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Volume II Issue IX

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Social Justice: A Descriptive Phrase or a Core Value

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


The work of school personnel can be very intense. We are on the move all day long, rarely having time to stop and reflect on why we do the job that we do. Some of my most satisfying moments as a school administrator came when I had time to see the “big picture” and to engage in conversations with fellow administrators about the work we were doing.

At our August ASK Group Consultants and Associates meeting in Alexandria, Virginia we discussed a wide range of subjects including such timely topics as mentoring, differentiation, professional learning communities, parallel block scheduling, data gathering, analysis, and use, assessing student work, leadership skills, and concept-based instruction. When Theresa West introduced the topic of social justice she spoke with such passion and eloquence about her views that all those around the table were impacted by her words. It was clear that she had a definite vision as to what she wished to accomplish as the leader of her school.

She began by saying that she felt that equality in America comes about in public education. She noted that when we have people who come from all over the world and from all socioeconomic levels in our schools, it is our obligation to “get them up to par” with all the different social structures that exist in our society. The work of public school educators must be to help all of the children in our schools experience success. We must work tirelessly to make sure that all children are learning and making progress. Simply put, success breeds success. When students learn and succeed, they are motivated and gain confidence in themselves. They begin to see the results of their efforts because their teachers have not allowed them to fail.

As Theresa continued to share her thinking, she further explained that one of our mandates was not only to ensure that our children were making progress in school but also to teach them how to achieve success on the required standardized tests they must take. Scores on tests often serve as the gateway to advanced courses in high school. Likewise, scores on tests are part of the criteria used to determine admission to college. When our children are given opportunities to learn how to improve their performance on standardized tests, they will achieve at higher levels and be on the road to brighter futures and better lives.

We cannot make excuses or accept complacency when students do not learn. We cannot say that some students are not motivated, or some students simply cannot learn, or that some parents simply do not care if their children achieve in school. A headline in a recent newspaper article read: “What Parents Want From Teachers.” Two Harvard economists completed a study this past summer which was released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They concluded that parents in more affluent areas want teachers who promote overall student satisfaction, but are not as interested in a teacher’s ability to raise standardized math or reading scores. However, parents in higher poverty areas value student achievement and are indifferent to reports about a “teacher’s ability to establish and promote student satisfaction.” Although many parents of poverty do not have the skill or “know how” to deal with school bureaucracies, we cannot conclude that they are not interested in what happens to their children in school. They want their children to have greater economic opportunities in their future and they see education as the key to improved lifestyles.

Children are coming to us from all over the world; some have received little or no education in their home countries. In addition, we are working with children who come from intense poverty as the rate of poverty in the United States has risen for the third straight year. With all the challenges we face every day, we cannot forget the power that our schools hold. Michael Fullan has written that “it is not acceptable for us to know a child is failing and not do something about it. Further, conflict avoidance in the face of poor performance is an act of moral neglect.” We are obligated to confront these issues and serve as the catalysts for positive change. We must make social justice not simply a descriptive phrase but a viable reality in the current and future lives of our children.



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Social Justice: A Descriptive Phrase or a Core Value.” Just for the ASKing! September 2005. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2006 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.