the Manhattan Institute with the Hoover Institution with the Heritage Foundation with the American Enterprise Institute with the Fordham Foundation and all their fellows just because they are working in concert to privatize public education, remake teacher education, attack unions and undermine the possibilities of public schools fostering a broader democratic culture and habits of critical engaged citizenry.

Thanks, Socrates. I think you've said it well and thoroughly and applied common sense. Where I part company with social justice pedagogues is when they believe or insist that literacy be taught through the lens of issues and activism, at the expense of (as you say) rigor and content. I found this approach to be true in the TC Writing Workshop that we force fed to kids in my NYC classroom. A quote from a TC staff developer in Barbara Feinberg's article from Ed Next, "The Lucy Calkins Project" captures the mindset perfectly:

“What’s most important to me,” explained a project staff member during the open house, “are social issues. I teach fiction writing to teach social justice.” She went on to describe her methodology: “I tell students that they must always first start with an issue—gender discrimination, racism, poverty—not a character. Then we create a character around the issue.”

Not only is this an absurd approach to writing instruction, it's alarming in its heavy-handedness. It's completely iinappropriate to bring this mindset to an elementary school classroom.

I would just ask Sol Stern: Can Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch really be defined as politically-neutral? Given the uneven playing field that public education has become, we would be naive to think that teaching is not a political act. Teaching for social justice is about equalizing educational opportunities and ensuring that students have the skills required to assess their conditions and then address inequities on their own behalf. With this definition, we all might fit under the big tent. Unfortunately, most of those who claim 'political neutrality' fail to recognize the needs, desires and constraints of those students on the bottom of the hierarchy. Teaching 'pure content' or knowledge-based curriculum only allows participation in the current market--it doesn't promote leadership or innovation. We can't make these decisions based soley on what worked for the elite or what has worked historically. We must pay attention to the current context and reality. We need an approach that is both/and on these issues. But frankly, as a person of color from a low-income background, you cannot teach my children if you don't have an expressed commitment to social justice. I would not trust your intentions otherwise.

For the time being I will only respond to eduwonkette's five questions.
1. I don't know how we might verify the existence of a “coherent and distinctive pedagogy that’s taught at schools of education across the country?” You're the social scientist and I welcome suggestions. But I would also like to point out that it was you who made proving a "coherent and distinctive pedagogy" a standard that somehow I had to prove. In my previous writings I merely suggested the the SJ movement is well entrenched in our ed schools and I provided what I thought was a reasonable amount of evidence to sustain my claim (not your standard)for what was, after all, a magazine article (not a doctoral dissertation.) Just consider one of the points I made. Two of the stalwarts of the SJ movement, James Tate and Gloria Ladson Billings have been recent (elected) Presidents of the 25,000 member AERA. And Bill Ayers was just elected Vice President (and I'm sure if some of the other contributers have their way, he will soon enough be President.) So, if you want to push for a more comprehensive study (going beyond the useful information in the David Steiner study I cited) be my guest. I always believe in shedding more light on this issue. It might even reduce the level of hysteria my initial forrays into the subject seem to have induced.
2. I don't think the place to start any such studey is in state standards. First of all, teachers ignore these anyway, and there are lots of ways to sneak social justice (i.e. the left wing version of SJ) into just about any general state standard. Certainly one place to start is in the curruculums and lesson plans actually offered by groups like Radical Math and NYcORE.
3.Of course I don't think teachers parrot everything they have learned at ed schools. That's not the issue.The question is to what extent those teachers who have sat at the feet of the likes of Bill Ayers and Maxine Greene, and have been inspired by their teachings, are emboldened to use this approach in their classrooms. I believe the answer is quite a lot, but, again, lets agree to have more studies on this.
4. Of course the causes of Katrina are "fair game" for study in the classroom, even a fourth grade classroom. But no fair mindied person can read the particular curriculum I have cited and conclude there is anything fair about it. You brought this up, so I think you have an obligation to read the NYcORE curriculum and give us your own assesment.
5. Among the books/reports I would like to see in every foundations course and discussed alongside some of the SJ movement's fave five are: Left Back and the Language Police, both by Diane Ravitch; The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, by E.D. Hirsch Jr.; Catholic Schools and the Common Good, by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee and Peter Holland; the report of the National Reading Panel;and the second Coleman Report.
Finally, on the question of making too much of Bill Ayers and focusing the debate around one individual. I concede you have a point here. But you were the one to seek him out and get his comment, which turned out to be a lot of dissembling about his own views and a distortion of what I had written. So I felt I had to respond to set the record straight.

