Little was said in the news yesterday about the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in a case involving a student with autism. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the student’s family asserted that their son did not receive a free and adequate public education (FAPE) from the Douglas County School District in Colorado. The Court agreed with Endrew’s family and reversed a lower-court ruling that found Douglas County Schools had provided education services that met the standards required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
When the story did appear, it was the reversal—not the reason for the ruling itself—that the media remarked upon. Why? Because while the Court was deciding the case, the Senate was hearing testimony from Judge Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice, and Gorsuch was part of the three-judge panel that had originally decided the case in the 10th Circuit Court in Denver in 2008. Essentially, the Court Gorsuch aspires to serve on unanimously disagreed with his written opinion, finding that the FAPE standard the 10th Circuit had established as acceptable was, in fact, too low.
The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, states, "It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not.”
Taking the potential blow to Gorsuch’s legal reputation out of the equation, there are two elements of this news story that should be of interest to educators. One, the rights of millions of children with disabilities were defended and likely enhanced yesterday. That should be cause for celebration. Children like Endrew and their families now have more leverage with which to advocate for services. Schools, too, will be incentivized to grow and innovate.
“We expect this unanimous decision to be transformative in the lives of students with disabilities,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “Today the (Supreme Court) affirmed what we know to be the promise of the IDEA.”
The second remarkable point related to this decision is how little the nation seemed to care, except insomuch as it happened to interact with a splashy political moment—Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing. This is cause for concern but, sadly, not surprising. Children with disabilities are some of the most invisible people in society. They are young, they are widely viewed through a deficit lens, and they may have health or behavior issues that challenge systems that privilege healthy and able-bodied people. They often face disproportionate and more punitive discipline in schools. And if they also happen to be black or brown or LGBT or undocumented or belong to any other marginalized identity group, they are also more likely to experience unequal treatment at the hands of medical staff, educators, caregivers and law enforcement agents who labor under implicit biases.
The imbalance of media attention to how this decision will or won’t affect Gorsuch versus the impact it will have on the lives of millions of children is a textbook illustration of our national tendency to fetishize power and privilege and to overlook the intersectional identities and concerns of the most vulnerable individuals. We tell our students to read between the lines and look for the voices that are not represented. Endrew's case is a prime example of why we as educators—not to mention as concerned citizens and human beings—need to do the same.
van der Valk is the deputy director for Teaching Tolerance.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal—which includes slashing the Department of Education’s budget by 13.5 percent and allocating $1.4 billion for school choice initiatives—was released last week.
Trump’s proposed $9.2 million in cuts would eliminate, for example, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school programs for students from low-income families. Also on the chopping block: Title II, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which supports teacher training, recruitment and retention. That loss could dramatically impact states such as California, which is experiencing severe teacher shortages.
As we know, Congress actually crafts the federal budget, and many Democrats and Republicans agree that Trump’s “wish list” of proposals will not survive intact. But examine the ideology underlying Trump’s education blueprint (which is supported by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), and it becomes clear that there is still cause for concern.
Namely, Trump’s so-called “skinny budget” is designed to starve public education while stuffing the privatization movement with resources, all under the guise of civil rights.
Trump has proposed a $168 million increase for charter schools (which presently receive over $300 annually) and $1 billion to promote and increase school choice in Title I schools. Another $250 million would go to a new “private school choice program,” but details about its structure or reach haven’t been released yet.
DeVos lauded Trump’s proposed budget increases, saying they would protect the “nation’s most vulnerable populations” by providing “an equal opportunity of a quality education for all students.” Trump quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reference to “inferior education” at the end of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March as a reason to provide more school choice, and has said that, ideally, the federal budget would eventually invest $20 billion annually in school choice programs.
Allocating taxpayer money to subsidize private and religious schools, while failing to provide the same robust support for public schools, will result in the exact opposite of equitable education. It will fail to serve students of color, those who come from low-income families or live in rural America.
