Here are the damaging policies Betsy Devos left behind

George W. Bush promised he would change American education with the No Child Left Behind Act. There are certainly significant problems with a system geared toward "teaching the test," as national educators pointed out from the beginning. Betsy DeVos, the former school board member and national vouchers advocate, had her opportunity to usher in new changes to national education policy. As you can imagine, many of them were devastating to the communities who seek opportunity through education.

One of those moments came about with changes in disciplinary guidance offered to states in order to change outcomes for students. DeVos used her office to build policy based on questionable research. As a result of these changes removing restorative justice, discipline, and opportunity, disabled students and students of color suffered. The Biden administration is asking for some feedback about what to do about these DeVos changes. The answer is simple: They have to go.

In making decisions about how to handle in-school discipline, DeVos turned to John Paul Wright, a professor at the University of Cincinnati. From US News:

"Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship," he wrote in 2017. "When it comes to disciplinary biases, however, none is so strong or as corrupting as liberal views on race."

Wright is credited with reigniting interest in using genetics and biology to explain criminal behavior and has written at length about the pushback he gets for it.

"Those who pursue this line of research get branded as racists or even eugenicists," Wright wrote. "We have personally experienced hostile receptions when presenting our work in these areas at professional conferences and have been excoriated in the anonymous-review process when attempting to publish our papers."

Wright starts with an interesting point: Students who come from disadvantaged homes are more likely to have issues, but he fails to address in any way whether or not interference by the school could help mitigate those problems or worsen them. Moreso, when it comes to issues had by disabled students, Wright makes no real assessment at all. In sweeping changes, though, DeVos just moved ahead on policy changes and pushed them out nationally.

From Disability Scoop:

The most recent federal data — from the 2017-2018 school year — indicates that students with disabilities accounted for a quarter of those who were suspended and 15% of expulsions even though they represent just 13% of all students.
Similarly, 38% of students who were suspended were Black though they account for only 15% of enrollment across the country.

The impact of these changes will be far-reaching, with students pulled away from educational opportunities, and disabled students given less of a chance to succeed. The part Betsy didn't want you to know is contained in this paragraph in American Progress:

Many of the state voucher programs, particularly those that target students with disabilities, require parents or guardians to sign away their rights under the IDEA and 504, and sometimes the ADA. Other states are silent on whether participating private schools have to meet federal requirements.26 Under the Succeed Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities in Arkansas, for example, parents must "sign waivers that release the State of Arkansas and the student's resident school district from any legal obligation to provide services or education to the student participating in the Program" and "sign an acknowledgement that, by enrolling a child in a private school, the parent/guardian, acting on behalf of the child, waives the procedural safeguards granted by the IDEA."27 In Georgia's Special Needs Scholarship Program, accepting a voucher has the same legal effect as refusing special education services.28

Now, the Biden administration is asking for your feedback. DeVos took away 72 guidelines for schools. There is an opportunity here for us to make positive changes nationally. Prepared to submit a formal comment and bring back some sanity back to public schools? Leaving the Trump administration's damaging policies behind is a great place to start.

You can leave your feedback at this link.

A scandal at Yale exposes a major gap in sexual harassment law

Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, who are married to each other, are in the news. Again. It's not because of an important book or a pro bono constitutional law case. As the Times put it, it's their "boundary-pushing behavior" with students.

Everyone loves a good scandal about good-looking, influential and wealthy people. And since we are also in a political moment during which exposing college faculty as phonies is in vogue, it's no surprise this colorful pair is getting negative press.

The couple was unknown outside of scholarly circles before Chua wrote a best-selling book in 2011, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A memoir about perfectionist helicopter parenting verging on self-parody, Chua's success pushed her husband and two daughters to the front page. There they stayed. But then things took a dark turn.

Chua defended Yale grad Brett Kavanaugh as a "mentor to women" during Supreme Court hearings marred by sexual harassment allegations. Then the accusations about Chua and Rubenfeld's behavior toward students became public. In August 2020, Rubenfeld was suspended for two years after a sexual harassment investigation. Chua was barred from socializing with students. The couple denies some of the allegations while other allegations, they say, have been misunderstood and misreported. But this week, Chua is again under scrutiny due to accusations she broke her agreement.

Recent investigative reporting on Chua and Rubenfeld reveals every element that a juicy higher-education scandal requires. A power couple, known to student critics as "Chubenfeld," holds court in a lavish home. There are allegations of boozy dinner parties, sexual harassment and favorites pushed for coveted Supreme Court clerkships. Students spy on each other to get more ammunition against other law professors.

But this is more than a delicious celebrity-faculty scandal. It's about the role that discrimination and harassment, the stepchildren of Title IX, a federal gender equity and inclusion law passed in 1972, are playing right now on elite university campuses.

The complaints against Chua and Rubenfeld do not all claim discrimination and harassment. But connecting the dots between those that do, and other behaviors that are simply noxious and unwelcome, reveals a world that Title IX made. And it also reveals a major problem in higher education. There's no consensus about where sexual harassment begins and ends or even why it affects equity and inclusion on campus.

This is why Title IX should be revised to make its governance over sexual harassment explicit as well as to define what sexual harassment is, and by implication, is not.

Currently, the words sexual harassment do not appear in Title IX at all. The law was initially conceived as an amendment to crucial civil rights bills passed in the 1960s. Written by Congresswoman Patsy Mink and Senator Birch Bayh, it was intended to close gaps in existing law. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not cover education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 did not specify gender as a protected category.

Equity in secondary school and colleges would, Mink and Bayh argued, determine whether women could compete with men for the opportunity education provided. The language is simple: "No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Initially, the law targeted overt discrimination against women. It also addressed covert spending priorities—such as school athletics, which could be converted into college scholarships—that produced discriminatory educational outcomes for women.

Sexual harassment, a term that was just beginning to circulate in feminist circles, was not one of the problems Title IX addressed. These cases were understood primarily as employment problems and litigated under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But in 1980, Yale law professor Catharine MacKinnon, who had popularized the term "sexual harassment" in a ground-breaking 1979 book, changed that. She employed the novel argument that Yale, faced with multiple sexual harassment claims, had a duty under Title IX to provide an institutional remedy. In part, this was to provide redress. But Yale also, MacKinnon argued, had a duty to address the needs of female faculty who were functioning as an unpaid, informal counseling staff to traumatized women.

Though dismissed, Alexander v. Yale established the principle that sexual harassment could be litigated under Title IX. It is now common that in any educational setting receiving federal funds, unwanted sexual attention is prohibited as discriminatory.

So are behaviors that can lead to, or follow from, sexual harassment, like preferential treatment, unsolicited personal comments and social intimacy linked to the workplace. But in the absence of actual sexual harassment, should they be?

There seems to be little evidence that Chua, however noxious and unwanted her behavior, has set the stage for behavior Rubenfeld is accused of. Nor is there evidence that students have been denied opportunities because they refused to tolerate them.

Some students defend Chua. Some students of color note she's the only woman of Asian descent on the faculty and a vital mentor. Others are clearly uncomfortable with and angered by her behavior. They have a right to say so and to ask for change. But do Chua's social intimacies and favoritism rise to a level of university discipline?

In the world Title IX has made, yes. But they aren't Title IX violations, nor does Yale say as much. So on what grounds can she be punished? Title IX needs to be clearly revised to make this point. It doesn't seem to be protecting anyone's rights at Yale.

How the right-wing panic about 'critical race theory' is twisting reality at this public school

It's a pain in the ass, but if you dig down deep enough and for long enough, you'll probably find at the root of any mainstream debate over "culture war" issues some kind of misrepresentation, distortion, falsehood or lie. As I told you in yesterday's Editorial Board, so much of what counts as "debate" begins and ends with what liberalism's enemies say liberals say. Today, I want to talk about consequences.

There are many, but my chief concern is the near-total detachment from history, so that everything looks as good or bad as everything else, and maybe nothing really matters except whose side you're on and whether your side is winning or losing. A society whose participants are indifferent to history is one willing to do anything. What "anything" means is hard to say, but let's be serious, it's not that hard. By the time the covid pandemic is over, we will have witnessed one million American deaths as a consequence of nearly half the nation insisting history isn't real enough to respect.