"But frankly, as a person of color from a low-income background, you cannot teach my children if you don't have an expressed commitment to social justice. I would not trust your intentions otherwise."

Which leads back to my original post on the Core Knowledge blog: Teaching the children of low-income people of color would be a curious choice of jobs for someone who is not committed to social justice. That's a given. As someone who taught such children, however, I think it's best if I let you define the specific issues rather than for me to decide. I trust your judgement to know what's best for your child. Does Bill Ayers?

While Sol Stern is here, I wonder if he'll comment on whether or not he'll be taking a second look at Reading First, now that we have a very large study from IES concluding that the program doesn't cause children to become better readers. (He has been a frequent defender of the program.)

I will be glad to respond to August when he/she tells me his/her name and if eduwonkette tells me it OK to veer off to Reading First. There's only one person on this blog exchange whose anonymity I respect -- and that's because she has produced a substantial body of work that I respect.

August and Sol,

My vote is to stick with social justice teaching - we've got a vibrant exchange going here and we can tackle Reading First another time.

Sol, I'll definitely take a look at the Katrina curriculum - other interested readers can find it here:

Related to Ken Saltman's comments, a reader noted in an email:

Teachers College has roughly 1700 students in teacher education fields. Maxine Greene taught one course in the fall, and one in the spring -- to a total of 53 students.

In Fall 2006, UIC had 112 undergrads and 671 graduate students in its College of Education (not all of which were in teacher education, of course). I'm guessing that Ayers' courses had 10-15 students in them.

"But frankly, as a person of color from a low-income background, you cannot teach my children if you don't have an expressed commitment to social justice. I would not trust your intentions otherwise."

Frankly, I have a hard time imagining a system where my low-income children of color had a competentent educator in most positions. Our kids need the full range of relationships with adults. The best situtuation, of course, would be for every teacher elementary through secondary to passionately want to parent every child. In the short run, though, I'd be satisfied if we could just get a good teacher in most classrooms.

I fear that many progressives have copied the military's approach in the 1990s that we must train and equip each specialist to "fight outnumbered and win." Armed with technology and professional development, and of course "high expectations," every teacher can transform every child like in Hollywood.

We make the potentially valuable distiction between a "good teacher" and an "effective teacher." On the secondary level, at least, we should establish the capacity where being a good teacher is enough to be an effective teacher. That requires a diverse team of diverse personalities.

What if we used the same descriptions for an effective teacher to an athelete. We would be describing a "one man team." In team sports, when one player (regardless of their commitment and talent) decides to take over the game, we don't call that high expectations. Usually we see it as panic, and a sign that the team is about to fall apart.

In education, we need a lot more talent, but we also need a lot more team players. We need to back off from exposing our teammates to ideological litmus tests.

Double H,

I don't doubt your status as "a person of color from a low-income background," but I will say that yours is not, in my experience, the majority viewpoint of your particular demographic group. In my experience, it's the social justice marauders about whom low income, minority parents are most suspicious, and it's the teachers who bask their students in the rigor and content that will enable them to succeed in college and the real world who are most trusted. I'm sure that the teachers who do both are the most trusted, however.

As Mr. Pondiscio says, most urban teachers who do a good job with rigor are probably pretty socially minded as well. They're just not exclusively socially minded.

