Tuesday, June 27, 2023

ID: A Baffling Hiring Decision And Another Type Of District Takeover

There's another type of school takeover happening out there, and for one example we'll look to Idaho. There the West Bonner County School District has decided they'd like to hire Branden Durst as their next superintendent. It's a baffling decision, but it tells us a lot about the way some winds are blowing these days.

Who is Branden Durst?

The broad outlines of his career are pretty simple. Born in Boise. Attended pacific Lutheran University (BA in poli sci with communication minor), grad school at Kent State and Claremont Graduate University (public policy, international political economy), then Boise State University (Master of Public Administration). In 2022, he went back to BSU for a degree in Executive Educational Leadership.

His LinkedIn account lists 20 "experience" items since 2000, and Durst seems to have bounced quickly from job to job until 2006, when he was elected as an Idaho State Representative for four years. Then in 2012 he was elected to the state senate, a job that he held for one year. He did all that as  Democrat; in 2016, he switched his party to the GOP.

Then independent consultant, a mediator for a "child custody and Christian mediation" outfit. Then an Idaho Family Policy Center senior policy fellow. IFPC advocates for the usual religious right causes, but they have a broader focus as well: "To advance the cultural commission." They see the Great Commission in a dominionist light-- the church is to teach "nations to obey everything Jesus has commanded." And they suggest you get your kid out of public school.

Durst's current gig is with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right tilted thinky tank that wants to "make Idaho into a Laboratory of Liberty by exposing, defeating, and replacing the state's socialist public policies." The run a Center for American Education which, among other things, maintains a map so you can see where schools are "indoctrinating students with leftist nonsense." They recommend you get your child out of public school

Nowhere in any of this will you find Durst holding any sort of education or school-related job. He's never been a teacher or any kind of school administrator. Not so much as a two-year Teach for America tourist visit to the job. He did claim, at some point, to have worked as a substitute teacher and coach.

You would think that would be kind of a red flag.

Speaking of baggage...

Durst comes with some baggage. That one year tenure in the Senate? Durst resigned because the press got ahold of the fact that he was actually was living in Idaho only part time; his wife was working as a teacher near Seattle was living there at least part of the time with his family. KTVB, the station that followed the story, "observed his home looked empty of furniture when stopping by to knock on the door last week." Durst insisted that his bed and clothes were there. And he blamed the split living arrangement on Idaho schools:

There's a big difference between living out of your district for an entire year, and having a family member who is a teacher that doesn't get treated well because they live in Idaho and have to find employment someplace else. I think there's a big difference, Durst said.

For a while, it looked like he would fight the charge. But in the end he resigned his seat.

2022 was not a great year for Durst. After the Idaho Senate failed to advance the parental rights bill that he was promoting, Durst confronted Senator Jim Woodward with enough aggressiveness that Woodward called the cops on him. After blowing off a meeting with GOP leadership, Durst blasted senators on social media. The Senate GOP majority wrote a letter condemning Durst for "spurious attacks against members of the Senate, meant to coerce votes and influence elections." In a press release, GOP leaders condemned Durst and said his actions "demonstrate egregious conduct unbecoming of anyone, especially a former legislator and current statewide political candidate."

The "candidate" part refers to Durst's run for the office of state superintendent. He told EastIdahoNews, “Parents are tired. They don’t feel respected or trusted and they want some real change in their school superintendent. They’re all talking about the same things. They want to stop the indoctrination that’s happening in their schools, they want to (be able) to make decisions for their kids." He ran on three priorities-- end common core, stop critical race theory, and school choice ("fund students, not systems"). He came in second in the GOP primary, losing to Debbie Critchfield by about 25,000 votes.

Durst had remarried in 2016 (in Washington state), and in 2022, his wife and ex-wife got into a scuffle that almost blew up into abuse allegations against Durst and his wife over a whack with a wooden spoon on a 14-year-old child. He explained later, “The child wasn’t being respectful, wasn’t obeying … It wasn’t even very hard, but things can happen in the political world where things get taken out of proportion, and that’s what happened here." Certainly his candidacy made the story bigger than it might otherwise have been.

His candidacy for school superintendent

Durst's proposed contract had some unusual features. One was that he would be hard to fire-- the trustees would need a super-majority to vote him out. The draft contract also required the district to provide his legal counsel, requiring the district to protect Durst and his wife from “any and all demands, claims, suits, actions, and legal proceedings brought against the Superintendent for all non-criminal incidents arising while the Superintendent is acting within the scope of his employment.” (This seems to speak to his experiences with his ex-wife). The proposed contract also included a vehicle, a housing allowance, and district-provided meal services. Plus an ability to work remotely. 

All of this would be contingent on Durst being provisionally certified to hold a superintendent's position. That's usually given to someone with relevant experience in education, but Durst says he's like to see the process opened up so that districts can have "the flexibility they need to make the right hiring decision for them." One has to wonder what sort of district feels that the best fit for them is someone with no actual qualifications. 

West Bonner School District has issues of its own

The district has been through three superintendents in one year. The interim superintendent was Susie Luckey, who has spent nearly four decades in the district as teacher and principal. She was the other candidate considered for the job--the one that the board didn't hire.

I told you all about Branden Durst not to badmouth him. I probably disagree with him on pretty much everything about education, but I don't have any reason to think he's an evil man. But one has to wonder what exactly qualifies him to be a school district superintendent.

So, why?

Trustee Keith Rutledge voted for Durst (it was a 3-2 vote), and explained via email to The Spokesman:

“He has a vastly superior understanding of the legal, financial, administrative, and educational philosophy aspects of the job,” Rutledge wrote, adding that Durst is popular among Bonner County voters and “has the broad support of the nearly 13,000 residents of our district.”

That last is an apparent reference to Durst's campaign for state superintendent; he took 60% of the vote in Bonner County. Given that Durst has no apparent experience in the legal, financial or administrative aspects of the job (certainly not more than a four-decade veteran of classroom and administration), it seems likely that it's Durst's philosophy that attracted the board, and we've seen where he comes from in that department.

