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Education

State education officials review complaints of impropriety in Prince George’s

Six weeks after a new chairwoman took over, the school board in Prince George’s County is mired in a controversy involving alleged improprieties in contracts and overreaches by leadership, claims that are being examined by Maryland education officials.

The contentiousness follows the appointment of Juanita Miller, a former water utility commissioner who in January became chair of the governing board in the state’s second-largest school system and has clashed with an elected board majority.

In recent days, Miller canceled a board meeting and wrote a letter to the leader of the Prince George’s County Council, saying that after several questionable incidents she is requesting an external audit of all board-initiated contracts in the past two years.

Miller also said she wants a review of the board’s reorganization process and a performance audit of its operations. While the audit is being done, she said she would recommend to the board that any board action be temporarily suspended.

“Once the results of the audit are provided, I will feel more comfortable with continuing the work,” she wrote in the Feb. 8 letter.

Council Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II (D-At Large) forwarded the complaint to State Schools Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, with a request to consider any needed audit or appropriate action.

But Miller’s actions were assailed by the seven-member majority of the board, and the issue flared Tuesday, with community members saying that board meetings need to go on.

Miller issued a joint statement Tuesday afternoon with board Vice Chair Sonya Williams saying they are “ready and willing” to meet as a board to “review the operations of the school system.”

Still, Miller continued to cite financial and legal concerns related to several board members, whom she did not name, as she released copies of contracts she appeared to take issue with.

“We strongly oppose using taxpayer dollars to provide lucrative no-bid contracts to their friends or taking up board-initiated items that are the subject of the ethics complaint at this time,” her statement with Williams said.

Miller’s allegations were firmly rejected in a 13-page letter dated Feb. 12 to the state superintendent from seven board members, who called Miller’s claims “baseless” with “blatant mischaracterizations” of board processes.

A group of parents and community leaders meanwhile gathered outside the offices of County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) Tuesday, urging that important issues be brought back to the table. The next scheduled board meeting is next week.

“We’re glad they’re going to be moving ahead with meetings again but we want them to be accountable and make sure they are not weaponizing meetings or hijacking the agenda,” said Krystal Oriadha, co-founder of Prince George’s Change Makers, an advocacy group.

A spokeswoman for Alsobrooks did not respond to requests for comment. Alsobrooks chose Miller as chair and named board member Sonya Williams as vice-chair.

Chairman of Prince George’s school board to step down

A state education spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that Salmon had received the letters and documents from both sides in Prince George’s, which she said are under review.

The board members said Miller had unilaterally shut down the board, which was scheduled Feb. 11 to consider issues including learning hubs for struggling students, the science of reading instruction and issues related to harsh student discipline.

If Miller or others do not support proposals, “it is their full right to vote against them at our meetings, but to refuse to attend future meetings indefinitely in order to deny a quorum and thus prevent the Prince George’s County Board of Education from conducting business is a willful neglect of duty,” the seven members wrote.

They said if the shutdown remained in effect they would petition for the chair’s removal.

They contended that Miller also unilaterally decided to seek audits without board discussion or approval, publicly disclosed an anonymous, unvetted tip that was a confidential ethics issue and made misleading claims about a lobbying contract they supported.

Miller alleged in her letter that a reorganization of the board’s office — supported by majority members — could have the propensity to create chaos and dysfunction.

She alleged that some board members were not focused on oversight of how to reopen schools safely or how to deal with new financial challenges, but instead focus on activities that “spend more money and remove people from their jobs.”

Miller took issue with a contract for lobbying services and said the anonymous tip involved an allegation of a potential conflict of interest involving that contract. The issue was sent to a school board ethics panel, she said.

The seven members said Miller’s actions resulted in turmoil and revealed a basic lack of understanding of how a board works.

Board member David Murray, one of the seven who signed the letter, alleged Miller was operating outside board policies.

“Under what democracy do you get to cancel meetings because you really don’t like what you think the outcome might be?” he asked.

He said it fell on Alsobrooks to make sure her appointees uphold their duties to convene meetings and facilitate the board’s functioning.

Miller released a document saying the lobbying firm at issue was not in good standing with the state. Board members said that issue centered on a missing filing and was immediately corrected, and a receipt was provided to school system officials.