To be blunt, anyone who states that Ed schools are not leftist indoctrination centers has not been to one. As it currently stands, Ed school is a fraud, a disgrace, and a crime. As to the argument that students need not accept everything they are told, this is true, but also simplistic. You will NOT be allowed to become a teacher in this country, unless you repeatedly and explicity state your total agreement with the Ed school's ideology. Leftists and proponents of every type of nonsensical and destructive educational method currently have a stranglehold--indeed, a monopoly--on the teacher-certification process. For any intelligent person, being in Ed school is like falling down a rabbit hole of irrationality. Ed school is Orwellian. I spent several years and countless dollars hearing all sorts of profoundly anti-intellectual, anti-excellence, illogical drivel...and of course, the anti-American, anti-white multiculturalist stuff.
Silly me, I just wanted to become a teacher because I enjoy working with kids and I value intellectual achievement, real intelligence, real learning, and rigorous academics. Silly me, I thought I would actually learn practical, useful, concrete information about the nuts and bolts of teaching. Silly me, I thought it was unethical and unprofessional to use the classroom as a political soap box.
In the Ed school environment, you will NOT be allowed to voice even a moderately conservative viewpoint on any subject. There are several cases, in several different states, of students who dared to contradict the leftist orthodoxy and were then prevented (or nearly prevented) from becoming teachers.

To Eduwonkette: Your email correspondent offered a specious argument and I am surprised you didn't spot it and are now passing it on. Everyone knows that Maxine Greene has been the single greatest intellectual influence at Teachers College since John Dewey. The fact that at the age of 90 plus she is only teaching one course per semester is as relevant as the fact that John Dewey's teaching load was probably reduced when he reached his 90s. As for the education department at the University of Illinois, would that we only had to contend with the influence of Bill Ayers. Among his colleagues in the department there's Eric Guttstein who publishes manuals on how math teachers can propagandize against American capitalism and imperialism to 7th graders. There's also Professor Pauline Lipman, who I recently heard deliver a left wing rant at an AERA panel on how the capitalists are using "catastrophies and disasters" from Iraq to New Orleans to destroy public education and make a profit for themselves. Professor Ken Saltman of DePaul Univrsity was also presenting at the panel and he agreed with Lipman 100%. So did all the other 7 panelists, including Bill Ayers, Mike Klonsky and Professor Michael Apple of the University of Wisconsin. Throughout the panel discussion, neoconservatives and neoliberals were "lumped together" (to use Saltman's phrase)as co-conspirators in this nefarious plot to destroy the public schools. And among the approximately 100 assorted academics and education graduate students in the audience I didn't hear a murmur of dissent from these whacky neo-Marxist theories. If this is not a "serious debate" as Saltman claims, it's partly because he and his social justice colleagues are in denial about their long march through the institutions. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They have achieved significant influence in the ed schools to the point that a large number of those schools require social justice "dispositions" from prospective teachers, but then they also want to picture themselves as an embattled "prophetic minority." At AERA you and Vice President Ayers are in the majority now, Ken. You should at least enjoy it.

For Saul--when cometh the revolution? I have a kid (of the African American persuasion)in an urban school district, who like too many of his peers may or may not graduate. I haven't seen much propaganda--or importance--attached to the teaching of mathematics. I would love to have a conversation with any one of his teachers who remembers reading Paolo Friere or bell hooks--or the text of NCLB or IDEIA and anything by Chester Finn for that matter.

About the most leftist philosophy that I see operating on a day to day basis is a strong union contract.

As a veteran teacher, I agree with Margo and others here that what gets taught in most teacher ed programs quickly becomes a faded memory in real classrooms. In Eduwonkette's original post on this topic, she asked how SJ plays out in the classroom. If social justice is equated with radicalism, then I do radical things everyday: I teach poor, mostly African American students how to express themselves--their ideas--to a larger audience using standard forms.I teach them how to understand written and spoken words that come at them from multiple sources and respond intelligently.I teach them their own ideas are worth sharing with the world.Given the tools of literacy, they can make their own decisions about where they may fit on the political spectrum.

Sol Stern thinks he has X-ray vision. It’s a rare capacity, to be able to peer into the hearts and minds of people, and to see the truth, regardless of their protestations. What a remarkable gift, to see through the smoke, mirrors, and other ephemera laid out to distract him and his small, hardy band of truth-hunters. I know that nothing that I say will persuade him. After all, he can see through my cartoon-like veil of anonymity, and discern my essence.

