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What is Social Justice Teaching, Anyway?

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.

Pot calling the kettle black much? Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the same Sol Stern who was an editor at Ramparts magazine? The same magazine that published Che Guevara's dairies - with a forward from Fidel Castro? The magazine that published Eldridge Cleaver's diaries from prison? And he's standing in judgement of Ayers? Just because Sol and his co-editor Horowitz "saw the light" and became neo-cons, doesn't mean everyone else who inhabited the left during the 60's is required to do the same. Some folks actually hang on to their principles (whether you agree with those principles or not).

Hi Mark, To me, Stern's backstory isn't relevant here - nor is Ayers', if what we are evaluating is his argument about the role of social justice teaching in American schools.

Back to the social justice issue...

For starters I agree that it's a somewhat fungible term. And you'll get different definitions depending on who you ask. But I think it's somewhat disingenuous for those on the right to push things like prayer in school, and abstinence-only sex-ed (two name just a a couple of "social issues" advocated for by the right) but they get their collective panties in a twist about things like social justice. I think when it comes down to it, social justice is a way of teaching critical thinking. And yes, it's probably politically motivated. But so is NCLB.

As for Ayers and social justice, I think the fact that Ayers got elected to a position within AERA says more about how mainstream his values are, as opposed to how out of sync he is with the field.

I consider myself to be a social justice teacher in training; a lot of the wants of my administrators and the curriculum that i'm expected to deliver prevents relative and social justice based teaching of mathematics.

Teachers have to make a choice; making education relevant and worthwhile by incorporating social justice issues into instruction or raise test scores. While some people claim that you can use social justice issues based instruction to raise test scores, this is a gray area.

But in the end, do we want students with high test scores and well trained "skills", or do we want students who will be conscious citizens when we set them loose?

For me, I'm willing to cross the political neutrality line if instruction is factual, relevant and working towards peace/democracy. After all, why shouldn't we try to make the world a better place?

Fair enough eduwonkette. On to the substance. I do think that some backstory might come in handy, as it's always helpful to consider an author's motivations when they are writing "critical" pieces. City Journal is by no means an apolitical journal. They are regularly publishing articles attacking multicultural education and pretty much any other progressive idea. Sol writes for City Journal, and for FrontPage magazine, which has become David Horowitz's latest home. In other words, these aren't the writings of someone who is earnestly looking at the issue, they're the writings of someone who wants to marginalize diverse voices in education policy.

That being said, I'd recommend a quick look at what wikipedia has to say about it. I was actually kind of impressed with the comprehensive nature of the entry. I may be a little biased, seeing at I have some Peter McLaren on my shelf.

I don't know Geoff:

I am always pretty cautious about dichotomies--particularly the well-skilled vs socially relevant kind. It sort of denigrates social relevance--which really requires as much learning and discipline as, (what?) social irrelevance, I guess. Perhaps more.

In this country, it would be truly revolutionary to educate all students to high levels of ability--whether measured on standardized tests or in other ways. In fact, one of the first goals of the Cuban revolution was to raise literacy levels--using socially relevant text.

I've been having this social justice argument with Stern for years - I view it as his search for an issue.

He even attended the Rad/Math conf. last year with the intention of finding reds under the beds so he could attack teachers who engage in social justice teaching. He found little of substance to write about.

He even went so far as to call up some of the bosses of activist teachers to shine a light on them. I call that the edge of McCarythism.

As Eduwonkette points out, most teachers are conservative. But I bet it goes further than that in some cases. In my school I saw lots of teachers pushing religion on the kids. And do you think pro-Israeli teachers ever present the Palistinian point of view fairly? As a supporter of Israel, Stern might view presenting both sides of the question as a form of indoctrination. I don't see him calling for that as he seems perfectly willing to accept that kids are indoctrinated in one point of view.

Does anyone think that socialism and communism and race issues are presented in a fair and balanced way by mostly conservative teachers? Where is Stern's call for an end to indoctrination that capitalism is a good thing?