Educational philosophy is certainly part of the superintendent job, but there are also a host of nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day, keep the lights on and the buses running aspects to the job. It takes practical acumen to make it possible for teachers to do their jobs and students to get what they need. 

Some community members say he's just what they need. Jim Woodward, the GOP lawmaker that Durst accosted, has a different assessment, per the Coeur d'Alene Press:

"I think is that he's an emotional person," Woodward said Thursday. "He couldn't control himself in the Senate committee room. How would you do any better in a school setting? He can't control himself and I think the real takeaway here is not only that he has a history of different problems in interacting with people. But he also is not qualified for … being a superintendent of a school district."

This kind of district take over--the installation of an unqualified leader with the "right" philosophy--is usually attempted by states (see, for instance, the takeover of schools in Lorain, Ohio). But nowadays, as hard-right candidates take over school boards, they are performing their own version on the school takeover, installing district members who are ideologically pure, even if they have no real qualifications for the job. Heck, it worked for Betsy DeVos's bid for the US Secretary of Education post.

That's a feature, not a bug

The conservative agitation group, Moms for Liberty, told us this was the goal. This was Tiffany Justice on the Steve Bannon show:

BANNON: Are we going to start taking over the school boards?

JUSTICE: Absolutely. We're going to take over the school boards, but that's not enough. Once we replace the school boards, what we need to do is we need to have search firms, that are conservative search firms, that help us to find new educational leaders, because parents are going to get in there and they're going to want to fire everyone. What else needs to happen? We need good school board training. We need lawyers to stand up in their communities and be advocates for parents and be advocates for school board members who are bucking the system.

There are multiple problems with this, starting with the idea of having public schools run by people who want to either convert them to centers for promoting only a single point of view (theirs) or else simply gut them and replace them with private schools. But for parents, the problems become more practical-- a school where things don't work because the person in charge doesn't know how to make them work. 

Despite some uproar over literal backroom shenanigans, the trustees appear committed to hiring Durst. For his part, Durst says he's ready to talk to those who oppose his hiring and convince him of his good intentions. Which is at least non-combative, but intentions and goals and philosophies don't, by themselves, run a district.

I'll let a parent that The Spokesman spoke with have the last word here.

Hailey Scott-Yount, a mother with two kids attending school in the district, said picking Durst as superintendent was “asinine.”

“Why on earth would you hire a mechanic to bake your wedding cake?” Scott-Yount said. “It’s terrifying.”

Sunday, June 25, 2023

OK: AG's Office Says State Failed In Attempt To Smear Teacher

In September of 2022, one Oklahoma English teacher was having a rough time. I'll refresh your memory before I tell you about the latest chapter in this tale.

Summer Boismier was a teacher at Norman High School who drew flak for covering some books in her classroom with the message "Books the state doesn't want you to read." Apparently even worse, she posted the QR code for the Brooklyn Public Libraries new eCard for teens program, which allows teens from all over the country to check out books, no matter how repressive or restrictive state or local rules they may live under.

She was suspended by the district, which said that this was about her "personal political statements" and a "political display" in the classroom. Boismier told The Gothamist
I saw this as an opportunity for my kids who were seeing their stories hidden to skirt that directive. Nowhere in my directives did it say we can't put a QR code on a wall.

But Oklahoma school districts are on edge since the state Board of Education downgraded two districts' accreditations for allegedly violating the law (a policy that the governor just applauded). Never mind that this is a policy that just makes it harder for teachers to do their jobs.

The district's suspension was brief, but rather than report back to work, Boismier resigned. As the Washington Post reported

She recognized the school district was in a tight spot and said she placed most of the blame on Oklahoma Republicans for fomenting what she described as a growing culture of fear, confusion and uncertainty in schools.

Amid that climate, Boismier said, she doesn’t feel like she has a place in an Oklahoma classroom.

None of that was enough for Walters. The events surrounding Boismier attracted plenty of attention, and so, Candidate Walters popped up to put his two cents in via a letter that he posted on Twitter.

In the letter, he called for Summer Boismier (he called her out by name) to have her teaching license revoked. "Ms. Boismier's providing access to banned and pornographic material is unacceptable."

The letter also includes this line:

There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.

Walters, who once wrote "I will continue to teach my students the United States is the greatest nation in the world," is at least honest in saying that it's the liberal view that must be prohibited.

Meanwhile, after Walters tweeted out her name and his non-reality-based accusations, Boismier has endured a flood of vulgarity and death threats.

“These teachers need to be taken out and shot,” “teachers like this should not only be fired but also should be swinging from a tree,” “If Summer tried this in Afghanistan, they’d cut out her tongue for starters,” are just a minuscule fraction of the threats pouring into Summer Boismier’s inbox.

Great game here. Draw a target on someone's back and just let your followers try to make her life hell. Again, this provides a lousy atmosphere for teachers to try to teach in.

Walters is still, a year later, trying to strip Boismier of her license, which shows... I don't even know. That trying to act Highly Principled can end up looking like meanspirited petty bullshit? But Assistant Attorney General Liz Stevens says that Walters' office did not make its case. Boismier did not violate the state's reading repression laws.

I find that the State Department of Education has failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that (Boismier) has willfully committed an act of moral turpitude and then violated the standards of performance and conduct for teachers.

The Oklahoma AG office of Gentner Drummond has been butting heads with the Christion nationalists currently running the state, but Secretary Dudebro remains unimpressed, telling the USA Today folks, "I appreciate the transparency today and we will be finalizing the revocation of her license in August. Accountability is tough and we will not have indoctrination in the classroom."

I would point out that this is a lousy way to recruit and retain teachers, but Walters, who has called teachers "terrorists," is clearly not interested in teachers or public education or anything other than promoting christianist indoctrination in his state. 

ICYMI: Tech Sunday Edition (6/25)

The Institute's Chief Marital Officer (CMO) is the wicked step-mother and I'm tooting in the pit orchestra, and today kicks off the final week of rehearsals before Cinderella opens here. We are going to have us some fun times. In the meantime, here's some reading from the last week.

