Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Waiting for Superman" Stirs Controversy

Davis Guggenheim sure knows how to draw a crowd. He did this first with the environmental awareness documentary “The Inconvenient Truth” and now he is at it again with his highly controversial documentary on the current face of American public school system: “Waiting for Superman.” The New York release of the film brought people out, not only to view the movie but also to protest its seeming promotion of charter schools and anti-union message. The movie and the message it carries are definitely stirring up some strong emotions from both sides of the union and charter school fences.
Below are some of the loudest voices, some are educational and balanced while others are passionate and opinionated.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Groundbreaking Curriculum on Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State

Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State

Denny Hurtado

Director, Indian Education
Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
Washington State

In 2005, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1495, which officially recommended inclusion of tribal history in all common schools.

The resulting curriculum is called Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State. The final product will be web-based and will be available in August 2010.

This curriculum uses three approaches:

An inquiry based approach with five essential questions:

How does physical geography affect the distribution, culture, and economic life of local tribes?

What is the legal status of tribes who negotiated or who did not negotiate settlement for compensation for the loss of their sovereign homelands?

What were the political, economic, and cultural forces consequential to the treaties that led to the movement of tribes from long established homelands to reservations?

What are the ways in which tribes responded to the threats to extinguish their cultures and independence, such as missionaries, boarding schools, assimilation policies, and the reservation system?

What have tribes done to meet the challenges of reservation life? What have these tribes, as sovereign nations, done to meet the economic and cultural needs of their tribal communities?

A place-based approach. Our approach encourages teachers and students to address the essential questions in the context of tribes in their own communities.

An integrated approach. Teachers choose how much time to spend on tribal sovereignty content to complete their units throughout the year. The integrated approach provides three levels of curriculum for each of the OSPI recommended social studies units, each level building on the last. Where appropriate, units build toward successful completion of Content Based Assessments (CBA).

Selected goals of tribal-sovereignty curriculum

Elementary School:

• Understand that there are more than 500 independent tribal nations and that they deal with the United States and one another on a government-to-government basis.
• Define tribal sovereignty as "a way that tribes govern themselves in order to keep and support their cultural ways of life."
• Identify the names and locations of tribes in their area.

Middle school:

• Understand that under the U.S. Constitution, treaties are "the supreme law of the land."
• Understand that tribes are subject to federal law and taxes, as well as some state regulations.
• Understand that levels of sovereignty vary from tribe to tribe and that there are continued threats to tribal sovereignty.

High school:

• Recognize landmark court decisions and legislation bearing on tribal sovereignty.
• Understand that tribal sovereignty works toward protecting tribes' ways of life and toward the development of their nations.
• Explain the governmental structure of at least one tribe in their community.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Teachable Moment: Discussing the Controversy over the Proposed Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero

We just learned about an interesting curriculum that we wanted to bring to the attention of our readers. It was developed by the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. We invited the center to describe its work in the post below.

Curriculum Ideas for Discussing Park51
From the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding

Park51, the proposed cultural center/mosque near Ground Zero is one of the most talked-about and volatile issues in the U.S. right now, raising questions and feelings about Islam, extremists, terrorists and 9/11.

The same information that characterizes the debate in the mainstream media will inevitably color students’ perceptions of the issue, as they inherit the media’s and individuals in their communities’ take on the debate. Tools for helping guide conversations around this issue are important. The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding has created a curriculum to help arm teachers with the resources they need to turn this tension-filled topic into an enriching classroom experience.

Tanenbaum is a secular, non-sectarian organization committed to the vision that people of all beliefs, from the most religiously devout to the most committed atheist can live, learn and work peacefully together in a spirit of true respect. The mission of the Religion and Diversity Education program is to train educators across the globe to prepare students to be global citizens, skilled in living and succeeding in a religiously diverse society and able to incorporate coexistence into their everyday lives. We know that teachers encounter questions from students about the role of religion in their lives and in the world and offer our trainings and curriculum to help them in that work.

Using the curriculum, teachers can explore the Park51 controversy specifically, or use it as an avenue to discuss conflict generally and look at conflict resolution and mediation tools. They can look at anti-Islam sentiment across the country, and compare it to other historical “phobias” in the U.S. They can also use the conversation as a tool for having a thoughtful conversation about 9/11 and what it means for the U.S. and our relationship with the rest of the world.

