Opinion: Daily Journal

Who decides what public schools teach? 

I don’t write much about what happens inside of the classroom simply because there is so little information about it. Content standards adopted by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction outline the sequence, topics, and learning goals for each grade and subject. Curricula and instructional decisions are made on the district, school, and departmental levels. The imposition of statewide, uniform content standards doesn’t necessarily prescribe day-to-day instructional activities. Simply put, what happens in the classroom generally stays in the classroom, and the public is none the wiser. 

Occasionally, an assignment, worksheet, or exam question will migrate from the classroom to social media. Some of my favorite are funny test answers. What ended in 1896? 1895. Where was the Declaration of Independence signed? At the bottom. What is the highest frequency noise that a human can register? Mariah Carey. You get the idea. 

But classroom materials are also leaked because parents believe their child has been assigned tasks that have questionable educational value, or they object to passages included in required reading materials. In rare cases, teachers will air their objections to lessons imposed on them by school district staff or administrators. 

Such was the case when a seventh-grade English teacher in Wake County alerted me to a forthcoming unit based on the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The narrative is an autobiography written by Douglass, a former slave who escaped bondage in 1838, became a central figure in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, and championed civil rights after the war. The book describes the brutality of slavery, the cruelty of slave owners, and the dehumanizing effects of the peculiar institution. It is one of the most important anti-slavery books ever published in the United States, and unquestionably it deserves a place in the classroom. But is it suitable for seventh-grade students? Apparently, the publisher of the lesson, EL Education, and Wake County Schools believe that it is. The teacher is not so sure. 

Among a number of concerns he relayed to me was the brutality and graphic language in the book passages assigned to adolescents who may not have the maturity to engage the text with the kind of sincerity and reverence that it deserves. Among the excerpts that students are asked to read is the following: 

I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. 

The lesson plan suggests that teachers ask students to read the passage and identify who was cruel and who is being whipped. 

Moreover, teachers are directed to have a conversation with students about racially charged language, including the n-word, which appears in the Narrative repeatedly but not in the excerpts assigned to students. The lesson plan directs teachers to “Refer to a list of terms posted on the board: African American, black, Negro, n…er, white, Caucasian. Ask students to think for a few minutes: Which of these terms are respectful terms to use today? Which of these terms are not respectful?” In the hands of an inexperienced teacher, this part of the lesson could go terribly wrong. The same is true for the “performance task” for the unit, which asks students to “write and illustrate a children’s book based on an episode from Douglass’ life.” 

I do not have the expertise to judge the quality of the lesson or assess its appropriateness, but I trust the judgment of the teacher who forwarded it to me. His reservations about it should be enough to warrant a review by his superiors and a discussion with parents. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research  and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.