That lots of Americans choose to deny history isn't bad in and of itself. These people will always be with us, and in any case, they can be marginalized over time. They can be prevented by democratic means from having control of the levers of political power and from doing real harm. What's bad is that class of people that you'd expect to keep controversies grounded in history but that does not. Instead, it gives known lies the benefit of the doubt, and in the process, severs public debate from the constraints of history, empowering those who choose to create "history" and therefore do real harm.

Of course, I'm talking about the press. To illustrate let me draw your attention to a local story. I'm in New Haven. There's a town nearby called Guilford. After mass demonstrations last year protesting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, the Guilford public school board, like similar institutions around the country, took steps to identify and remedy systemic racism. Among those was changing the name of the school district's mascot from "Indians" to "Grizzlies."

The work continues, but meanwhile, a backlash is brewing. In my view, this backlash identifies correctly the partisan energies that converged to oust Donald Trump from office. On the one hand were anti-Trumpists (think Democrats, alienated former Republicans, independents, et al.). On the other were social reformers (think Black Lives Matters, antifa, et al.). To many respectable white people, Trump proved that the "post-racial America" imagined after Barack Obama's election wasn't real. So they joined BLM et al. to create the biggest coalition ever seen. In this context, many in Guilford feel the school board's new anti-racist policies are actually anti-white.

This is evident in the accusations being hurled at the board. According to the New Haven Register, critics of anti-racism "have shown up to meetings, written emails to the board, and created a petition, claiming critical race theory is being taught in Guilford schools." Guilford residents who see anti-racism as anti-white want to "persuade the school board to disavow any curriculum, or critical race theory, that promotes the unequal treatment of students and label any resources, authors, professors and experts that can easily be proven to have 'blatant bigoted views' as 'radical activist theory'."

The board has not disavowed anything, because there's nothing to disavow. But that doesn't matter if you consume great quantities of Fox or Breitbart or whatever. They have taken an obscure school of thought—critical race theory—and turned it into a one-size-fits-all explanation for Donald Trump's defeat and into an enemy that must be crushed. What is critical race theory? That's for later.1 For now, just know that its critics do not care what it really is, because they already "know." If they bothered listening to its practitioners, they might be persuaded by its virtues, but there can't be any virtues, because they "know" there are none, because they "know" it's anti-white.

Critics are so certain they "know" what they need to know about critical race theory, without actually knowing, that denials are seen as proof and explanations are seen as censorship. As a parent said: "The repeated declaration that the racist ideology, critical race theory, is not a part of the school's 'Equity and Social Justice' initiative is inaccurate and disingenuous at best, and when given in response to any parents' sincere concern, [the Equity and Social Justice' initiative] is intended to shut down all further inquiry and conversation surrounding this incredibly complicated topic."

Again, that there are people aplenty who deny shared reality—that is, history—is not in and of itself a bad thing. What's bad is people who should respect history who give the benefit of the doubt to known lies. Guilford public school district is not teaching critical race theory and shouldn't. (That's advanced college-level stuff.) What it's doing, however, is recognizing and taking (baby)steps toward addressing the fact that systemic racism is part of American history and we are all products of that history.

In its reporting, though, the New Haven Register placed that fact at odds with an accusation, as if they had equal moral weight, as if they were two valid views in a public debate over things important to children and civil society instead of a debate rooted in a lie. Instead of a declarative headline—"Guilford board says no to critical race theory"—the paper ran with a question—"Is critical race theory being taught in Guilford schools?" The paper severed the debate from history and, as a result, made room for those who fabricate their own, thus giving them a chance to do real harm.

The Register is in good company. Reporters do this all the time. They do it because a Democrat is president. They do it because the repudiation of Trump is seen as a repudiation of white people. That, too, is a lie. Guilford's school board was speaking the egalitarian language of anti-racism when it said it strives "to be a community in which all students feel safe, supported, and recognized, and must support critical thinking about all aspects of our history and current experience. None of our students is responsible for this history, but each will be responsible for their own participation in our local, national, and global communities as they emerge into adulthood."2

Dubious educational agency backed by Trump and DeVos is stripped of its powers

Reagan National University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is no longer an accredited university. To anyone with half an education, this is no surprise. The only reason the school had received accreditation in the first place was because under previous Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the dubious Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS) was resurrected to give it the distinction. This is a school that USA Today investigated and found had "no students, no faculty and no classrooms."

On June 2, the Biden administration's Education Department announced that Reagan National University lost its accreditation and would no longer receive federal funds for the no students, no classrooms, and no faculty that it never had. In fact, Deputy Undersecretary for Education Jordan Matsudaira wrote that ACICS would no longer be recognized as a worthwhile arbiter of which schools should and should not receive federal funds. "ACICS's significant and systemic non-compliance with multiple regulatory recognition criteria leaves me no reasonable option but to terminate its recognition, effective immediately."

After the ACICS had accredited ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges, and Brightwood College—all for-profit schools that closed after stealing billions from students and cheating them out of an education—President Barack Obama stripped the agency of its powers. DeVos and Donald Trump then reinstated the disgraced agency's powers, and one of the first places ACICS accredited was the student and faculty-free Reagan National University. As USA Today found when they investigated the school last year:

The university's president – Harold Harris, per the school's website – was similarly invisible. University presidents often serve as an institution's public face. The only face on Reagan National's site was the institution's namesake U.S. president. The president of the university on the South Dakota business license was listed as "Xuanhua Fan."

Only the best people. The Biden administration's move means that about 60 colleges that received their accreditation from ACICS will now have "18 months to find a new accreditor if they want to keep accessing federal money." For its part, ACICS told the press that it will be appealing this decision and, according to a statement put on ACICS' website:

ACICS will appeal the SDO decision to the Secretary. We have worked too hard over the past five years to strengthen our organization, our accountability, our procedures, and accreditation criteria not to fight this decision. All that we ask is that a decision regarding our continued recognition be driven by the improvements we have made and our effectiveness as an accreditor today, not by policy priorities and outside pressure from political activists. Every accreditor should be given that opportunity. And every accreditor should be deeply concerned if our appeal to the Secretary is denied.

I mean, accrediting a school with no faculty and no student body is "no bueno." (That's first-year, high school language Spanish for "no good.") Maybe ACICS will give me accreditation as a Spanish language teacher? They shouldn't, but they just might!

Career staffers at the Education Department concluded in January that the ACICS had done a poor job of training employees to conduct site visits, failed to address conflicts of interest and lacked the finances to sustain itself in the long term. Months later, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity in an 11-to-1 vote recommended the council be stripped of its authority.

The DeVos Education Department, like the rest of the Trump administration, seemed driven entirely by billionaire profiteering, using fearmongering and white supremacist dive and conquer tactics. Students, as a rule, disliked DeVos' ideas because it's hard to respect an adult who doesn't respect you. Like many in the last swamp-filled administration, DeVos seemed to either be so ignorant that she treated students like they did not know any better, or treated them that way because she thought they were unintelligent. Maybe it isn't a binary. Maybe she's just so ignorant that she believes everyone else is more ignorant than she?

A world unraveling in smoke and death — and how one teacher and her students dealt with it

It seems appropriate that the 2020-2021 school year in Portland, Oregon, began amid toxic smoke from the catastrophic wildfires that blanketed many parts of the state for almost two weeks. The night before the first day of school, the smoke alarm in my bedroom went off. Looking back, I see it as a clarion call, a shrieking, beeping warning of all the threats, real and existential, we'd face in the year to come.

On that first day of what would be that fall's online version of school, I was still reeling from the loss of one of my dear friends. As wildfires approached her remote Sonoma County, California, home, she chose to end her life. She'd spent the initial months of the pandemic isolated from friends and loved ones, her serene mountain retreat no longer offering solace. She left no note, only a tidied kitchen and, according to those who'd attended a virtual yoga class with her on the last day of her life, a peaceful smile. She was my friend and I loved her.

