Late one Tuesday night in 2018, I checked my email, thank god, and learned that next morning’s staff meeting devoted to professional development (PD) was “Understanding Trans Students”. I’ve endured a wide range of asinine PD, including one hilarious afternoon years ago with a black activist consultant who lectured the staff of my last school, which was 75% low income, ELL, Hispanic, on how students were hurt by teachers who didn’t understand what it was like to be black and poor.
But as early as 2018 the transgender issue was really…fraught. So I gave the meeting a pass and got some grading done.
Almost immediately after the meeting, our principal sent out an email apologizing for the presentation. Turns out a good chunk of the staff had openly and angrily objected to the presentation as simplistic and insulting, treating the teachers as unenlightened dead-namers. The principal cut the whole activity short.
A few months later, we did a session on trans kids’ legal rights, where we were informed that we couldn’t use a student’s chosen name and gender with a parent if the parent was unaware of the student’s sexuality. But how were we to know whether a parent was aware of this or not, a skeptical teacher (raises hand) asked. Reply: we couldn’t know and shouldn’t ask the student.
Juan beat me to the punch. “So we can be sued if we use the student’s birthname to parents who know their kid’s trans, but we can also be sued if we use the student’s chosen name to parents who don’t know their kid’s trans, and it all depends on information we don’t have and can’t ask for?”
Note: the feds have now likewise stated that we teachers can’t tell the parents that their kid is transgender, even if we don’t know they don’t know.
The conservative media is, as always, convinced the entire public education system is a leftist indoctrination mill, intent on spreading wild wokism and CRT throughout the country and hopeful that this time, finally, American parents will rise up and kill public schools for all time. Charlie Brown, meet the football.
The proper response to all these stories should fall more towards “Jesus, people, don’t panic” with a healthy dose of “nip any shit you see in the bud” when appropriate. But in consuming all the media around these events, I noticed time and again the reported stories don’t make an important distinction.
Teacher Proselytizing: Bad
A small percentage of the stories actually involve a teacher trying to promote a political world view as a specific objective. These are the more serious offense, where indeed one should inject a dose of “nip that shit in the bud”. Parents and the community should act instantly and vigorously if teachers engage in any form of values imposition: be it abortion rights (one way or the other), race-shaming, transgender inquisitions or, god save us all, gas chambers and Hitler’s suicide (although that last in real life was a school librarian, a fact I was pretty much the first to point out, while everyone else was screaming about America’s lousy public education.)
But these stories shouldn’t be seen as the tip of an iceberg. They’re too easy to spot. The kids will talk. The teachers will get caught and canned. Cf: Matthew Hawn in Tennessee, James Whitfield in Texas.
Public schools are far more responsive to community than either charters or private schools. This, at least, should be obvious given the host of school board bootings in November. Conservative communities can be assured that tain’t no CRT and white blaming in their schools. (On the other hand, urban schools with majority black populations have been teaching critical race theory for decades, most particularly in the “no excuse” charter schools conservatives love so much, and the few parents complaining about “Fuck Police” posters in Compton are going to get a polite brushoff.)
Some communities will see a more strategic, organized effort to indoctrinate. These are generally cities that have undergone significant demographic change that has, not coincidentally, altered the politics of many previously white suburban communities. Like, say, in Fairfax and Loudon counties, which have seen their white population drop by respectively 9% and 30% in 20 years. But here again, notice how quickly the communities responded, and how unnerved the schools are by the response. That’s as it should be.
So schools or teachers engaged in an indoctrination attempt are going to get caught. People will be called to account and possibly fired–even in ultra-liberal, ultra-white Mill Valley, CA. If the district or school board supports these efforts, they’re voted out. I oppose mayor-controlled school districts plugged by Matt Yglesias and others for exactly this reason. School boards must fear voters in order to respond to community values. (And if you say “but no one votes in these elections”, well, that’s kind of evidence that the community’s not unhappy, isn’t it?)
Professional Development: Yawn
Christopher Rufo is building a reputation by reporting on progressive indoctrination in all corners of America, focusing heavily on schools. But just three of his eleven “CRT in schools” articles involve classroom exposure to race-blaming. In all cases, the students were majority non-white. Two of them were in majority black schools in Buffalo and Philadelphia–and if you note, Rufo didn’t hear about the lesson from outraged parents, but rather the teachers themselves. (see above note about community standards.) The third example is the hilarious case of white teachers telling Chinese immigrant kids in Cupertino that they’re white supremacists and that’s a mistake because, see, Chinese parents don’t play the guilt game.
The remaining eight of Rufo’s breathless articles don’t have anything to do with classroom instruction, but professional development: the “heartland” of Missouri, Seattle, Wake County NC, Santa Clara CA, Portland, OR and of course the NEA has all sorts of professional development and curriculum it’d just love to sell to districts.
As Rufo goes, so too go the rest of the “public school indoctrination” stories: case after case of professional development slides, every so often a horror story about classroom instruction where the teacher was immediately fired.
