Gender bias lesson leads to policy changes–and questions for school librarians

Academic Freedom, Censorship, Education, Policies, School Libraries

By: Kate Lechtenberg

Recently, a psychology lesson in Billings, Montana came under scrutiny because the teacher used The Gender Ads Project website in order to teach students to critique gender bias in the media. As often happens, the critique of the website a teacher used has moved the school board to revise previous policies regulating the selection of instructional materials. 

As a former classroom teacher and school librarian, I cringe when I read media reports of text challenges that lead with quotes that sensationalize the situation, like this parent who questioned whether the teacher’s use of that website, which includes images of thousands of magazine advertisements, constitutes, “criminal, sexual (abuse) of minor children under Montana and federal law.” Support for the teacher comes after the salacious headline and damning lead: Billings administrators quoted agree that the teacher’s lesson was sound and that she is a quality teacher, though they did not support the use of the website in question. Thankfully, at least one parent spoke up to praise the teacher, saying, “We have a problem of violence against women in this country and I for one am very grateful for this teacher… she is really trying to teach students to be literate about media advertising and understand what they are teaching them.”

Let’s take a look at the proposed policy changes in Billings as one way to consider challenges and new ways forward as schools evaluate resources and work to improve relationships between schools, families, and policies.

From controversy to policy change: An opportunity for librarians

Some revisions proposed in Billings are simple updates to account for changes in digital media (e.g., the old policies focus primarily on film and television, whereas the proposed changes focus on a broader definition of resources). But other policies propose significant changes in how teachers select materials and how parents are involved in the process.

The most significant proposed changes to Policy 2310: Instructional Resources and Textbook Adoption (and related procedural documents) include:

  • Primary responsibility for selecting supplemental resources shifts from “teachers” to “teacher committees “through a collaborative process established at a district level (i.e. New Literature Selection Committee)”. (Policy 2310)
  • Teachers must obtain parent permission instead of notification for “mature” content, including supplemental and incidental classroom resources (Procedure 2310-P2)
  • Teachers must receive administrative approval before adding “mature” throughout the term (Procedure 2310-P2)

School librarians are included in this conversation for two reasons: 1) school librarians are often the only teaching staff who have professional training in examining polices related to materials selection and 2) school librarians are included in most instructional materials policies as part of the group of educators who influence and participate in the selection of supplemental materials, as they are in the current Billings policy.

Librarians in Billings and beyond can take this unfortunate challenge as an opportunity to think about how we support teachers and administrators’ understandings of selection policies and procedures.

School librarians can support school and family bridges

Every time I read articles about challenges in schools, I wonder what kinds of conversations are happening at the ground level, conversations between school staff and parents that focus on their shared concern for quality education for all students– conversations that the media doesn’t cover. The school librarian can support these essential conversations by leveraging their selection policy expertise.

For example, the Billings policy for “Challenges to Instructional Materials” requires that complaints be directed to the principal; school librarians whose schools also require that complaints be directed to the principal, rather than the classroom teacher, can support teachers by helping them locate and understand the policies that relate to selection.  Ideally, this sort of support from school librarians happens before a challenge occurs, perhaps as part of a back-to-school meeting with each department or as part of a “Banned Books Week” discussion with the faculty. But in cases like the Billings challenge, school librarians can be ready to offer support as the resident selection policy experts.

School librarians can also include teachers in open house events or newsletters that communicate to parents how professional educators select materials. The more proactively librarians and teachers talk with the community about how they select resources, the more likely parents may be to raise questions without the sensationalizing force of media headlines. Building relationships with parents before a challenge occurs prepares teachers and librarians to have discussions focused on shared interests rather than suspicious accusations.

School librarians can advocate for realistic, implementable policies

In addition, school librarians can be part of both the selection process and the policy revision process, raising important questions to make the policy something that can be realistically implemented by teachers.

The Billings selection policy, in both current and proposed versions, describes the selection of supplemental materials as “a cooperative, continuing process in which administrators, parents, teachers, librarians, and students may participate.” This focus on cooperation is now complicated by proposed requirements that limit the teacher’s role in selection, including a requirement for administrative approval and parental permission for all “mature” content, rather than the “notification”that was previously required, and by instituting a “New Literature Selection Committee” for supplemental resources.

A school librarian is well poised to ask questions and support teachers and administrators as they work through the nuts and bolts of these new processes.  A school librarian might ask:

  • What’s the difference between supplemental and incidental resources?
  • When can individual teachers make selection choices at the classroom level?
  • Which choices must be made by this new “New Literature Selection Committee?”
  • How will we define “mature” content?
  • What formats will we use for seeking parent permission?
  • And, most importantly, who will train current teachers (and new teachers, moving forward) to understand and implement this policy?

Often, when teachers fail to follow policies for parental permission (or notification, as the Billings policy currently requires) it’s not because they are hostile to the policy or trying to sneak in materials to support a nefarious agenda: it’s simply because the policies are not part of regular teacher training and/or they are too ambiguous or confusing to be implemented reliably.  Librarians can look to the newly revised Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for support; while this resource focuses on libraries, many of the same principles apply and can be adapted for selecting instructional materials.

Let’s talk: Evaluating websites, clarifying policy, and constant communication

No policy can be written to prevent all challenges and all selection mistakes.  But we can improve how we talk to each other and how we talk about our policies. Here are three final steps school librarians can take to lay the groundwork for improved conversations between parents, teachers, and administrators:

  • Let’s talk website evaluation: If a teacher brought The Gender Ads Project website to me, I probably would have advised against using it.  While it was created by a credentialed scholar, it is not sponsored by an academic site–which means less oversight.  In addition, Dr. Lukas doesn’t cite the magazines he gets his ads for; some have written titles and dates onto the scanned ads, and some of those magazine titles would raise questions for me as a school librarian (e.g, Maxim). If I can’t tell where the ads are coming from or if the sources are ones I wouldn’t select for the library, I wouldn’t put that site in front of students. Instead, I would offer to help the teacher develop their own collection of ads from magazines in the library’s collection or from more age-appropriate website that accomplish the same goal.
  • Let’s talk about policy’s limits: Sometimes, policies get cluttered with situation-specific language that doesn’t relate to the policy itself.  For example, Billings has proposed adding this statement to the procedures for selecting supplemental resources  “Students whom parents have requested removal from an elective course will receive partial credits based upon the amount of time and grades on assignments completed.” While this may be an important statement, it appears more related to the reconsideration procedures than the selection procedures.  Librarians can help keep policies straight.
  • Let’s talk. Often. Once again, school librarians are the only school professionals who have been trained specifically in the principles of selection policies.  Other educators have professional knowledge that inform their selection, but school librarians have a duty to use their specific training and knowledge to help support all teachers and administrators during the increasingly complex selection process.


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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