30 Most Controversial Education Practices in U. S. History

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by Deborah Medwin

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With the adaptation of Common Core standards by the majority of U.S. states, scrutiny of educational practices has rarely been tighter. Educators, parents, students and taxpayers are focused on the state of education across the nation, and the media now reports on such educational intricacies as curriculum planning and literacy standards. The ensuing controversy over the value of the Common Core reveals not only America’s passion for education, but also its historical tendency to both embrace and reject deviations from what might be considered an educational norm.

From racial integration to MOOCs, there have been experiments in education. Teaching methods vary depending upon the intent and style of the instructor, the time period, fashionable techniques, and school, state, or federal impositions, but since the formal adaptation of tax-supported public school (in the 17th century) in the U.S., these institutions of learning and teaching have consistently weathered controversy. Top Education Degrees has examined some of the most surprising, provocative, or revolutionary educational practices and compiled a list of the 30 most controversial.

Method for Selection

The nature of a controversy is a dispute that is prolonged, impassioned, and often public in nature. Top Education Degrees began by defining controversy in education based on one or more of the following four guidelines:

1. A subjective social or religious issue that uniquely affects education
Issues like gun control, sex ed, prayer, creation v. evolution and spanking in schools are, for the most part, matters of personal opinion. Implementation of rules regarding such issues may be based on legal precedent or pressure from political, administrative or parental authority, but when opposing perspectives among interested parties converge, controversy is inevitable.

2. A deviation from traditional methods
Educational practices, teaching methods, and curriculum vary from school to school; nevertheless, in most public schools in the U.S., there exists a basic concept of education. Children are required by law to attend an educational institution whose responsibility is to impart knowledge and understanding of the traditional subjects: mathematics, English, social studies, and sciences. A certain level of non-traditional teaching style and subject emphasis is generally tolerated or desired, of course, but when non-standard educational movements become broad, such as flipped schools, MOOCs, or homeschooling, or threaten to affect traditional schools, like same sex schools or integration of students with special needs, controversy ensues.

3. A potential “corruption” or harming of students
Education is intended to provide knowledge, skills, and discipline; educated students are prepared for careers, personal fulfillment, inter-personal relations, and general life navigation. Sometimes, however, a school or instructor distorts those objectives, intentionally or not, and physically or ethically obstructs the goals of education. The controversy lies in the perspective: to some, educational research which depends upon real classroom conduct is progressive or necessary, while to others, emotionally or intellectually manipulating students or grades amounts to exploitative human experimentation.

4. Shown to be historically, scientifically, or socially incorrect
From a more historical standpoint, some of the controversial practices included in this list are no longer legal or fashionable, but are nevertheless prime examples of contentious topics in education. It is precisely because of the controversy that practices like racial segregation have been challenged, disproven, and abolished, but in some cases, despite evidence to the contrary, questionable educational practices persist.

# 30 Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes: Third Grade Discrimination

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In 1968, while the U.S. was in the throes of the civil rights movement, Jane Elliot, a Riceville, Iowa, third grade teacher, questioned her all-white class about racial discrimination, and wondered whether they knew what it felt like to be treated badly because of the color of one’s skin. Concluding that empathy could best be achieved through experience, Elliott instructed her class to implement a new way of thinking: that brown eyed people were superior to blue eyed students, and the two groups should not mingle. Brown eyed students were given extra recess and academic praise, while blue eyed students were isolated and ridiculed. The following day, Elliot reversed the hierarchy, and blue eyed students became the privileged group. In just a short time, the superior set became mean and exclusive, while the lower group was plagued by academic underperformance and depressive thoughts. Elliott discussed the children’s actions and feelings, and ended the lesson by explaining its point: that just as the color of a person’s eyes shouldn’t affect their treatment, neither should the color of their skin.

While Elliott’s methods have become well known and widely used (they have inspired training videos used around the world used to help employers educate staff and instill basic workplace guidelines about racial tolerance), they have nevertheless provoked some controversy. How wide a role does a public school play in the social and moral guidance of its students? What are the ethical implications of subjecting a student to emotional discomfort for the sake of instilling personal and social principles? To some parents and administrators, the brown eye/blue eye experiment is outside the scope of a school’s responsibilities, while to others, the lesson is as vital to shaping future adult citizens as is any academic subject.

