Academic freedom

Selecting instructional materials, grading policies and free speech 

Academic freedom traditionally refers to a teacher’s ability or authority to control his teaching—from picking source material to guiding the class discussion and learning along the teacher’s chosen path. It also generally encompasses the extent to which a teacher is allowed to express his personal opinions while acting in the role of an educator.

Historically, college and university professors have been granted broad discretion in decisions involving research and instruction, and this is the educational level in which educators have had the most success in claiming academic freedom. Courts have regularly ruled that professors have substantial leeway to guide classroom discussion and select textbooks with minimal risk of termination or other negative-employment action. Public school teachers have not fared as well, however. 
Understanding the difference in treatment requires a look into the differing circumstances that public school educators face:
  • Unlike professors, who have little in the way of mandated curriculum, K–12 public teachers in Texas must comply with state requirements established through the TEKS and State Board of Education textbook approval process.
  • In addition, local issues play a much larger role in public schools than they do in higher education. Pressure from parents and the local community can also affect a teacher’s academic freedom, whereas professors are largely immune from these influences. 
Public school teachers do have some freedom to set their curricula and plan their lessons within these constraints, however. What is important is for educators to consider the boundaries when planning lessons. However, this protection is not absolute, and can vary depending on local community values and the subject matter involved. For instance, discussions of religious or political issues may be acceptable in certain classes, but can be touchy subjects. In every case, discussions should be relevant to the subject matter, have a demonstrated educational purpose and not be prohibited by school regulation or policy.

An educator’s role should generally be that of an instructor and moderator; therefore, it is generally advisable for an educator to steer conversations away from her personal beliefs, though it is not strictly prohibited. 

Teachers’ primary instructional materials are usually mandated by the district. Although there is no freedom to select unapproved supplemental reading material, a teacher’s campus or district administration may show flexibility in this area. Some administrators will undoubtedly be more lenient, but it’s advisable to seek guidance over any book or teaching material that might be considered controversial. It is better to be safe than to risk potential negative employment action. 

Several factors to consider when presenting potential reading material to your administration:
  • The material must be relevant and have an educational purpose. You should be prepared to explain to parents or administrators why you made a particular selection and how it will enhance your lessons.
  • Consider the maturity level of your students. The content should be appropriate to your students’ age and grade level.
  • Research campus and district policies to determine what you can or cannot do in the classroom.  If there are no policies governing the issue, consult your administration directly. 
  • Know your location, and understand that community values will differ. A book that might be controversial in rural areas might be completely acceptable in urban school settings.
State law provides that each school district must adopt a grading policy. To some degree, each school board can devise the policy as it deems best, but the law has several requirements:
  • The board policy must require that the district’s teachers assign a grade that “reflects the student’s relative mastery of an assignment.” This is a fancy way of saying that the grade should accurately reflect how well the student demonstrated that he learned the material.
  • The board policy cannot require a teacher to assign a minimum grade to an assignment without regard to the quality of the student’s work. In other words, the policy cannot set a minimum grade, such as a 50, as was common in many districts.
  • An examination or course grade issued by a teacher cannot be changed unless it is arbitrary, erroneous or inconsistent with board policy. A grade is arbitrary if it is clearly unreasonable. Failing a student who got one question wrong out of 100 would likely be considered arbitrary. A grade is erroneous if it was simply a mistake, such as an arithmetic error in calculating a final grade.
Finally, the law provides that the board grading policy may allow a reasonable opportunity for a student to make up or redo an assignment or examination if the student received a failing grade. This provides an example of the final reason that a teacher’s grade could be changed—inconsistency with board policy. If the board adopted such a policy, and a student did redo an assignment and demonstrated mastery of the subject, but the teacher refused to accept the revised work or modify the original failing grade, the administration could likely change the student’s final grade over the teacher’s objections.     
One thing that makes this country great is that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects every citizen’s right to speak freely. What is far less well understood is that there are circumstances where a citizen can be sanctioned for their speech. Everyone knows that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. What is less known but just as important, especially for public educators, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has placed other restrictions on when communications are protected by the First Amendment and those restrictions, which have existed for years, clearly state that educators and students may be legally disciplined for some communications.

An educator does not shed her citizenship rights “at the schoolhouse door” but must distinguish between her role as citizen and educator. As an educator, she is the academic “expert” in the classroom and can generally expect her students to accept that what she says as factual and correct if she says that it is. She can also be expected to grade her students accordingly. She must therefore temper the expression of her own political views with a conscious consideration of whether her students will understand when she is speaking about her personal beliefs—which they are free to disagree with—rather than speaking as their teacher. She must also recognize that her students also have the same right to their own political views, though the expression of their views is also subject to some limitations or restrictions.

The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Individual legal situations vary greatly and readers should consult directly with an attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our online contact form