Georgia has one of those teacher gag laws, and now somebody want to try it out on a woman who read her class My Shadow Is Purple, a very non-porn book. Southern Poverty Law Center has the story\.

In Pennridge, teachers clash with the school board over the promise of an ‘ideology-free’ curriculum

Vermilion, the Hillsdale-linked consulting firm, has been hired to take a gander at curriculum in Pennridge School District, and it's pretty clear already that outside of loving God and Merica, this guy hasn't much of a clue. Maddie Hanna reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer,

Great interactive explainer from the Keystone Center for Charter Change, an organization exists because Pennsylvania charter laws are among the worst in the country. (Go, us!) 

Cradle to Grave Surveillance

Thomas Ultican looks into the folks at Global Silicon Valley and their work at digitizing everything there is to now about students. Prepare to be alarmed.

How Community Schools Can Transform Parent Involvement for the Better

Jeff Bryant at The Progressive talks about how parental involvement can be a positive for all involved. It's community schools.

A 'new breed' of charter schools is spreading Christian nationalism — at taxpayers’ expense

Jeff Bryant again, looking at the NPE report on the rightward lurch of the choice world.

Utah school district returns the Bible to shelves after appeals and outcry

Not a big story this week, but just in case you were wondering how that Bible ban turned out.

Teacher Was Fired From Private School After Questioning Her Salary — Her Boss Said That God Told Him She Was Not Passionate About Her Job

Yeah, that's pretty much the whole story in the headline. More details here if you want to be further angered.

A look at the trial — and ruling — that could change Pa.’s school funding system forever

Part of a PBS series about education, this takes a deep dive into the case that ended with courts declaring PA's school funding system unconstitutional. Lots to digest here, just in time for this year's battle over the state budget.

Inside Florida’s ‘underground lab’ for far-right education policies

Kathryn Joyce at Hechinger's with a great dive into Sarasota County, where a Moms For Liberty co-founder is board president and a parade of right wingers are always busy.

I Know It When I See It

Nancy Flanagan looks at the crusade against pornography in schools.

Orwellian Language and the Moral Perversion of American Politics

Jan Resseger looks at Chris Rufo and other educational "leaders" whose abuse of the language is part of the problem they present.

TFA Does Soul Searching, Changes The Least Significant Thing Possible About Itself

Gary Rubinstein started out with TFA, then decided to become a teacher for reals. From that vantage point, he has always kept a sharp and critical eye on TFA shenanigans, including their latest Big Deal.

Censors lose in the end

At Brutal South, Paul Bowers gets ready to fight back against one more book ban (this time it's Ta-Nehsis Coates).

Activist or Advocate – Defending Public Education in Florida

How does one advocate or do the activism in state so hell-bent of privatizing public education. Sue Kingery Woltanski examines the puzzle. 

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Saturday, June 24, 2023

PA: Bad Voucher Bill on Fast Track

The folks at Education Voters of Pennsylvania report that GOP leaders have made a voucher plan one of their big priorities for the 2023-2024 state budget. It's a bad bill.

HB 795 is the latest version of the Lifeline Scholarship Program, a bill that has been kicking around Harrisburg for several years. But the new version includes some significant changes from past years.

Last year, it was HB 2169. That version of the Lifeline voucher was an education savings account, a chunk of money that parents could spend on all sorts of education-flavored products and services. HB 2169 was a bad idea for many reasons (for one thing, the dollar amount was based on state-wide average spending per pupil, meaning many districts would have lost way more money than their usual cost per pupil). But the bill also had a few safeties in place, like a requirement that every single account must be audited every two years and a restriction that families couldn't double dip by taking both a Lifeline scholarship and a EITC voucher (the state's long-existing tax credit scholarship voucher program).

The new version of Lifeline vouchers is a traditional voucher; it's money that can be spent on tuition at a private school and "school-related fees." Getting accepted by that private school is, of course, your problem.

The restriction against double dipping is not in this bill; families would now be free to grab multiple piles of taxpayer dollars. Nor are there any income requirements; if you're wealthy, you can still grab a voucher or two. The voucher is still designated for all students in schools at the bottom 15% of schools, a super-cynical approach, since no matter how well schools are all doing, there will always be a bottom 15%.

The "nonpublic" schools accepting vouchers do not have to be vetted in any way; it just has to notify the state, promise to be non-profit (it can, of course, still be run by a for-profit entity), and comply with non-discrimination laws. It can thrown out of the program if it "routinely" fails to comply with those requirements and if it fails "to provide a scholarship recipient with the educational services" the voucher paid for. 

The bill does have the usual non-interference clause-- the nonprivate school is declared absolutely not a state agent, and nobody in Harrisburg "may regulate the educational program of a participating nonpublic school that accepts money from a scholarship recipient beyond what is necessary to administer the program." So if they want to teach flat earth or creationism or the inherent superiority of the Aryan race or that LGBTQ persons are evil deviants, they can still collect those tasty public taxpayer dollars.

The dollar amounts are tiered:

For a student in ½ day kindergarten: $2,500.

For a student in full-day kindergarten through grade 8: $5,000.

For a student in grades 9-12: $10,000.

For a student with special needs (regardless of grade): $15,000.

Pennsylvania is, of course, facing a court-ordered requirement to fix their unconstitutionally inequitable school funding system. Diverting more taxpayer dollars to private schools, including schools that can indoctrinate and discriminate, hardly seems like a great way to go about fixing the problems. 

But lobbyists are working Harrisburg hard to push this private school taxpayer subsidy plan, trying very hard to sell the idea that "fully fund your public schools" somehow means "send more funding to private schools." If you are in Pennsylvania, phone or email your local lawmaker or the governor himself, who unfortunately appears to be a fan. Maybe point out that it was indeed great that the state was able to pull together the resources to fix I-95 so quickly, and that the solution to that problem was not to give every driver a voucher to go set up a private road of their own. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Moms for Liberty and Hitler

Let's just collect the pieces of this story, because there's plenty to unpack, and it will be hard to retrieve it all from Twitter by tomorrow.