#29 Homeschooling

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1.5 million students in the U.S. were homeschooled in 2007. Citing primarily religious reasons or concerns about school environment, families report choosing homeschooling over traditional education as a way to control the content of their children’s learning and the influence and safety of their environment. While there is no legal obstacle to the right to homeschool, many states implement individual requirements for instructor qualifications or educational standards. Any official controversy attached to homeschooling typically involves the level of a state’s monetary obligation to homeschoolers, as well as the amount of control a state may exercise over homeschool curriculum. For many engaged in a debate about homeschooling, however, the controversy stems from a belief that homeschooling may be academically inadequate, isolating, or a cover for abuse. While proponents of traditional education, such as the National Education Association (NEA) warn of the negative effects and expense of homeschooling, defendants of the practice continue to extol its flexibility and child-centered merits.

#28 Bilingual Education

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Proponents of bilingual education in the U.S. explain it as necessary for English language learners to comprehensively study a new language using the linguistic and grammatical support of one’s native speech. Bilingual instruction in the U.S. may take several forms, including English-only classes with support in the native language, or classes taught in both English and the native language, and which are effective both in teaching English to non-native speakers and in providing native English speakers with second language skills. While some of the controversy surrounding bilingual education is political, with opponents protesting the use of state funds to hire specialized teachers and designation of the school day disproportionately to language, often the most vehement challenges are ideological, and stem from a desire to maintain a singular national identity based on language.

#27 School Supplied Condoms

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In the early 1990s, prompted by the AIDS crisis and a surge in teenage pregnancies, some U.S. schools began considering and implementing policies which allowed for distribution of condoms to students. Although the number of schools that supplied condoms was relatively small—in 1995, about 2.2% of public high schools—the backlash was considerable. Primary objections came from parents and educators who worried that providing condoms would encourage young people to become sexually active, and suggested that sexual education was outside the scope of public school responsibility. Policies were somewhat more defined in 2010, with limited, regulated condom distribution at a greater number of schools. The controversy remains, however: does handing out condoms encourage sexual activity, or prevent disease and pregnancy among a vulnerable demographic? Is sex ed a school responsibility or the realm of the parents only? Whether a question of morality or practicality, condom distribution in schools continues to be controversial.

#26 Abstinence-Only Policies

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Although many schools have chosen to provide knowledge for sexual health and to supply condoms to students, they are outnumbered by the schools which teach that abstinence until marriage is the only option for sexual, physical, and mental health. ABC News reports that the government has allotted $50 million per year in federal funding to school abstinence-only programs which teach that sexual activity before (heterosexual) marriage results in pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and psychological and emotional harm, and should therefore be avoided without alternative. Supporters of this educational perspective claim that its value lies in its promotion of healthy personal choices and school-based moral guidance; teaching students how to practice safe sex is tantamount to condoning teenage sexual activity. Opponents, however, argue that while abstinence is ideal, it is not realistic, and it is irresponsible for a school to avoid teaching students how to protect themselves from pregnancy and infections. Moreover, abstinence-only policies implicitly present a heterosexual ideal which excludes students who are GLBTQ, or those who do not plan to marry, but who need information about sexual health.

#25 Dissection in School

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Using animals for scientific experimentation is an ongoing ethical debate, and animal dissection in school classrooms is a particularly controversial issue. Dissection choice laws, which require schools to obtain parental consent before engaging in dissection or animal experimentation with students, generally apply to all grades below college, and vary by state. While students and parents are free to opt out of these activities without penalty to a student’s grade or relationship with her/his teacher, many argue that denying a student a hands-on experience results in peer inequality and limits the opportunity for scientific understanding and discovery. Objections to dissection practices include the unwillingness to objectify or subject animals to possible pain, as well as whether scientific demonstration on animals is necessary and appropriate in a school setting. Despite the ongoing controversy, most schools continue to support dissection as an important learning tool, while offering students alternative participation options.

#24 Racial Segregation

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In 1954, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, provoked controversy, often in the form of violent protests and mob riots. The decades following brought significant resistance to the ruling, from physical attacks on black students to refusal to comply with desegregation policies, but through persistent effort, including federal prohibition against discrimination, state court enforcement, cross-neighborhood busing and magnet schools, racial integration in schools became more accepted and widespread. At the 50-year anniversary of the court’s decision, however, examination of individual public schools and interviews with attending students showed that many districts were overwhelmingly segregated. For example, out of the 12 schools in Fulton County, Atlanta, 5 are more than 80% black and 6 are more than 60% white. A 1999 study done by the Harvard Civil Rights project reported that students in U.S. public schools were more segregated than they were in the 1970s, and suggests that the legal and political climate is relatively hostile to considering a need for change. As the educational system in the U.S. increasingly reflects national social and class issues, understanding the reasons for these demographic shifts and considering the steps needed to remedy this situation will again prove controversial.

