Tuesday, November 21

Clea Wurster: Education department must focus on social justice curriculum


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What are the effects of the White House administration’s childish antics? Potentially, more childish antics.

John Rogers, the faculty director of Center X at UCLA, which offers a primary school teacher training program, and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, conducted a recent study showing a link between President Donald Trump’s term and an increase in high school students’ incivility levels.

The May 2017 study asked teachers in public high schools nationwide how they felt their students were affected by both the political and rhetorical strategies of President Trump.

The findings were alarming. The study found levels of incivility, racial hostility and combative claims that rely on unsubstantiated sources among students have increased, particularly in high schools where the student body is at least 80 percent white. Additionally, according to Rogers’ study, students’ stress and anxiety levels are on the rise due to concerns for their own well-being after Trump went public about stances on issues such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Rogers’ study has far-reaching implications: Education programs have a critical role in shaping how students interact with each other in these changing political times. This means that programs training future teachers need to address the political climate to ensure the nation’s students are able to form tolerant communities in the face of political and administrative examples of behavior that may encourage discriminatory interactions.

UCLA should take the lead in this by implementing curriculum-mandated workshops for students in the education department that address instances of heightened political polarization in the classroom.

Universities are key in training the next generation of teachers, and Rogers’ study demonstrates that generating safe and welcoming learning environments is all the more necessary in our public schools.

“Those of us in universities who are training, engaging and developing the educational capacity of … school leaders and future teachers need to talk about these issues and provide them with guidance and support,” Rogers said.

Currently, there are training programs available to K-12 teachers, such as Casel, which focus on the benefits of implementing social-emotional learning techniques, or practices aimed at teaching children empathy and the ability to form healthy relationships in the classroom.

However, these curricula are not equipped to respond to the ever-changing political climate. While they provide educators with valuable resources to teach students kindness and empathy, they do little to address the extremism that bombards students as the mainstream media relays Trump’s rhetoric to the masses.

Unfortunately, students are learning by example and have become emboldened to generate racial hostility in their classrooms in the form of derogatory comments that rely on unsubstantiated claims, such as Trump’s consistent condemnation of reliable news sources as fake news.

For example, Rogers’ study found that more than 20 percent of teachers reported heightened polarization, 41 percent of teachers reported that students were more likely to make unfounded claims about racial topics and 27.7 percent of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups with anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric.

Of course some public high schools have risen to the occasion and met incivility and polarization with a zero-tolerance bullying policy, said Ron Avi Astor, a researcher who holds joint appointments in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the USC Rossier School of Education. Astor added other schools have shied away, though, refusing to confront the issue head-on because the issues are inherently political and public high school educators cannot take sides politically.

Educators’ reticence to address incivility in classrooms is exactly why UCLA needs to implement new programming that provides future educators with the ability to bring up political issues without taking political sides. Bigotry, racism, discrimination and bullying have no place in public schools, whether or not our current administration may instigate these practices.

“The kids in the schools aren’t just receptacles of what spills over to them from the TV on the national level,” said Astor.

UCLA’s addition to its department of education’s curriculum could be in the form of a seminar or workshop tailored to political and social unrest. This workshop could allow future educators to connect with already employed social-emotional learning techniques, while creating school models that provide students with a better example of what civil engagement can look like.

Though UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies does have a philosophy of social justice, focusing on minority students’ needs, it is unclear how many of the instructors truly subscribe to that philosophy in their curricula, said Douglas Kellner, a professor in UCLA’s education, gender studies and Germanic languages departments. Kellner added some students have complained there isn’t enough programming about how to address political issues.

“There’s definitely some courses and some teachers that I think pursue this (social justice) agenda, but there could be more,” Kellner said. “The (education) department needs to have a discussion about what kinds of courses that we should be offering that we’re not.”

Educators have the opportunity to succeed where the government has fallen short. With science officially on their side, teacher education programs should seize the opportunity to start creating the kind of programming that could help.

Just because the Trump presidency is riddled with insensitivity doesn’t mean our classrooms should be.

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  • Publius

    No, they should focus on the basics. We can’t have the most competitive economy on Earth by encouraging our students to prioritize identity politics over actual marketable skills.