Yesterday the Indy Star caught a story (since pulled and replaced) about the new Hamilton County Moms for Liberty chapter posted their brand new newsletter--using a quote from Adolf Hitler-- "He alone who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future" (To their credit, they did at least properly attribute it).

It's there right over the part about how they won't be intimidated by the Southern Poverty Law Center calling them an extremist group. As you might imagine, many people had feelings about this.

Then later in the day, they replaced the front page with an attempt to create context:

"The quote from a horrific leader should put parents on alert. If the government has control over our children today, they control our country's future. We The People must be vigilant and protect children from the overreaching government"

So see--they weren't admiring Nazis. They were just saying that the government and public schools are a bunch of Nazis. All better yet? 

No? Well, next they tried an apology to replace the front page.

"We condemn Adolf Hitler's actions and his dark place in human history. We should not have quoted him in our newsletter and express our deepest apology."

So, it's not that they're sorry they called everyone a Nazi. They're just sorry they quoted Adolph in their newsletter.

And to show how not-sorry they were about the Nazi-namecalling thing, M4L leader and co-founder Tiffany Justice reminded Twitter that they really meant to call government folks Nazis. 

So I guess it wasn't just a local chapter chair who went off-message. 

Also, not the first time M4L folks have tossed this quote around. Not by a long shot

Also, just to keep things even...

Fun times all around. If more hijinks shenanigans follow, I'll add them to the post. In the meantime, we can discuss what the best way to use Hitler as part of an argument might be (spoiler alert: never).

Why Bother Accrediting Colleges

Ron DeSantis filed yet another lawsuit against the feds today. This time his team has cranked out a 41 page argument against the very idea of college accreditation.

Congress shouldn't "delegate its legislative authority to trade or industrial associations or groups," the suit argues, yet "under the current scheme, private accreditors act '[a]s gatekeepers to $112 billion in annual federal student aid.'"

The DeSantis beef boils down to being required to get accreditation in order to collect that federal aid, including aid to students, who can only get college dollars if they're attending an accredited institution. 

The lawsuit nods at the reasoning behind this, the reasonable idea that students shouldn't be able to use taxpayer dollars to attend "Bob's Underwater Basket Weaving University." But having nodded, it moves quickly on. If Ron DeSantis wants his state to launch "Ron's College Of Aryan Knowledge," who are hte feds to tell him he can't get federal tax dollars, directly or indirectly, to support it?

DeSantis is not the only person railing against the "accreditation cartel." That phrase also appears in a "report" issued earlier this week by the Heritage Foundation, announced with a post entitled "It’s Time for Congress to Dismantle the Higher Education Accreditation Cartel."

Their aim is much the same. Colleges and universities should be able to get their hands on that money without having to convince some accreditation cartel member that they are "woke" enough or "follow regulations" or are, you know, "any good." 

This is, in short, another version of the same policy pursuit that we see with folks who want school vouchers to allow money to go to private schools without any regulatory strings attached

There is a certain level of irony here. This is a lawsuit saying, "Hey, you can't withhold funding from a school just because they don't do things the way you want them to," coming from a guy who has been very clear that he will withhold funding from any school that doesn't do things the way he wants them to. Unfortunately, I'm betting that this is not going to be the last we see of this particular dodge. 

PA: Penncrest on PBS NewHour (with Penncrest Reader)

Judy Woodruff took a trip to Penncrest school district (right up the road from me) where the culture wars have been raging for a while now. I've been writing about their reading restrictions for a while, part of their attempt to imitate Bucks County and just generally stamp out those "evil" LGBTQ persons and that naughty CRT (whatever it is). 

The report is pretty well balanced. You will note that member David Valesky, who in print comes off like some cranky old fart, is actually more in the Chris Rufo-Corey Deangelis cranky young white guy mold. If you want to read up on the district to go along with the piece, here's the Institute Reader for these folks:

PA: Another CRT Panic Tale

In which an English teacher is denied the opportunity to represent the district as a presenter at an NCTE conference because a board member thought there might be CRT cooties there.

In which two board members become alarmed that there are "totally evil" LGBTQ books in the library, and they decide to Do Something about it.

PA: Penncrest Passes Reading Restrictions

In which the newest version of the reading restrictions pass, because that's what God wants.

PA: Board Member "I don't care what the law says."

In which the board says the law doesn't matter, but they're looking for a good conservative lawyer, anyway.

And here's the Judy Woodruff report, which puts some faces and voices with those names, and captures to some extent how the community wrestles with this stuff.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Teach For America Is Rebranding Again (Again)

Teach For America is announcing its new "brand identity," and it's...well, not great. 

The announcement, nominally by TFA honchos Elisa Villaneueva Beard, is a word salad with a dressing of corporate argle bargle:

This view is moving and remarkable, and it has called us to launch a new way of presenting ourselves to the world: a new brand identity to embody the work of this moment and the enduring values of equity, excellence, and leadership that underlie it. This includes a new look, a new logo (for the first time in 25 years), and a new tagline that concisely states what animates our work at its core: “Illuminate every learner.”

Illuminate every learner?

Our hope is that out in the world, our new brand identity will illuminate our work and ignite a spark in others, inspiring them to share our vision for the future. It’s rooted in hope, grounded in reality, and accountable to our kids and communities. While a brand is more than just a look, a logo, a color palette, or a tagline, those things are one way we shine a light on who we are today and who we aspire to be.

Illuminate every learner??

TFA has changed its corporate identity multiple times over the past twenty-five years (see here, here, and here, for a few). It is an exercise that only makes sense if one assumes that TFA, like any other corporate institution, considers its primary goal to be its own preservation. If I start WidgetCorp to make widgets, and it turns out that either widgets become obsolete or WidgetCorp is bad at making them, then I have two choices. I can A) say "Well, that's that" and go get into another business or B) decide that keeping WidgetCorp alive, so I'll rebrand it as a lemonade manufacturer.

