Inequality and Schools: A Conference

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Inequality and Schools: A Conference

by Boston SftP Science Teaching Group

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 4, July/August 1977, p. 38–39

The Boston Chapter Science Teaching Group has been working since 1971 to expose the social and political content of science in both secondary school and college classrooms. Over the years we have: prepared critiques of existing curricular materials; developed some of our own classroom materials (e.g., “Genetic Engineering,” Feed, Need, Greed); attended local and national teachers’ conferences- to intervene in scheduled sessions and to offer our own workshops; held two of our own conferences; and provided a speakers’ list for local high schools. 

During the last several years as the crisis over busing and desegregation in the Boston schools has intensified, we have occasionally sought to find ways in which we, as a group of radical science teachers, could respond. Finally, last spring, we decided to educate ourselves about the issues and considered coordinating a conference around the theme of “Busing and Racism.” After reading a number of articles on the busing crisis and an article by Bowles and Gintis, “IQ in the US Class Structure” (Social Policy, Nov.-Dec., 1972) we began to contact local radical groups (e.g., Union of Radical Political Economists) and community groups and other teachers’ groups, (e.g., the educational caucus of the Boston Teachers’ Union) to see if they would join our effort. 

While there was a great deal of interest in such a conference, they were not ready, at that time, to expend the time and energy to cosponsor it. Meanwhile, we decided to expand the scope of the conference to include issues of class and sex. We felt it was important to describe the connections, similarities and differences among the various forms of oppression. 

We floundered for several months about the scope, nature and audience of the conference. In particular we were unclear if our goals were to organize for change in the Boston schools or to raise consciousness. Eventually we narrowed to mainly the latter, feeling organizing wasn’t realistic in view of our having only one member in the Boston schools, and the lack of energy or time to commit ourselves to long range efforts in Boston. Eventually we expanded our topic and narrowed our audience and goals until we had something which seemed feasible and useful: we would aim primarily at teachers and attempt to tie together through political analysis the many forms of inequality, putting busing in that broader perspective. 

Then began the nitty-gritty work. In the fall of 1976, we sent a questionnaire out to a large number of teachers in the Boston school system (list obtained from the teachers’ caucus), to names of teachers obtained from our previous conference, to a variety of community groups and to other contacts. The flyer announced the conference and included a large list of possible workshop topics. We received responses from a number of teachers indicating their workshop preferences. As much as possible, we organized workshops on the basis of their preferences. 

After choosing a date (Saturday, March 19) and setting up speakers for a panel session, we sent out final announcements of the conference, now named “Inequality and Schools” to our mailing list, about a month before the conference day. The speakers covered the following topics: “Sexism in Schools and Texts,” “An Historical Perspective on Schools and Social Inequality,” and “Ethnicity, Race and Religion in Boston.” And the scheduled workshops were: “Sexism in Schools and Texts,” “Teaching Towards Change in the Workplace,” “The History of Ethnic Groups in Boston and the United States,” “BilingualBicultural Education: Is it Really Happening?” “Biology and our Ideas about Inequality,” and “Questions of Culture and Inequality.” Most of the workshop leaders were not members of Science for the People, but were found through various contacts and personal acquaintances. The conference was held in a University of Massachusetts building in central Boston. 

Our hopes for attracting people were dampened by a late winter snowstorm beginning the evening before the conference, and the discovery that another group had organized a conference on “The Crisis in Boston” for the same day. To our surprise, however, we drew about 100 people, mostly teachers, who braved the snow and cold to attend the conference. Despite major disasters, like the very late arrival of the coffee urn, the conference proceeded smoothly arid was considered a great success by most of the participants, and by us. The workshops, for the most part, consisted of short  presentations followed by general discussion. Discussions were lively, and most people were frustrated that the discussions had to end. Materials were handed out at most workshops. 

We were all surprised at the number of people attending, and at the degree of interest shown by participants. We had been unsure of our ability to coordinate a conference that reached so far outside the boundaries of radical science teaching. In addition, the number of teachers who had already developed a radical or class analysis was more than we had expected. Clearly, despite the many months of floundering around in our uncertainty, we had touched on a a need felt by teachers in the area. Some teachers said that it was the best conference they had ever been to. 

On response sheets handed out during the workshops, most teachers expressed interest in some sort of follow-up activity. We are now considering the following possibilities: 

  • repeating workshops at particular schools or group meetings 
  • developing classroom materials
  • compiling resource lists of people and materials 
  • starting study groups 

We hope that most of these activities will be self-generating and we plan only to help them get started. The conference raised many questions about the relationship between our work as teachers of science and our work as radicals who are committed to social change in the broadest sense. Should we concentrate on particular issues which are more familiar to us as scientists? Or should we strengthen our ties with people working for radical change around more traditionally “economic” and “political” issues? Whatever we decide, this conference was a valuable education, both about issues of inequality and education, and about organizing for change.

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