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Volume 17, Number 2
March/April 2001

Collateral Damage

Social-justice curricula are jeopardized in high-stakes environments


Nathaniel, a factory worker, keeps warm by burning worthless German marks. Teenage Sophie wishes Kaiser Wilhelm II would "come save us all." And Mary's father has just joined the Nazi party. She is glad, she writes, because "[the Nazis] have some good ideas."

In Doc Miller's 8th-grade social studies class, it is Germany in the 1920s. The Treaty of Versailles is still fresh, and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf is newly published. These Concord, MA, students are reading letters written in the voices of characters they have invented. They are integrating personal, social, and historical facts in an effort to understand the complex dynamics that propelled Hitler to power. Miller, a 33-year veteran, is teaching from Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), a social-justice curriculum created in 1976 that is taught in 6,000 schools across the country. FHAO uses Holocaust studies to teach students the importance of critical thinking in understanding and protecting the rights and responsibilities of all. As one of Miller's former students told his class, "This is so important. You listen to this course."

And yet, says Miller, the increasing emphasis on preparing for state-mandated standardized tests such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) makes it more challenging to use such curricula. "If you were going to go according to MCAS, I wouldn't have done anything you saw today," he says. The MCAS doesn't cover Germany from the 1920s to the 1940s. Many teachers with less seniority than Miller who were working in a less supportive system might be afraid to spend ten weeks on content that would not show up on the state-mandated test. Even without standardized testing, many teachers might avoid teaching complex material, including social-justice curricula, because it is labor intensive. Standardized testing only makes it more difficult.

Wherever testing is state mandated, FHAO and social-justice curricula like it are jeopardized. In California, Tennessee, Illinois, Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts, some teachers are using FHAO on a modified basis, compressing the 10-week course into two weeks or transplanting elements to a different grade or subject, reports FHAO associate program director Alan Stoskopf. Sometimes, a shift to another grade level or subject area may be beneficial, but truncating the course can be disastrous. Some teachers have had to drop it altogether.

At the margins

Paradoxically, state-mandated tests aim to enhance learning, teaching, and accountability, but in many cases may be hampering all three. Multiple-choice tests do not typically reward inquiry or analysis, so curricula that emphasize such in-depth learning are often relegated to the margins of the school day. Measuring the impact of such complex curricula as FHAO would require pre- and post-tests that measure student engagement, emotional maturity, thinking skills, and content. But leaders of such complex programs have trouble securing money, let alone developing reliable tests. Tom Roderick, executive director of the metropolitan New York chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR), says that despite studies showing that ESR's conflict-resolution program reduces violence and improves test scores, resources for such "social/emotional training" have been cut significantly in recent years.

What constitutes a social-justice curriculum? The broadest definition spans a continuum from teaching interpersonal skills, such as good listening, to service learning to an analysis of social, political, and economic inequities. Whatever the approach to social-justice teaching, most theorists agree that its success depends not only on curricula but on whether teachers, schools, and school policy model and nurture fairness. In other words, "social justice curriculum involves not only what we teach, but how we teach it," says Michael W. Apple, a professor of curriculum, instruction, and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

That kind of teaching requires time-time that preparing for standardized tests often doesn't allow. Says Doc Miller: "I am convinced after 30 years of teaching, that you need to give time to thoughtfully go into things, to ask questions, to look at cause and effect, to understand [history] from a variety of viewpoints." Proponents of programs such as FHAO believe such time is well worth investing. They cite the needs of a democratic society for an informed and engaged citizenry. "Schooling ... is not only about learning skills so you can get a job," says Roderick. "It's about thinking, asking questions, and understanding that citizens play a crucial role in deciding the most important issues of the day."

Such understanding may be needed now more than ever. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard public-policy researcher Robert D. Putnam documents a sharp decline in civic engagement and social trust since the early 1970s, while the country has become increasingly multicultural. If that is indeed true, then misunderstandings and conflict are perhaps inevitable without some help from public institutions of all kinds, including schools.

Feeling connected

One study suggests that social-justice curricula, with their emphasis on fairness, may promote healthy behaviors. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997, the longitudinal study of 12,000 adolescents, grades 7 to 12, found two protective factors against risky behavior: feeling connected to family and feeling connected to school. "Parent-family connectedness and perceived school connectedness were protective against every health risk behavior measure except history of pregnancy," wrote researcher Michael Resnick and his coauthors. When schools succeed in fostering such an atmosphere, students feel connected, and that connectedness is associated with lower levels of violent behavior and substance abuse, as well as a postponement of first-time sexual intercourse.