TFA has steadily moved away from "teaching" and toward the creation of an alternate universe of education separate from the public education system. Over time, its cavalier idea that the Right Kind of People can learn to teach in five weeks (and do it better than the so-called professionals) has turned out to be far less damaging than its steady production of clueless amateurs who use their two year vacation in the classroom to slap "former teacher" in their CV as they head off into leadership or edupreneurial roles (ka-ching). Some very fine actual teachers with actual teaching careers have come out of TFA, but I can't think of a single TFA-trained "education leader" who has helped make public schools work better. Nor do they even pretend that teaching is their main focus. Under "What we do" on their website:

Teach For America is a diverse network of leaders who confront educational inequity by teaching for at least two years and then working with unwavering commitment from every sector of society to create a nation free from this injustice.

As educators, advocates, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community members, we fight for the aspirations of students and families.

TFA is a corporate producer of education-flavored products and resumes. An expressed concern about teaching provides cover for the rest of its work. And this rebranding is such a corporate exercise. There's a whole FAQ about the rebranding with explanations like:

Early research and testing validated that our current logo is not providing lift or recognition. Our current logo, which is simply a type treatment of our name, was created more than 25 years ago, at a moment when we were an emerging nonprofit. Although the logo was not hurting the organization, testing validated that it also was not providing brand lift or differentiation in the marketplace. Importantly, it was not designed for the type of digital landscapes in which people today consume information and content—so a thoughtful evaluation and refresh were clearly needed.

They added the symbol "to add deeper meaning and support brand clarity by adding a symbol that would speak to our mission and purpose." And if you're wondering what the hell that thing is "It's a spark! It's a sun!! It represents the light and potential that lives in all our students." In other words, they don't really know, either (Actually, by their own account, folks made guesses all over the map until they were told what the logo was for.) It's purple because "the vast majority of similar organizations primarily use blues and/or greens in their logos." Also, for what it's worth, it's much like a logo for Pharmaceutical Bank and Religion in Society.

Illuminate every learner.

I'm still stuck on that part. Illuminating something usually means reveal parts of it, make parts of it visible (e.g.illuminate the solution). Or we illuminate something so we can find our way, like turning the lights on in a room. So why are we illuminating learners? Aren't we, as some of their material suggests, illuminating paths for learners? I'm sorry, but whoever workshopped this slogan for them did not workshop it enough. 

The old logo, just in case you were wondering

Who knows. TFA has been shrinking for a while now, and have decided to try to recruit and retain through the time-worn technique of throwing money at people. Beard writes that it is clear that "more of the same in education isn't working," but in 2023 "more of the same" means the same old reformster policies that TFA and its edu-adjacent grads have been pushing for two decades.

Back in April she was making noise about how they were changing the way they operate, noting they needed to do things like "leveraging a digital approach to delivering our program to corps members and alumni"-- so, more TFA training via Zoom meeting? They built a tutoring program. They doubled down on recruitment efforts. And they intend to "double the number of children who are on a pathway to economic mobility and improved outcomes," which would be a really neat trick, as nobody really knows for sure how to tell if you've done all that for a child (or maybe that makes it a simple trick.)

So definitely a logo change is needed. And a new slogan that doesn't actually make sense. 

The breathless announcement highlights one other long-standing feature of TFA. They have always, always understood that it is at least as important to look like you're doing the work as it is to actually do the work. They depend on lots and lots of contributors who don't think much more deeply than "Helping teach poor kids! Well, that's a good thing, right?" or even just "Well, it has 'teach' and 'America' in the title so it must be good." 

Oh well. Making an overthought logo change and a misses-the-mark slogan may be the least damaging thing that TFA has done in the last 25 years. It's hard for me to take these folks seriously, but I respect the amount of damage they've done to education, under any logo. I can believe that once upon a time they meant well, but even with a cool new logo, I'm not sure what the heck they mean today. 

NC: Charter Fires Teacher For Teaching Book About Race

This story carries so many reminders. This is why you need employment protection. This is why you need a union. This is why it's bad that charter schools put students and teachers in a rights-free zone. And this is why CRT panic laws hurt education.

Charlotte Secondary School is a 6-12 charter school in North Carolina, a "diverse middle and high school community that focuses on college and career preparation and individually tailored learning opportunities to empower all students to reach their full potential." The school has an 88% minority student body, with about 50/50 White/Black faculty. They've been at it for around fifteen years; their test scores aren't so hot, but their lacrosse team was on ESPN once. They use a no-frills block schedule.

And they're being sued.

Last October the school hired Markayle Gray to teach seventh and eighth grade English. The hiring was "on a contract basis" meaning he has no job protections or guarantee of year-to-year employment. And in February, he was fired. And now he's suing the school.

Gray chose to teach the novel Dear Martin, a YA book that follows a Black high school student as he deals with a violent encounter with the police. After being thrown to the ground and handcuffed, the teen writes ten imaginary letters to Dr. Martin Luther Kingh, Jr.

The school requires teachers to clear materials with the principal before using them. In his lawsuit, Gray says he not only did so, but that the principal not only approved the novel, but she recommended the novel to him as a “challenging but age-appropriate work that promoted a discussion of core American values like justice and equality.”

But then white parents complained. According to the lawsuit:

on February2, 2023, Gray was informed by the school’s principal Keisha Rock that his contract was being terminated effective immediately. The ostensible grounds, he was told, was the emergence of parental opposition over “Dear Martin” and other aspects of Gray’s teaching content related to racial equality. As Rock stated, “I cannot address complaints made by parents all day.”

Rock also told Gray that she had been in constant communication with the Board of Directors,“all day long”, as she put it, which had also received parental complaints regarding Gray, and that the Board had authorized his immediate termination.

According to a press release from Gray's lawyers:

White parents complained that the critically acclaimed novel injected what they regarded as unwelcome political views on systemic racial inequality into their children’s classroom. In its published core principles, Charlotte Secondary, whose student population is 80-85% Black, Hispanic or biracial, claims that “Diversity is not merely desirable, it is necessary for the accomplishment of our mission.”