#23 Stutter Study

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In 1939 at the University of Iowa, psychology professor Wendell Johnson was working on a research project which theorized that the act of stuttering was not an effect of biology, as medically assumed, but was rather learned behavior which could be lessened or eliminated completely. He and a graduate student, Mary Tudor, embarked upon an experiment with 22 children from a nearby orphanage to determine whether a child with a stutter could be convinced to abandon it, and conversely, whether a normal speaker could be induced to acquire a stutter. The children were separated into four groups: 1A, stutterers who were told that there was nothing wrong with their speech; 1B, stutterers who were assured that they did stutter, 11A, normal speakers who were told that there were major problems with their speech, and 11B, normal speakers who were reassured that their speech was fine. At the close of the experiment, the children’s speech was primarily unchanged: those who began with stutters still had them, and those who spoke normally still did, for the most part. The most serious effect of the experiment happened to the six children in group 11A; those who spoke normally but were told they didn’t. Those children became anxious, withdrawn, and unwilling to speak because of the fear that they were speaking incorrectly. Formerly outgoing, sociable children refused to speak in class or engage with friends because they doubted their ability to communicate and worried about embarrassing themselves. Although the study remained relatively unknown and unpublished until 2001, when the San Jose Mercury News published a series of articles, prompting a public apology by the University of Iowa, the negative emotional and behavioral effects on the surviving members of the experiment persist.

#22 Flipped Schools

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In traditional education, classrooms are conceived as spaces in which students absorb instructor knowledge and lessons, while homework is the individual tasks completed by students on their own which reinforces the concepts taught in the classroom. In flipped schools, instructional methods are reversed; students watch online a lesson pre-recorded by their instructor and then come to class ready to apply the information they’ve studied. Flip teaching, as it is often called, requires instructors to prepare online video lessons and lectures and use class time to answer student questions and assist in execution of practical work. It requires a teacher to check in with every student every day, as opposed to a lecture classroom, which tends to address only the questions of the most vocal students. Like any deviation from conventional classroom instruction methods, flipped schools have met with opposition from those who object to the expectation that every student has online access, to the complete reliance on technology, and who question the reality of implementing such significant educational change. Successfully flipped schools like Clintondale High School in Michigan, however, cite its drastically improved graduation rates and decreased levels of drop-outs and failure by subject as proof of its educational merit.

#21 Corporal Punishment

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The United States has no federal policy on corporal punishment in schools. Physical discipline—spanking with a paddle or strap, caning, or hitting a student’s body with any instrument—is regulated by individual state governments, and policies vary widely. Between 1971-2011, 31 states and the District of Colombia banned corporal punishment in public schools, although in most cases private schools are not subject to that law. Many schools, particularly those in southern states, uphold spanking or paddling as a quick, effective way to correct errant behavior without resorting to detention or suspension, which require time and resources. Opponents argue that corporal punishment is, at best, physically inappropriate and at worst, traumatic, abusive, and disproportionately applied to boys, minority students, and students with disabilities.

#20 High Stakes Testing

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Although #17, Common Core Standards, will challenge instructors and students to alter their academic performance and adjust teaching and learning styles to meet the requirements of new educational criteria in years to come, high stakes testing is somewhat different. Essentially a make-or-break phenomenon, a high stakes test in education determines whether a student moves on to the next grade or graduates, regardless of her/his yearly academic performance or grade point average. While these tests have the benefits of assessing a student’s knowledge and academic capability, as well as insuring that teachers adhere to a relatively uniform standard of instructional goals, their merits are also questionable. One or two tests which dictate a student’s academic success are understandably anxiety-inducing. Furthermore, pressure to meet goals and incentives to compete with neighboring states tempts administration and teachers to falsify test results or assist students in cheating, as in the case of a school in Norristown, Georgia, whose superintendent and 34 subordinates were arrested in 2013 for fraudulently tampering with administration of a standardized test.

#19 Ivy League Nude Posture Photos

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In the late 1970s, a cache of photos was discovered in a storage room at Yale University. The photos, dating back to 1940, depicted naked male college students with metal pins affixed to their spines from the front, side, and rear views. While the photos were immediately shredded and burned, stories about their existence continued to circulate until the 1990s, when writer Naomi Wolf (a Yale graduate) referenced the photos, prompting a response from Yale art history professor George Hersey, and an eventual New York Times investigation. The story unfolds: ostensibly in the name of hygiene, undergraduates were instructed to report to health personnel who would glue metal pins to their spines and photograph them nude so that the school could assess and monitor posture. Between the 1940s to the 1960s, male and female students in Ivy League schools from Yale and Princeton to Vassar and Mount Holyoke were photographed for what they were told was their health, but was actually an anthropological study based on a purportedly scientific idea that physiognomy and body type could determine one’s future. Whether these photos are evidence of some vast eugenic experiment designed to create a desirable Ivy League race is unknown; what is certain is that the practice invaded personal privacy and represented the failure of schools to protect their students from fashionable theory masquerading as science.

