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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.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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.