Defiant Ariz. Schools Chief Proposes Swapping Standards for Conservative Charter Curriculum Plan

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 25, 2018 6 min read
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Arizona schools chief Diane Douglas may have lost her bid for re-election in the state’s GOP primary, but she is not leaving her post without trying to leave her mark on the state’s education system.

A conservative who has been open about her Christian faith, Douglas defended a controversial draft of the state’s science standards that critics say minimizes the teaching of evolution and climate change at a board meeting on Tuesday.

And then, in a surprise move, Douglas proposed another option for those still unhappy with those standards: The state could scrap them (alongside math and language arts) and replace them with a “scope and sequence” plan used by the Barney Charter School Initiative, an incubator started by a Christian liberal arts college.

Hillsdale College, located in Michigan, has long been culturally conservative but has been in the news more recently for its ties to key officials in the Trump administration. Vice President Mike Pence gave the commencement speech there in 2018, and the school has received financial donations in the past from the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Politico reported in May. It’s well known for an emphasis on a classical liberal arts curriculum celebrating Western values.

There are a number of Barney-affiliated charter schools, mostly located in the south. A look at the plan of study shows it to be largely aligned with those Western tenets. At the schools’ instructional heart is a version of the Core Knowledge sequence, a well known curriculum created by E.D. Hirsch, but the Hillsdale iteration apparently adds and deletes various components.

The document contains many more references to Christianity compared to Arizona’s current standards. Christianity is taught alongside other world religions as early as 1st grade, as it is in Core Knowledge. But in other cases, the teaching goes further, including a number of specific stories or sermons from the Old and New Testaments, not all of which appear in the Core Knowledge Sequence. Arizona law does allow the Bible to be taught as part of history and literature classes, however.

The document is also more detailed as to what specifically teachers would teach on any given week than are the current state standards. For instance, it details recommended texts all the way through the different grade levels, from Anne of Green Gables in elementary school up to Crime and Punishment for seniors.

In offering the Hillsdale document as a possible alternative to the current state standards, Douglas noted the state’s below-average performance on the Nation’s Report Card as well as other gauges of the state’s education system, including Education Week‘s annual Quality Counts report, suggesting that the state’s modest gains indicate it’s time to try a new approach.

But others in the state expressed puzzlement about why Douglas chose to highlight this curriculum—and why now.

“My take on it is that she lost her primary, and that this is her last gasp, trying to do something for her people,” said Bruce Johnson, the dean of the education school at the University of Arizona, noting that Douglas’ core supporters when she was elected two years ago included parents who homeschooled for religious reasons. “I can’t imagine what else it’s about. It has no chance; there’s no way the state is going to approve it.”

Too Close to Curriculum?

The idea of a standards swap was rejected by several education groups during the public comments portion of the meeting, who said the plan veered far too close to a curriculum and potentially would interfere with local school boards’ authority to choose books and materials.

“The document recommends the order in which concepts should be taught and provides recommended texts and advances a specific academic tradition,” said Christopher Kotterman, the director of governmental relations for the Arizona School Boards Association. “These are hallmarks of curriculum, not standards.”

Other education groups made that point less explicitly, noting that if adopted it would supercede the work that hundreds of teachers and subject experts have poured into the state’s science and social science standards, both of which are scheduled for approval this fall.

“Now that this process coming to the finish line, it’s time to honor the practices and the outcomes that these groups have produced,” said Mark Joraanstad, the executive director of Arizona School Administrators. “It is the administators’ and educators of this state’s fervent hope that you will honor the work done by those groups, bring this to a conclusion so our districts, our charter schools can move forward with the training and materials to support those standards.”

The difference between “standards” and “curriculum” is tricky and not always clear cut, but in general educators define standards as broad educational goals, such as “trace the development of character throughout a literary text,” while curriculum includes the specific program of studies and materials used to get there, such as Guy De Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace.”

Science Still a Flashpoint in Arizona

Still, the surprise introduction of this option took a back seat to the science standards. Most of the public comments at the meeting focused on these standards, which have been mired in controversy since the spring.

In April, at least two educators who served on the panel told Education Week that what they’d put in the draft was significantly altered after it went through revision at the department.

Earlier this month, the science standards were thrust into the spotlight again when the Phoenix New Times reported that a creationist, Joseph Kazele, sat on the panel that put finishing touches on the most recent draft of the standards.

In a nearly 10-minute speech at the board meeting, Douglas mounted a defense of the standards—and said she had been the subject of vicious personal attacks.

“Personally I absolutely believe intelligent design, or at the very least design without ascribing it to a specific designer, should be taught alongside evolution, but the courts have deemed that unconstitutional,” she said. “Therefore, the focus of the draft science standards is not to introduce intelligent design but rather to clearly define and address the strengths and weaknesses of evolution theory, what we know and don’t know about evolution, and the positive and negative impacts of mankind on climate change.”

She also excoriated the media’s reporting on Kazele, “all of which was intended to create drama, fake news, and clickbait.”

The Arizona Science Teachers Association has recommended that, at the very least, the department reinstate four sections relating to climate change and evolution as they were originally worded. That will ensure “teachers are not put in the position of teaching nonscientific ideas and concepts,” said its executive director, Sara Torres.

And board member Janice Mak urged that the department include those changes when it brings the standards to the board for approval in October. The board could adopt the standards, adopt them with more revisions, or push back the approval date even further at that meeting.

It was not clear whether the Arizona Department of Education would seek to begin a formal public comment period on the Hillsdale/Barney Charter School Initiative expectations, as is typically the case for standards revision in the state, or whether they would be presented as a separate option for the board next month.

A state board of education spokeswoman said she did not know whether the standards would be put out for comment, while a spokesman for Douglas didn’t immediately respond to an email query.

Photo: Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas speaks with members of the media in Phoenix. —Ross D. Franklin/AP-File

For more news on Diane Douglas, see also:

Arizona Draft Science Standards Minimize Evolution. Many Blame the State Superintendent

Arizona Policy Issues Caught in Arizona Crossfire

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.