These concerns are being raised within Congress. On March 22, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington issued a 20-page memo detailing concerns about school privatization efforts. She writes:
While supporters try to argue the programs proposed in President Trump's budget increase ‘school choice,’ in reality, privatization presents a false choice for parents, students, and communities. … [T]he reality is that private schools receiving taxpayer funds lack accountability and transparency, can deny students and parents basic rights, and are inaccessible to students in rural areas and students who cannot afford to pay the difference in cost between the voucher and private school tuition.
School choice is not the only example of the Trump administration ignoring education data. His budget proposal reduces or eliminates a total of 20 Department of Education programs that were deemed “not effective … or that do not serve national needs.”
The proposal provides no data to support those determinations. President Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney has been criticized for stating that numerous programs on the proposed chopping block, ranging from Meals on Wheels to after-school programs, are ineffectual.
But the data reveals quite the opposite. For example, Becoming a Man, an after-school program in Chicago that is partially funded by 21st Century Community Learning Centers, improves graduation rates by 19 percent.
In another example, a recent study by the Learning Policy Institute found that an effective way to combat teacher shortages was to invest in mentoring programs for beginning teachers to increase their competence and to reduce attrition. Schools should pay for such programs by “leveraging ESSA Title II dollars,” which would be entirely cut under Trump’s proposal.
So if Trump’s budget is simply a wish list, what happens next? The first battle in Congress will be over passing legislation to fund the government beyond April 29.
Once it has resolved the 2017 budget, Congress can begin addressing fiscal year 2018, which begins in October. In the coming months, House and Senate representatives will likely hear a great deal from their constituents about how closely—or how vastly different—the new budget should reflect Trump’s plan.
To paraphrase an already well-worn saying: Trump’s approach to education funding won’t be taken literally by Congress, but it may very well be taken seriously.
This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.
Applegate is a journalist, editor and storyteller who focuses on youth, family and social justice issues.
It’s a Monday in America.
I ask the students sitting in front of me if they have any questions about current events. I preface it with my usual ground rules: We will be respectful; we will try to see many perspectives; we do not have to agree with one another, but we do need to speak nicely.
A flurry of hands is raised in this sophomore, accelerated history classroom.
“What is an executive order?”
“Which countries are included in the ban?”
“How many executive orders can a president use?”
“Is it a Muslim ban?”
“What does the actual ban say?”
I try to navigate these heavy questions one by one. I give historical perspective. I try to show both sides.
One white male student says, “The ban does not say ‘Muslim.’” So we read the full text of the ban. He is correct.
One black female student says, “My parents are from the Caribbean, I only wonder how I would feel if the Dominican Republic was on that list of countries. My family members travel here for holidays and special occasions.”
One Muslim female student says, “Terrorism is not about one religion.”
Another Muslim female student raises her hand and with trepidation says:
I was born on September 11, 2001, in Iraq, at the same time the towers were falling. My parents made sure my birth certificate said September 12. In 2004, we had one day to flee Iraq. We stayed in Syria for two months and then a few months in Jordan, finally settling in Egypt. In Egypt, we fled the violence of the Arab Spring and came to the United States in 2011. My parents have green cards. My mother’s citizenship ceremony is supposed to be next month, but we heard that ceremonies are being canceled. My father stood outside our Egyptian apartment complex to protect us in 2011—now he is telling my brother not to show the Iraqi flag in his car. My mother will not wear her hijab.
The student is in tears. The room is dead silent.
By the end of the day, I am spent.
I pack up to leave for the day just as a former student enters. He tentatively asks if I have time to chat. Of course, I say yes. He does not know the day I had.
He tells me that he needs to write a letter to President Trump for an assignment.
“What would you like to say?” I ask.
“I am worried about reading my letter aloud to the class. People might call me names,” he replies.
After asking him why he is worried, he confesses that if he were old enough to vote, he would have voted for Trump. He tells me that his peers have called him a racist, a sexist and anti-Muslim. He laments that he feels like he can’t have conversations with most people.
I let him speak his mind to me. I am glad to offer him a safe space. I share with him that I have also been writing—about polarization and its impact. I suggest he too writes a letter to President Trump discussing his perceptions.
As I drive home, I marvel at my day. It’s a Monday in America.
Brown is a high school social studies teacher who is exploring teaching in the age of Trump.