Marooned inside our house, all the windows and doors tightly sealed, I stared into the grid of black boxes on Zoom that now represented the students in my high-school visual arts classes. I wondered how I'd find the strength to carry us all through the year.

As I greeted them, the air inside my home was stale, smoky, and distinctly claustrophobic. It was becoming harder to breathe. I struggled to find words of uplift. What do you say when the world is burning up all around you?

Ad-Hoc Childcare

Unable to find solutions to the larger and more menacing threats outside my door, I shifted my focus to managing the chaos inside. My first and most pressing concern was what to do with my nine-year-old daughter during the school day. My husband, who works outside our home as a studio artist, was under contract for a job that would last much of the year, ensuring us needed income at a time when so many had none. However, it also left us in a new type of childcare bind.

Last spring, a few friends, also teachers, realized that it was going to be next to impossible to juggle parenting and homeschooling, while simultaneously running our own classrooms. In the spirit of self-preservation and of maintaining a shred of sanity, we decided that three days a week we'd set the kids up, masked — and with blankets and heaters once it got cold — on our porches or in open garages. We decided that, at the very least, left largely to themselves they'd develop skills of resiliency and independence, and learn to navigate their fourth-grade year together.

We put our trust in our kids and gave up control. In truth, we had little choice. We all felt lucky and incredibly privileged even to have such an option. No matter how imperfect, at least it was a plan. Our kids were old enough to make our ad-hoc solution work and they seemed desperate enough to socialize in the midst of a pandemic that they were willing to tough out Portland's cold and rainy fall and winter outdoors together.

And so, until they resumed in-person learning in April 2021, our kids spent a majority of the school week together outside. When it was our day to host such a gathering, my husband set up the heaters, made sure the kids could log on, and left for work. For the rest of the school day, I would rush out to check on them between my classes, delivering food, warm tea, and more blankets if needed. I couldn't, of course, monitor their classroom attendance or help them with their work, but at least I knew that they were together, and could rely on one another. I'd then retreat back to the little room that I'd converted from an art studio to an office/classroom in order to teach my own students.

Going It Alone

The energy, problem solving, and logistics involved in creating a "solution" to our individual childcare problems in the midst of a pandemic will undoubtedly be familiar to many parents. The disastrous spread of Covid-19 forced families to repeatedly engineer solutions to seemingly impossible, ever-evolving problems. It stretched families, especially women, to our breaking points.

It's no wonder, then, that the push to restore the only support most of us rely on for free, consistent, and dependable childcare and resources — the public school — remains one of the most urgent and divisive issues of this period. However, the toxic dialogue that developed around in-person versus online learning created a false dichotomy and unnecessary rancor between parents and teachers. The idea that somehow there was a conflict between what teachers (like me, often parents, too) and non-teaching parents desired functionally obfuscated the true situation we all faced. Parents didn't want their children to suffer and they needed the resources and childcare support schools provide. Teachers wanted a safe school environment for our students and us — and not one more person to die, ourselves included.

If nothing else, the pandemic served as a stark reminder of at least two things: that the nuclear family is not enough and that schools can't be its sole safety net. The ethos of toxic individualism that permeates this society can't sustain families in such crises (or even, often enough, out of them). It's a shoddy stand-in for a more communal and federally subsidized version of such support.

Since March 2020, we've suffered as our children suffered because we've had to do so much without significant help. And yet teachers like me endured our jobs through those terrible months at enormous personal cost, even as we were repeatedly punished on the national stage for doing so. We were called selfish, accused of being lazy, and told to toughen up and shut up, even as the most unfortunate among us lost their lives. What's been missing in this conversation is the obvious but often overlooked reality that many teachers are also parents. Almost half of all teachers have school-aged children at home and, let me just add, 76% of all public school teachers are women.

What Students Actually Learned This Year

By the time my aunt, who contracted Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, died of sudden and inexplicable heart failure in October, I was no longer able to pretend that my personal life was separate from my professional persona. Isolated from my larger family, I found myself grieving the loss of a beloved relative without the normal rituals or sort of support I would have had under other circumstances. On the morning of her death, I logged on as usual and taught each of my classes, digging deep to make it through the day. I then cooked, cleaned the house, answered emails, and negotiated my own sadness. There just wasn't the space or time to stop and grieve.

Despite waking with a heavy heart morning after morning, I would still log on and try to connect with my students. I had to ask myself: if I was feeling this exhausted, worn-down, grief-stricken, and anxious, how were they feeling? I had the benefit of financial security, experience, and years of therapy, and I was still really struggling. My students were coping with the loss of their autonomy, routines, and social worlds. Some had lost family members to the virus, a few had even contracted it themselves. Others were taking care of younger siblings or working jobs as well to support desperate families. Some were simply depressed. It was a wonder that any of them showed up at all.

I decided I would have to shift my thinking about what learning should look like in that strange pandemic season. If my students owed me nothing and their time was a gift, then I would have to approach teaching with a kindness, openness, and willingness to listen unmatched in my 20 years in the profession. I showed up because I knew that, even if students were silent and didn't turn their cameras on, most of them were actually there and were, in fact, taking in far more than they were being given credit for.

Extraordinary learning has taken place in this school year. It's just not the learning we expected. All the hand-wringing and fears of students' "falling behind," not taking in specific material in the timelines we've adopted for them, reflect the setting of goalposts that are completely arbitrary. That way of thinking is rooted in viewing certain kinds of students as eternally deficient and their struggles as individual failings rather than indications of historically inequitable systemic design and deprivation, or extraordinary circumstances like those we faced together this year.

The skills and the knowledge we promote as most valuable are tied to workforce demands — not to what should count as actual life learning or growth. When you narrow achievement to what's quantifiable, you miss so much. You fail to see just how infinitely resourceful and resilient kids can actually be. You ignore skills and learning that haven't historically been considered valuable, because it can't be quantified. We've become accustomed to looking for skills that can be neatly measured and distributed like any other commodity. We've adopted standardized benchmarks, standardized modes of assessment, standardized testing, and standardized curriculum, but the truth of the matter is that knowledge is rarely neat and tidy, or immediately measurable.

This year our children figured out how to navigate complex technologies and online platforms, and many did so, despite considerable disadvantages. They had to learn how to self-regulate, how to deal with complex time management, often under genuinely difficult circumstances at home. Older students sometimes had to sort out not just how to manage their own schooling, but that of younger siblings. Some of my students demonstrated extraordinary emotional growth. Sometimes, they would even talk with me about how the pandemic had shifted their understanding of themselves and their relationships. They learned the beauty of slowing down and the preciousness of family and friends. They have a far clearer sense now of what's most worth valuing in life as they step back into a world radically altered by Covid-19.

As it happens, much of their learning has taken place outside school walls, so they've developed a deeper understanding of the forces that shape and control their world. Students in Oregon watched climate crises unfold in the form of catastrophic wildfires in the fall and terrible ice storms in the winter. Together, we all had a real-time civics lesson in the fragility of our democracy. They watched — and a number participated in — a civil-rights uprising. They experienced their families and their communities being torn apart by political divisions, conspiracy theorizing, and a deadly virus. They suffered as the holes in what passed for America's social safety net were exposed.

And yet most of them continued to show up for school day after day, still trying. And it's a goddamn miracle that they did!

One More Layer

When it was announced that we would be returning to our school buildings in late April, I realized I had finally hit my own personal wall. My daughter, who attends school in a different district from the one where I teach, was to be in-person at school for only 2 hours and online for the remainder of the day. I, on the other hand, would be required to be in my building full-time, four days a week (with Wednesdays still remote). I had no options for outside childcare and no extended family or friends who could help me cobble together a plan.

Logistically, my husband and I were at an impasse. Personally, I was a mess. I'd lost four more loved ones and our cat had been eaten by a coyote. My husband, struggling to remain sober without the support of his recovery community, relapsed. My daughter had become increasingly anxious and fearful. When I tried to problem-solve an answer to our childcare predicament, my mind simply shut down.

