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“Social Justice” Removed from NCATE Standards, But Freedom of Conscience Issues Remain

Following through on a promise made to FIRE and other groups in June 2006, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) announced on Wednesday that it has dropped language referring to “social justice” from its accreditation standards. Groups such as FIRE and the National Association of Scholars (NAS) had identified that ambiguous language as an attempt to enforce particular social and political beliefs among the schools accredited by NCATE—to the point that FIRE and NAS called on the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) last year to reconsider or revoke NCATE’s accreditation authority if the “social justice” language remained.
The new standards for diversity for 2008 are in Standard 4, and the changes are described here. In a fascinating development, NCATE has reframed its commitment to diversity by following the rhetoric of the No Child Left Behind Act, a law that many teachers love to hate. The idea here, as explained in the NCATE document “NCATE and Social Justice: A Call to Action,” is that

federal law requires that no child be left behind. Social justice demands that we take appropriate action to fulfill these promises by assuring high quality education for all children.

That is, “social justice” actually means, in the NCATE context, ensuring high-quality education for all children—it’s that simple. NCATE does not mean, at least not explicitly, to base accreditation in any way on the wide range of social change activism that social justice activists often seek (take the University of Massachusetts Social Justice Education program as an example).
This looks like a step in the right direction. There are still some vague standards, however, in Standard 4. For instance, working from the premise that all students can (and should) learn is not the same thing as requiring that programs “develop a classroom and school climate that values diversity,” or that programs show “[a]ffirmation of the value of diversity … through good-faith efforts to increase or maintain faculty diversity.” Further, to achieve NCATE’s diversity goals still “requires educators who can reflect multicultural and global perspectives.”
Nonetheless, removing “social justice” as an explicit example of how commitment to diversity should be expressed is a step, however small, toward freedom of conscience in teacher education programs.

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