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Voices: Social justice in teacher evals crosses line

Editor’s note: Since this opinion piece was published, DPS has changed its teacher evaluation language. For a distinguished teacher, he/she must encourage “students to think critically about equity and bias in society, and to understand and question historic and prevailing currents of thought as well as dissenting and diverse viewpoints” and cultivate “students’ ability to understand and openly discuss drivers of, and barriers to, opportunity and equity in society.” As for the student behavior criteria in the teacher evaluation, it now reads, “Students demonstrate critical thinking, and appear comfortable questioning prevailing currents of thought and expressing dissenting and diverse viewpoints in respectful ways…”

John Peterson, an economics and U.S. history teacher at Denver’s East High School, says “social justice” is too subjective to be used as part of a teacher’s evaluation.

Many public school parents would be upset to see their child’s liberal teacher rewarding students for participating in an Occupy Denver encampment. Others would be incensed to see a conservative teacher push student involvement in a Tea Party rally.

Neither type of activism would be appropriate. Yet Denver Public Schools has added vague and political language to promote such expectations in its teacher evaluation framework. That language goes too far.

According to the new DPS evaluation, which will also be tied to mine and other teachers’ compensation, a teacher can only attain the highest level of proficiency if they “encourage students to challenge and question the dominant culture” and “work for social justice.”

This is troubling to say the least.

What does the term dominant culture even mean? If my students were to challenge the dominant culture of the urban high school, for example, they would fight against the political correctness and left-leaning ideologies that dominate in urban schools. This term could mean something else entirely in a different school setting or to a different teacher.

It is bad enough this rubric will be used to evaluate high school teachers like me. But trying to apply this standard to a first-grade classroom creates additional problems. An elementary teacher who encourages students to challenge the dominant culture likely would be asking students to challenge what they learn from parents at home. That is not the role of a teacher.

As a Denver history and economics teacher, I am very familiar with the names and stories of those throughout our history who challenged the status quo and made the world a better place. They possessed qualities that set them apart from others and made them unique. A new teacher evaluation system being implemented in DPS seems aimed at instilling these qualities in students, but the vague and blatantly political language that is used crosses the line.

Encouraging students to work for “social justice,” the second requirement, is filled with its own political implications that go beyond a teacher’s role.

“Social justice” is a loaded term

Anyone familiar with political history, however, can tell you that “social justice” is a loaded term used to advance left-wing ideologies like income equality and redistribution of wealth. So, to be proficient on this portion of the evaluation, are we supposed to try to turn our students into Occupy Wall Street protesters?

My professional association, the non-union and non-political Professional Association of Colorado Educators or PACE, recently conducted a survey of their members and found that 76 percent of teachers disagree with being evaluated based on this criteria.

In order for our students to become great, they need to be able to synthesize information and think critically. We should applaud them for formulating their own informed thoughts and opinions.

Teachers have the responsibility of providing students with the tools they need, like the ability to read, write and compute arithmetic. Once students effectively have been taught to think, they can decide for themselves if the dominant culture is worth challenging or if they want to promote social justice.

Urging teachers to encourage students to challenge the dominant culture or work for social justice essentially asks teachers to think for students.

I work hard to give my students the skills they need to be great, but these requirements cross the line. I hope the district recognizes the overreach and takes the steps to correct it.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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