Dear President Trump,
This is my love letter to you.
A friend told me recently that when she heard revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh speak in Boston in 2002, he answered a two-part question from a worried and broken-hearted audience member: How was one to respond to President George W. Bush’s decision to launch military operations in Afghanistan after the attack on the World Trade Towers? What was a person who considered Bush’s decision to be immoral to do?
“Write President Bush a love letter,” Hanh responded.
That response knocked me for a loop. Hanh has survived persecution, war and exile. So I figured that I should give this love letter idea a try. I don’t have any better ideas for my own broken-heartedness.
I am a teacher in an elementary school, and recently my principal assigned me to lunch duty. I was not happy; I, like many teachers I know, am terrified of school lunchrooms. All bets are off in these spaces. But my principal was resolute in his decision. So twice a week, I now take a deep breath and head for the cafeteria, my carpenter apron loaded with straws, napkins and sporks, as well as scissors for cutting those slimy ketchup packs that are impossible for little fingers to open.
A new system to encourage civility is in place at our school, and I have to admit, it seems to be working. A small stack of colored plastic cups sits at the center of each table: red cup on the bottom, then yellow and green on the top. As the noise level rises, the adults move among the tables like sidewalk magicians performing sleight-of-hand tricks, placing the yellow cup on top as a warning or the red cup on top if things have gone too far. A quick scan of the colors throughout the cafeteria is a good barometer of the noise and anxiety levels among the students.
The other day, I slipped into an empty seat at a lunch table of third-grade students. Rabia* turned to me and asked, “Is it true that Trump hates Muslims?”
I have known Rabia since she was tiny. She looks at me silently, her black hair held back by two plastic blue barrettes, her braces taking up too much room in her small mouth. She will begin wearing the hijab in the not-too-distant future. I am caught off guard and stall for time.
“Who told you that, Rabia?” I ask.
“Everyone is saying it,” she says, her voice rising, gesturing toward the cafeteria around her. “They are saying that I am going to have to move away.”
Lots of thoughts race through my mind. Does Rabia know what a “terrorist” is? She is just a little girl, and her family has done a bang-up job of protecting her childhood as long as is humanly possible in our culture. What would her parents want me to say to her?
“Have you talked to your parents about this?” I ask. She shakes her head no. “Why don’t you ask them about it when you get home, OK?” I suggest. She looks away. “But Rabia,” I continue, “I promise you. No one is going to make you move away. All of the adults here at school and at home are going to keep you safe.” She turns back to her friends. The conversation is over in an instant.
I am amazed at how quickly I lied to her. We elementary school teachers have become expert liars. Before going into our “shelter in place” and “lockdown” drills every year, we assure our students that they are safe, that the adults are in charge. But how in the world can we possibly promise that we can keep them safe? I have practiced the lie, however, and it comes out effortlessly.
Later that week, in that same cafeteria, our school celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day with an assembly. At our school, MLK Day is like a holy day. Our families come from 18 countries, and many of them struggled long and hard to get to the United States. The students get excited about MLK Day because all kids are passionate about fairness. So they sang their hearts out about how we “ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around” from standing up for what is right, even when we are afraid. The love in that room was so strong you could smell it over the ketchup and fried mozzarella sticks from the last lunch.
I am envious of my students. Growing up in my own elementary school, everyone looked like me. But my students get to grow up with each other and know each other as individuals, not just as Muslims or recent immigrants from Mexico or refugees from Syria. They are helping each other learn English. They are not afraid of their differences; they are curious about them.
I am convinced, President Trump, that you love your children and grandchildren and that you want them to be safe. I think this may be why you want to build walls and close borders. We all love our families; we all love our children. It seems that we have different strategies, however, for protecting them.
Please come to our school for a visit, President Trump, to learn a different strategy for keeping our children safe. I can promise that you would be safe here; a spork is the most dangerous thing around. And don’t worry that you would not be welcome because we are in a “blue” state. My students would be more than happy to talk to you about how we welcome strangers at our school, how we celebrate what’s best about our country. They know better than anyone that, as Dr. King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
There is not a lot of time to waste. It’s not just Rabia who is scared. Cups are flipping from green to yellow to red in school cafeterias all around the country. The noise and the anxiety levels are rising all over the world. Any chance you’re free next month? We could put together a great assembly for you. Do you like fried mozzarella sticks?