For the decade since my daughter was born, I'd been trying to manage a difficult balance of working, commuting, taking care of myself, and raising her. I considered myself fortunate to have healthcare covered and an option at work for maternity leave. After all, my own mother, a kindergarten teacher, had been forced to return to her classroom a mere six weeks after giving birth to me (and she already had two kids at home to care for). Many women in America are ineligible even for unpaid Family Medical Leave. Upon returning to work after her birth and a three-month maternity leave, I had no sick days banked and had exhausted our savings. When I experienced a period of severe postpartum depression I pushed through it and never missed a day of work. I didn't feel then as if I could rest or be vulnerable or simply put the needs of my baby, or even myself, first. It took me years to recover from the physical, emotional, and financial toll of having a baby. And then the pandemic struck.

As the discourse about schools, teachers, and teachers' unions became more vitriolic and antagonism toward educators grew louder, I realized that I was experiencing yet another layer of trauma. It was as if the work I'd sacrificed so much for had not only been invisible, but I was actually being punished for it.

This time, I decided, I needed a different answer. I applied for a leave of absence and left school for the last two months of the semester in order to take care of my child and myself. I did so knowing how lucky, how privileged I was even to be able to make such a decision.

As We Emerge

It would be no exaggeration to say that I did not love my job this year, but I did it with diligence and fortitude because it was the way that I could still contribute. I developed an entirely new online curriculum and learned to teach by Zoom. I also showed up each and every day for my students, no matter what was happening to me personally. I did that because I witnessed the ways in which my daughter's teacher showed up every morning for her and how much that simple interaction with another adult buoyed her, how much it kept her spirits high despite the mounting mental-health challenges she faced.

My situation is neither unique nor extraordinary. If anything, I'm lucky. Nevertheless, I feel irrevocably changed by the past year. Some days, I'm flattened by grief, wrung out and hopeless. Other days I find myself daydreaming of the transformative potential of this hardship, imagining a future that better serves all our children — one that acknowledges their shared humanity, the fragility of our existence, and the tenderness required of all of us to build something better together.

Copyright 2021 Belle Chesler

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

Here's the truth behind the right-wing attacks on critical race theory

When North Carolina public school teacher Justin Parmenter penned an opinion piece for the Charlotte Observer about the difficulties of teaching in hybrid mode during the pandemic, with students both in-person in the classroom and remote online, he didn't expect to get called out by a legislator on the floor of the state House of Representatives.

The main point of his editorial, Parmenter told me in a phone call, was that teaching his seventh-grade class in the hybrid model isn't sustainable because it forces teachers to make compromises that limit the learning opportunities of their students.

But that point was not what Iredell County Republican Representative Jeff McNeely was compelled to comment on. Instead, he attacked Parmenter, who was named a finalist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year in 2016, for attempting to "indoctrinate" his students about "environmental pollution."

As Parmenter explains on his personal blog, McNeely's remarks referred to a piece of writing Parmenter asked his students to respond to that happened to be about pollution, and McNeely made his comment in the context of a discussion in the House about a new bill, HB 755, that "would require schools to post online a comprehensive list of all teaching, classroom, and assignment materials used by every teacher in every class session," according to WRAL. McNeely spoke out in support of the bill in the House Education Committee meeting because he felt it would "help the parents going to the next grade be able to look and see what that teacher taught the year before" and, apparently, avoid having their children exposed to teachers who would "teach 'em in a certain way to make 'em believe something other than the facts."

Aside from pollution being, indeed, a fact, what HB 755 proposes is impractical, to say the least, Parmenter told me. "Teaching is an art form," he said, with multiple opportunities for "teachable moments" to arise spontaneously during every lesson. Having to document that would not only be tedious busywork, but it could also discourage teachers from tailoring instruction to students.

Parmenter suspects that McNeely's comment, rather than being an honest discourse on pedagogy, is more likely a ham-handed attempt at making a "cheap political point."

"It's not surprising," Parmenter said, "given the current national context."

The national context he was referring to is the wave of agitation drummed up by right-wing political organizations and Republican politicians over the perceived "indoctrination" of students that occurs in public schools.

'None of This Is Really About Critical Race Theory'

A prominent flashpoint in this upheaval is the supposed infiltration of the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in public school curricula. The controversy "exploded in the public arena this spring," reports Education Week, "especially in K-12, where numerous state legislatures are debating bills seeking to ban… [CRT's] use in the classroom."

The bills have surfaced in at least 15 states, according to Education Week. That includes North Carolina's version, which debuted in May, NC Policy Watch reported.

The bills repeat a nearly identical set of prohibitions on "how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues," according to Education Week, using language similar to that of an "executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity training for federal workers." President Biden has rescinded that order, but efforts to ban diversity training are continuing in universities and school districts, according to the Washington Post, where the focus of legislation has extended beyond employee training to include school curricula and teaching practices.

The specifics in these bills ban teachers from addressing concepts related to race and gender, for instance, prohibiting teachers from making anyone "feel discomfort or guilt" because of their race or gender. But the list of transgressions seems purposefully vague and general, almost as if to invite a lawsuit, explains Adam Harris in the Atlantic. And proponents of the bills have adopted critical race theory, an academic idea dating back to the 1970s, as a "shorthand" for their concerns.

"But none of this is really about CRT," James Ford told me in a phone call. Ford is a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year who currently represents the Southwest Education Region on the North Carolina State Board of Education and serves as the executive director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education.

"First, in these calls to stop the teaching of CRT," he said, "there is no clarification of what CRT really is. There's no argumentative critique of the actual concept." Indeed, many of the bills don't even mention the term.

The real target, Ford explained, is "divisiveness." For the people who criticize teachers and promote these bills, Ford believes, there can be "no nuance at all" in discussing "matters of religion and customs and the values of rugged individualism and free-market ideology." There can be no challenges of assumptions and no revising of long-standing mythologies about America and American society.

According to Ford, these people see education as a process about "making kids assimilate," and "simply talking about a subject like pollution takes on a heightened sense of alarm about society being undermined."

Outlawing 'Divisiveness' in Schools

Many of the bills specifically target the banning of teaching "divisive concepts," according to Politico, with one bill, in West Virginia, going so far as to call for teachers to be "dismissed or not reemployed for teaching… divisive concepts."

Proposed laws against "divisiveness" in schools prompt Ford to question, "Divisive for who?" and he notes that the people behind all these bills are overwhelmingly white, wealthier folks who have generally benefited most from the nation's education system. Ford suggests they may be provoking white resentment against public schools because schools are now more populated with Black and Brown children who may express doubts about a prevailing narrative about the country that may not include people who look like them.

Ford also finds it ironic that people who are intent on outlawing school "indoctrination" have chosen to impose their own agenda by attacking critical thinking and questioning of cultural norms, which, to him, is what truly sounds like indoctrination.

From a practical standpoint, it would be nearly impossible to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. And it's hard to imagine how teachers of American history would steer clear of violating these laws while teaching about the Trail of Tears, slavery, the Civil War, and the suffragette and Civil Rights movements, or how English teachers could engage students in writing while avoiding current events and topics that are apt to elicit meaningful responses from students.

Because these concerted attacks on public schools and teachers make little sense academically, they have prompted many observers to consider whether there is more of a political intent behind the effort.

Parmenter suggested that attacks on schools and teachers are an attempt to change political momentum at a time when national leadership under a Democratic presidential administration enjoys high approval ratings.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg seems to agree, writing, "Part of the reason the right is putting so much energy into this crusade [against the teaching of CRT] is because it can't whip up much opposition to the bulk of Joe Biden's agenda." She concludes, "Telling parents that liberals want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white might be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it might be effective."

But that argument makes sense only if you ignore the other education agenda right-wing politicians have rolled out at the very same time they are whipping up white resentment over diversity in schools.

School Choice's 'Best Year Ever'

It's certainly no coincidence that in many states where there are bills attacking the teaching of divisive topics—including Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, South Dakota, and West Virginia—state lawmakers are also considering or enacting new "school choice" laws to create or expand programs that give parents vouchers so they can remove their children from public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense. Other school choice acts create or expand programs that give parents taxpayer dollars to spend on homeschooling and other educational expenses they incur for their children.