#18 Meth or Math?

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Without a doubt, teachers are dedicated professionals. Focused hours in and outside of the classroom, modest pay, and required adaptation to fluctuating state standards suggest that those who teach are there to work hard to instruct, support, and intellectually equip their students. Whether a teacher adheres to a prepared curriculum or designs his/her own lessons, teaching can offer creative freedom for an instructor, and every instructional method is different. But after years of teaching the same lessons, or of attempting to reach students whose frame of reference lies outside of a traditional curriculum, it is probably not surprising that a few teachers have crossed the boundary between creative instructional example and inappropriate method. In 2004, in a math course designed for inmates at the Arkansas Department of Correction, a math teacher was chastised for using drug references as part of his introductory math class, including incorporating the formula for producing methadone into a word problem, and using grams of cocaine as units of measurements in problem sets. The so-called “L.A. Math Test,” a 10-question math exam which has been incorporated—whether humorously or seriously—by math teachers around the country has also generated significant objection to its use of drug and gang references, racial stereotypes, suggestive sexuality, and violence. Although in most cases used by teachers whose intent was to reach out to or entertain their students, and therefore spark an interest in math, these examples have generally been deemed deviant and inappropriate, and have often resulted in discipline of the teacher.

#17 Common Core Standards

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The Common Core Standards, a set of guidelines for k-12 students to ensure college and career readiness in English and math, was established by representatives from each state, along a with national education committee. Because of its national scope and political effect, this educational proposal has been particularly controversial. Lawmakers, taxpayers, educators and parents have come out either in favor of a standard of education which will ensure that all U.S. students are ready to meet life’s challenges and are in even competition with their international peers, or are opposed to the significant curriculum changes and the high cost to taxpayers of implementing such a program. Many who question the Common Core simply request information and clarification, and rightly so, since much of the controversy stems from inaccurate representation of these guidelines by politically-affiliated media. Whether the Common Core is viewed as a federal intrusion on state-run education, or a way for the U.S. to improve its public education system, this educational controversy has only just begun.

#16 College for Criminals

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In February 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation which would dedicate state funding to the implementation of college courses in state prisons. The goal, cites Cuomo and other supporters of the plan, is to offer inmates opportunities to further their education while incarcerated, thus increasing their chances of securing a job after completing their prison sentences. Quoting statistics which show that inmates who took college courses while incarcerated were 43% less likely to commit another crime and return to prison, the New York Times argues that education should be part of the prison system’s rehabilitative responsibilities. Despite the potential for money saved with decreased recidivism, opponents of the bill object to the use of taxpayer funds to subsidize the education of someone who has broken the law. Students, lawmakers, and taxpayers alike engage in the controversy: if educating its citizens is in a state’s best interests, is one group more deserving of funding for higher education than another?

#15 Creationism v. Evolution

 

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Creationism was almost universally taught in U.S. public schools until proponents of the science of evolution challenged its scientific validity and protested against teaching it on the grounds that creationism is a religious viewpoint, and should therefore not be advocated by the state. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that teaching creationism violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which ensures that the U.S. government does not endorse any particular religion or religious perspective, and mandated that any state law be struck down which prohibited the teaching of evolution, or required that evolution and creation be explained as equal scientific theories. In contemporary public schools, only science which is not based on a religious view may be taught; a teacher may refer to creationism as an idea, but cannot uphold it as scientific theory, or present it as an alternative to evolution. Despite the clear legal parameters against it, controversies over a school’s right to teach creationism continue to exist. Religious Christian groups argue that teaching creationism (often called creation science or intelligent design) presents an alternative which allows students to evaluate scientific theory for themselves, and that evolution is inaccurate and might be misleading, while others express concern that students taught creationism would be unprepared for careers in science in a world which assumes evolutionary origins. While the Supreme Court ruling is clear, events like the Texas textbook controversy suggest that the debate is far from over.

#14 Pledge of Allegiance

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As a public oath to the nation of the United States and to its flag, the Pledge of Allegiance is routinely taken in public schools across the country. Although in 1943 the Supreme Court ruled that no school could force a student to stand or recite the Pledge, critics of the practice object to its presence in a public school, citing a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of religion, and insist that even an opt-out policy subjects students to discrimination or embarrassment if they choose not to participate while their peers are reciting. Generally a state issue, pledging allegiance in school varies by district, although parents, teachers, and others continue to debate their schools’ decisions. The most vehement objectors question a public school’s seeming promotion of religious values and wonder whether a school-age child should feel compelled to declare a patriotic sentiment that he/she may not yet have developed, while proponents of the recitation often tout the Pledge’s educational and civic value. An evenly split personal and political issue, with about 50% of Americans for recitation and 50% against, in-school pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag remains solidly controversial.