Which is apparently that I’m either a fool or a co-conspirator. Because I think that there’s a lot of silliness that passes for social justice, at AERA and elsewhere. And there’s a lot of silliness that goes on in ed schools, from the most revered to the least. But there are also smart, committed scholars dedicated to helping teachers engage with students in ways that promote their intellectual and moral development.

I don’t think Maxine Greene is silly. I don’t think she’s the second coming of Karl Marx. I think she’s one of the few people I’ve met who has the capacity to inspire scholars and practitioners alike. She doesn’t proselytize, and if you don’t agree with her, it doesn’t faze her. She likes to read, and think, and observe the ways in which literature and the arts can inform our understanding of the human condition. And she likes to talk and write about it. Sol Stern has constructed a remarkably deformed straw woman in going after Maxine Greene.

Stern’s rhetorical style, however, is to take examples and magnify them. (I wasn’t aware that he was such a fan of recycling, but most of what he’s posted over the past few days has appeared earlier in the City Journal and elsewhere.) Maxine Greene; Bill Ayers; Michael Apple; Peter McLaren -- just the tip of a huge iceberg, according to Stern. And they’re so powerful! Why, the fact that they teach so few prospective and in-service teachers proves just how much influence they wield.

His argument depends on portraying a remarkable homogeneity of perspectives within the academy, and within schools of education in particular. But unlike Stern, I’ve lived in the academy a long time, and I don’t see it. Sure, there are faculty meetings where a small number of voices dominate, and one could get the mistaken impression that there’s a lot of consensus on values and goals. The same is true at AERA -- go to a Bill Ayers session, and of course you're going to hear preaching to the choir. But there's over 1,000 sessions each year at AERA, and only a small number have these usual suspects in the front of the room.

As much as Stern would like to construct a self-fulfilling prophecy about the power of the wacky, left-wing neo-Marxists, it just ain’t so.

I have been reading this blog and the related articles all day as I find this to be a fascinating discussion from both sides.
The part I don't understand is why Mr. Stern and Ms.Eduwonkette are getting bogged down into the discussion of how many students Professor Greene and Professor Ayers are reaching. Isn't the debate about whether teaching for social justice is acceptable or not? I mean I can see how Mr.Stern might gain a slight bit of sympathy if he can prove that the SJ monsters are taking over the entire sector of Ed schools but if we were to pursue that line of argumentation, shouldn't the comparison be linear throughout history as opposed to horizontal as it is related to this particular place in time? I also have not been able to discern how teaching social justice precludes teaching the regular set of skills required in each course. In fact I could see how the opposite effect might be true as students would be learning through a socially relevant curriculum.
Thanks again for the insightful discussion. I will keep reading with great interest.
Mark Webber

This time I will violate my general rule of not engaging with anonymous bloggers (Eduwonkette excepted)who have no body of work I can refer to (as they can refer to mine) and I will ask Mr. skoolboy the following question. If, as you claim, AERA is not a significant bastion of support for social justice teaching (the modern left wing version, not the sermon on the mount)how do you account for the fact that three of the most recent elected presidents of the organization -- William Tate, Gloria Ladson Billings and Carol Lee -- are strong supporters of this movement, including the use of math classrooms to teach lessons about America's alleged racism and militarism? Ditto for new Vice President Bill Ayers. Just a coincidence, a roll of the dice?

The question has been posed: Is there a "coherent and distinctive pedagogy that’s taught at schools of education across the country?"

Well, that's going to be hard to prove systematically. But it's reasonable to wonder what Lisa Delpit was talking about in Other People's Children when she wrote this:

[A black teacher] adamantly insisted that it [a progressive writing program] was doing a monumental disservice to black children. I was stunned. I started to defend the program, but then thought better of it, and asked her why she felt so negative about what she had seen.