The 2020-2021 school year has been the "best year ever" for school choice advocates, says Alan Greenblatt on Governing: The Future of States and Localities. Greenblatt notes the proliferation of new laws has created education savings accounts that give parents public funds to pay for "a wide range of education-related services." Other laws create or expand state tax-credit programs that funnel donations from businesses and wealthy people into school vouchers for parents.

Many of these new provisions have been passed in states that had previously resisted school choice programs—such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia—or that—like Georgia, Maryland, Montana, and South Dakota—had very small programs that are now ballooning into massive redistributions of public funds for education.

"States that were long resistant [to school choice] have now opened up," Greenblatt observes, and once the programs start up, regardless of how small, "they tend to expand, not contract."

Greenblatt credits the pandemic for creating a lot of the momentum for this expansion of school laws. But he also quotes education historian Jack Schneider who notes that the drive for more school choice was accelerating long before COVID-19, during the expansions of charter schools under former President Barack Obama and through the fiery denunciations of "government schools" by former President Donald Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Indeed, school choice proponents like the conservative Manhattan Institute have long contended that a public school system funded by government, but with private entities providing the education services, should be "the democratic norm" for the nation. They call privatization of the school system "educational pluralism," as opposed to the apparent divisiveness of publicly operated institutions.

"Public schooling forces zero-sum conflict such as we are seeing over CRT," writes Neal McCluskey, the director of the libertarian Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, in RealClearPolicy. Of course, this "conflict" is "zero-sum," as James Ford points out, only if you insist it is.

But school choice proponents like McCluskey argue that having a public system that allows people from different backgrounds to come together and share varying points of view is not "diverse" at all because it might open a window to a critique of America that potentially "demonizes" the country.

Instead, in this up-is-down and down-is-up view of the world, the only way to solve divisiveness, according to McCluskey, is by "letting millions of families and educators choose for themselves" by funding a system of privately operated schools that cater only to those parents who already share the same ideologies.

McCluskey might be correct that such a system could "end heated disagreement over ideas like CRT" in schools, but it certainly would guarantee these conflicts spill over into other arenas for these students later in life, when they become adults whose views have hardened and become more resistant to change because they never experienced real diversity of thought during their formative years.

"[A] new era of school choice vouchers may be parents' best defense against public school curricula," warned former Attorney General William Barr, according to Just the News, in his first public speech since leaving office under the Trump administration in December.

"Barr suggested," Just the News reports, that "some of the new woke curricula pushed by the left might infringe religious and speech freedoms and impose a secular theology that violates the Constitution's Establishment Clause prohibiting government from imposing religious beliefs."

No doubt, as the effects of the pandemic wane in many places due to vaccinations, fearmongering over supposed divisiveness in public schools will only grow. It is likely that there will be a ratcheting up of the rhetoric for greater school choice to enable parents to escape the supposed adverse consequences of being exposed to anything other than long-accepted narratives about subjects, regardless of a changing world.

A new nonprofit launched in March, Parents Defending Education (PDE), has targeted "woke indoctrination" in schools, Fox News reports. PDE "is just the latest" organization to take up the cause, according to the article, which also lists Discovery Institute, Oregonians for Liberty in Education, and Parents Against Critical Race Theory.

According to Education Week, PDE has already targeted school districts around the country with federal civil rights complaints against schools that address systemic racism. The article notes that "[PDE] staffers work or previously worked at organizations such as the Cato Institute,"—where McCluskey works—the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Coalition for TJ. The Cato and Fordham institutes are ardent proponents of school choice, and Coalition for TJ has filed a lawsuit to stop changes to admission standards that would allow more enrollment diversity at a Virginia high school.

Ford agrees that these attacks on "woke" indoctrination in schools are "unequivocally related to efforts to privatize education," and he points out that many of the same people orchestrating these new laws targeting public education are strong proponents of school choice. "Historically, there is a pattern connecting race issues and privatization," he says.

Numerous studies have found evidence supporting Ford's argument, but it's not at all hard to imagine that an effective strategy for pushing white families out of public schools is to raise fears that their children are being indoctrinated with values and beliefs that could divide them ideologically or emotionally and draw a wedge between them and their families and neighbors.

Nor is it a stretch to believe that families of color, seeing white families become enraged about the teaching of structural racism, would consider fleeing a public school to find a privately operated alternative that would be more culturally affirming for their children.

'I Don't Think That's Funny at All'

In the meantime, public school teachers will be increasingly scapegoated by conservative advocates who are stigmatizing the idea of addressing controversial topics in schools. Proponents of these laws seem to not know teachers "have to leave our politics at the door," Parmenter told me, and these conservative advocates seem to believe teachers "don't have the integrity and professionalism to understand that [they] know there are lines you simply don't cross."

Parmenter senses that the negative impact these laws will have on the teaching corps, already reeling from the stress caused by the pandemic, may discourage future teachers from entering a profession where they're constantly under the watchful eye of people who may not respect them and understand how they do their job.

"Less mysterious" to him are the negative impacts these attacks on public schools and teaching will have on students.

"For children to learn how to read and write, they need to engage with a variety of different texts," he says, and while he found Representative McNeely's accusations of "indoctrination" somewhat comedic—"like because I just happened to mention that the piece of writing my class focused on was about pollution, that made him think, 'I just caught one of these Commies admitting what they are up to'"—Parmenter fears any new law that is so "invasive of teachers" will ultimately be harmful to their students. "And I don't think that's funny at all."

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm

Texas Senate passes bill aimed at banning critical race theory

"Texas' divisive bill limiting how students learn about current events and historic racism passed by Senate" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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After hours of passionate debate about how Texas teachers can instruct school children about America's history of subjugating people of color, the state Senate early Saturday morning advanced a new version of a controversial bill aimed at banning critical race theory in public and open-enrollment charter schools.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, introduced a reworked version of House Bill 3979 that also requires the State Board of Education to develop new state standards for civics education with a corresponding teacher training program to start in the 2022-23 school year. The Senate approved the bill in an 18-13 vote over opposition from educators, school advocacy groups and senators of color who worry it limits necessary conversation about the roles race and racism play in U.S. history.

The bill now heads back to the Texas House, which can either accept the Senate's changes or call for a conference committee made up of members from both chambers to iron out their differences.

The Senate-approved version revives specific essential curriculum standards that students are required to understand, including the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. But it stripped more than two dozen requirements to study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color that were also previously approved by the House, despite attempts by Democratic senators to reinstate some of those materials in the bill.

The Senate did vote to include the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 13th 14th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the complexity of the relationship between Texas and Mexico to the list of required instruction.

Yet the most controversial aspects of the bill remain, including that teachers must explore current events from multiple positions without giving “deference to any one perspective." It also bars students from getting course credit for civic engagement efforts, including lobbying for legislation or other types of political activism.

Educators, historians and school advocacy groups who fiercely oppose the bill remained unswayed by arguments that the bill is merely meant to ensure students are taught that one race or gender is not superior to another.

“Giving equal weight to all sides concerning current events would mean that the El Paso terrorist ideology would have to be given equal weight to the idea that racism is wrong," said Trinidad Gonzales, a history professor and assistant chair of the dual enrollment program at South Texas College. “That is the problem, white supremacy would be ignored or given deference if addressed. That is the problem with the bill."

Hughes denied that the bill would require teachers give moral equivalency to perpetrators of horrific violence.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement to the Tribune that Texas schools should emphasize “traditional history, focusing on the ideas that make our country great and the story of how our country has risen to meet those ideals."

But Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, raised concerns on the Senate floor that the historical documents required in the bill only reflect the priorities of white senators.

“There were documents that were chosen, not by Hispanics, not by African Americans in this body, but by Anglos," he said. “No input from us in terms of what founding documents should in fact be considered by all children in this state."

Hughes also told members there have been instances in various school districts where parents have raised concerns about lessons where students have been taught one race is inherently superior to another. He pointed to a particular instance in Highland Park Independent School District where parents were concerned about a book called Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.

“We do have teaching now that we want to get out that one race or sex is inherently superior to another, or the individual by virtue of the individual's race or sex is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously," Hughes said. “I think we agree we don't want that taught in schools. That's why we need this bill."

But Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, pushed back against that premise, reading a passage from the book's author about its intent to help children dismantle white supremacy.

"My point is that we cannot just pick and choose what we are going to teach as history and expect to change things and make things better," Miles said. “It doesn't work that way. This bill is eliminating and excluding some things, and including what you want to say."

Educators also worry the legislation will change how teachers can engage students in hard, but important, conversations about American current events that teachers often use to trace back to historical events.

“Kids get engaged and kids want to dig into your class when they get the relevance and they have some buy-in," said Jocelyn Foshay, a Dallas Independent School District middle school teacher.

The bill, which mirrors legislation making its way through state legislatures across the country, has been coined the Critical Race Theory bill, though neither the House or Senate versions explicitly mention the academic discipline, which studies the way race and racism has impacted America's legal and social systems.

The latest version of the bill also reintroduced an explicit ban of the teaching of The New York Times' 1619 Project, which examines U.S. history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil, marking that year as the country's foundational date. That 2019 work from journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize and was recently thrust back into the national spotlight after the University of North Carolina did not grant her tenure after conserative criticism of her work.

“To suggest that America is so racist at its core to be irredeemable and to suggest that people based on the color of their skin can never overcome biases and can never treat each other fairly, that's a real problem," Hughes said of the project.

Educators also worry the bill language is too vague and will allow students and parents to potentially use the legislation against them if they disagree with how they're teaching history curriculum, regardless of the primary sources and historical texts teachers use to back up their lessons. It's also unclear who would enforce these requirements and how schools or districts would handle these issues.

“It makes it so open for anyone to interpret it the way they want to interpret it," said Juan Carmona, a history teacher in the Rio Grande Valley town of Donna

He sees this bill as a pushback to including more historical voices and perspectives in the teaching of history. In recent years, Texas started to offer Mexican American and African American studies courses to all high school students.

Over the past year, the phrase “critical race theory" has turned into a Republican rallying cry in an apparent pushback against increased conversations about diversity and inclusion and unpacking implicit bias.

This week, 20 state attorneys general sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and expressed concern with critical race theory and, specifically, the 1619 Project. The letter says critical race theory analyzes history through “the narrow prism of race."

Georgina Perez, who serves on the State Board of Education, slammed the bill and its supporters, saying they are using buzzwords for political gain rather than to improve education.

“They have no idea what critical race theory is, what it does, who the founders are. They've never read a book, much less a paragraph on it," said Perez. “I understand that maybe some white people are uncomfortable. Well, dammit, when Black people were being lynched, they sure as hell weren't comfortable. Native Americans being removed from their land and Mexican Americans being shot to death in the middle of the night, that shit wasn't comfortable either."

Erin Douglas contributed to this story.

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Judge orders Betsy DeVos to testify — citing 'exceptional circumstances'

A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will have to testify in a class action lawsuit over her handling of the Education Department's student debt loan forgiveness program.Judge William Alsup said "exceptional circumstances" warrant issuing DeVos a subpoena, a move that goes against both Devos' and the Biden administration's requests to excuse her from providing testimony.

The lawsuit, which has been brought on behalf of about 160,000 borrowers, alleges that the plaintiffs were defrauded by for-profit colleges and then neglected by the federal government.

The controversy dates back to 2018, when the Department of Education unexpectedly stopped making decisions on "student-loan borrower-defense applications," in which students could petition the department to have their debt federally relieved if they believed their colleges had misled them.

After an 18-month halt on the program, the Trump administration began rejecting a disproportionately high number of applications issuing scant explanations as to why, instead citing that the Department needed to mull over its policy on the issue. At the time, Devos claimed that making decisions on these applications was "time-consuming and complex."

DeVos will be pressed in her hearing on the department's inadequate record-keeping of loan forgiveness claims, as well as whether the Trump administration lied about its rationale for the vast number of rejections it issued.

"If the judicial process runs to presidents, it runs to Cabinet secretaries — especially former ones," Alsup wrote in his decision, adducing the subpoena of former President Richard Nixon over the Watergate tapes following Nixon's departure from office. "Extraordinary circumstances warrant the deposition of Secretary DeVos for three hours, excluding breaks."

Over the past several months, four depositions have been conducted with testimony from numerous Education Department officials, all of which have denied responsibility for the sudden discontinuation of the loan relief program, as well as the unexplained wave of rejections. Many pointed to DeVos as a prime suspect.

"Beyond illuminating her involvement, these material gaps at the highest rungs of the Department's decision-making record reveal the necessity of Secretary DeVos's testimony for an independent reason," Alsup argued. "We lack an official and contemporaneous justification for the eighteen-month delay because this suit concerns agency inaction, and not the usual agency action."

Alsup specifically claimed that DeVos appears to have had a personal hand in the department's decision-making process. Lawyers are expected to ask the former official whether she "directed her subordinates to cease issuing student-loan borrower-defense decisions, or whether she tacitly approved of the halt once manifested."

Theresa Sweet, a leading plaintiff in the suit, told Forbes in March: "Nearly 200,000 defrauded students are still waiting for justice, due in no small part to the malicious efforts of Betsy DeVos and the for-profit education lackeys with which she surrounded herself as Secretary of Education. She utterly failed in her duty to protect students from harm and to hold scam schools accountable."

A hearing for the suit had been scheduled for June 3.

I spent 1.5 years at a strict 'no-excuses' charter school – this is what I saw

Joanne W. Golann, Vanderbilt University

Charter schools are 30 years old as of 2021, and the contentious debate about their merits and place in American society continues.

To better understand what happens at charter schools – and as a sociologist who focuses on education – I spent a year and a half at a particular type of urban charter school that takes a “no-excuses" approach toward education. My research was conducted from 2012 through 2013, but these practices are still prevalent in charter schools today.

The no-excuses model is one of the most celebrated and most controversial education reform models for raising student achievement among Black and Latino students. Charters, which are public schools of choice that are independently managed, show comparable achievement to traditional public schools, but no-excuses charters produce much stronger test-score gains. No-excuses schools have been heralded as examples of charter success and have received millions of dollars in foundation support. At the same time, no-excuses schools themselves have started to rethink their harsh disciplinary practices. Large charter networks like KIPP and Noble in recent years have acknowledged the wrongfulness of their disciplinary approaches and repudiated the no-excuses approach.

Here are 10 of the most striking things that I observed at the no-excuses charter school where I spent 18 months.

1. Teachers let nothing slide

Teachers at no-excuses schools “sweat the small stuff." The long list of infractions at the school that I observed included: not following directions, making unnecessary noise, putting one's head down on a desk, being off-task, rolling one's eyes and not tracking the speaker.

Students on average received one infraction every three days. One fifth grader managed to accumulate 295 infractions over the school year. Infractions resulted in detention, loss of privileges like field trips and school socials, and “bench" – a punishment in which students had to wear a special yellow shirt and could not talk to their classmates or participate in gym class.

2. Teachers constantly explained the 'why'

Teachers were encouraged to explain the “why" of infractions so students would understand the rationale behind the school's unbending rules. Why did students receive detention for arriving one minute late to school? Because supposedly it helped them develop time-management skills. College applications would not be accepted if they were one minute late, they claimed. Why were there silent hallways? Because, the school argued, self-control would get kids to and through college.

3. Students developed distorted ideas about college

Students formed an impression of college as very strict. Upon visiting a college, one student noticed couches in the dorm hallways. This made her think that colleges must allow students to talk “a little bit" because students weren't just going to sit on couches and read a book. She questioned whether some of the rules at her own school might be “a little extra." An alumna of the school also was surprised at the freedom afforded to her in college. Accustomed to a system of rewards and consequences, she struggled with turning in her essays for class because the teacher did not grade them. When the term ended and she had to turn in a portfolio of all her work, she found herself playing catch-up. She received a C in the class.

4. School was stressful

Because teachers constantly narrated expectations for behavior and scanned classrooms for compliance, students felt as if they were always under surveillance. Even the best-behaved students felt pressure. One mother told me that she kept her daughter home for two weeks because her daughter could not handle the pressure of being set up as a positive example for her classmates.