Do you have any idea how much crap we sit through as officially district- or school-sanctioned professional development? I’m not surrounded by Republicans. My colleagues are solid blue Democrats, of varying levels of progressivism, in the bluest of blue regions, teachers in a Title I, extremely diverse school, and they nonetheless roll their eyes in resigned disgust at the ideology flung their way. If they’re listening at all. Teachers aren’t spending professional development time building critical race theory curriculum or strategizing ways to keep transgender kids’ intention from their parents. Most of the time they’re checking email, grading papers, or planning their next ten-week summer vacation, neener neener.
Professional development isn’t a mandate. It’s a time waster. It’s extremely rare and often illegal for an principal, district, or state or federal mandate, to order teachers what to teach.
But while absurd professional development doesn’t do much harm, it’s a lot harder to eliminate.
Professional development is encoded deep into the DNA of modern American education via the mother of all education reform bills, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which from its earliest version on allowed districts to spend money on instructional services. Title I funding accounts for the vast majority of federal education spending.
Title II is devoted entirely to various forms of professional development, from teacher training to induction and beyond. Districts hire drones to apply for grants, further drones at the state level review them, and then drones on all sides make sure the grant boxes are checked off. Many states outline all the hours of PD teachers must spend (eg New Jersey, Colorado,Florida). Every state has a Title II report, produced by more drones at great expense and audited regularly, again at government expense.
Federal Title I funding criteria explicitly include mandates like “include strategies for identifying and eliminating gender and racial bias in instructional materials, methods, and practices.” Then there are all the state requirements of which I’ll just give a sample: California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida, Alabama. Thanks to Gorsuch and Bostock, transgender equity got added to the already really long list of issues that districts are mandated to include in the PD list.
Red states or blue, diversity and equity are officially sanctioned reasons for the achievement gap, creating a huge market for any folks with a sales approach they can call a learning strategy.
Envision, if you will, the sort of people who want to train teachers on equity and diversity. Now picture their politics. Now remember that states are required to find professional development on equity and diversity. And there you have it: activist grifters using taxpayer dollars to recite dogma to teachers who aren’t listening unless they already believe.
Professional development is simply a massive case of bureaucratic sludge, run by default and drones for half a century.
Stopping the Sludge
You can’t fire bad PD.
From a public spending perspective, the outrage is backwards. A progressive ideologue teaching dogma doesn’t cost much money and can be easily caught and canned. Meanwhile, several million teachers spend several days a year in school libraries ignoring the expensive propaganda show put on by activists funded by taxpayer expense, curated by a district or government drone intent on checking off a box on a state or federal form, all processed and paid for, again, by taxpayers.
But investigating the cause and choice of professional development providers is hard. Easier, and more satisfying to write columns about teacher mind control, show videos of board meetings filled with angry parents, and howl for your allotted 60 seconds on Tucker or Laura or Sean and occasionally get a teacher fired. Considerably more difficult and less newsworthy to hunt down the HR drone who put that consultant company on the “approved” list, or demand to know why our federal and state dollars are paying for this garbage.
There is hope, however. Oklahoma’s CRT law HB1775 specifically bans mandated diversity training for teachers. The law’s text doesn’t make this quite clear, but the state board of education passed emergency rules to clarify, so that the word “course” in this section:
“No teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts”
is translated as
any forum where instruction or activities tied to the instruction are provided, including courses, training, seminars, professional development, lectures, sessions, coaching, tutoring, or any other class.
That’s the kind of language that might actually cut the grifter employment a bit, and make enough of an impression on HR drones to force the bureaucratic sludge ever so slowly in a different direction–or even cut off certain pathways entirely. Pray the Oklahoma law survives the lawsuits.
Naturally, many folks both oppose CRT instruction and any laws to ban it in public schools. Some are liberals who think woke has gone too far (looking at you, Bari Weiss). On the conservative side, chief among the “CRT is bad but don’t ban it” flagwavers is David French…and I’m not a lawyer, but does it strike you as odd that French, a lawyer, is always in favor of solutions that require lawsuits? He doesn’t want bright lines, he wants causes of action under Title whatever of the Civil Rights act or the Constitution and oh, hey, I’m not the only person who noticed. Point is, I don’t want lawyers always telling me the best solution is full employment for their kind.
Terry McAuliffe was right about one thing: parents can’t–and shouldn’t–be able to micromanage curriculum. And anyone who thinks that great day is coming can dream on. But schools are run with state and federal money, and it’s entirely appropriate for governments, through its voters, to put some broad outlines on how they spend that money educating our kids.
I grant a certain amount of self-interest here. Less of my time spent in pointless PD, less of my tax dollars spent funding grifters, ideologues, or HR drones. Win win.
Note: I’ve made a distinction here between banning CRT PD and banning CRT teacher speech. This article is long enough without going into detail, but I’m firmly in favor of the first, largely indifferent to the second.