You can download the Park51 Curriculum Guide and Fact Sheets from Tanenbaum’s website. If you have any questions, please contact

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Global Infestation of U.S. Educational Ideas: A Cautionary Thought by Author Kay Ann Taylor

Editors: Today we welcome a post by guest blogger, Kay Ann Taylor. Our readers will remember the article that we published in our winter 2009 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy by Kay Ann Taylor, entitled, Poverty's Multiple Dimensions. In today's post, Dr. Taylor reflects on her recent visit to a conference she attended in Istanbul, Turkey where she learned about the extent that the United States focus on standardized testing has had on the educational thinking in other nations. Historically, U.S. educational ideas have had an influence around the world. Our author asks us to think about what ideas we are exporting today and if this is the "best the U.S. has to offer."

Exporting U.S. Education: Is Standardized Testing the Best the U.S. Has to Offer?
by Kay Ann Taylor
Kansas State University

As an educator and an individual, a major personal bias and belief is my non-belief in standardized testing (ST). With the onset and passing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the festering in American education surrounding standardized testing has reached the status of some god-like or pagan entity that determines the futures of not only our children, but our teachers, schools, communities, country, and impacts our global efficacy. Those who are not educators (politicians) continue to direct and dictate policies and practices to those who are. How can and why does the American public at large and in general succumb to the edicts of this flawed, detrimental, and demeaning measure of human capacity? And, more to the point, why and how did exporting U.S. ST become so welcome, so revered, and, received so uncritically by our global community? Like cancer, the disease of U.S. standardized testing infects the global arena. I remain critical and skeptical regarding the gate-keeping effects of ST in terms of its impact and outcome on the lives, futures, education, thinking, and psyches of the human enterprise.

The polar views in the U.S. regarding ST are far from new. They are divergent in philosophical orientation, utility, purpose, interpretation, and implementation. There are scholars that support ST. Conversely, numerous scholars continue to challenge the oppressive nature of ST in that it lacks context and marginalizes English language learners, learners from low socioeconomic status, creates winners vs losers. Critics argue further that ST in no way represents learning, knowledge, understanding, much less real-life application. Additionally and importantly, some scholars contend that ST is racist and gender-biased. There is a distorted Darwinian element ingrained in ST, i.e., the survival of the fittest, which misrepresents Darwin for one, and rather, serves the interests of those seeking to maintain the status quo. Further, ST represents an outdated factory system of education that serves social efficiency, social control, social reproduction, and maintains the status quo for social mobility, thus begging the question, “Whose interests are served by standardized tests?” Believing that humans can be ranked, filed, and sorted on the basis of ST is one of the most destructive and dehumanizing practices education faces.

Standardized testing is big business. This hit me squarely during a session at the World Council of Comparative Education Societies this June (2010) in Istanbul, Turkey. I co-presented with my former M.S. student (now pursuing her Ph.D. in Russian Literature at another institution while teaching Russian Language at our university) based on her historical and qualitative thesis research in which she compared the first-ever national 2008 External Knowledge Testing in her Ukrainian country of origin to the historical onset of ST in the U.S. We went to our session location in advance to familiarize ourselves with the setting and to ensure the technology was in place. A Lebanese professor, who teaches in higher education in her country of origin, was there to attend the session and started a conversation with us. The title of our presentation, "Border Transmission and Reproduction Déjà Vu: Ukrainian External Independent Knowledge Testing—Reflections in the Mirror of U.S. Standardized Testing," captured her interest. Even before the session began, we discovered our topic was controversial because of our critical perspective.

As conference sessions go, ours was well attended by 25-30 people from almost as many different countries represented. There were two other countries and comparative topics in our session. Questions for all presenters were held until the end after everyone presented. Evidently, I have been naïve for quite some time because I was unprepared for the lively Q&A that followed regarding our research. Until our session, I remained blissfully unaware the extent to which ST from the U.S. has been exported globally. Plainly, we struck a nerve with most of our colleagues. From the discussion that followed directed at our research, it appeared to us that ST not only is well-received by our global counterparts, but that for many, it never was questioned critically regarding the numerous flaws and negative effects noted above.

After our session, I went outside to relax briefly. A young lady who attended our session stopped to visit with me. She is Brazilian by birth and informed me that Brazilian higher education institutions require the GRE. When I brought up my passion for Critical Race Theory (CRT), she smiled and informed me that she studied for three years with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Claude Steele—all prominent CRT scholars. She likely was the only individual attending our session who was familiar with, understood, much less agreed with, our position.

