Educators are often motivated by an admirable but frankly rather vague commitment to “social justice.”  They are passionate about achieving social justice both through their own efforts—say, by helping traditionally underserved students gain the academic skills needed to gain admission to college, or by revising discipline policies that disproportionately punish black boys—and by teaching their students to fight for social justice on their own behalves.  But what “social justice” means in general, and how it applies to any particular educational context, is at best ill-defined. 

Consider a discipline policy that disproportionately punishes black boys, for example.  Under a theory of justice that prioritizes equal outcomes, this discipline policy is clearly unjust.  If black boys are refused permission to attend field trips, forced to clean the school during detention, and suspended from school at rates three times that of white boys, say, then egalitarian principles of justice are clearly violated.  On the other hand, the discipline policy may be perfectly just as a procedural matter.  If the behavioral expectations are clearly spelled out and reasonable, if the consequences are applied to all violators equally, and if students’ due process rights are fully recognized, then the demands of procedural justice are met.  Disparate outcomes may be unfortunate, but they do not violate the norms of procedural justice.  (This is the classic contrast between consequentialist and deontological theories.)  Still other analyses are provoked by other theories of justice, including for example caring, restorative, and cultural theories of justice.   Rights-based theories also swing one way, while communitarian, feminist, and race-conscious theories may swing other directions.  Asserting that justice matters, therefore, does little in and of itself to clarify what action must be taken in this or any other case.

Thus far, most political theorists will nod in recognition but not find any of this novel.  The intended intellectual contribution of this project, however, is not mono-directional.  The point is not merely to apply theories of justice to case studies of educational practice and tell educators what they must do (or even what constellation of possible approaches is justifiable).  Rather, these case studies of dilemmas within schools have the potential to inform and deepen the theories of justice themselves.  Most writing about educational justice examines large-scale distributions of goods: resource allocations among schools or districts, for example; funding for “regular education” versus special needs students; whether educational outcomes need merely reach an adequacy threshold or should be equalized across groups.  The most frequently analyzed school-level dilemmas tend to focus on competing rights claims: for example, the rights of religious families vs. states vs. students themselves to determine the content of the curriculum or the circumstances under which they learn it.  These are all important dilemmas, and their consideration has contributed significantly to the development of theories of justice that are sensitive to educational issues.  But there is much more to learn about the nature of justice itself, as provoked and illuminated by school-based dilemmas, than has been explored thus far in the political theory literature.

Consider the following situations, for example, all of which are likely to feel familiar, even pedestrian, to most public school educators, but which have not received substantial attention from political theorists:

  • Adam is single-handedly disrupting class and hence preventing the other 26 students in the class from learning.  Adam has considerable trouble with impulse control, and in fact has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that recommends modifications that will help him control his behavior.  But Adam’s disruptive behavior seems to be intentional in this case.  He’s asking obscure questions and making wisecracks about the lecture his teacher, Mrs. Wilson, is trying to give.  Although a couple of students are frustrated by the disruption, most of them are enjoying the spectacle.  They’re sufficiently uninterested in the Articles of Confederation that they’re happy to watch Adam clown around instead.  Mrs. Wilson suspects that Adam is trying to throw class off because he’s worried he won’t be able to do the worksheet based on her lecture.  Adam’s reading skills are among the worst in the class, and the students know they will soon have to tackle a challenging excerpt from The Federalist Papers.
  • Some teachers are particularly gifted at reaching students who pose behavioral, cognitive, linguistic, or emotional challenges.  When class rosters are drawn up during the summer, these teachers are hence assigned an overabundance of these “challenging” students.  Many of these gifted teachers are happy to have their skills recognized; they enjoy reaching children others can’t; and the students and their families are profoundly grateful to be assigned to such a class.  But these teachers are starting quite literally to pay a high price for their willingness to take on a supermajority of “hard-to-teach” students.  In a world governed by "value-added” measures where teachers are rewarded for how much growth each individual student demonstrates over the course of the year, these teachers often flunk.  Because they have both fewer students who progress at a “normal” let alone “advanced” rate, and because their classes as a whole face greater educational and managerial challenges, these teachers fail to “add value” in such a way as to earn merit pay bonuses--or even to keep their jobs--that their colleagues earn readily while teaching an easier group of students.  
  • Jonah, an Orthodox Jew attending a public school, wants to focus his eighth grade citizenship project on the problem of legalized gay marriage in his home state.  More specifically, he wants to protest it on Talmudic grounds.  He plans to spend class time devoted to the project reading various rabbis’ Talmudic interpretations and then using what he’s learned to prepare and deliver the required oral presentation to his classmates, the school principal, and a number of community members.  He plans to argue that gay marriage is sinful.  There are no students or teachers in the school who are openly gay, but two of Jonah’s eighth grade classmates appear to be either questioning or closeted.  Jonah’s teacher believes that gay marriage should be treated as an inalienable human right.  Gay marriage has recently been legalized in his state, but is under both legislative and judicial attack.

What actions are just in these situations?  How much do the particularities of these cases matter?  Is any single theory of justice capable of responding appropriately and satisfyingly to each of these dilemmas?  How well-equipped are theories of justice to engage with complex moral, developmental, pedagogical, political, and other considerations?  These questions should provide at least some initial intuitive justification for the argument that theories of justice and empirical studies of educational practice can inform one another.  It is truly a two-way street.

A final way in which schools complicate theories of justice is in the pedagogical interplay among structures and policies, on the one hand, and students’ conclusions about the nature of justice, on the other.  Schools are intrinsically educative places.  Students learn as much from how they and others are treated, for example, as from the overt, subject-oriented curriculum.  The other aspect of justice in schools that will be addressed in this project, therefore, is how students learn about justice in schools, and what we can learn from these approaches about the nature of justice itself.