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The Power of Words

Linda Christensen

Home > Archives > Volume 22 No.3 - Spring 2008

Top-down mandates masquerade as social justice reforms

By Linda Christensen

Really what this [school reform] is about is equity and social justice," a district official told a local newspaper reporter when a new curricular change called anchor assignments was introduced to Portland Public Schools teachers in fall 2005. "It doesn't matter what school you're at, what ZIP code you live in, you should have the same opportunities for a rigorous instructional program like every other student in the city."

Sounds good, right? But what was the school reform? Multicultural books embedded into thematic historical units? Time for teachers to meet and construct lessons for students that integrated math, science, social studies, and literacy around a contemporary issue like immigration, global warming, or the war in Iraq? No. The school reform was an order from the superintendent that every teacher at a particular grade level give the same assignment to every student. She called them "anchor assignments." These assignments announced to teachers that equity, justice, and rigor were located in a standardized curriculum that all teachers were expected to administer.

As the director of the Oregon Writing Project and as a classroom teacher for over 30 years who attempts to work for justice and equity, I was dismayed at the appropriation of social justice language for a top-down mandate that disenfranchised students and teachers. But this is not a phenomenon unique to Portland, Ore. As I travel around the country, I've discovered that central office administrators more and more frequently steal the language and metaphors of social justice education to push their top-down agendas.

First, let me take a moment to challenge the idea that these anchor assignments had anything to do with equity, justice, and rigor. In language arts classes starting in the 3rd grade, every student was required to write a literary analysis essay. The assignments privilege essay writing as the only genre worth teaching. As one consultant said in an elementary workshop, "The days of children lying on the carpet writing their little stories are over."

District administrators distributed anchor assignments as stand-alone work. These assignments, without benefit of instruction in the craft of writing a specific genre like literary analysis, ignored the fact that all students do not start with the same skills; some need more background knowledge in order to succeed on the task. The creators of the anchors (which teachers dubbed "anger assignments") assumed that students learn from dropped-in assignments created in a vacuum. District administrators, evidently unfamiliar with the actual terrain of teaching writing, failed to understand that it's not the writing of an assignment that teaches students to write; it's learning how to write that improves student writing. Students learn when assignments are embedded in a rich curriculum, when they have grappled with big concepts in their lives and the lives of historical and fictional characters, so they can write out of a well of experience that they have rehearsed through talk and example and examination of the genre.

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