Friday, January 20, 2012

This Week's Observations: Banned Books, Technology, and Charters

Plymouth-Canton Schools (which actually do draw a small number of students from Washtenaw County have banned two books from an AP English class. The books? Toni Morrison's Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and which the New York Times called ""the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." The second book is Graham Swift's Waterland, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
This whole kerfuffle came about because a couple of parents complained about the books. It's unclear to me whether proper procedure was followed. Did the interim superintendent follow procedure? Is there procedure? (I don't know the details though, so I can't say for sure about that. I understand that some of the school board members are very conservative.) In any case. . . speculation aside. . . the ACLU of Michigan has written the district a letter. According to the ACLU's press release,
the ACLU of Michigan reminded the district that although schools have broad discretion in setting curriculum, the U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that banning books because they offend some runs afoul of the First Amendment. While parents have the right to guide their own child’s education, that right does not extend to restricting other students’ educational opportunities. (Emphasis added.)
In addition, I'll just note the tremendous irony of banning books in a high school AP class because of "mature subjects." I mean, AP classes are supposed to be like college. College is all about reading books that challenge us! In case you're wondering about the reasons that we shouldn't be trying to create colleges out of high schools, I think you just saw one reason in action--it makes some parents too uncomfortable.

Christine Stead, Ann Arbor school board member, has started a blog of her own. I'm planning to link to it in my blogroll, and you should take a minute to check it out at She tells me she's new at blogging, so if you have ideas of subjects that you hope she will cover, or reflections about what she writes, feel free to let her know in the comments. (Bloggers love comments. :)  By the way, do I think it is competition? No. I'm a parent, not a school board member. It's more like have several restaurants on the same street--the more the merrier--that way you can choose if you want Chinese or Italian. There are, by the way, a gazillion education blogs out in the world. I've only linked to a few of them on my blogroll.

The Ann Arbor schools have joined the twitterverse! Follow them at @a2schools. Follow Saline schools at @salineschools. Follow Dexter schools at @dexterschools. And follow Ypsilanti schools at @ypsischools. Saline schools also have several sub-twitter feeds (the high school principal, the athletics department, etc.) Oh, and follow me at @schoolsmuse.

Some interesting things have been going on at the first charter school I ever profiled, Ann Arbor Learning Community, and they illuminate some of the issues around charter schools, even for schools that are locally organized, non-profit charters. has an article, Parents fight for reinstatement of teacher at Ann Arbor Learning Community, which describes how a well-liked teacher was put on administrative leave. In examining this issue, let's leave aside the question of whether the administrative leave was the right decision--I don't know anything about their personnel matters.
The first thing that struck me has to do with teacher turnover--something that is often mentioned in critiques of charter schools. Not only has the "dean" of the school, Ticheal Jones, just left (in the middle of the school year!) for "personal" reasons, but according to the article, "Parents say the teacher’s forced absence is the third instance of this nature that the school has experienced in less than a year."
The second thing that struck me has to do with control of hiring and firing. In a typical public school district, the ultimate authority for hiring and firing would reside with the superintendent's office, but there would generally be a human resources department. And really, what is more important than the personnel you have teaching and working with the students? Here, it turns out, the hiring and firing is done by a group called Michigan Educational Personnel Services.

Carlie Lockwood, the vice president of human resources for MEP stressed that MEP works very closely with the dean, who is responsible for conducting teacher evaluations. But wait. . . didn't the dean just leave? I'm not sure why, or where that leaves things. There is an interim dean, and he was also recruited by MEP.

According to the article,
While AALC is a self-managed charter school, it contracts with Brighton-based MEP for its teachers and staff, said Malverne Winborne, director of Eastern Michigan University’s Charter Schools Office.
“MEP hires and places the employees,” Winborne said.
EMU is the authorizer of AALC, a K-8 school that was founded in 1997.
This is a typical arrangement for charter schools, particularly smaller charter schools--the schools hire someone else to do the hiring and firing of teachers (the teachers aren't really working for AALC, they are working for MEP) because the school (board) doesn't believe they have the skills or resources to do the hiring themselves. And by outsourcing this critical role, the school board gives up much of the local control that they ostensibly wanted in the first place.

And what does EMU's Charter Schools Office have to say about this? Not much, at least not publicly.

As much as we complain about the "transparency" issues with our local public district school boards, next to the charter schools they look crystal clear, and the charter school boards' transparency looks very muddy. In fact, that may be because as it turns out, those local charter school boards have precious little power or control. At least, right now, that's the way it seems to me.


  1. I feel very badly about the individual's teacher's problem going public. I know her, and all I can say is that the charter school system stinks.How is she going to get a job after her name is plastered on the web like that? I disliked very much when people went after the two administrators getting their raises so publicly. It's strikes me as the same level of personal intrusiveness while trying to discuss public issues. That level of HR problem/administrative issues should be a more private affair, because there's always more to consider when dealing with issues, than just the headline, it's the people named that are getting hammered.

  2. Anon4, as far as personnel matters and teachers, I too feel badly about that-and chose not to talk about it-although it is very unclear to me, in this situation, what other recourse the parents had, especially given the precipitous departure of the dean.
    I feel differently about the top administrators because 1) it wasn't about a performance issue and 2) that is part of the package deal of being a public servant and they knew that going in. If you want you can look up the salary of the lowest-paid staff at UM.

  3. That may be true about Pat Green, but I doubt Rob Allen or Dave Comsa knew how it was all going to break before that board meeting. And it is a performance issue for them too, always, pay is about performance and negotiation. A teacher is a public servant also.
    I feel very badly about the AALC situation, but really, people can't play at running a school, there's real issues, real people involved, staff and kids, and when the set up and oversight of what happens in these settings is so poor, bad things are going to happen.
    Unfortunately, it's easy to go after someone particular incident to prove a larger problem, and while that works, I guess, it's hard if not damaging for the individual to be targeted by the public for what is actually a system's problem.

  4. Plymouth-Canton has re-instated Beloved. Still waiting to decide about Waterland.

  5. I am sure this is unpleasant for the teacher named, but it really is important that the public has information about all schools, including charter schools.

  6. It's really true that we know more about charters and traditional schools, but likely that women's career is ruined,and that's seems quite unfair. I mean, people get fired all the time, it doesn't get aired all the time.
    This is reminds me of the phrase, the politics of personal destruction. There are plenty of other ways to find out how a charter is performing, how staff is doing, without naming names in such a low point in someone's life.

  7. Unfortunately, it is *not* easy to find out a lot of information about charter schools. It is much easier to find out information about management of traditional public schools.

  8. That's part of the deal going in on charters, though, and people should know that. It's a business, and a politicized one, and the rules are going to be different than in the public schools. I don't know anything about this teacher except what I read in the "paper" and the fact I read anything at all about this sort of issue is rather surprising.