#13 Rapid Prompting/Facilitated Communication

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Parents of children with communicative disabilities, including pre-verbal and non-verbal children, as well as those on the autism spectrum, have long sought ways in which to verbally interact or better understand the thoughts and feelings of their children. These pursued relationships have led parents and teachers to develop alternate means of communication, and while means such as unaided communication systems which rely on body language, and aided communication systems, which make use of tools such as speech generating devices, have proved successful, two theories—rapid prompting and facilitated communication—have been particularly controversial. Rapid prompting (RP), developed by parent Soma Mukhopadhyay in an effort to communicate with her autistic son, involves instructor engagement with the student through fast-paced questioning and use of a specialized keyboard to encourage the student to focus on her/his expression. Facilitated communication (FC) requires a facilitator to support the hands or arms of a student who is typing or using another device which will produce the written or typed thoughts and ideas of the student. Both methods, while intended to help non-verbal children and improve their social relationships, have not been proven sufficiently effective or scientifically sound. Although proponents cite examples of people whose situations have improved, the methods remain controversial because they have not been able to offer significant results to hopeful parents and students.

#12 Race-Based School Discipline

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Early in 2014, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan examined the discipline policies and histories of several public schools, and found that a disproportionate number of African-American, Hispanic, and disabled students were being disciplined or severely punished. For example, an article in California Watch found that although African-American boys comprised 17% of the Oakland Unified School District in California in 2010-11, they represented 42% of suspended students. Based on its findings, the federal government recommended a series of guidelines for schools to examine the connection between race and punishment, and to impose more balanced disciplinary actions. The Obama administration was careful to assert that while school discipline is necessary, and that the new recommendations were not intended to exempt deserving students from punishment, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that all students are being treated fairly, and disciplined according to their offense. A student who talks out of turn in class should certainly be disciplined, but not suspended from school, or a dress code violation might result in detention, but not removal by the police, and if minority students are receiving greater penalties for minor infractions, then a school should re-consider its policies. While supporters of the federal guidelines advocate an educational environment that is free from the internalized racism that causes a teacher to punish an African-American student for the same infraction that is labeled as harmless when committed by a white student, opposition to these policies fear that in a school’s effort to demonstrate more racially balanced discipline policies, white students will be unnecessarily punished, or minority students will act out without penalty. Behind the educational controversy is a war over political ideology, between those who assert that minority students exhibit more discipline problems because of issues of poverty and lack of parental support, and those who maintain that the education system in the U.S. harbors racist tendencies which must be overcome. Like many controversies in education, the conflict over race-based school discipline policies reaches far beyond the classroom.

#11 Thiel Controversy

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Venture capitalist Peter Thiel can afford to think outside the box. In 2010, he announced his establishment of the Thiel Fellowship, a program which offered $100,000 to 20 people under 20 years of age to drop out of or abandon ideas about college and instead research original ideas and establish innovative companies which will contribute to the world (think: flying cars) and make money for the creator. Thiel’s reasoning stemmed from the idea that attending college requires vast amounts of money spent and debt accumulated. Although advocates predicted high success rates among Thiel scholars, who would be closely mentored and financially supported by Thiel’s company, many expressed concern about the repercussions of encouraging young people to drop out of school, particularly those who did not have financial backing. Naysayers questioned the wisdom behind advising teenagers against pursuing university degrees in a world which tends to hire college graduates and provides few opportunities for college dropouts. Thiel Fellowships continue to be controversial; the world has yet to see a major contribution from a participant in the program. It is still in its early stages, however. With time, a Thiel fellow may prove this educational experiment successful and may change the way the world values a university education.

#10 Online Education/Blended Learning/MOOCs

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Like #22, Flipped Schools, the idea behind online education is to use technology effectively; to improve students’ learning experiences by addressing their individual needs and providing an education that goes beyond the classroom. In the case of blended learning, schools complement in-class sessions with online information or instruction. Not as drastic as flipping a school, a blended classroom can incorporate technology as the teacher or the needs of the class dictate. In some cases, students take home e-books or online homework which complement the daily lesson given by the teacher, or at other times students and teachers interact on blogs or social media. Blended learning comprises a variety of activities, but all make use of the convenience of technology and the availability of great amounts of information.

Similarly, on a college level, schools have begun to offer alternatives to traditional in-classroom education in the form of online courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). For students who have trouble incorporating on-campus courses into their schedules, online education allows those who otherwise may not have been able to further their education to complete a degree or learn about a new topic. In addition to their reasonable cost (online programs are often less expensive than traditional degree programs), MOOCs allow near-universal access to one course or degree program. While considered by many to be the wave of the future, blended learning and online education challenge traditional learning models. In elementary and secondary grades, parents and teachers express objections to substituting face-to-face interaction among teachers, students, and classmates for screen time. Critics of online college education site similar concerns; in many cases, personal contact between student and professor can be a powerful learning tool, and exposure to the diversity and stimulation of a college classroom is often part of the university learning experience. Despite controversy, however, it is clear that technology-driven learning is a steadily growing means to education around the world.

#9 Single Sex schools

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Since the beginning of public education in the U.S., primary schools have been co-educational. Early English-speaking American colonies established schools to ensure that their children, male and female, were able to read and write religious texts. While in the early 1800s most high schools and all colleges admitted only men, the mid-19th century saw more—albeit separate—opportunities for women (Oberlin College, the first co-educational college in the world, which opened in 1833, was the exception to the single-sex schools of the period). As co-educational schools arose, controversy ensued, generally over concerns about female propriety, intellectual capability, and health in secular, mixed-sex settings. Federal support of co-education became official when Congress passed Title IX legislation in 1972, guaranteeing that no one may be excluded from public education or government funding based on sex. Since that time, although public co-education has been the norm, it is nevertheless the subject of debate. Both conservative and liberal scholars and educators have argued that for different reasons, co-education is not necessarily desirable. As in the late 19th century, assertions about gendered learning styles and interactions between genders propel concerns about whether co-education is as desirable as once thought. Particularly in elementary and secondary schools, controversies over whether a student’s sex determines her/his learning style and environmental needs abound, with proponents of co-education asserting that gender diversity is necessary for students to develop ideas about equality and cooperation, while advocates of single-sex classrooms claim that students can be free to pursue any academic subject without competition with the opposite sex, or gender discrimination by the instructor.

#8 Textbook Controversies

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While schools and teachers impart knowledge to students in myriad ways, from in-class discussion to hands-on activities and online research, textbooks remain a basic means of learning, in school and outside of it. Controversies over the content and distribution of public school textbooks are historical and contemporary; although books are generally reviewed and selected by a State Board of Education, individual districts, schools, or parents sometimes take issue with a textbook’s perspective, language, or presentation of academic subjects. In recent years, Texas committees have proposed that science textbooks teach creationism alongside evolution, and have also selected history books which question the separation of church and state, as well as inaccurately invoke the presence of communism in the U.S., among other issues. While Texas’s selection of books is particularly controversial because the sheer size of its purchases tends to affect the books that are sold to other states, it is also indicative of the way personal or political ideologies may affect the education offered by a state. One of the nation’s largest protests over education occurred over textbooks, in 1974 in Kanawha County, West Virginia, when a parent asserted that new language arts texts threatened “Christian values” and moral standards. The textbooks in question were boycotted, 9,000 children were kept home from school, and protesters planted bombs at county schools and attacked buses with shotguns, resulting in a fatal shooting. Although the books were eventually instated, the incident demonstrated how controversial education can be.

#7 Teacher Evaluations

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In 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law. Part of the Act, known as Race to the Top (R2T), allotted $4.35 billion to schools which complied with the Act’s requirements, including developing Common Core standards, improving low-performing schools, and other measures dedicated to school reform. A significant R2T condition specified the importance and necessity of providing effective teachers, and designated that teacher performance should be regularly evaluated. While all would agree that good teachers are necessary in the quest to improve our nation’s schools, the standards to which teachers should be held, and the methods by which effective teaching may be evaluated is controversial. Proponents of a value-added measure of teacher analysis, in which the standardized test scores of a teacher’s students are compared with the same students’ earlier scores, as well as with the scores of other students in the same grade, argue that a teacher’s methods, knowledge, and skill directly affect her or his students’ measurable knowledge. These evaluations are said to almost certainly represent a teacher’s effectiveness, or to expose a teacher’s shortcomings, and are a better way to determine a teacher’s position in the classroom and pay raises than are seniority-based promotions and checklist-style assessments. Objectors question the fairness and accuracy of value-added measures and cite instances in which a teacher’s work may be incorrectly represented if her/his student population is consistently low-performing. For example, class assignment is not random, and some teachers may always have students whose frequent absences or home life issues negatively affect their test performances, no matter how good their teacher is. Value-added measures may also not work if there is a constant turnover in student population, or may be less effective evaluations of instructors who teach language arts, since teachers may not influence language as much as they do a subject like math. While federal funding has encouraged reform in the ways schools evaluate their teachers, the methods by which schools will assess and reward the best possible teachers remain controversial.

