School Reform for Social Justice?*

Should public schools in a democracy prepare students for what is or what should be?

This question about the fundamental role of public schools in a democracy has been asked repeatedly by reformers since John Dewey’s “Pedagogic Creed” appeared in 1897. The question continues in reformers’ quest for Kipp-like schooling for poor children of color and charter schools with the phrase “social Justice” in their title or those reformers who swear by common core standards making U.S. schools competitive with Shanghai and Singapore, and, of course, advocates for transforming schools into high-tech havens. Tracking the use of the phrase “social justice” in English language publications since the early 1900s, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, the graph line indicating increased use of phrase climbs steeply since the early 1990s.

Finally, add those champions of “critical pedagogy” to that list of what public schools in a democracy should be doing. Beyond preparing students with the language, social, and academic skills for a highly competitive labor market (e.g., “Everyone Goes To College,” Common Core Standards), “critical pedagogy” and its various incarnations seek to equip low-income minority students with the language skills and academic content to analyze the culture and structures of power  in the U.S. and use both to gain access to equal opportunities and alter the trajectories of their lives with confidence rather than embarrassment (see Ball and Alim pdf Preparation, Pedagogy, Power, and Policy). Proponents of Black English, for example,  (see PDF Critical_language_awareness )  state that “[o]ur pedagogies should not pretend that racism does not exist in the form of linguistic discrimination. Nor should they pretend that linguistic profiling does not directly affect the personal and family lives of our students who speak marginalized languages.” An arsenal of sociolinguistic approaches exists to answer the question: “How might the vernacular of African American children be taken into account in efforts to help them do better in schools?” Scholar John Rickford at Stanford University has spelled out different strategies and their classroom applications. All of these efforts seek to disprove that low-income minority African American, Hawaiian, Mexican American language practices brought into classrooms are deficits; they can be, in the hands of knowledgeable and skilled teachers–strengths.

That mission requires schools to attack political, social, and economic inequalities.  For that to occur, a critical mass of teachers holding these beliefs and possessing the requisite language and literacy knowledge and skills to engage children and youth have to be in classrooms. State and district leaders, teacher education institutions, and reliable funding also have to be mobilized to support teachers and schools as the vanguard in creating a better society.

For those who look to the past for lessons, the history of school reform could easily discourage those current reformers who press schools to be agents of social justice. John Dewey’s glow for that outcome ebbed after leaving his beloved Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. Prior efforts before World War I,  in the 1930s and then in the 1960s to move schools to be in the front lines of making a better society ran aground (see 03-ERv33n5_Kantor-Lowe)

But looking to the past can be dispiriting–which is probably why many reformers spurn history. For those who argue that “rather than harming linguistically profiled and marginalized students, our goal should be arming them with the silent weapons needed for the quiet … wars that are waged daily against their language and person,” the Ann Arbor (or Black English) court decision in 1977 and the Ebonics episode in the Oakland (CA) school district in the early 1990s speak to the uphill road facing them in the second decade of the 21st century. (see PDF Critical_language_awareness)

What John Dewey unleashed in the last years of the 19th century with his Creed and the unrestrained enthusiasm of pedagogical progressives then and civil rights reformers since to transform school and classroom in order to make a better, more just society has motivated generation after generation of reformers to see the school as tip of the lance in making societal change (see social_justice_-ok). Those selling “21st Century Skills,” “college for all,” KIPP, charter schools, common core standards, and evaluating teachers by test scores, however, want schools to prepare children and youth for what is, not for what society should be. These advocates have seen, and continue to see schools as boot camps for society as it is. And they aver that equality of opportunity and social justice is what they seek just as  John Dewey did over a century ago.

Yet each generation of reformers has contained those who also see public schools as instruments of social change that can make the lives of marginalized children far better than now exist. They are hardy and tough-minded; they do not let the facts of the past cloud their dreams nor halt their efforts. The question, then, remains open as it was when John Dewey wrote his Pedagogic Creed in 1897: What role should public schools in a democratic society play?


*This post was initially published February 12, 2011. I have revised and updated it.



Filed under Reforming schools

6 responses to “School Reform for Social Justice?*

  1. Laura H.Chapman

    Selling is a good word to describe various memes thrown around as if the latest thing–innovative– and therefore good. Your historical perspective is wonderful and also tragically lost on so many teachers entering education. I say that wistfully, having taught some introductory History of Art Education courses to undergraduates, in an era ( early 1960s) when only one scholar had attenpted to write a focussed history on the ideas that led to visual arts studies in public elementary and secondary schools.

    My favorite example of branding and selling is “21st Centruty Skills.” The phrase and a thin array of related phrases were sold as a bill of goods by tech lobbyist Ken Kay, who twice tried to get his “skill-sets” into federal legislation, with a tax break for corporations that would embrace and promote them. Kay was working on that project at the same time as the sellers of the Common Core.

    There are several things too rarely discussed about Kay’s meme and graphic device–a rainbow-like diagram.
    First, most of the skills in this scheme are not unique to this century (e.g., critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity—the 4 C’s). 
    Second, the expectations multiply…like rabbits. The plan calls for students to master TEN Life and Career Skills (red), SIX Learning and Innovation Skills (yellow), FOUR Information, Media and Technology Skills (blue), united by the green arch that actually represents ELEVEN “key” subjects and EIGHT 21st Century themes.
    At least on paper, twenty-one states were pursuing these aims (in 2018).

    FAILED FEDERAL LEGISLATION: S. 1483—110th Congress: 21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act. (2007). In Retrieved April 13, 2014, from
    FAILED FEDERAL LEGISLATION: S. 1029–111th Congress: 21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act. (2009). In Retrieved April 13, 2014, from

    Thanks for this update on your earlier work.

    • larrycuban

      As before, I continue to learn from your comments, Laura. I had never heard of Ken Kay (although 21st centiury skills had become a bumper sticker). I watched a few of his talks–he is an entertaining speaker–and understand better his small part in the selling of the slogan in schools. I even looked up his organization and some of the schools listed that,according to the site, exemplified the slogan. Thanks for comment and, again,new knowledge for me.

  2. David F

    Thanks for this Larry and to Laura for her comment. Laura–how you lined up the mix-and-match of skills is almost exactly how the new AP exam course audit is set up.

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