Do we think the American labor movement is presented in a fair and balanced way in American schools? While the hostile attitude towards unions by American workers who have been screwed may have multiple sources, the schools have certainly played a role.

Thanks Norm. I think you may have said better what I was trying to say earlier - in that using Stern as any kind of neutral observer of teacher for social justice is kind of "fox in the hen-house."

The other thing is that I don't think we'd even be having this conversation if Ayers hadn't arrived on the scene because he lives in Obama's neighborhood, and they *may* have gone to a couple of parties together. And that's because some on the other side of the aisle are constantly on the look-out for (as you put it) reds under the bed. OMG! It's a commie!

Oh, and Ayer's isn't helping his case by keeping his earing ;) Just reinforces the whole "long-haired anti-war, commie, hippy" image which gives the Right the willies.

"Do we think the American labor movement is presented in a fair and balanced way in American schools?"

Do you honestly think the American labor movement is presented to students at all in the vast majority of American public schools? The closest I got to the union label was the faculty itself, in that they were unionized at all. Unless you count my 11th grade U.S. history teacher's aside about the Pullman strike of 1894, we never covered it -- and that one only came up because it might be on the AP. This was at a public school in "commie" D.C., mind you.

There is no dichotomy here. Teachers who incorporate social justice applications in their lessons teach their students to think. Their refusal to simplify a curriculum leads to jumps in student test scores. The either-or version comes up because too few teachers have sufficient expertise in the content areas they teach--that is, educators often substitute their bachelor's or master's classes for a firmer background in their field.

Human beings are not neutral beings. Schools are not neutral places.

Schools are political places formed by political power constructs--this recognition is the first step to the realization that education cannot and is not neutral.

I would say, that social justice teaching or a critical pedagogy standpoint attempts to reveal what we label as "neutral" in our schools, but is actually political.

The banking model of education is as political as any 'social justice' pedagogy.

Where Stern and I agree: We should not be indoctrinating our students. However, I would label the banking model as indoctrination. Education should encourage our students to read the world, interrogate problems, and pose possible solutions. Are we scared to encourage students to think?

My favorite history teacher at Brooklyn College was Bela Kiraly. He escaped from a Stalinist death camp in Hungary and was one of the leaders of the Hungarian Revolution. So one would expect a prejudiced point of view. Yet he gave us both pro and anti Soviet literature to read so we could make up our own minds. When I read some stuff on how the Soviets were right in the cold war, I was astounded to hear there was another point of view.

I wasn't convinced but it made me think about how I was taught all those years. In contrast, my professor of Russian History taught us the anti-Communist view all the way, with the lit to match. Like all the view of history is about how the upper classes and Czars are treated, not the serfs and peasants.

How is Cuba taught? Or Israel and Palestine? There actually is a Palestinian point of view but if a teacher tried to present it as a balance he would be called pro-terrorist.

I recently read in The Nation how the CIA helped overthrow the most reasonable, though left-leaning govt of Iraq back in '63 which serves as a backdrop to what's happening today. Where else have you read that?

It is interesting how Sol Stern mentions how we have to be concerned about the right and left indoctrination, but let's be clear about which side is really being talked about here.

Let's assume indoctrination of some kinds goes on from all sides. Theoretically, students might end up getting some balance by the diversity of their teachers. But with the paucity of social justice teaching going on, this is very unlikley.

Thus, Stern's focus on the left aspect is a red herring.

By the way, I saw Kiraly in Hungry last year - he is 96 and with all the new stuff going on in the country he still took a wonderfully balanced view. An amazing teacher.

"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."

I'm with, ummm, joel klein's conscience here: What movement to teach social justice in K-12 classrooms?

If we don't talk about controversial issues in our classrooms, how will we engage minds? How will we model civic involvement if we are compelled to tell kids we can't talk about that, here in school? (And if you think kids won't bring up controversial stuff, or ask dicey questions, you haven't been in any classroom lately, including kindergarten in the suburbs.) Why would we expect them to vote when they reach 21, or read the papers, or participate in community projects, or seek multiple viewpoints on the web? How can we expect our students to see their teachers as credible intellectual models (rather than flat information dispensers)?