Two other contracts drew her attention, she said — one for oversight of the capital improvement program and another for consulting on board governance.

“Both contracts gave me grave concerns,” she said, questioning the contract terms, an unnamed board member’s involvement and a process that she said “seemed expedited and improper.”

Rolling admissions, health protocols: How universities must reinvent themselves post-pandemic

Almost a year ago, the world was blighted by COVID-19. Within the higher education realm, universities scrambled to shift to online learning with little to no preparation. Institutions that relied on international students as a major revenue source were left reeling when visa centres and borders closed. What will the future of higher education look like next?

One education pundit believes that universities worldwide will have a cocktail of issues that they will need to reassess if they plan to thrive as they did during the pre-pandemic halcyon days. From health and safety protocols to the growing relevance of gap years, these are issues they will have to grapple with.

There’s no blueprint for future higher education success amid COVID-19, but how the pandemic plays out will continue to shape the way universities respond, strategize and operate. In capturing the COVID-19 zeitgeist, higher education consultant Marguerite Dennis has some ideas about what could pan out in universities worldwide in this academic year and next.

Will short courses reign supreme in the future of higher education?

Short courses are are less expensive and time consuming than traditional degree programmes. Could they grow in importance in the future of higher education? Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Universities may be forced to change the way they operate to thrive in a post-pandemic world. This includes admitting students throughout the year, offering courses in person or online throughout the year, and connecting with students before acceptance, during enrolment, and after graduation. Dennis also expects more collaboration instead of competition among higher education institutions.

The demand for short courses is also expected to grow. “Numerous surveys and studies have revealed that since the outbreak of the pandemic, the attitudes of high school and college students have changed,” Dennis, a seasoned international student recruitment specialist with over 25 years of experience under her belt, told Study International. “A greater percentage of students are questioning the value of a college degree, the time it takes to get a degree, and the cost of the degree.”

Companies including tech titans Google, Microsoft and IBM have created short courses and boot camps that are less expensive and time-consuming than traditional degrees, and more focused on acquiring skills that can be used to secure a good-paying job. “My vision for the future of higher education includes a learning environment that is more accessible to a greater number of students, and that means adding alternative educational providers offering relevant, short-term, skills-based courses,” she said.

Implementation of digital health passports

Robust health protocols will be important in the future of higher education institutions. Source: Andy Manis/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Digital health passports have been bandied around by many countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “It is my hope that digital health passports will be adopted worldwide. I think this should be required of all travellers, not just international students,” said Dennis, who also believes higher education institutions will need to look more closely into establishing robust health protocols to attract students.

“Students will always seek a college or university that best meets their academic, financial and future employment needs. Students will also seek colleges and universities with well-established health protocols and a proven track record for putting students’ needs first. Finally, students will enrol in schools with robust career counselling, internships, and lifelong learning opportunities,” she said. Ultimately, colleges and universities that don’t want to be held captive by COVID-19 will need to reassess how they will continue to add value to students in a post-pandemic world.

To the People Pushing Back on Culturally Responsive Teaching During Black History Month

A war has been waging in my home state of Illinois, and the battle lines have been drawn. In one corner of the ring—the “uber leftists” who justify the need for the Illinois State Department of Education’s newly proposed “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards.” In the other corner? Conservatives who tout, in fear, that the aforementioned standards are the beginning of the end—the indoctrinating of Illinois children by way of public education.

Once again, the decision to do what’s best for all kids has evolved into a polarizing, political issue. And quite personally, I’m sick of it.  

IN THE MIDST OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH, PEOPLE—PRIMARILY WHITE PEOPLE—CONTINUE TO DEBATE THE RELEVANCE OF CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING.The irony is not lost on me that in the midst of Black History Month, people—primarily white people—continue to debate the relevance of culturally responsive teaching. In fact, when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) shared the standards on social media recently, the responses were cringeworthy: 

Just another attempt to make teachers and kids more ‘woke’

Great. Now I have to apologize for being white.

Sigh…

I cling to the hope that these comments are rooted in a genuine misunderstanding about what culturally responsive teaching is (Although, unfortunately, I’m not that naive and I know better). After all, what’s so offensive about validating and reflecting the diversity, identities and experiences of all students? Inclusivity is not indoctrination. 