* * * she was particularly adamant about the notion that black children had to learn to be "fluent" in writing -- had to feel comfortable about putting pen to paper -- before they could be expected to conform to any conventional standards. "These people keep pushing this fluency thing," said Cathy. "What do they think? Our children have no fluency? If they think that, they ought to read some of the rap songs my students write all the time. They might not be writing their school assignments but they sure are writing. Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. I've got a kid right now -- brilliant. But he can't get a score on the SAT that will even get him considered by any halfway decent college. He needs skills, not fluency. This is just another one of those racist ploys to keep our kids out. White kids learn how to write a decent sentence. Even if they don't teach them in school, their parents make sure they get what they need. But what about our kids? They don't get it at home and they spend all their time in school learning to be fluent. I'm sick of this liberal nonsense.

Or this:

Several black teachers have said to me recently that as much as they'd like to believe otherwise, they cannot help but conclude that many of the "progressive" educational strategies imposed by liberals upon black and poor children could only be based on a desire to ensure that liberals' children get sole access to the dwindling pool of American jobs. Some have added that the liberal educators believe themselves to be operating with good intentions, but that these good intentions are only conscious delusions about their unconscious true motives.

Those quotes are not directly about "social justice," but they do reflect a perception that "liberal" or so-called "progressive" theories have some sway.

So how systematic does an educational theory have to be before you will admit to being concerned? Do you expect Sol or someone else to prove that 90% of black kids are learning social justice rather than algebra, or "fluency" rather than how to write a coherent essay? 70%? 30%? Or what?

I think it's difficult to argue that ed schools are really, really good at teaching one thing (political indoctrination of prospective teachers, in the service of political indoctrination of kids) but really, really bad at teaching virtually everything else (i.e., how to teach particular school subjects). Isn't it more likely that ed schools, like most educational institutions in the U.S., are only moderately successful at teaching anything?

That's not a very convincing response when the argument is that schools of education tend sometimes to focus on the former to the detriment of the latter. Just as if I say, "Today's NBA teams focus too much on flashy offensive moves at the expense of solid defense," it's not very convincing to respond, "it's more likely that NBA teams are moderately good at both offense and defense." Well, says who? There's no law of nature compelling basketball teams, or schools of education, to be equally good at all things.


When would you say that the Social Justice Mafia took over AERA? Is this a really recent phenomenon, or a longstanding one? Does it date back to your bete noire, Maxine Greene, assuming the AERA presidency in 1981-82? To when Michael Apple, Peter McLaren, Bill Ayers and their ilk began publishing widely in the mid- to late 1980's? Or is it just in the past four years or so?

Let's take a look at the AERA presidents over the past 15 years or so. Here's a skoolboy's-eye view of the AERA presidents who do not fit into Sol's social justice mafia category:
Lorraine McDonnell (2008-09)
Eva Baker (2006-07)
Hilda Borko (2003-04)
Bob Linn (2002-03)
Andy Porter (2001-02)
Catherine Snow (2000-01)
Lorrie Shepard (1999-2000)
Alan Schoenfeld (1998-99)
Penelope Peterson (1996-97)
Jane Stallings (1994-95)
Ann Brown (1993-94)

(Who did I leave out? Carol Lee, Bill Tate, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Jim Banks, and Linda Darling-Hammond. Five of the six are African-American scholars. Apologies to anybody who would prefer to be in a different category. I personally think that championing social justice is nothing to be ashamed of.)

My point is that it's hard to look at this history -- assuming that it even makes sense to make claims about the overarching views of the membership of an organization based on who gets elected President for a one-year term -- and conclude that there is a sustained history of social justice advocates overrunning the association.

And might we review AERA's statement on social justice, which pertains explicitly to social justice in research?

"As an elaboration of its general research mission, AERA commits itself:

to promote diversity and inclusiveness in AERA; that is, that all AERA members and participants in its activities have open access and opportunity (e.g., as officers or other leadership roles in SIGs, Divisions, or AERA-wide; in publishing, in Annual Meeting participation, or in AERA-sponsored activity);

to promote social justice principles and policies in the conduct of education research; that is, in funding of research and training;

to promote activities (e.g., through the work of the Organization of Institutional Affiliates, in AERA's education and training programs) that foster a diverse community of education researchers; and

to disseminate and promote the use of research knowledge and stimulate interest in research on social justice issues related to education."

