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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught

Teachers can help end discrimination.

We all remember the teachers who most influenced us. Life lessons learned in the classroom stay with you for decades. I was lucky to have several great teachers, but my fifth grade teacher stands out the most.

Nancy Livingston taught for 25 years in Princeton, New Jersey at Littlebrook Elementary School, where the mascot is a giraffe and the school motto is “Stick your neck out for others.”

Ms. Livingston always stuck her neck out for us. I’m willing to bet that every one of her students remembers her.

From the first day of school, she spoke candidly about what makes us all different and how learning about our differences makes us better people. She spoke about discrimination in the context of history lessons and taught us basic principles of social justice. She made us laugh, and she made us think.

There aren’t enough Ms. Livingstons. While there are strong, visionary teachers who talk to students about discrimination, there are also those who stay silent amidst incidents of bullying and prejudice. Some teachers even become perpetrators themselves.

Teachers can shape a student’s perception of the world and their place in it. Not every teacher feels responsible for explaining the nature of discrimination, or showing students how to counteract it. It’s not usually part of the lesson plan.

That could change.

In a new letter from former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his successor, Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., the Education Department is openly calling on teachers, staff, and school officials to “ensure that young people are not subjected to discrimination or harassment based on race, religion, or national origin.”

King and Duncan were explicit about the effects of such a toxic environment: “If ignored, this kind of conduct can jeopardize students’ ability to learn, undermine their physical and emotional well-being, provoke retaliatory acts, and exacerbate community conflicts,” they wrote.

School isn’t just a learning environment — it’s a social environment where we learn stark lessons about privilege and status. Peer pressure, bullying, racism — these are the most impactful extracurricular activities students may encounter.

Every nation needs more people who are willing to fight for a better future. Where better to learn about how to stand up for what’s right than in a classroom where you learn anyway?

It’s wonderful that two of the most prominent K-12 leaders can recognize the influence that educators wield. Yet Duncan and King are too vague. They don’t make any specific demands, outline any strategies, or even recommend changing any policies. As leaders in their field, they can and should do more to eradicate discrimination in schools.

For starters, the Education Department could declare a long-term mission to eradicate discriminatory educational policies. Many schools are already dumping these policies, which harm students of color and students with disabilities. Some schools are even revamping curricula and disciplinary policies to account for the impact of trauma on students’ behavior and ability to learn.

I hope all education leaders and officials, along with our lawmakers, act. The Ms. Livingstons of the world are watching.

Olivia Alperstein is the Communications and Policy Associate at Progressive Congress. Distributed by