According to the lawsuit, Rock also saw firing Gray as the only way to avoid pressure from North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as a complaint had been circulated to DPI that a Charlotte Secondary teacher was teaching Critical Race Theory.

North Carolina's House passed a teacher gag bill back in March, after failing to get an identical bill past the governor's veto in 2021. HB 187 does specifically include charter schools in the requirement to avoid teaching any naughty topics; like many anti-CRT bills, it doesn't mention CRT by name but instead offers a large, vague list of characteristics that legislators imagine might describe CRT.

That bill was filed in late February, after Gray had been fired, but some version of it has been around for a while. This is the state where Lt. Governor Mark Robinson set up a McCarthyish tip line in 2021 so that citizens could report teachers for teaching naughty things. Any school-- including a charter school--has to know that this sort of state-sponsored intolerance is in the air.

The school's attorney has the predictable response:

"Since this is a personnel matter, we are limited in what we can say about the reasons for Mr. Gray's termination," attorney Katie Weaver Hartzog told ABC News in a statement. "However, I can say that the termination of Mr. Gray's employment was based on legitimate, nondiscriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons. The school denies any and all allegations of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend the suit."

Dear Martin has been banned elsewhere. Haywood County schools in North Carolina pulled it from 10th grade English classes after one parent complaint. In Georgia, Columbia County schools banned the book from classes and libraries for reasons that are unclear (read The Root's account of that flap). And Monett High School in Missouri yanked the book and replaced it with To Kill a Mockingbird. 

As the book's author Nic Stone put it, “I think there’s an overall discomfort with facing up to the fact that racism is still a thing that we need to be talking about. But I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it without people being uncomfortable.” 

Gray's actual complaint hinges on the charge that his firing was a product of race discrimination. Gray is suing for back pay, front pay, lost benefits, punitive damages, and compensatory damages. 

So many layers here. So many things missing. Job protections, so that a school can't just fire someone because they find him annoying. Laws that actually defend against discrimination. A union to defend Gray's right to due process. And just generally not bending to the will of White folks who don't want to even discuss the idea that racism is a thing. I guess we'll see how Gray's lawsuit turns out. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Aldeman Tries Making a Progressive Case for Choice

Chad Aldeman, one of those people I consider a serious grown-up in the reformster camp, is in The 74 this morning seeing if he can make a case for school choice, or at least counter what he sees as 

warnings coming out of the political left that educational choice programs will “destroy public schools” or “harm our society,” and that calls for more educational choices represent an “assault on American democracy.”

Instead of painting the movement to provide more educational choices for families as a right-wing bogeyman, progressives would be better off understanding that voters, especially Black and Latino parents, support greater options within the public schools.

Emphasis mine. 

Aldeman makes some very valid points. The public system we have has huge room for improvement when it comes to equity. Other countries do have some variations on our basic set up that work. 

And he offers five questions that "progressives should ask as they evaluate K-12 educational choice programs." And they are five questions, not all bad. Let's take them one at a time.

Are programs allowed to discriminate?

Aldeman notes that we have some segregation problems in our current system, and choice systems will allow a certain amount of self-segregation. Both true. But he hits the mark here:

States should protect against bad actors by requiring that any school accepting public money be prohibited from discriminating based on a student’s national origin, race, color, religion, disability, gender or familial status. If public money is going to private educational programs, they must be open and accepting of all students, and there must be protections and avenues for students and families to resolve conflicts. This should be a minimum bar to accepting public money.

Yes, yes and yes. Unfortunately, this gives us a problem right off the bat. The newest round of voucher (education savings account) laws not only allow discrimination, but specifically forbid any sort of state interference with the voucher-accepting school. And Aldeman has left out the right-wing elephant in the room, which is that voucher programs are largely about steering public dollars to private christian schools for whom discrimination is kind of the whole point. 

I absolutely agree with him--but the voucher wing of the school choice movement emphatically does not, and if Oklahoma has its way, the charter wing may soon follow

Is there a real check on quality?

I could quibble here that we haven't come up with any very good checks on public school quality, but I'll agree with Aldeman that whatever hoops public schools are jumping through, choice schools should jump through as well. 

However, again, we are going to run over the religious right's desire to teach that the Earth is 4000 years old and that Black folks "immigrated" to the US. But Aldeman is right:

Anyone who cares about program quality should insist that all kids be tested against the same statewide standards.

Unfortunately, as I suspect Aldeman well knows, plenty of choicers have taken the position that program quality A) is far less important than the moral imperative to offer choice and B) states don't have to do anything because the invisible hand of the market will take care of all quality issues.

Are the funding programs progressive?

Aldeman allows that fears that voucher programs are just handouts for wealthy families are "well-founded." He suggests that states could issue vouchers of higher amounts to students with higher needs.

Is the program actively supporting disadvantaged families?

Aldeman says that transparency and accountability would help families make good choices, but I'll argue it's unlikely that any choice system will not suffer from asymmetrical information issues, and it is not in the vendors' interest to fix that. This is what you get when you unleash the free market--marketing in place of transparency. 

Aldeman's solution is for the government to fund "choice navigators" aka a whole other level of bureaucracy to help families navigate the level of choice bureaucracy. I'm trying to imagine who these people will be and where we'd find them all (would this be a full time job? part time? minimum wage?), but there's another problem here-- many schools use the red tape and bureaucracy to weed out the families they don't want (see for example Sucess Academy). 

Does the state treat existing providers (traditional school districts) fairly?

Aldeman makes some weak claims that competition improves public schools and the financial hit isn't all that bad, though he acknowledges that some folks are "justifiably concerned about what happens to traditional districts if they lose students, especially the most active and engaged families. They could become the school of last resort for the most expensive, most disruptive kids" even as he calls the concerns "overblown." But he does argue that states will have to figure out a lot of funding questions, and I would certainly welcome an end to the era in which the choice argument was based on the absurd notion that we can run ten schools for the same money we used to spend to run one.

Questions he left out.

I am never entirely certain whether I am a progressive or not, though I know that's the bin I'm generally tossed into. But here are a couple of other questions that this public school supporter thinks need to be answered when choice turns up.

