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'Social Justice' Language in Denver Teacher Evaluation Draws Concerns

In response to complaints, the Denver district is revising language in its teacher-evaluation system that described a "distinguished" teacher as one who "encourages students to challenge and question the dominant culture" and "take social action to change/improve society or work for social justice," The Washington Times reports.

District and union officials both said the language didn't properly reflect the concept they were trying to convey: that the best teachers help students view and analyze information critically. They've updated the framework as a response, the newspaper reports.

It is easy to dismiss this episode as just another volley in the culture wars, but that would omit an important point that isn't even mentioned in the story: the idea of teaching for social justice actually is, and remains, a prominent philosophy in teacher preparation in the U.S.

Its extent and applications are hard to characterize, partly because the term itself is so mushy and has come to encompass a variety of different meanings. But consider, for example, that the urtext for social-justice teaching, Paolo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was among the the most commonly assigned texts in foundations courses, according to a 2003 review of some 45 such courses by David Steiner, now the dean of Hunter College's education school, in New York City.

And the term "social justice" caused some headaches for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education a few years back, leading the organization to drop the term when it was revising its definitions of the dispositions teachers should embody before entering the classroom.

I'll leave you to chew that over, but here's my immediate thought on all this: Ideological divides over these theories don't easily translate into actual policy. There is probably not an education interest group out there—right- or left-leaning—that doesn't frame its own concrete policy motivations and methods as seeking some form of social justice, whether or not they use that term explicitly. From charter supporters to choice to unions to Teach For America, those who claim the mantle of education reform predicate it on the idea of giving kids equal access to better schools, social services, or instruction.

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