DeGROW: Denver school chief says social activism language ‘didn’t capture’ intent

By   /   September 28, 2012  /   Comments Off on DeGROW: Denver school chief says social activism language ‘didn’t capture’ intent

By Ben DeGrow | Special to Colorado Watchdog

Ben DeGrow

Leaders in Denver Public Schools have backed away from controversial teacher evaluation language that promoted student social activism.

Following a district-wide announcement that the language had been revised, DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg appeared on Thursday’s edition of the Mike Rosen Show on AM 850 KOA to explain the change.

As the school year began, the district’s updated evaluation framework offered teachers the highest rating for encouraging students to “challenge and question the dominant culture” and “take social action to change/ improve society or work for social justice.” Teachers also were to be judged on student behavior, expecting them to “appear comfortable challenging the dominant culture in respectful ways.”

The term “dominant culture” is rooted in left-leaning beliefs that minority groups ought to resist assimilating into “white American” values. “Social justice” likewise is a favorite phrase of the left, most commonly used to advocate for redistribution of wealth.

The troublesome language came to light in an Aug. 29 story by 9News reporter Nelson Garcia, as East High School teacher John Peterson brought forward his concerns: “The phrasing could easily be interpreted that we would be expected to encourage students and students would demonstrate that they would, for example, be Occupy Wall Street.”

On air with Rosen, a conservative talker with perhaps the biggest microphone in the Rocky Mountain region, Boasberg credited Peterson with bringing attention to the subject.

“The wording wasn’t the right wording, and it didn’t capture the appropriate intent we had,” the DPS superintendent said. “This was a teacher, a teacher raised the concern … he caught them, he was right to catch them, he raised them, and I think we reflected and had discussions.”

In a Sept. 24 email to teachers across the district, DPS Chief Academic Officer Susana Cordova introduced the new language. Offending phrases have been removed, with teachers now expected to encourage students “to think critically about equity and bias in society, and to understand and question historic and prevailing currents of thought.”

Boasberg echoed the themes in his 850 KOA radio interview, citing famous Americans from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony.

“They might have come from all different parts of the political spectrum, but they all challenged many of the main tenets of prevailing thought,” he said.

The DPS superintendent sought to clarify district leaders’ intent behind the initial language and the subsequent revisions. “The agenda is a very simple one: We want our kids to be critical thinkers,” Boasberg said.

Rosen also introduced into the conversation Jay Bennish, a social studies teacher from neighboring Cherry Creek Schools who made national headlines in 2006 for a classroom rant in which he virulently attacked capitalism and compared then-President George W. Bush with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

“The challenge is to enforce the evenhandedness of presentation, when you’ve got most of your teachers who don’t necessarily agree with the ideas I have,” Rosen said, noting that most DPS classroom instructors are union members and Democrats.

Boasberg didn’t concur with the host’s characterization but offered assurances that his administration would continue listening to feedback from parents, many of whom live outside the district’s boundaries but have exercised the choice to enroll their children in DPS.

“Clearly, we want to hear from parents — both, with what they’re excited about and where they have concerns,” he said.