5. The school intentionally recruited novice teachers

No-excuses schools hire young, energetic, mission-aligned teachers. According to the human resources team, the school had two key criteria for recruiting teachers: coachability and mission fit. The school was less interested in hiring professionals with specialized skills and knowledge. Instead, the school sought teachers who they thought would be more open and responsive to the school's direction and intensive coaching. This meant that a teacher with 10 years of experience was not favored over one with almost no experience.

6. Teacher turnover was high

The rallying cry at the school I observed was “Making the School a Better Place to Work." Half the teachers had left the school the previous year. Teacher turnover in no-excuses charter schools can range from 20% to 35% nationally, about twice the annual turnover rates in traditional urban schools.

7. Maximizing instructional time had its drawbacks

Procedures as simple as handing back papers or entering the classroom were streamlined to save minutes and seconds for instruction. This left little informal time for teachers to slow down and get to know the students. As one teacher put it, “It's like you have to move quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly. There's no time to waste and it's like, you know, sometimes I feel like, oh wait a second, I need a breather, like we're moving too fast. Like, slow down. Or [students] even need to feel like they're being heard; they're not being ignored."

8. School order was fragile

School staff members were reluctant to ease up on school discipline because they observed how a small change in procedure altered the school culture. The principal saw visible declines in student behavior when the school implemented special events like “crazy sock day."

When the school invited an adventure-based learning group to lead a few activities, students were found to have difficulty adjusting back after being in a less structured environment.

9. One size does not fit all

No-excuses schools target a select group of students and families willing and able to comply with the school's demanding expectations. In the initial summer visit made to the homes of all newly admitted students, school staff reviewed a five-page contract between families and the school detailing the school's stringent expectations. They explicitly told families that the school “is not for everyone."

10. Teachers and students creatively adapted

The strict procedures and rigid routines did not stop teachers and students from finding ways to bend rules. Teachers found ways to adjust school practices to better fit their own styles. They used humor and took time to build relationships with students outside of school. Students also engaged in minor acts of resistance. They erased names off the infraction board. They wore multicolored socks when the school required solid-colored socks. If a teacher put forth the expectation of no talking, students tapped on their desks or hummed to show defiance.

Looking ahead

One of the original visions for charter schools was to create spaces for teachers to experiment with innovative practices and for communities to create schools that reflected local cultures and needs. Instead, no-excuses charters employ a carefully maintained structure that limits the autonomy of both teachers and students. The costs of these structures are becoming apparent to the schools themselves. Change in these schools is happening but may not be quick or easy. As no-excuses schools seek to modify their practices, they might do well to reflect on and revisit these founding charter principles.

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]The Conversation

Joanne W. Golann, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Education, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The intentional abuse of students at school is still legal in 19 states

In the United States, it is illegal to hit another person. It is illegal for police officers or correctional officers to use force for any reason other than subduing someone.1 A court of law cannot sentence someone to physical punishment, such as whipping or branding, which were common criminal punishments, historically speaking, because that would violate the "cruel and unusual" clause of the Eighth Amendment. Why then is corporal punishment still legal for schoolteachers to enact on students in 19 states?

We are not talking about force to subdue violence or force in self-defense. No, we are talking about teachers "paddling" or "spanking" students, from the time they start school until they graduate, as punishment for misbehaving on school property. Parents are asked to provide permission for field trips, sexual education or school nurses administering medications, but not, in many states, for a teacher to spank their child.

The legal justification dates to a common law doctrine of in loco parentis, which gives schools authority and legal responsibility over schoolchildren. Historically, this doctrine applied to the authority of schoolmasters to "discipline" kids, though its interpretation eventually included protecting them as well. It has also been expanded to give schools the right to search students, acting less as extensions of parental authority and more as agents of the state. Students, therefore, have fewer protections from the state while at school than at home where a parent can refuse searches.

In the 19th century, corporal punishment in schools was common and even encouraged. The only state to ban the use of corporal punishment in schools in 1867 until the 1970s was New Jersey. The legality of corporal punishment made it to the United States Supreme Court in 1977 in Ingraham v. Wright, at which point Massachusetts (1971), Hawaii (1973) and Maine (1975) had outlawed the practice. In 1970, 14-year-old James Ingraham was spanked with a paddle 20 times while restrained. After being diagnosed with a hematoma requiring medical attention, Ingraham's parents sued, claiming the spanking was "cruel and unusual" punishment. A Florida court held that "cruel and unusual punishment" does not apply to corporal punishment for children in schools. The Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision.

Since 1977, 27 more states have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools but only Iowa and New Jersey have outlawed the practice in private schools. Since 2017, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee have banned the practice for students with disabilities. However, many states explicitly allow for corporal punishment against disabled students, including Kentucky and Texas, which also "paddles" the most children in the country. In Texas, 10,222 children with disabilities, and 49,157 children overall, were subject to corporal punishment in the 2006-2007 school year. Children with disabilities are 50 percent more likely to receive physical punishment than non-disabled students. Boys are also more likely to receive it than girls, though there are reports of male teachers "paddling" female students.

Race plays an important factor in corporal punishment. Black students receive a disproportionate amount. Southern states, such as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and Tennessee use corporal punishment more than Northern ones. They also have a high concentration of Black students. However, Black students are also more likely to receive corporal punishment than white students in these states.2

Black students are also put in the position of breaking school rules simply by wearing their hair naturally. The New York Commission on Human Rights said that rules against natural hairstyles in schools and workplaces amounts to racial discrimination but school policies vary widely across the country. Not only do such rules put Black students in place to be punished more than white students, sometimes schools rise to physically punishing students for their hair by cutting it off. In 2009, a Milwaukee teacher cut off a 7-year-old's braids and threw them away in front of the class. In 2018 a high school wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete.

While there isn't clear data on other students of color, a recent incident of a principal spanking a Hispanic student begs the question of how often families with undocumented kids are too scared to report abusive punishment by teachers. In this incident, the school called a mother to pay a $50 fine for damage her 6-year-old daughter did to a computer. When she got to the school, the principle used a wooden paddle to spank her daughter in front of her and the school clerk who was supposed to be serving as a Spanish interpreter. The mother was too scared to intervene because she is undocumented. She instead stealthily recorded the incident on her phone. The police were called the next day when the mother took her daughter to the hospital. Florida allows corporal punishment, but the school district where this occurred does not. The principle is currently on leave while an investigation is underway.

Not only is corporal punishment abusive and racist, it doesn't work. It damages the student-teacher relationship and makes school an unsafe environment. It has also been shown to increase absenteeism and antisocial behavior, all of which contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Not only does corporal punishment cause immediate pain and shame, but it can also have lasting physical and emotional damage. Corporal punishment also teaches students that violence is an acceptable response without urging communication and learning. Why are we still giving teachers free reign to physically abuse our children with no legal recourse? It's time to take this issue up against at the national level and ban corporal punishment in all 50 states.

How a Florida school improved test scores with a simple but powerful community approach

"What I'm working on—like making sure students have access to food, clean clothing, and streetlights—may not look like what I'm working on," Catherine Gilmore told me over a phone call. Gilmore has worked as an educator in Hillsborough County, Florida, for 13 years, and has spent the last six years at Gibsonton Elementary School where she was in the classroom for four years prior to spending the last two years as the community schools coordinator there. During our phone call, she explained to me how her school has addressed its low scores on the state's school performance report card. And it seems to be working.

In the 2017-2018 school year, Gibsonton received a grade of "D" on the state's annual report card that assesses elementary schools on the basis of their scores on standardized achievement tests. In 2018-2019, Gibsonton raised its grade to a "C."

While Gilmore welcomed the progress, she warned against overemphasizing these assessments, calling them "lagging indicators."

"State standardized testing mostly just identifies student demographics," she told me, an observation that is validated by research. "Sure, we use data, including test scores. But we use data to drive for the right things rather than letting data get in the way."

The "right things," in her view, are the factors—what she spends her time on—that she believes tend to correlate with test scores but are often ignored by school improvement approaches that tend to blame educators when test scores are low.