A two-year study of 5,000 students commissioned by ESR of its Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) provides partial confirmation of those findings. Created in 1985, RCCP is a K-12 program based on the assumption that violence is learned and so can be unlearned. In that 1999 study, children who received substantial RCCP instruction tended to "see violence as an unacceptable option, and to choose competent strategies for resolving conflict rather than aggressive ones. They also did better academically," concluded principal investigator J. Lawrence Aber. ESR's Tom Roderick hypothesizes that academics improved because "working with the RCCP curriculum fosters better rapport between teachers and students, so the climate in the classroom is more positive and conducive to learning."
Social-justice learning and preparation for standardized testing don't have to be mutually exclusive. For example, six years ago, Hudson (MA) public schools superintendent Sheldon Berman tied service learning to district standards K-12. Six years later, Hudson's test scores are better, and its community ties are stronger. Service learning—a kind of applied social-justice program in which students combine volunteer experiences with analysis—offered rich opportunities for students in Hudson, an industrial town with a large bilingual population. For example, the district's 4th-grade science program includes a hands-on, inquiry-based wetlands curriculum. Students collect and classify samples, help clean up wetland areas and build nature trails, and learn the value of protecting fragile ecosystems. In 1998, those 4th graders scored in the top 20 percent on the state-mandated test. This year those scores dropped some, but they continue to have "strong and improving results on the California Achievement Test," according to Berman.

Of course, the real purpose of social-justice education is to help students get a better understanding of the world and their place in it. Facing History and Ourselves, which aims to link historical analysis and individual behavior, has been shown to decrease racism and fighting among students and to increase social maturity, according to two studies sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In 1996, Carnegie funded a pair of two-year studies to evaluate the program, a large outcome study and a small qualitative case study. The first study compared the growth of 212 FHAO students with 134 comparison students. Teachers of the comparison students also emphasized intergroup relations, racism, and prejudice in their teaching, but they did not use FHAO. The findings were striking. FHAO students showed significantly more growth in relationship maturity, and notable decreases in racist attitudes and fighting.

The second analysis—an intensive case study of 19 FHAO students—found that half the students were able to draw connections between "the motivations and responses of individuals to the Nazis during the Holocaust" and the motivations of themselves or others today regarding social issues. One-third said in interviews that they had a better appreciation for how easily people can be seduced into wrongdoing. "Eighth graders are centrally concerned with figuring out where they fit and what belonging to a group means," says researcher Dennis Barr. "Issues of loyalty and conformity come up powerfully."

Bleak Future

Despite such promising results, the future of social-justice curricula looks bleak at a time when standardized testing—frequently described as a mile wide and an inch deep—has gained so much momentum. As Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, points out, testing "is convenient. It reduces everything to a number." And that, he says, suits politicians and business leaders who are more concerned with creating a work force than fostering social justice.

Although 90 percent of teacher educators agree that core values should be taught in schools, only 13 percent are "satisfied" with their efforts, according to a 1999 study by the Boston University Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character. Why? Because, according to the report, the educators were "busy meeting their states' mandated content requirements."

Lisa Birk, a former assistant editor of the Harvard Education Letter, is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She wrote about grade inflation for the January/February 2000 issue.

For Further Information

For Further Information

J.L. Aber, J.L. Brown, and C.C. Henrich. Teaching Conflict Resolution: An Effective School-Based Approach to Violence Prevention. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, 1999.

M.W. Apple and J.A. Beane. Democratic Schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1995.

S. Berman. "Service as Systemic Reform." The School Administrator 7, no. 57 (2000).

Facing History and Ourselves, 16 Hurd Rd., Brookline, MA 02445; 617-232-1595; fax: 617-232-0281.

National Center for Fair and Open Testing, 342 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139; 617-864-4810.

R.D. Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

M.D. Resnick, P.S. Bearman, et al. "Protecting Adolescents from Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health." Journal of the American Medical Association 278, no. 10 (1997): 823-832.

K. Ryan and K. Bohlin. "Teacher Education's Empty Suit." Education Week (March 8, 2000): 41-42.