Anything objectionable in that?

Social Justice Teaching is marxism applied to the classroom. Teachers here in Brazil says that Paulo Freire created compelling method to teach adults to read, but even left-wing teachers complains about some of his followers.

I had a Education teacher in the college( An ardent marxist. In fact, she rememberss me the mother of Goodbye Lenin) and she praised Freire for teaching poor people to liberate themselves from the capitalist system.

The problem that I see is not indoctrination, but its total disdain for any kind of results.

Thank you Eduwonkette for making this forum available. I enjoyed the exchanges and occasionally learned something from some of the posts. I particularly liked the response from our Brazilian friend who nailed the Paolo Freire illusion. But now I have to go back to making a living. To supporters and detractors alike I leave you with this timely illustration of social justice teaching in action, which does show that my concerns about this movement are not exaggerated. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/02/us/02oakland.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
I am sure some of you will find this event in the Oakland schools exhilerating. I find it disgraceful and I could not rationally defend a public school system that allows teachers to politically exploit their captive students in this manner.

Goodbye Sol,(sniff!)
The fact that Sol would not engage with bloggers who do not "have a body of work" such as his (correction, would not engage unless it was convenient for him to make a point)is part of the problem. I find that attitude arrogant and consistent with the literal "old school" that does not think that education belongs to the people. Were our questions from the trenches so ignorant that it was beneath the discussion? Are we not worthy of educating because we shouldn't be making the decisions about educational policy anyway. I think this just shows how out of touch he and people who support his argument are with education. They have forgotten what that word even means.
Mark Webber

Agreed. Though I found myself agreeing with most of Sol's points, which is not unusual for me, I find his selectivity of which anonymous bloggers to engage arbitrary and short-sighted. I'm sure Eduwonkette doesn't want this to turn into a debate on anonymity, but it deserves to be mentioned, I believe: ignoring anonymous bloggers leaves unexamined the viewpoints of many actual practitioners (teachers who don't want their kids reading their thoughts, others in the ed reform world whose jobs are too political to risk stating strong opinions publicly) who by virtue of their jobs are both 1) the most knowledgeable subset of people who know how ed policy actually plays out and 2) the least able to state their opinions publicly.

I understand the problems with anonymity, but they're empty problems unless an anonymous poster makes an untrue or unverifiable claim that is important to their point. In by far the most cases, the arguments of people like eduwonkette can either be judged on their merits or backed up by sources they cite.

The reason this irks me, as I've had the same claims of illegitimacy lobbed at me, is that it seems that Sol is going out of his way to make the fallacy of authority. Who cares if Skoolboy is a Harvard graduate student or a middle school student in the Bronx? If his points are well-defended and they resonate, his identity shouldn't change that.

Actually, I'm a dog.

Having spent many years in the "mainstream media," I'm mostly sympathetic to Sol's point about anonymity of posters (which, I think is what he meant when he said "bloggers"). In any policy argument, an institutional viewpoint may or may not color the speaker's remarks. But one cannot know without knowing (literally) from whence one speaks. Are there exceptions? Sure. As a reporter, I may grant someone the privilege of anonymity if their information is relevant, but speaking out could put him in harm's way. But I'll try to clue my reader to the speaker's persepctive. "A White House official speaking anonymously," gives context to the reader, for example. In the unmediated world of blogs, the reader has no bearings (On the Internet, nobody knows Skoolboy is a dog). So it's not about "authority," Socrates, but credibility. In print or broadcast, we trust the reporter's judgement to use anonymity judiciously. But there's an institutional reputation -- the Wall Street Journal's, Mother Jones' or ABC News, for example -- that allows us to do so comfortably. It's certainly possible to build up a reputation online that gets you to the same place, and I agree with Sol Stern that Eduwonkette is a terrific example. But in general, I think it's not unreasonable to be skeptical of what anonymous posters say. At the very least, the bar is a couple of notches higher for them to achieve credibility. A good argument is a good argument, but critical thinking demands looking at a speaker's motivation too.