I went to ed school in the 70s, got a masters in curriculum in the 80s and am currently working on a PhD in Ed Policy, in a nationally recognized program. I see very little evidence of an unbalanced, lefty movement to train novice teachers in radical tenets of social justice--that kind of yeasty, politically motivated pedagogical thinking I remember from 30 years ago was flattened out by "Nation at Risk" in the Reagan years, and has disappeared almost completely since NCLB. The specter of flaming liberalism in ed schools is a kind of bogeyman trotted out every now and then when someone asks pertinent questions about the purpose of public schooling, such as: is it all about training workers for low-wage jobs now?

Thirty years of teaching in public K-12 schools tells me that they avoid any whiff of controversy, especially high-needs schools dependent on auxiliary federal funding. So I don't think we need to worry about teachers running amok.

Guidelines: #1) Involve parents when designing curriculum. #2) Provide choices--offer HS courses as electives, then see who signs up. #3) Create formal local structures for discussion on critical issues--it's important for parents, school leaders, teacher and sometimes older students to practice the art of dialogue. #4) Remember that history was not always "fair and balanced" and can teach us a great deal about productive ways to examine differences.

Achhhrgh! Yes. I know. The voting age is 18.

"Why would we expect them to vote when they reach 21, or read the papers, or participate in community projects, or seek multiple viewpoints on the web?"

Gosh, I don't know. Maybe they'll follow their parents' example?

As a parent and former teacher, this is my biggest issue with the social justice teaching we were indoctrinated with in the late 80s--the assumption that only the schools can be trusted to "teach your children well" in all areas.

By taking over drug education, health/sex education, even character education (if that shouldn't be the province of the parents, I don't know what should), we as educators are undermining the integrity of the family. We're giving parents excuses not to teach their children responsibility ("the schools will do it better") and continuing to overload the classroom teachers with curriculum impossible to teach in the classroom.

It's the children who are being short-changed. To make the world a better place, we need to focus our expertise on teaching academics and leave the parenting to the parents.

Personally, I'm a big advocate of social justice teaching, particularly about international social justice issues. I'm currently interning with the International Labor Rights Forum, where I've been working on developing a resource page for educators to help incorporate labor rights lesson plans into the classroom.

I think it’s extremely important that all students understand social justice as an international concept. When it comes to labor rights, young people especially need to understand that our consumerism here in the US directly affects workers’ rights around the world. Educating students about international labor rights will develop a generation of conscious consumers and global thinkers.

The International Labor Rights Forum has created a new resource specifically for educators interested in social justice teaching, called “Valentine’s Day in the Classroom.” This lesson plan is a great way for educators to initiate discussion about workers rights in the cut flower industry, and encourage students to think about how consumerism around Valentine’s Day in the US affects workers abroad. The lesson includes learning objectives, vocabulary overview, a short exercise and a word find. You will also find a link to a YouTube clip of the experience of a Colombian flower worker on a Dole plantation, as well as a fact sheet to compliment the lesson plan. Additional resources for a letter writing campaign are also provided. If you are interested in using these resources, click here to sign up to be a part of the Valentine’s Day in the Classroom campaign at this link: http://www.laborrights.org/creating-a-sweatfree-world/fairness-in-flowers/resources/1899

Also, if you’d like additional resources to help integrate labor rights lesson plans into the classroom, check out ILRF’s Educator Resource Page at http://www.laborrights.org/labor-rights/labor-rights-in-the-classroom

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Briana Connors: Personally, I'm a big advocate of social justice teaching, particularly read more
  • Lessa Scherrer/Princess Mom: "Why would we expect them to vote when they reach read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: Achhhrgh! Yes. I know. The voting age is 18. read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: "Rather than focusing on whether education schools eat children and read more
  • Norm: My favorite history teacher at Brooklyn College was Bela Kiraly. read more




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