SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A class exercise asking students at Saratoga Springs High School to score their privileged status raised concerns among parents worried about the assignment’s underlying message and the use of offensive words.
Parents said it was harmful to have students score themselves on factors like “attractiveness,” “disability” and race, potentially reinforcing negative feelings, and some argued the assignment and the teacher unfairly singled out white male students as especially privileged.
“When we looked at that form, we felt a lot of terms on there could really be offensive to a lot of kids,” said a parent whose son was given the assignment. The parent didn’t want to be named out of concern it would draw attention to the parent's children. “I felt like this lesson being pushed in the classroom is being more divisive than bringing kids together.”
The activity, copies of which were posted to social media last week, asked students to score how privileged they are: add 25 points if you are white, add 25 points if you are male, add 20 points if you are straight; subtract 100 points if you are black, subtract 50 points if you are female, subtract 150 points if you are gay.
More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 9-15, 2019
At the end of the survey, students scoring negative 100 points or less were considered “very disprivileged,” while students who scored above 100 points were told to “check it daily” -- as in check their privilege daily.
The worksheet also included outdated and offensive words and point tallies that appeared to play on cultural stereotypes. Jewish, for instance, was rated as the most privileged religion, earning a student 25 points compared to five points of privilege for a Christian student. A Muslim student lost 50 points under the activity.
Under a category asking students to judge their own “attractiveness,” students were given options to score themselves as “ugly face” or “disfigured.” One gender option referred to trans students who were “passable.”
And students who were finishing the assignment on a Friday or Saturday night were asked to subtract privilege points, presumably because they didn’t have better weekend plans, but Saturday on the worksheet was misspelled “Saterday.”
Under a category labeled “disability,” students were given an option to define themselves using an offensive word that has long been associated with people with disabilities and is now considered a slur. There has even been a campaign in the Saratoga Springs community and school district in recent years -- “Spread the Word to the End the Word” -- aimed at stamping out the use of the word altogether.
After parents posted the worksheet to the Saratoga Conservative Chicks Facebook page, a flurry of responses condemned the assignment.
“It’s emotional abuse,” one poster wrote. “Students are either made to feel guilt for being white, or made to feel like victims based on the negative score associated.”
It’s not clear the way in which the worksheet was used in the class. The teacher did not return messages seeking comment Thursday. But it appeared to be an attempt to get students to consider ways they are privileged and to foster a conversation about their differences.
On Feb. 6, the day before the activity made its way to the marketing class, teachers at the high school participated in a professional development session on cultural competency and awareness. The privilege survey was not shared as part of that training, district spokeswoman Maura Manny said, but it was one of several activities discussed at a recent faculty meeting.
In a prepared statement Manny provided Thursday in response to questions about the activity, the district highlighted its core belief in “equity of opportunity” and said “our school district continues to champion efforts fostering and facilitating growth in becoming a culturally competent school community.”
In that effort, the district plans to foster conversations on cultural differences and the diversity that exists within the Saratoga community. But the statement also said the worksheet should have been adapted to exclude certain words.
“An unmodified version of the privilege reflection form was distributed to students without the removal of insensitive words,” the district said in the statement. “The district does not condone the use of the document with these insensitive words.”
Manny said district officials would consider the assignment to be appropriate if the insensitive words were removed.
After a school board meeting Wednesday night, Saratoga High School Principal Michelle Tsao rejected a chance to expand on why and how the activity was used in the class and how the school will work to ensure similar issues don’t recur at the school.
While she referred questions to the district spokesperson, she said administrators did not prohibit teachers from seeking out activities and materials to use in their classrooms and said many teachers were eager to foster classroom discussions around equity and diversity.
She said that she had seen a “modified” version of the worksheet that had some of the offensive words blanked out prior to it being used in the marketing class.
More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 9-15, 2019
Districts across the region and state in recent years have done more to promote curriculum and lessons that focus explicitly on diversity and inclusion, pointing to the importance of understanding the different places students come from and the diverse world they will leave school for.
“This topic becomes very sensitive and very personal very quickly,” said Catherine Snyder, director of the Clarkson University teachers education program based in Schenectady. Snyder said the master's program she manages last year added 15 hours of workshops focused on diversity and inclusion. More broadly, she said educators are working to move from teaching tolerance – getting students to accept one another – to teaching students a deeper level of understanding one another.
“We’ve challenged ourselves as a profession to take a big leap from tolerance to genuine understanding,” Snyder said. “[Educators] are trying to get students to understand that people do think differently and it’s your job as an individual to understand people have different points of view… Kids need to start to be more understanding, and that’s not going to happen unless teachers are purposefully teaching in that direction.”
In Facebook comments in the days after the assignment was posted, some users said the general intent of the assignment – forcing students to consider ways that may benefit from privilege – was worthwhile and argued it's not wrong to make students feel uncomfortable when dealing with uncomfortable topics in class.
“It should make Saratoga school students uncomfortable,” one Facebook user wrote. “It is a wake up call that not everyone has equal access.”