It is crucial to clear up a variety of misconceptions circulating about the proposed standards, which seem to be overshadowing their true intent: to help prepare aspiring educators for a world that is increasingly diverse.

WHAT IS CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING?

According to Understood, 

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a research-based approach that makes meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages and life experiences. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum, develop higher-level academic skills, and see the relevance between what they learn at school and their lives … Students bring this knowledge to the classroom every day, including their culture, language, and life experiences. When we acknowledge this background knowledge as assets and tap into it, we create an optimal environment for learning.

THE ABILITY TO REACH STUDENTS FROM A VARIETY OF CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS IS AN ESSENTIAL SKILL TO SUCCEED AS AN ASPIRING EDUCATOR IN ILLINOIS. Eighty percent of Illinois teachers are white and more than 52% of Illinois students identify as students of color. Furthermore, English learners make up the fastest-growing student population in our state. As a result, the ability to reach students from a variety of cultural backgrounds is an essential skill to succeed as an aspiring educator in Illinois. 

Additionally, Dr. Carmen Ayala, our state superintendent of education, explained that the standards are intended to help address the wide achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic student groups, which undoubtedly exist throughout our state. 

Cultural responsiveness is inclusive of all of the experiences our educators, students and families bring to the classroom.

Those opposed argue that “Teachers need to stick to reading, writing and arithmetic. Period.” But what many people—primarily non-educators—don’t understand is that culturally responsive practices actually help teachers to teach their respective content areas even better! Inclusivity and content are not mutually exclusive. We can teach both. 

ABOUT THE STANDARDS

  • The “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards” DO NOT apply to K-12 curricula (Although, would it be so bad if they did?). They apply to educator preparation programs.
  • The Illinois State Department of Education WILL NOT require professional development on the standards for current educators (However, again, is this really such a bad thing?). School districts will maintain local control over the professional development they offer to their staff, and the proposed changes will not impact current teachers’ certification or employment. ISBE will offer OPTIONAL professional development to current educators, not a mandate.
  • If approved, the standards WILL NOT go into effect until October 2025, which will allow educator preparation programs ample time to incorporate the standards.
  • No educator will be forced to indoctrinate their students with specific political ideologies, and no educator will be forced to turn their students into activists. No educator will be forced to incite their students into participating in any protests, riots or insurrections. 

Despite all of the aforementioned, overwhelmingly, people—sadly, some of them educators themselves—have expressed outrage over the proposed standards, and it’s not a good look. Some argue that this is “one more thing” intended to micromanage teachers. Again, this DOES NOT apply to K-12 curricula—and the resistance is astounding. The general consensus seems to be, “Why fix what isn’t broken?” 

THIS SHOULD NOT BE A PARTISAN ISSUE, ESPECIALLY FOR EDUCATORS.Except here’s the thing: What if it is broken? The aforementioned achievement gaps suggest that it is. Moreover, being culturally responsive shouldn’t be synonymous with liberal ideology, despite the fact that people are working overtime to sell us the narrative that it is. In reality, this should not be a partisan issue, especially for educators.

In a world that is increasingly more connected than ever before, we should strive to broaden the cultural worldview and experiences of our students to make them more empathetic and understanding. Doing so equips students with the tools that they need to be productive global citizens. Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is an extension of the work that great teachers are already doing. These standards will prepare the future of our profession to meet the ever-evolving, diverse needs of our students even better in years to come. 

Furthermore, CRT could have a major impact on the recruitment of educators of color, especially considering that a primary indicator of whether or not students choose teaching as a profession often correlates to their own personal experiences in the classroom. If students don’t feel valued, understood, seen and heard, they won’t view a career in education as one that is inclusive of their culture, and that’s a major problem. 

BY EMPOWERING THE FUTURE OF OUR PROFESSION AND EQUIPPING THEM WITH THE TOOLS TO BE MORE INTENTIONAL ABOUT BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH ALL STUDENTS, WE SIMULTANEOUSLY IMPROVE THE EXPERIENCES OF STUDENTS.By empowering the future of our profession and equipping them with the tools to be more intentional about building relationships with all students, we simultaneously improve the experiences of students. This not only creates better learning experiences for students, but those experiences could lead to an increase in educator recruitment. 