Great thread, exciting discussion. Thanks for having us EW. Nice place you've got here.


I think the anonymity issue is kinda telling. Early on, eduwonkette urged me to not drag Stern's background into the discussion, as she felt it had no relevance. Stern has clearly shown that a poster's background is important - he needs to know your resume before he will engage in any discussion. And to a certain extent, I agree with Stern - in that knowing someone's background can give you some context for where they're coming from. Which I way I was leaning in that direction. Understanding the context and the motivation.

That being said, I think Stern showed some of his colors in this conversation - which really started as a discussion about what SJ teaching is, and not a debate as to the validity of the practice, or an opportunity for those opposed to any politics in the classroom (unless it's there's) to dump on an idea they are fundamentally opposed to. His broad-brush dismissal of any idea that he disagrees with, and using poorly constructed rhetorical quips, combined with his cherry-picking of anecdotes to make his points, pretty much reduces what he has to say as nothing more than that old guy on the porch who yells at the kids to get off his lawn.

Dear Socrates,
Thanks for backing me up. Personally I respectfully disagree with Robert's point above because I, for one, was at least signing my posts with my actual name, although I am one of the little people out here in cyberspace. Also I was merely asking questions to get clarification on the discussion that I also found lively and informative.
However, I am curious as to why you(Socrates) agree with Sol's posts because I absolutely disagree. But on the other hand, I am also curious as to why others who have an opposing viewpoint believe the way that they do. Is your reason for agreeing with Sol simply due to a disagreement with a seemingly inherent liberal agenda in TFSJ or do you have other reasons?
Thanks for contributing.
Mark Webber

Robert, this all makes sense, but like anything, I think the principle can be applied judiciously, without the need for absolutes. If I anonymously make claims like, "I'm a UFT rep and I've seen Randi Weingarten abuse kittens," that of course should be taken with a huge grain of salt. But if I'm arguing a philosophical point or one that's backed by evidence, then who I am makes little difference.

I hear you on institutional reputation, too, and you're right that certain anonymous bloggers like our hostess here have established a brand that commands respect. But at least with blogs you know what you get. Newspapers and other media outlets claim an exalted objectivity that simply does not exist in the reality of the multinational corporate news source (or even the lone non-anonymous blogger). Journalistic standards, like teacher certification, only guarantee so much, and that "so much" is, in fact, not much when it comes down to it. Sure, we can have a relative certainty that NY Times journalists are not fabricating evidence from whole cloth, but any other perception of objectivity only serves to obscure the truth that's out in the open on the blogs: all writers are biased or invested in promoting a particular viewpoint, and though that viewpoint might change over time, it's influence is no weaker in the writings of paid journalists or bloggers whose names we know.

And finally, perhaps the best things about the rise of Web 2.0 are that a) just any Joe can put his opinion out there on Front Street, and b) smart, informed people who have deep insights but aren't allowed to expose them in the position they hold are able to contribute to the conversation. In this way, anonymity releases the very restrictions on information flow that often lead to group think. Many of us who are not paid to avail the world of our opinions (like Mr. Stern is) because we work in the part of the world where those opinions play out are not in a place to speak freely. Insisting that we identify ourselves in order to satiate Mr. Stern's curiosity or make it easier for him to figure out if we know what we're talking about does nothing but suppress the marketplace of ideas that forums like this provide.

We're in absolute agreement, Socrates. I was not agreeing with Sol Stern's position on mixing it up with anonymous posters, as much as I'm defending it. His position is reasonable, and he's entitled to it. It's not an "absolute" but a prism--one of many--through which to view things. I am, on the other hand, perfectly happy to respond to you, even though you've been dead for more than 2,000 years.

"Actually, I'm a dog." - Skoolboy

Great call. I wonder if Avatars will reduce anonymity enough for Mr. Stern?

Mr. Webber: I generally agree with Mr. Stern that the dominant school of thought in most of the ed schools is leftist, and thrusts social justice teaching in front of rigor and academic preparedness. My own experience in ed school, the reading I've done, the schools I've seen, and the people I've met are what I'm basing this on.