#6 Abandoning Letter Grades

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Traditionally, schools assign letter grades as means of assessing a student’s academic progress. The A-F ranking system gives teachers a concise way to categorize the quality of students’ work and a clear method by which a student’s performance may be conveyed to her/his parents. Since letter grades generally determine future academic success and even employment, students have a tangible goal toward which they work; teachers outline the expectations required for receipt of each grade, and students model their performances accordingly. Yet some argue that letter grades are not as accurate a judge of a student’s progress and performance as they may seem. While an academically weak student may not fulfill the requirements for the A grade that her/his peers receive, her/his individual work may demonstrate great progress. For example, a high school student who enters an English class unable to write a complete sentence may, by the end of the year, produce coherent four-paragraph essays. But because her textual analytic skills are still poor, her teacher cannot give her a high grade. Furthermore, in addition to academic growth, education is about personal maturity, discipline, and self analysis, which in most cases grades do not measure. Because of these inadequacies, some schools have abandoned letter grades in favor of more comprehensive narrative report cards. While the detailed reports certainly give parents a better idea of their student’s strengths and indicate the specific areas that need work, they demand much from the teacher. Some parents and students also say that the reports do not provide the clarity of a letter grade; not only may performance expectations be unclear, but at times when a student’s abilities need to be objectively assessed (on a college application, for example), a detailed report does not effectively compare a student with her/his peers. Letter grading as a means of assessment remains the norm in most schools, but as more districts determine that a student’s progress may be more effectively measured in other ways, alternatives to letter grades are on the rise.

#5 Prayer in School

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Like #15 Creationism v. Evolution, prayer in school is an educational controversy which stems from issues of separation of church and state. Public schools in the U.S. are forbidden from mandating prayer in school because it violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that the federal government and all state levels will not sanction any particular religion. Objectors to this ruling often cite constitutional protection as well, stating that the Free Exercise Clause, which forbids government interference in an individual’s religious practice, contradicts the Establishment Clause and suggests that prayer in school should not be subject to federal mandate. Since the 1960s, courts have been fairly consistent in upholding the no-prayer rule, but debate still arises over allowing prayer at after school events on school property, such as sports games or graduations. Individual schools continue to allow prayer on school grounds, but in most cases, courts insist that for a public school-sponsored event to include prayer would mean the state’s advocacy of religious practice. The controversy is far from resolved, with situations like the one in Clay County, Florida, in which a Baptist minister who held early morning prayer meetings at the flagpole before school was told by the school board that his actions were illegal, but continued to conduct the sessions. Florida’s “inspirational message” law, signed by governor Rick Scott in 2012, is viewed by school prayer advocates as a compromise, while by others as a thinly disguised introduction of religion into school. While itself controversial, the law indicates the passion and dedication demonstration by both sides of the debate; with religion and education comes inevitable controversy.

#4 Students with Special Needs

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The 2004 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensured that students with special needs have access to a public education which is designed to accommodate unique learning abilities. Since the aim of a public education is to prepare a student for employment and independence, IDEA advocates an inclusion policy, whereby students with special needs are placed in a mainstream classroom while being supported by every means possible, depending upon the nature of the student’s learning abilities. If the student’s individual education program (IEP) determines that a student’s needs are not being properly met in a regular classroom, the student may then be placed in a more appropriate class setting. Special education programming becomes controversial when teachers, parents, and administrators disagree about the reasons for and effectiveness of integration. For some, a classroom that includes students with all types of learning abilities is the most fair and provides the best training for all students to meet life’s diverse realities. For others, integrated classrooms require a specially trained teacher and learning tools which may not sufficiently satisfy the independent instruction that many students with special needs require. Further, the suspicion that inclusion policies may stem from a school administration’s desire to save money on separate instructors and programs for students with special needs fuels concerns about whether integration is necessarily the best plan for the student. As states begin to implement Common Core standards, the debate over combining students with varying learning abilities into one classroom will continue. Common Core guidelines establish high expectations for all students, and whether the curriculum will vary for students with special needs remains to be seen.

#3 Gender Dress Restrictions

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Like many of the educational controversies in this list, issues over gender-based dress restrictions in school invoke the U.S. Constitution, in this case the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, which ensures that laws will protect all individuals equally, and requires a public school to protect its students from discrimination because of their gender. While there is no specific law which compels a school to allow cross-gender dressing, public institutions nevertheless are responsible for making sure that a student whose sexual orientation influences the choice to dress in a way that does not fit traditional definitions is not subject to harassment. That said, schools routinely enforce school-wide dress codes to prevent their students from wearing sexually provocative or gang related clothing. While some schools have embraced cross-gender dressing as a student’s right and require only that standard dress code guidelines are enforced fairly (for example, short skirts are not allowed in school, no matter what the student’s gender), other schools struggle to maintain more traditional standards of dress. An eight year old student in a Christian school in Virginia was threatened with expulsion for not looking “feminine,” while male students in schools across the nation have been suspended for wearing makeup and wigs. While issues around cross-gender dress regulation in school have been fairly limited to date, as students grow more comfortable with exploring their identities, the controversy is sure to spread.

#2 Charter Schools

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In 1991, Minnesota government passed legislation enabling independent groups to develop charter schools. These public schools are created and operated by organizations which receive state funding but are not subject to typical guidelines and regulations for state run public schools. In exchange, a charter school is expected to meet a set of performance standards outlined in the charter and is reviewed every few years to ensure successful completion of goals. Charter school controversy usually stems from concerns over money and quality. Opponents take issue with how a charter school drains funds allotted for public schools yet often accepts students based on high academic performance, so that students who do not meet the criteria are excluded from the school’s opportunities. Although in some cases charter schools operate on a lottery based system, in which students apply and are randomly selected, students with discipline issues or weak skills are less likely to succeed in a school with higher than usual academic criteria, effectively segregating a district’s students by academic performance. On the upside, however, the diverse nature of a charter school means that educators and curriculum are free to cater to the needs of their population, and give parents and students choices about the ways in which they are able to learn. From schools which work intensely with academically weak students, to Montessori schools, to performing arts institutions, charter schools can offer a more individualized education plan to students with all learning needs and abilities.

#1 Guns at School

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Issues of gun ownership and gun control are among the most controversial in the nation. Gun rights advocates emphasize the individual’s constitutional right to bear arms, while those in favor of stricter gun laws cite gun violence and gun-related deaths as evidence of the need for more control. In schools, the debate is particularly heated; recent gun violence necessitates a solution which will keep schools safer and prevent future tragedies. After the elementary school shootings in Newtown, CT in 2012, many states began to reconsider their laws on gun control and their policies for dealing with guns in schools. Several states outlined legislation which would allow teachers to carry guns in schools, while other states called for stricter gun laws, including severe limitations on purchasing firearms and bullets, longer waiting periods, and more thorough background checks and mental health screenings. Capitalizing on currently lax gun laws, some states have already started to arm teachers, arguing that with the proper training, the staff will be able to defend the school. States like Arkansas, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Nevada have gun laws that allow teachers to bring guns to school with written permission from a school administrator, and some are now implementing programs which claim that installing armed protectors is a necessary deterrent. Training teachers is less expensive than hiring a police officer, and the mere knowledge that the school is armed is enough to keep potential assailants at bay. Others voice fears about the presence of guns in schools and the possibility of accidental shootings by inexperienced teachers, or students acquiring the firearm. As teachers, parents, politicians and school administrators weigh in, the controversy over gun control will result in new legislation in the very near future.

Sources

1. Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes: Third Grade Discrimination
2. Homeschooling (Wikipedia)
3. Bilingual Education
4. School Supplied Condoms
5. Abstinence-Only Policies
6. Dissection in School
7. Dissection in School (Animalearn.com)
8. Racial Segregation
9. Stutter Study
10. Flipped Schools
11. High Stakes Testing (Times Herald)
12. High Stakes Testing
13. Ivy League Nude Posture Photos
14. Meth or Math? (Snopes.com)
15. Common Core Standards
16. College for Criminals (NY Times)
17. College for Criminals (Wktv.com)
18. Creationism v. Evolution (Wikipedia)
19. Pledge of Allegiance (Wikipedia)
20. Pledge of Allegiance (NPR)
21. Rapid Prompting
22. Facilitated Communication
23. Race-Based School Discipline (Daily Caller)
24. Race-Based School Discipline (US News)
25. Thiel Controversy
26. Online Education
27. Blended Learning
28. MOOCs
29. Single Sex Schools (Slate.com)
30. Single Sex Schools (NWHM.org)
31. Single Sex Schools
32. Textbook Controversies (Wikipedia)
33. Textbook Controversies
34. Teacher Evaluations (PBS.org)
35. Teacher Evaluations
36. Abandoning Letter Grades
37. Prayer in Schools (Hotair.com)
38. Students With Special Needs
39. Students With Special Needs (WEAC.org)
40. Students With Special Needs (NCLD.org)
41. Gender Dress Restrictions (USA Today)
42. Gender Dress Restrictions
43. Charter Schools
44. Guns at School (NY Times)
45. Guns at School (USA Today)
46. Corporal Punishment (Wikipedia)
47. Meth or Math?
48. Prayer in Schools

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