This experience provided considerable material for my reflection. After returning from the conference, I visited with a colleague and shared what happened. To my surprise, he challenged our critical assessment of ST and informed me that he knows personally an administrator for one of the major testing companies in the U.S. He explained that in his conversation with this person, he was informed that the company exercises care in test construction with the host country’s interested parties to ensure native language and culture are represented and not misinterpreted. After visiting the company’s web site to see for myself, I engaged in more reflection about this phenomenon. What struck me is that what is highly likely in this international ST-creating process is that the same flaws and biases inherent in the U.S. system also are reproduced in each country constructing “culturally sensitive” ST. For example, as stated above, ST represents an outdated factory model of schooling in the U.S., especially in terms of social efficiency, social control, and maintaining social mobility for the status quo. As I continued my conversation with my colleague, I continued to delineate the negative aspects of ST. One comment made by my colleague that struck yet another chord, was his statement that ST in many countries is used for placement in education. This, of course, also caused me consternation as I responded that placement represents tracking—from my perspective yet one more oppressive and outdated practice that remains deeply entrenched to the detriment of many in the U.S. In a final attempt to convince my colleague, I posed the question, “Do we want our students to be good test takers or to be able to understand, engage, embrace creativity, and be able to apply what they know?” It was this question that finally afforded success in relaying my concerns about ST to my colleague.

I continue to contemplate this conundrum of ST plaguing our schools and educational system in the U.S. With every semester since the passing of NCLB, my undergraduate foundations preservice students enter my class increasingly expecting me to tell them what to think and how to do “it”. Colleagues at other institutions indicate similar observations in their parallel classes. I anticipate that this will continue to worsen with each class of K-12 students in our public education environments who are subjected to the edicts of NCLB.

Thus, I now am acutely and painfully aware of the global infestation of ST. The oppressive biases and stultifying effects of ST now appear to be accepted uncritically in numerous countries. Moreover, ST reinforces competition and isolation rather than cooperation, collaboration, and understanding—the latter qualities needed to serve all humans productively in our global setting. U.S. education is revered deeply by many international communities. Will this, in turn, affect the success of international professionals seeking to live and work in the U.S.? Will ST ensure for them that they are no longer required to start their education over in the U.S. in order to pursue a profession they were educated for and practiced, perhaps for decades, in their country of origin but their “foreign” education and experience is inadequate by U.S. standards? I doubt it.

Ultimately, my question remains: Is exporting standardized testing the best practice U.S. education has to offer?

Kay Ann Taylor is Associate Professor of the Foundations of Education, American Ethnic Studies at Kansas State University. Her article, the Poverty's Multiple Perspectives, appeared in our winter 2009 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on the theme, The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty: Rethinking Poverty and Education.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Teaching Tolerance" Challenges Agenda of Focus on the Family

In our post below, we drew our readers’ attention to a group called, Focus on the Family, who is challenging public school anti-bullying policies that draw attention to the harassment of gay and lesbian students as part of a “gay agenda.” Maureen Costello, the director for Teaching Tolerance, a publication aimed at developing greater tolerance in our schools, has come out with a statement challenging the group's agenda.

You can read their statement at: Focus on the Family Goes After LGBT Students

On their site, teachers can also order a free copy of the new Teaching Tolerance documentary, Bullied: A School, a Student and a Case that Made History.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ideology vs. Sensibilities

I am often amazed at the great divide between people when ideological positions become reified to the point that we are blind to the life experiences and suffering of real individuals. This morning, I read an article in the Denver Post entitled, “Focus on Family says anti-bullying efforts in schools push gay agenda.” The conservative Christian media ministry group sees efforts to confront the problem of bullying and cyber-bullying in the public schools as part of a “gay agenda.” In the post below, Warren J. Blumenfeld, an Associate Professor of Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies at Iowa State University, looks at the real life experiences of children who confront this kind of bullying and the devastating effects it can have.

My “Gay Agenda”:
A Response to Focus on the Family
A Commentary by Warren J. Blumenfeld

Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian media ministry organization, asserted in published accounts (“Focus on Family says anti-bullying efforts in schools push gay agenda,” The Denver Post,, 8/29/2010) that gay rights advocates are forcing their viewpoints (their so-called “gay agenda”) in schools in the guise of bullying prevention.

