Tulsa schools include ‘social justice’ in staff training

September 24, 2020

Ray Carter

A recent training program at Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) advised teachers to incorporate “social justice” into all courses, including subjects such as physical education and math.

“When we teach, we either reinforce the oppressive status quo, or we work with students to dismantle it,” the training-program material stated.

In August, staff at TPS underwent training in “culturally responsive-sustaining education” (CRSE), according to a source with knowledge of the program. The course materials describe CRSE as an approach that “advances educational justice.” Among other things, materials presented at the training said CRSE uses “anti-oppressive teaching practices” and will “help transform the world toward liberation.”

The program is offered by the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative (EJ-ROC) at the New York University Metro Center.

A Tulsa Public Schools spokesperson said the training is part of the district’s efforts to better serve students.

“We believe that one of the best strategies for examining and understanding how we reach and teach our diverse student population is to continue our own collective learning,” said Emma Garrett-Nelson, director of communications for Tulsa Public Schools. “It is important that we understand more fully the communities of students and families we serve which begins with us ensuring that we are grounded in and acknowledging accurate reflections of historical and present-day context. The first step in this work includes interrogating assumptions and reflecting in an effort to create a more equitable and just system for each of our students.”

One slide from the CRSE training program stated, “From racism to harsh discipline policies, public schools are full of inequities that impact students’ lives every day.”

“We believe that we have a moral obligation to stand alongside our Black and Brown brothers and sisters and act boldly to disrupt and dismantle the systems of oppression that plague our city, our state, and our country.” —Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist

The program claimed CRSE can increase grade point averages and graduation rates and decrease dropout rates and suspensions. In its “grading for equity” section, teachers are advised to “eliminate homework from grades” and replace the 0-100 grading scale with a 0-4 grading scale.

Under “Ideas for a Social Justice Framework,” Tulsa teachers were encouraged to incorporate “social justice” material throughout all subjects taught in school.

“Challenging systems of oppression and teaching through a social justice lens can and should be done in all subjects, not just social studies,” the training program advised educators.

As an example, the training program suggested that students taking a science class should examine “the effects of capitalism on the environment and biological systems,” study “environmental racism and what effects it has had at the local, national, and international levels,” and discuss “misogyny and racism in STEM fields and how to counter it.”

In math, teachers are advised to have students “use statistics, algebra, etc., to analyze the rates and effects of different social problems and injustices in areas such as banking, the criminal justice system, education, housing, etc.” And the training advises that some schools “have even implemented an entire ‘Math for Social Justice’ course!”

In English/Reading, teachers were encouraged to choose “texts that address themes related to systems of oppression and social justice” and to allow students to “research systems of oppression and write about their own experiences or those of people in their lives.”

In P.E. classes, instructors were advised to “discuss and challenge gender norms in team sports and athletics” and “discuss inequality and discrimination in athletics.”

In art, teachers were urged to introduce “radical artists who use their artwork for social change, such as Emory Douglas of the Black Panthers.” (Douglas’ work included portraying police officers as pigs.)

The training materials include “anti-oppressive teaching practices” and will “help transform the world toward liberation.”

When teaching world languages, instructors were encouraged to “introduce vocabulary in the target language related to social justice and use it in context.” And in an “English for Speakers of Other Languages” course, teachers were told to “examine the oppressive nature behind enforcing ‘Standard English.’”

In the study of Geography, teachers were told to examine “political borders,” including “why they were drawn, who they benefit, and what damage they have caused to native populations.” The training also emphasized that Geography students should be required to examine “how resources are distributed and hoarded under global capitalism and the effect it has on land, people, and cultural development.”

A similar theme was emphasized for Health/Nutrition instruction with teachers encouraged to have students study “the various effects capitalism has had on people’s mental and physical health and nutrition,” and to also instruct students in “non-western practices of maintaining spiritual and physical health.”

In a June 18 email sent to TPS employees, Tulsa Public School Superintendent Deborah Gist wrote, “We believe that we have a moral obligation to stand alongside our Black and Brown brothers and sisters and act boldly to disrupt and dismantle the systems of oppression that plague our city, our state and our country.”

In that same email, Gist wrote that “the lives and livelihoods of all Black and Brown people are continuously in peril based solely on the color of their skin. We must stand together in deep and intentional solidarity with Black and Indigenous People of Color to name and actively dismantle oppressive systems, structures, and practices so that we can truly embody our commitment to becoming an anti-racist and anti-oppressive organization.”

The Tulsa Public School system is among the systems that most actively impact the lives of minority youth. In two Tulsa high schools that have a large share of black pupils in the student body, state data indicates most students are not receiving an education that prepares them for meaningful employment or college once they finish high school.

According to the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, in the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent for which data was available, just 3 percent of students at Central High School were at grade level (“proficient”) or better in 11th grade English Language Arts. Just 2 percent were proficient in 11th-grade math, and 3 percent were proficient or better in 11th-grade science. The four-year dropout rate for the high school exceeded 25 percent, and the average ACT score for those who took the test was 14.2 (a 36 represents a perfect score on the test).

Sixty percent of students at the Central High School were black.

At McLain High School, just 2 percent of 11th-grade students were performing at grade level or better in the 2018-2019 school year in English Language Arts, just 1 percent in math, and 2 percent in science. The high school had a four-year dropout rate of 36.7 percent and students who took the ACT had an average score of 14.5.

Nearly 45 percent of students at the high school were black.

NOTE: After publication of this article, Tulsa Public Schools provided additional comment on the “culturally responsive-sustaining education” session.

Lauren Barber (Partain), media relations manager for Tulsa Public Schools, said the CRSE materials were “not presented as recommendations or requirements to our educators” but as “supplemental resources that we shared, but did not create.”

“These posts give insight into the ways in which social justice can be integrated into all core areas, and were provided as a helpful resource for our educators,” Barber (Partain) wrote. She also described the material as “one short activity of a much larger learning experience designed to support educators in developing their understanding of culturally responsive teaching practices…”

“We know that all students deserve a quality education,” Barber (Partain) wrote, “and believe it is important that we understand more fully the communities of students and families we serve by creating a more equitable and just system for each of our students.”