Often, what can lead to low test scores may have nothing to do with academics. For instance, making sure students are well-fed seems self-evident because students who are hungry aren't going to do very well at schoolwork. Making sure students have clean clothes seems a little less obvious. But streetlights?

What Gilmore is practicing is an approach to school improvement that is getting more attention—and perhaps a lot more money—as schools reopen from the pandemic; and policy experts, politicians, and pundits hail the restart as a clean slate for drawing up new plans for "redesigning" schools.

Addressing More Than Just a Test Score

The approach Gilmore refers to, called "community schools," looks at addressing student achievement by responding to the full range of factors in the community that can influence learning, including factors outside of schools.

The approach, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education's Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, involves "the coordination, integration, accessibility, and effectiveness of services for children and families, particularly for children attending high-poverty schools, including high-poverty rural schools."

The community schools approach got its first significant national attention in the 2020 presidential campaign when, as Reuben Jacobson from American University's School of Education wrote in an op-ed for the Hill, "[a]ll of the leading candidates, from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), … committed to further investing in community schools through their education proposals."

The profile of the community schools approach rose even higher in April 2021, reported the 74, when the Biden administration proposed a fiscal 2022 budget for the education department that included an increase in spending of $413 million for the FSCS, a nearly 15-fold boost for the program, from $30 million to $443 million.

Days after the budget announcement, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited an elementary school in Prince George's County, Maryland—where schools recently reopened—that "is one of 65 'community schools' in the county," the Washington Post reported, "each considered a hub for family support and social services, along with student learning." This marked one of the first school visits of his tenure.

'Our Families Are Struggling to Survive'

Gibsonton Elementary is part of the Hillsborough County Public Schools system, the seventh-largest school district in the U.S., serving nearly 224,000 students. The district is in its third year of implementing the community schools approach, Rob Kriete, president of Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, told me.

Kriete taught middle school and high school English for 24 years in Hillsborough County before taking temporary leave to serve as the president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the state and national teachers' unions.

Six schools in the district are in their third year of using the community schools approach, two are in their second year, and two more are being added next year.

"We've been very intentional about the schools we've picked to adopt the approach," Kriete said, but the district has not taken a "top-down approach," and has instead chosen schools that seem well-suited to the approach and have leadership and faculty who are agreeable to the demands of it.

Gibsonton Elementary seemed like a good fit. The school is just one of a handful of schools in Gibsonton, an unincorporated, semi-rural community south of Tampa Bay that has its roots in agriculture, light manufacturing, maritime-related businesses, and the carnival industry.

Nearly 20 percent of households in the community are at or below the poverty rate, according to World Population Review, with a median house value of only $188,400, and with 71 percent of adults having attained an education of less than an associate or college degree.

The community seems bereft of many services children and families would need.

Clinics and other health care facilities are sparse and modest and mostly inconvenient to families living near the elementary school. Facilities for dental care and eye care are even rarer. Other than a Walmart Supercenter, there are no grocery stores, so many families have to rely on small convenience stores and bare-bones retailers like Dollar General and Family Dollar that offer very little in the way of fresh and nutritious food.

Gibsonton Elementary also has a student population that often struggles in the public school system. Most of the students (56.4 percent) are Hispanic, according to state data, and nearly all the students are economically disadvantaged (94.1 percent), with 26.3 percent being English language learners, and 23.8 percent having some sort of disability.

"We became a community school because we really needed the outside help," Gilmore told me. "Our families are struggling to survive," she said. Many of the school's families are generational carnival people and live in old and often rundown trailers. Some still leave in May and return in October, which is considered the peak season for the carnival industry.

"There's so much growth in communities all around us," she said, referring to the more prosperous Tampa metro area, "but the growth hasn't improved our community."

What the Community Really Needs

In March 2018, Gibsonton Elementary leadership, faculty, and support staff agreed the school should adopt the community schools approach. "The entire school had to be behind the idea," she said, "and we were." Out of the six candidates who applied for school improvement coordinator, a key position the approach requires, Gilmore was chosen.

Much of what the school needed seemed obvious to Gilmore and her colleagues, but the first year of implementing the community schools model requires the school to conduct a needs assessment, including an audit of program strengths and weaknesses and assets in the surrounding community, and an outreach, via surveys and interviews, to students, parents, business leaders, local nonprofits, and others.

"We interviewed 92 percent of parents, including both parents in two-parent households," Gilmore recalled. "We really wanted to get a thorough understanding of our stakeholders' needs and what they felt were the problems."

After the audit and survey results were accumulated and ranked, the foremost concern was the low rate of student attendance. Parent engagement was also lacking, and families said they wanted a more enriching program for their children—not just the basics.

Poised with that knowledge, Gilmore and her colleagues went about the work of addressing the school's attendance problems.

But what they had not prepared to address, but were actually better prepared for because they adopted the community schools approach, was a pandemic.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

"When COVID-19 hit, the first thing we knew we had to do was find [and reach out to] our [students'] families," Gilmore recalled.

She helped organize a team to make phone calls and canvass neighborhoods. Because of the community's ties to the carnival business, family mobility rates in Gibsonton were already high. COVID-19 would only make transience worse. Yet, within four weeks, Gilmore and her team found every Gibsonton Elementary student, the first school in Hillsborough County to do so.

"We were 100 percent better able to make the transition [caused by COVID-19] because of the community schools model," Gilmore said. "Because we were already talking with our families, they weren't afraid of us. Also, because we had created my position [of school improvement coordinator], we had more capacity. The model ensured we had structures and people in place."

The dialogue the school had already established with its families ensured the response to their efforts would be effective.

"The community schools approach was well-suited to the crisis because the approach demands that you stop, ask questions, and listen to those you serve," Kriete explained. "Another strength of the community schools approach is that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and there is a lot of flexibility built into it."

Based on the community input, the school expanded its on-campus food pantry to include more fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, and fresh meat. For those families who couldn't come to campus, the school provided prepackaged boxes.

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis mandated schools reopen for in-person learning in August 2020, Gibsonton Elementary had in place resources and infrastructure to support families still reeling from the pandemic.

Parents who attended the open house found, in their children's seats, backpacks full of supplies their children would need for the new school year. "I saw parents leaving in tears from the relief that they would start off the year with supplies," Gilmore recalled. (Parents who couldn't attend the open house got supplies through the school's backpack program.)

Every two months, the school sends out fliers asking families what they need, and in one month, that outreach helped 644 families with a wide array of assistance.

"Today I helped a family find a home," Gilmore told me during our phone call. "In November and December [2020], we helped families deal with evictions and utilities."

What Raised Reading and Math Scores

Big contributors to Gibsonton's rise from grade "C" to "D" on Florida's school performance report card were the school's dramatic increases in students who achieved learning gains shown in assessment test scores from one year to the next.

Comparing 2017-2018 results to those in 2018-2019, achievement gains in English language arts increased by 12.8 percentage points. The gains were even larger in mathematics, 16.3 points. The increases were more significant for the lowest-performing 25 percent of students, rising by 16.6 percentage points in English language arts and 24.8 points in mathematics.

Gilmore believes much of these gains had to do with the work the school did to increase attendance. But how they went about increasing attendance was guided by their use of the community schools approach.

"When we found out there was a problem with attendance, we asked parents why," she recalled, and one of the most frequent responses they heard was that not having clean clothes was an impediment to coming to school.

The school responded by installing a campus washer-dryer and eventually opened a clothing closet that provided some free clothing articles.

Another factor contributing to the attendance problem was that in the shorter daylight hours of winter, streets were often too dark for students to safely walk to the bus or to school, and there were too few streetlights.

Given this response, the school organized an effort to have the county install new streetlights around the school. Working with the commissioners, the number of streetlights near the school quickly increased from nine to 51. Attendance immediately improved.

What Gilmore hopes to move to next is to work with a local nonprofit to provide mental health services to help children and families through the social and emotional traumas of the pandemic.

"Having the community schools approach that includes someone like me in place is critical," she said. "If a school has all these needs, but no one in place specifically focusing on those needs, then that work goes by the wayside. Teachers and principals simply don't have the time to address these issues."

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