*Student’s name changed for anonymity.
McQuaid is a teacher/librarian in a preK-6 grade public school in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Africa is not a country, but it is taught like one.
When Africa appears in a U.S. classroom, it is typically shoehorned into a discrete unit framed by the beginning of European exploration and the end of decolonization, if time permits anything more than a survey of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the African continent and its people have a long and enduring history, replete with cultural, linguistic and economic diversities. When we permit a one-dimensional understanding of Africa, we are undermining not only our academic knowledge but also the voices and lived experiences of those individuals from or associated with Africa.
Therein lie the two goals of teaching Africa in the classroom: to humanize the diverse people of Africa and to normalize the various lives they lead. For many students and teachers, African studies is an amorphous concept because we lack varied African perspectives and teaching resources. This may lead us to inadvertently lump all of Africa into a singular entity, which ignores the identities and agencies of those individuals. This, then, has implications in our daily lives in how we consider and interact with the real people from our imagined versions of Africa. In the context of African studies, in order to uphold the humanity of those who we study, we must incorporate African perspectives and representative visuals into our classrooms and acknowledge differences while celebrating similarities.
In the video “African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes,” four Kenyan men discuss their frustration at how the Western world portrays them. Videos featuring citizens from various African countries and their perspectives can serve as a starting point from which to explore the sources of our knowledge; understand the limitations of our sources; analyze how the media impacts our perceptions; and discuss and share similar cases of prejudice that are perpetuated by popular culture. Similarly, social media accounts such as @barbiesavior, @everydayafrica and @adjustingfocus on Instagram offer entertaining and captivating opportunities for students to reflect on how they view Africa and to engage with content that complicates the singular narrative.
In working to normalize African studies, it is imperative to recognize that certain parts of the continent are fundamentally connected to our history as a country, and an even more integral part of our human story from the perspective of world history. The United States is profoundly—and shamefully—indebted, not only to the free labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants who built this nation, but also to the transfer of knowledge about foodways, architecture, religion, music and language brought from the African continent and adapted in the American context. In the newly released six-hour PBS series Africa’s Great Civilizations, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the African origins of human civilization, culture, writing and animal domestication. He argues, “Human history was born on the African continent, which makes Africa the wellspring from which all of the world’s history flows.”
Africa, and area studies more generally, should not compose standalone units or lessons. Rather, African people, history, achievements, arts and scholarship should be incorporated into all content areas and all grade levels. We often relegate Africa to the history classroom and neglect to see the value in using examples of African literature in English classes or African case studies in math classes. However, by blending area studies into all subject areas, we normalize what is sometimes stigmatized as the “other” and foster an understanding of equality among different populations. The goal should be comparative integration into all coursework.
The prospect of addressing the pedagogical urgency of effectively teaching the complexities of Africa in the classroom can be daunting, especially when many educators themselves are not well-versed in African studies. However, federally funded National Resource Centers (NRCs) exist to support educators in doing just that. With thousands of free online resources and hundreds of annual workshops nationwide, the African Studies Association Outreach Council is ready to help design interdisciplinary curricula that humanize and normalize African studies in the classroom.
The online Languages of Africa series, offered through Boston University’s African Studies Center, features several languages spoken around the continent and focuses on the personal and cultural connections each language has for its speakers. These videos can serve as a starting point from which to highlight the linguistic diversity of the continent; discuss the ways in which languages carry different meanings and values; and use languages as a means by which to understand transnational trade networks, migration and economic systems.
Like with all education, the most effective approach to teaching about Africa’s diversity through African voices and visuals is always to make it relevant to students’ lives and to activate prior knowledge. If we work to reposition Africa in our classrooms, regardless of grade level and subject area, we can begin to more accurately comprehend our global past and to more empathetically understand our global present.
Elliott is a Massachusetts history teacher who currently works as the outreach specialist at Boston University’s African Studies Center.