- New college program would teach educators to be activists
- There is already evidence of social justice infecting school systems
- Schools should teach students the basics and how to think, not what to think
Last month various state and national media outlets reported North Carolina State University (NCSU) approved a Ph.D. program concentration in “social justice education.”
According to news reports, a November NCSU press release which accompanied the announcement noted the program is designed to “prepare scholar-activists to lead in matters of social justice.” The goal of the program is to help educators “recognize and disrupt systems of oppression by helping to foster and create equitable learning environments.”
Faculty for the new program will be drawn from various research areas such as “social justice teacher education, multicultural education and literacy, education and immigration and diversity and equity in schools and communities.”
If you’re looking for the news releases and information on the social justice education program at NCSU web site, you’ll have difficulty. A quick visit to the program web site reveals “the college changed the name from social justice education to educational equity to better describe and reflect its intent and desired outcomes.”
It’s easy to see all references to social justice education have been scrubbed from the program’s website. Curiously, social justice teacher education is no longer listed as one of the research areas from which faculty would come. References to social justice activism and a sentence listing the goal of the program “to help educators recognize and disrupt systems of oppression by helping to foster and create equitable learning environments” have also been removed.
Why the purge? Universities are institutions with great inertia. It takes a lot energy to change things. That said it is reasonable to expect the changes were made in response to the blowback NCSU received about the program.
Let’s just say it’s much easier to sell educational equity than social justice education. Make no mistake however, whether the term is social justice education or educational equity, the emphasis (e.g., diversity, multiculturalism identity politics and activism) and the endgame (e.g. the removal of perceived white supremacy, destabilizing cultural institutions and expanding the spread of Marxist ideas) is the same.
Should teachers and students be trained to be social activists? An Orange County English teacher asked students to compare the speeches of Adolph Hitler with the speeches of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Students complained the lesson was politically-charged and the teacher later resigned. Earlier this year teachers had to talk to students about a May 16th rally calling for more respect and funding for education and expressly calling for major changes in the legislature. Many believe numerous teachers crossed the line and began advocating for specific policies while in the classroom, just the sort of thing social justice educators will be instructed to do.
These developments have caused many to ask: what is legal and permissible action in the classroom? Like everyone else, teachers are free to express their views in public forums. Questions emerge, however, when you discuss classroom activity. Court decisions can aid our understanding of how teachers in publicly-funded public school classrooms are subject to a very different standard.
It’s widely recognized that teachers enjoy first amendment rights to freedom of speech but because of the responsibility of educating youth, that freedom comes with obligations and limitations. So, what is permitted within the classroom and what is not? In Pickering vs. Board of Education 391 U.S. 563 (1968), the court ruled that teachers do have rights of expression within the school walls. However, the court acknowledged, it had to “arrive at a balance between the interests of the teacher, as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern, and the interest of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.” Pickering involved a teacher who had written to the local newspaper. The teacher criticized the school board and superintendent for how the school spent money. The Court upheld the teacher’s right to criticize how the school spent money. The teacher had the right to express views on a matter of legitimate public concern. Criticizing school policy was not sufficient grounds to dismiss a teacher. But the court also noted there are limits to the criticism. If a teacher breaks a confidence or launches personal or unprofessional attacks on another, the speech may be restricted. What the court was saying is that there are rights, but they must also pass a balancing test of public vs. private interests.
On the question of whether a teacher has a right to air his or her views with his students on what he or she considers important topics, a three judge U.S. Court of Appeals ruling from the 2003 Mayer v. Monroe County case stated:
“The first amendments do not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”
What does this mean? Teachers don’t lose their constitutional rights of free speech, but when they are in the classroom, the teacher – acting as an employee of the school board – has an obligation to deliver the curriculum – and not let his personal beliefs get in the way of that responsibility. Teachers have constitutional rights in public forums, but they are limited inside the classroom by a teacher’s obligation to teach a specific curriculum.
Teachers may feel righteous indignation over any number of issues. Issues that may adversely impact students. However, when they are in the classroom, they are paid to teach a curriculum and not to share their views, no matter how righteous those views may be.
Considering these rulings, NC State’s decision to move ahead with a program that advocates for social justice, educational equity and scholar and student activism is more than a little surprising.
The original release from the NCSU web site said the program “promotes social diversity, while naming, interrogating and challenging oppression, exploitation and marginalization within education at the local, state, national and international levels.”
That’s a big charge. Does anyone think teachers and faculty have the skills and wherewithal to accomplish such a task? Schools function best when they do what they were designed to do: teach subjects like reading, writing, math and science. Too many students in North Carolina are not proficient in simple tasks of reading and writing, asking teachers to become social justice trainers only takes precious time away from the school’s primary responsibility.
The new Ph.D. program in social justice education — or educational equity — is not about academics. It is ultimately about activism. It’s about bringing politics to every part of the school curriculum – even including such subjects as math. Social Justice math uses mathematics to teach about issues of economic and social justice, and also to teach about math through the study of social justice issues.
Sadly, some of the social justice education curriculum is already in many public schools.
This is a dark picture. Inside a Public School Social Justice Factory, by Katherine Kersten, tells the damage such teaching did to the once proud Edina School District, a mid-sized affluent district in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Kersten writes about the district’s embrace of leftist politics and its obsession with racial equity and re-education for all teachers — and staff. Kersten writes:
One such mandatory session for school bus drivers is illustrative. . . The training session was entitled “Edina School District Equity and Racial Justice Training: Moving from a Diversity to a Social Justice Lens.” In it, trainers instructed bus drivers that “dismantling white privilege” is “the core of our work as white folks,” and that working for the Edina schools requires “a major paradigm shift in the thinking of white people.” Drivers were exhorted to confess their racial guilt and embrace the district’s “equity” ideology.
What sort of impacts have such programs produced? According to results from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment Test (MCAT), Edina High School has seen a decline in MCAT math scores in the past few years. The Minnesota State Department of Education reports that math performance has dropped from 81 percent proficiency in 2013 to 66 percent proficiency in 2017. Such percentages remain above the statewide averages but nevertheless constitute a decline from results from previous years. Test results for minorities have also been disappointing. Kersten writes about test results for African-Americans:
Four years into the Edina schools’ equity crusade, black students’ test scores continue to disappoint. There’s been a single positive point of data: Black students’ reading scores—all ages, all grades—have slightly increased, from 45.5 percent proficiency in 2014 to 46.4 percent proficiency in 2017.
But other than that, the news is all bad. Black students “on track for success” in reading decreased from 48.1 percent in 2014 to 44.9 percent in 2017. Math scores decreased from 49.6 percent proficiency in 2014 to 47.4 percent in 2017. Black students “on track for success” in math decreased from 51.4 percent in 2014 to 44.7 percent in 2017.
The drop was most notable at the high school level. Math scores for black students in 11th grade at Edina Senior High dropped from 31 percent proficiency in 2014 to 14.6 percent in 2017. In reading, scores for black students in 10th grade at Edina Senior High dropped from 51.7 percent proficiency in 2014 to 40 percent in 2017.
Social justice education programs in schools and universities encourage political activity which is prohibited in most classrooms and widely opposed by parents, educators and lawyers. The programs, whether called social justice or equity education — are merely tools of the Left to impose racial identity politics in our schools.
NC State’s decision to develop a Ph.D. program in social justice education only serves to further destabilize our culture and politicizes our schools.
It’s time to push the reset button.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a Chapel Hill English teacher who asked students to compare the speeches of Adolph Hitler with the speeches of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The teacher is from Orange County.