On a final note, in my time traveling the state and speaking to teachers over the past three years, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard vulnerable educators admit, “I really want to do a better job of engaging in this work—in culturally responsive practices—but I just don’t know where to start.” If we truly believe that Black History should be taught in an intentional way beyond the month of February—and it absolutely should be—then one could assert we need Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards to equip aspiring educators with the skills to do so. Inclusivity is not indoctrination, and as a profession, we need to push back on ideologies that suggest otherwise.

White People, Celebrate Black History Month By Facing the Truth of White Supremacy

I came across an image on social media the other day and it made me stop and think. In it, two boys—one white and one Black—are walking down the street, the Black student dragging a small wagon filled with books on Black history. The white boy turns to him and says, “I thought your people celebrated Black history in the month of February?” The Black boy replies, “Nope. That month is for y’all! We celebrate all year long!”

For so long, I thought of Black History Month as a gesture, a woefully insufficient one surely, but still a gesture towards the Black community, one that sought to honor and acknowledge the pain and joy of Black America. 

I HAD BEEN REARED AND TAUGHT TO THINK OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH AS A TIME TO ESSENTIALLY HIT THE PAUSE BUTTON ON THE REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING SO AS TO LEARN STORIES AND HISTORIES LARGELY EXCLUDED FROM STANDARD CURRICULA.I had been reared and taught to think of Black History Month as a time to essentially hit the pause button on the regularly scheduled programming so as to learn stories and histories largely excluded from standard curricula.

But what if Black History Month wasn’t solely about white students learning the same old recycled stories of Rosa Parks, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and slavery taught in ways that sanitize ongoing oppression and de-radicalize the legacies of civil rights agitators?

I’m imagining a Black History Month that, in addition to honoring the beauty, joy, and perseverance of Black America, pulls back the veil on white supremacy’s continued legacy in all facets of American society. I’m imagining a month where white students identify their places within the white supremacy paradigm, where they face the oppressor within and come stare at the gruesome violence done to Black bodies.

I imagine white children being taught slavery not as the beginning of Black history, but rather as the interruption of Black history. I imagine white children facing the horrors of lynching, not just in written form, but through the images shamelessly recorded and proliferated on postcards. 

I imagine white children learning about Black Wall Street and the Move bombing in Philadelphia. I imagine white children seeing the difference in the portrayal of the crack epidemic and the opioid epidemic. I imagine white children seeing the very true racism and injustice that continues every single day on the streets of America, most recently in Rochester where a nine-year-old girl was pepper-sprayed with her hands behind her back.

I imagine white children being taught the less visible but no less vicious aspects of white supremacy; of red-lined neighborhoods resulting in impoverished neighborhoods and under-resourced schools, within-school segregation with white students funneled into advanced academic tracks while students of color remain in general education tracks, and disciplinary disparities the setup and perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.

I WANT WHITE STUDENTS ALL OVER THE COUNTRY, MY TWO SONS INCLUDED, TO USE FEBRUARY NOT TO SIMPLY LEARN A ‘SAFE’ AND ‘WHITE-WASHED’ CURRICULUM OF BLACK HISTORY, BUT RATHER TO TAKE THE ANTI-RACIST STEPS OF LEARNING THE TRUTH OF WHITE SUPREMACY IN AMERICA.In short, I want white students all over the country, my two sons included, to use February not to simply learn a ‘safe’ and ‘white-washed’ curriculum of Black history, but rather to take the anti-racist steps of learning the truth of white supremacy in America. 

As I recently learned, racism isn’t a Black or people of color problem. It’s a white people problem because it is a system of advantages for whites that we perpetuate with our silence. This inverts the traditional mode of thinking that racism is a problem for Black people to solve. Racism isn’t a problem for Black people to solve. Racism is for white people to solve, and the work can happen only when white America faces the truth. 

This won’t change everything. It may not even change anything. If someone doesn’t know the history of white supremacy by now, that is likely a cultivated ignorance based upon a genuine apathy towards Black humanity. But as an educator, I cannot but hope in the power of learning.