Who actually owns the facilities?

Schools involve real estate--often highly desirable real estate. Who owns the building, the facilities, the ground on which they're located? As a taxpayer, am I owning something, or am I paying taxes so someone else can get rich?

Who is actually in charge?

Are the people at the top elected representatives of the taxpayers who have to conduct business in a public meeting, or a bunch of unelected officials who can meet in private elsewhere?

Is this a business or a school?

Is this business run for profit, either directly or indirectly? I'm not asking because I have some philosophical objection to businesses because I think making a profit is dirty and evil. I'm asking because businesses make decisions for business reasons, and I don't want to send my child to a school only to have the school yanked away at some point because the business case for the school no longer makes sense to the owners/investors.

Is it a religious school?

Public taxpayer dollars should not be going to private religious schools for all the usual reasons, but also because the mission of a religious school is inherently incompatible with the mission of public education (see Question #1 above). It's not a matter of one mission being good and the other being evil; they just don't fit together. 

Finishing up

I appreciate Aldeman's offering what I read as a thoughtful take. I believe there are ways to incorporate choice ideas into the public education system (that's a whole other post), and it's worth it to have versions of that conversation wherever it crops up. It's never a bad time to have a deeper conversation about what "public education" means.

And while I understand why Aldeman would have an aversion to apocalyptic right wing boogeyman talk from public ed defenders, folks in the choice camp have to have noticed that they are currently allied with a lot of right wing boogeyman-looking folks who do, in fact, want to see public education either destroyed or converted. So I do want to see the grownups keep talking about the important stuff, but those conversations have to take place with an awareness of what's going on around them.

In Praise of Waffling

If there are any continuing threads at this blog, one is certainly that education in general and teaching in particular are about balance, about managing the tension between a wide variety of conflicting forces and ideas. Students need direction. Students need freedom. Direct instruction. Discovery. Learning mastery takes whatever time it takes. Students must make it to certain goals by the end of the year. Teachers can't work with no standards at all. Teachers can't work with standards that are like straightjackets. Students should be lovingly nurtured. Students must be held to high standards. Students with special needs. Teachers bringing their own values into the classroom. Parent involvement. Culturally sensitive instruction. SEL. DEI. Etc. Etc. Etc.

There isn't an issue in education that doesn't involve multiple, contradicting points of view.

Balancing them as we move from circumstance to circumstance, from class to class, from student to student-- it looks a lot like waffling.

For many of us, waffling is suspicious behavior, a moral failure to identify a particular position as the One True Answer, and then stick to it. The way to develop policy, to teach a class, to properly pedagogify, is to identify the One True Answer and then tie off the steering wheel and put a brick on the gas pedal.

This is baloney. It's attractive baloney. Lord knows I was, decades ago, deeply attached to it. I set some conclusions, welded the steering wheel in place, nailed the gas pedal to the floor, and went to sit in a comfy seat in the back of the bus, which is where I was when the vehicle that was my marriage ran off the road and hit a tree. And even then I didn't get it. Even then I thought my mistake was in where I welded the wheel, and I just had to weld it in the correct direction. Uncounted arboreal impacts later, it finally dawned on me that I had to actually drive the bus.

Pick your metaphor. The classroom is a bus and you have to steer it as you go, responding to twists and turns in the roads, the demands of your passengers, and even the occasional person who darts out in front of you. You have to adjust the seat and the mirrors to your own particular personal shape. Do you have to have some idea of a general direction? Sure--but you can't simply steer directly toward it blindly (again, the balance is somewhere between the extremes).

Or maybe the classroom is an actual balancing act, and you just have to keep shifting and adjusting as the weights you're carrying shirt, the wind blows, and the tightrope wobbles beneath your feet. No, you can't just walk heedlessly forward, but you can't ignore the conditions of the moment, either.

There is lots of very specific teacher advice to be had, and every last bit of it is only useful in specific circumstances. "You must not get personally connected to the students" and "You have to forge more of a personal connection with the students" are both perfectly solid pieces of advice in entirely different specific circumstances. "Tighten up and act more like the adult in the room" and "loosen up and don't be so strict" are both great pieces of advice in the right moment, and terrible pieces of advice in the wrong moment.

"Use a hose to shoot thousands of gallons water at the house" is great advice when the house in on fire. It is terrible advice if the house is caught in rising flood waters.

Education has always been plagued by people who hop way too quickly from "This is an answer that works some of the time under certain conditions" to "This is the answer that works all the time for everybody." They once saw a house fire put out by a tanker spewing a ton of water, so now they want to hose down everyone. Education also suffers from people who, having seen their flooding house ruined by an application of even more water, now insist that hoses should be kept away from burning buildings as well. 

One of the greatest fallacies in education is some variation of "This works/doesn't work for me, therefor it must work/not work for everyone."

Classrooms are not always complicated, but they are always complex. If you accept, for instance, the notion that humans are a pastiche of 400 psychological traits, then multiple 400 by the number of humans in the classroom, plus the varied versions of lived experience, plus the dynamics that emerge in the interactions between the individuals in the room (any teacher can tell you about a class where the absence of one particular student changed the dynamic of the entire class), plus the dynamics around the material itself, with all of that slathered over with whatever has happened to those individuals in the past 12-24 hours. And what each of the students needs, and what the course is supposed to require. And all of that has to be boiled down, by the teacher, to a very specific action at a particular moment in time. Your deep-felt pedagogical philosophies are very cool, but the teacher is facing a certain student with a specific situation at Tuesday at 10:27 PM and she has to decide what exactly to do right then.

A teacher is on a high wire holding a ten foot pole that has, on each end, a twenty foot stack of cages with various wild raccoons and ferrets running around inside, and the teacher is on a bicycle, and the bicycle's tires aren't round, and there's a gusty wind, and a flock of geese flying at her. And she is adjusting and shifting every step of the way. Anyone who wants to tell her "Just do it exactly like this. Just hold this exact pose all the way. Then you'll be okay."