Focus on the Family spokesperson, Candi Cushman, asserted that gay activists are the real schoolyard bullies while conservative Christians are the victims. According to Cushman, “We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled.”

I have been gay most of my life, probably all of my life, and I have been involved in community organizing for the past 40 years, and I still don’t understand this term “Gay Agenda.” If you talk to two random “gay activists,” you will most likely find multiple viewpoints toward social change.

If making schools safe and welcoming spaces for students, faculty, and staff of all sexual identities and gender expressions (as well as racial, ethnic, socioeconomic class, religious, ability backgrounds, ages, everyone), then yes indeed -- this is certainly part of my “gay agenda.” Let us look at the reasons why this must be part of all of our agendas, including that of Focus on the Family.

Ryan Patrick Halligan was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1990. His parents described him as a rather shy boy growing up, who early on exhibited developmental delays in his speech, language, and motor skills. The family moved to Essex Junction, Vermont, where, by the fifth grade his peers bullied him at school on a regular basis. Rumors soon circulated throughout the school that Ryan was gay. By middle school in the seventh grade, his classmates continually teased and harassed him on school grounds and extended their taunts over email for having a learning disability and for allegedly being gay. On October 7, 2003, feeling that he could no longer live with the constant abuse, Ryan Patrick Halligan took his life. He was 13 years old.

Reports (Spero News, 2006) indicate that Ryan displayed many of the symptoms of youth targeted by face-to-face and on-line cyberbullying: he spent long hours on his computer, and he was secretive regarding his interactions on communication and information technologies. His parents saw him manifest a number of changes in his behavior: he increasingly lacked interest in engaging in social activities that included his peers, and he exhibited a pronounced change in his overall attitude, his appearance, and his habits.

Ryan’s father, John P. Halligan, established a web site in loving tribute to his son as a clarion call to prevent what happened to Ryan from impacting the lives of any other young people. John Halligan expressed his hope:

“This site is dedicated to the memory of our son Ryan and for all young people suffering in silence from the pain of bullying and having thoughts of suicide. We hope young people become less ashamed to ask for help when feeling suicidal. We hope adults gain knowledge from our tragedy. As a society, we need to find better ways to help our young people through their most difficult growing years (”

The American Psychological Association (APA) passed a resolution (2004) calling on educational, governmental, business, and funding agencies to address issues of face-to-face and cyberbullying. In the resolution, they particularly addressed acts of harassment “about race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity” (p. 1). In addition, the resolution specifically emphasized the high rate of bullying around issues of sexual identity, gender expression, and disability:

“[C]hildren and youth with disabilities and children and youth who are lesbian, gay, or transgender, or who are perceived to be so may be at particularly high risk of being bullied by their peers.”

Though too late to help Ryan Patrick Halligan as someone with a disability and who was perceived as gay, possibly this resolution can assist in developing policies and can ultimately help in the reduction of bullying behaviors.

GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) found in its 2007 National School Climate Survey of 6,209 middle and high school students that 86.2% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students experienced harassment at school in the past year, 44.1% reported being physically harassed, and 22.1% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year, 73.6% heard derogatory remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school, 60.8% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 38.4% felt unsafe because of their gender expression, and 32.7% skipped a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe. The report also found that the grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.8 versus 2.4).

On a positive note, the survey also discovered that schools can make a marked and powerful difference when they directly and visibly address the problem of bullying and harassment.

Students who are the targets of harassment and attacks by their peers are associated with higher rates of mental health problems. Risk factors for those targeted include increased school absenteeism, school difficulties including slipping grades, and dropping out of school. Also, they have increased risk of alcohol and drug use and abuse, as well as psychosomatic symptoms. They are also linked to serious mental health problems including depression, anxiety disorders, increased fear and withdrawal from family and peers, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), low self esteem, poor body image, suicidal ideation, attempts, and completion.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are integral members of families throughout this nation and the world. If Focus on the Family is seriously concerned with improving the quality of life and is truly focusing on families, they will join us in this effort to work to secure the safety and the equity of educational outcomes for all people, including our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, Associate Professor of Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies at Iowa State University. He is co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States.

Permission was granted to publish this commentary.

To view state laws on anti-bullying, go to:

To see an example of a Middle School Cyberbullying Curriculum developed by the Seattle Public Schools, go to: