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Teachers set aside politics to help students tackle economic inequality

For social studies instructors, how much they address economic disparities depends on their level of civic engagement, not their ideology.

Jolene Goldade/Hopkins Public Schools
Hopkins North Junior High School students, Monica and Liam, explain to their 8th grade Global Studies teacher, Allegra Smisek, why they chose Bertha Yolanda, a store owner in El Salvador, to receive their team's $25 loan on Kiva.org, a microfinance organization. They felt a special connection with the entrepreneur because Monica has relatives in El Salvador that also own a store. The class project was funded by Hopkins Education Foundation, a local nonprofit.

When Allegra Smisek’s 8th -graders in suburban Hopkins, Minn., play a simulation game, representing countries with more or less resources, “they quickly find out that the students that start with less need to form alliances … or work for the wealthy countries in order to survive,” she says.

Over the course of several class periods, the Global Studies students exchange work for fictitious currency, and help their teams adjust after natural disasters. Suddenly, they’ve got a better idea of some of the forces driving economic inequality.

It’s a topic that might be coming up more often now, as the United States Congress wrangles over a tax overhaul and the “Paradise Papers” uncover profits tucked away in tax havens. Polls have long shown that a majority of Americans – both Democrats and Republicans – would like to see wealth gaps narrowing. 

But how is the subject broached in classrooms, and how often? Does it depend on teachers’ political views?

Many social studies teachers do regularly touch on economic inequality, although nearly half the states don’t mention it in their curriculum standards. It turns out that teachers' own political ideology has no relation to how often they do so, a first-of-its kind study has found.

Instead, it’s their level of civic and political engagement that makes the difference.

Weekly discussions 

Fifty-three percent of social studies teachers addressed some aspect of economic inequality once or more each week, whether in lesson plans or in response to student questions, according to a newly published study based on a 2015 survey of 685 teachers from a representative sample of US public high schools. The majority also specifically addressed the distribution of income or wealth, report John Rogers of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Joel Westheimer of the University of Ottawa in the journal “PS: Political Science and Politics.”

Liberals, conservatives, and moderates mentioned economic imbalances with roughly the same frequency. Among the sample, 24 percent identified as conservative, 40 percent as liberal.

But teachers highly engaged in civics or politics were 32 percent more likely to bring up the subject weekly than the moderately engaged teachers. And they were more likely to use data, talk about causes and possible remedies, and ask students to distinguish between fact and opinion.

Ms. Smisek, who was not part of the study, sees that dynamic play out in her diverse public school district where she also coordinates K-12 social studies. “We have conservative teachers and liberal teachers, but what I see is the more engaged and active they are politically, regardless of ideology … the more [they want students] to recognize that they have power to make change,” she says.

Her students go back as far as the origin of humans and earth’s geological features in their exploration of global inequalities.

Smisek recently presented her lesson plans – based on Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” – at a national conference, showing how they could be adapted for 6th to 12th grade. “Students love trying to figure out: How did we end up with the world that we have?” she says.

She herself is involved in groups that tackle gender, racial, and economic inequality. But she says she keeps her teaching nonpartisan and sometimes inserts a conservative perspective if it doesn’t come up in class, where she estimates the split is about 70 percent liberal, 30 percent conservative.

Once they learn about inequities, students turn to service projects. One example: They research the economies of various countries, and each team loans $25 to an entrepreneur through the microlending website Kiva. Originally funded by a grant, the class money regenerates as the entrepreneurs pay back the loans.

Ushuu Namarra’s team chose Rwanda and loaned money to a group that makes and sells crafts, so it could buy more supplies. It is led by a woman with four children, and the group’s name translates as “let us trust each other,” says Ushuu, now a ninth-grader at Smisek’s school, Hopkins North Junior High.

“It felt good to help them and think maybe we can make a difference and there will be more economic equality in the future,” Ushuu says. 

Some teachers in Professor Rogers’ study reported barriers to addressing economic inequality more effectively, ranging from a lack of understanding of economics to the fear of bringing up politically sensitive issues.

Teachers in training may need more support for navigating such discussions in class and not fearing political discourse. “Being political means embracing the kind of controversy and ideological sparring that is the engine of democracy,” Rogers says. 

Some dissent

But not everyone agrees that it’s a good thing for teachers to be talking so much about income inequality.

Too many teachers of all political stripes “are walking away from content and climbing on a soap box,” says Sean Hiland, a social studies teacher at St. Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta, and creator of the podcast “Conservative Teacher.”

In his World History lessons on the industrial revolution, Mr. Hiland does address the economic inequality it spawned. Students compare the writings of Karl Marx and Adam Smith. He’s also had US Government students debate various tax structures.

“I teach my kids to be skeptical of all arguments … [and] easy solutions,” Hiland says. “In an age of social media and quick responses … the greatest service that we can do … is teach them to approach everything with a critical eye.”

Rogers did find a few differences among types of teachers and school settings. Liberals, for instance, touched on hunger, homelessness, and gender and racial inequality more often than conservatives. In more-affluent schools, teachers discussed income inequality more often in the context of developing empathy, while in the poorest schools they tended to focus on the importance of hard work and individual agency.

Smisek agrees that teachers shouldn’t impart their personal views but rather teach students to come to their own conclusions based on research. And she’s happy to hold a job that in and of itself is a form of civic engagement. “More than ever before, students want to talk about things happening in the news,” she says. “They often feel powerless, but they’re hungry for opportunities to engage in their communities.”

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