As a lefty myself, I sympathize with this approach, and I certainly have had many an important discussion about bigotry and other such topics with my classes. But I have also seen many classes and even some entire schools that are founded along certain "social justice" themes, and by focusing only on those, they prevent social justice in the form of a closed achievement gap from ever happening.

That ethic is coming from somewhere, and I'm pretty sure it's the ed schools. It's not Teach For America or TNTP, that's for sure - they manage to turn natural social justice-philes into rigor junkies in a pretty short amount of time. Perhaps that gets at Eduwonkette's question of ed schools' selective efficacy - maybe it's just a lot easier to establish a culture and impart a theory of education than it is to teach people how to run a classroom.

OK, I have decided to come out of retirement (I promise this is the last time) to clarify my point on "anonymity" -- which apparently has been widely misunderstood. I assure one and all that I am definitely not trying to "supress the maketplace of ideas." (Among my objections to SJ teaching is that it does exactly that in the classroom, because the "invisible hand" of the marketplace is almost always suppressed by the heavy hand of SJ teachers, like the one in Oakland profiled in the NY Times today.) I appreciate that many who posted here also felt it necessary to keep their personal and professional biographies out of the discussion. I was merely making a very limited point, which is that I feel I am handicapped in responding to someone who attacks me directly and who knows everything about my life and my work, but keeps his/her vital background information out of the picture. However, I was only explaining why I personally prefer not to engage such writers directly. Of course I recognize there are exceptions to this, and not only someone like Eduwonkette. I would certainly welcome an exchange with someone who,say, said something like, "I'm a new third grade teacher in Joel Klein's penal colony and therefore can't reveal my identity." I not only would relish a dialogue with this person on this or other blogs, but I have gained a lot of insights for my articles from such engaged teachers. I certainly agree with Socrates that these people may "work in the part of the world where those opinions play out [but] are not in a place to speak freely." I also want to make it clear that I have absolutely no problem with my critics commenting on my "radical past" if reasonable conclusions can be drawn from that part of my life in journalism as part of an evaluation of my current views. I have always made my political past an open book. Indeed, readers who want to know more about those nefarious activities of mine can check out the Spring issue of City Journal (soon to be posted) in which I have a short memoir about my Ramparts days.

Ah Ramparts, remember it well, and some of the best thinking around social justice, the false and true kind, comes from those with radical backgrounds who have become conservatives, and who therefore, know of what they speak when speaking of the false and true.

Dear Socrates,
Thank you for your response. I see now that your feeling is that one objective, TSJ, is possibly supplanting the other, teaching students basic skills. However I also recognize that these two objectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. So if that has been your experience and observation, your point is well taken. I guess where I was confused and still am by Sol's argument (if he had one) was that he was saying things like look at the NY Times article on the Oakland school and thinking that he was making a point. I looked at that article and thought that the article actually undermined Sol's point. The article shows a fantastic day out that included authentic, real world experiences for these students. The article even goes on to make the point that this was just a one day diversion from the school's "normal curriculum" which I assume is probably similar to the type of system that Sol would advocate. So I guess I am left to conclude that Sol is against any sort of real world education that might diverge from the normal pablum taught in American Heritage or the like.
So thanks again for clarifying your point and I do see where you are coming from.
Mark Webber

"Social Justice Teaching is marxism applied to the classroom" as stated by Andre Kenji seems to be a fair summation of Stern's fears. The problem is that to inject Marxism into the American public school system by indoctrinating teacher candidates is sort of like trying to overthrow IBM by indoctrinating management candidates.

The really radical point of view (and I think Friere might agree) would acknowledge that the current system of education is calculated to support and maintain the (for lack of better term) profoundly non-Marxist society in which it exists. The most radical thing most teachers can do (as mentioned already by others) is to teach low income, minority, urban students to read, write and cipher--despite all efforts of the system to work in the opposite direction.

I have nothing more insightful than what you all have said, but this is the greatest, most intelligent blog response thread on education I've come across in awhile. I'd like to be in a classroom with all of you folks!

From a math teacher in Camden, NJ

check it out

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