Certainly not all advice is created equal-- some techniques or grips or methods will serve better than others (which is part of what I'm talking about, because the sweet spot in teaching on any given day also lies somewhere between "You must do exactly this every time" and "Just pull whatever out of your butt on a whim"). And individual teachers will find certain techniques that work better FOR THEM.

The best teachers drive the bus. They shift the load as they move. They smoothly juggle dozens of possible tools to deploy the right one at the moment it's needed. They waffle. They waffle like a boss (even as they manage the tension between consistency and flexibility, because various tensions underline every single part of the job).

It is hard to overstate just how completely and thoroughly those who propose a Single Magical Solution simply don't understand how a classroom works or what teaching is. Scripted programs are absurd. A universal set of standards is absurd. Mandating a particular pedagogical approach, either by district policy or legislative edict, is absurd. Can some of these things contribute useful tools to a teacher's kit? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean they're the one tool that should be used every single time.

Waffling is a good and necessary thing in education. Teachers have to be adaptable and flexible, neither an iron rod or a floppy dishtowel, but somewhere in between. So much of the debate in education is commandeered by people out on the extremes, but the answer is almost always somewhere in the middle, and exactly where in the middle (which matters because, remember, teachers run on specific choices in the moment, not sweeping generalities) varies from day to day, moment to moment. If that looks like waffling, so be it. Or as that great waffler, Walt Whitman put it:

Do I contradict myself? 
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)

A classroom is large. It contains multitudes. And backseat drivers on the educational bus, hollering out "Hey, first you steered one way and then you steered the other way. Don't you know what you're doing?" are no help at all.

h/t TC Weber who started me down this particular path.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

ICYMI: Father's Day 2023 Edition (6/18)

Did you know that the President who finally signed Father's Day into national holiday status was-- Richard Nixon? Yeah, go figure. Happy Father's Day to those who celebrate it. Here's some reading for the day.

'Bankrupt our state': Expected school voucher surge to cost Arizona taxpayers a lot more money

This is the story, over and over-- universal voucher programs cost way more than anyone pushing them predicts. 

Iowa could pay millions more than budgeted to help families pay for private school

Yup. Everywhere there are vouchers, states are coming face to face with a huge price tag.

Indiana’s school voucher program use at all-time high, but there are fewer low-income families

Indiana's program continues to bring financial relief to the well-to-do and not-particularly-needy.

Literacy and NAEP Proficient

This time it's Tom Loveless trying to explain to people what NAEP proficiency really does and doesn't mean. 

Lots of versions of this story out there, but thanks to MSN here's the Politico story without a paywall. DeSantis's Florida wants AP Psych without the gay, but the College Board says they learned their lesson from the Black History debacle, and they aren't going to budge. 

Testing Vendor Scores $40 Million Contract Increase in Tennessee

Pearson scores big in Tennessee. Andy Spears has the story.

Kentucky school district considering bringing back remote learning

Interesting tale of a district that can't compete for teachers financially with its neighboring district, so instead of thinking outside the box. Teachers, we can't pay you more, but how would you like a four day live work week with one cyberschool day?

School board must find new insurance provider or take guns away from staff

Insurance company decides that having a bunch of armed amateurs in a building is a liability. Who would have guessed? Okay, just about anyone, but here we are. Jay Waagmeester reports for Iowa Capital Dispatch.

CREDO Charter Study Shows Trivial and Inconsistent Gains

Yes, if you read here, you probably also read Diane Ravitch, but this one is too important to miss. The CREDO study and its claims of charter awesomeness are being reported everywhere. Carol Burris has looked at the real numbers-- and not so fast.

DEI education in America actually dates back to the 18th century

At the Washington Post, Penn State professor Bradford Vivian reminds us that DEI is not actually all that new.

Soon We Won’t Have Enough Kids to Fill Our Schools. That’s a Problem.

Jessica Grose at the New York Times on a demographic trend that may spell trouble for some school districts.

Central Bucks seniors don’t want officials ‘who have made high school harder and more painful’ handing them their diplomas

Maddie Hanna at the Philadelphia Inquirer goes to a county where district leaders have been all about book bans and gag rules, and its graduating class is unimpressed.

Controversial book policy in Ludlow fails

In Massachusetts, a school board suggests that book ban supporters go home--to whatever place outside the district they live.

Inside Florida’s ‘underground lab’ for far-right education policies

Sarasota County in Florida is Ground Zero for far right anti-inclusive policies. Kathryn Joyce looks at this very Florida place for Hechinger Report. 

LA Lawmakers Force “In God We Trust” Signs Down Public Classroom Throat

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider takes a look at a new Louisiana plan to get a Godly poster in every classroom. Good luck with that

Drummond: Approval of Catholic charter school drove a stake in the heart of religious liberty

One of the most vocal opponents of that new religious charter school in Oklahoma is-- the Republican Attorney General of the state, who wrote a whole op-ed to further explain why he thinks it's a bad idea. 

Do the homework on Moms for Liberty-affiliated school initiatives

The York Dispatch in York PA is a smallish paper in a smallish place, but they know enough to recognize a "right-wing fever dream" when they see one. A whole editorial board wrote this take-down of the Moms.

Did a North Carolina Democratic lawmaker throw the party under the bus for the charter school industry?

Jeff Bryant looks at the defection of Tricia Cotham, and how it is tied to charter school politics.

I'm an educator and grandson of Holocaust survivors, and I see public schools failing to give students the historical knowledge they need to keep our democracy strong

Boaz Dvir, a Penn State professor, looks at the cost of shortchanging the teaching of history.

Rethinking Localism in Education Law and Policy

Okay, maybe a little wonky, but this is an interesting conversation with Derek Black about the problems of local approaches to education.

Things that Make Teachers Go Hmmm

Nancy Flanagan on Teach for America's newest recruitment drive.

Nickolas Kristoff thinks Mississippi pulled off a miracle. Thomas Ultican is unimpressed. 

As always, you're invited to join me on substack for a more reliable in-you-inbox reading experience for whatever I've cranked out lately.