Who picks school curriculum? Idaho law hands more power to parents

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — When J.D. Davis, the department chair of English at Twin Falls High School, was told last year that half of the committee he was leading to pick new texts and materials for the district’s English Language Arts classrooms would be parents and community members, he objected.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to have parents involved! They don’t know what we’re doing. They don’t know what we need in a textbook as far as curriculum.’ I kind of scoffed at it,” said Davis, who also teaches journalism, oversees the school newspaper and advises the Gay-Straight Alliance.

A new Idaho law gave him no choice.

Across the U.S., educators typically lead textbook selections, although many districts, like Twin Falls, have long included parents in the process. Idaho’s “District Curricular Adoption Committees” law makes parent involvement mandatory — and then some — demanding districts form committees of at least 50 percent non-educators, including parents of current students, to review and recommend new texts and materials.

A year in, the law is reshaping what is or isn’t in the curriculum in many counties in this Western state, including how subjects like climate change or social movements are discussed in some courses.

It has spurred tough but positive parent-school discussions in Twin Falls where parents and educators say the conversations have forced them to consider one another’s concerns and perspectives. In other districts, however, it’s poised to harden divisions and keep students from getting learning tools they need.

Whitney Urmann, who attended schools in West Bonner County School District and taught fourth grade last year, packed up her classroom to teach in California. Credit: Image provided by Seth Hodgson

Related: Inside Florida’s ‘underground lab’ for far-right policies

Around the country, curricula — books and materials that guide but don’t define lessons — have become a political target of conservatives who fear conflict with values they want to instill in their children. Over the past two years, 147 “parental rights” bills were introduced in state legislatures, according to a legal tracker by the education think tank FutureEd.

Only a handful passed. Many restrict discussions around race and gender. Several enforce parents’ ability to review texts and materials. A 2022 Georgia “Parents’ Bill of Rights” requires that schools provide parents access to classroom and assigned materials within three days of a request. The Idaho curriculum law, embraced by the state’s conservative legislature, went into effect in July 2022.

The curriculum law is noteworthy because it gives non-educators more power not just to inspect curriculum, but to help choose it.

Twin Falls High School is home to English department chair J.D. Davis, who led a committee that was 50 percent community members and parents in selecting a new district English Language Arts curriculum, in accordance with a new Idaho law. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Some educators view it as a political move to undercut their professional role. “The parent partnership is important,” said Peggy Hoy, an instructional coach in the Twin Falls district and the National Education Association director for Idaho. “The problem is when you make a rule like they did and there is this requirement, it feels as an educator that the underlying reason is to drive a wedge between the classroom and parents.”

Sally Toone, a recently retired state representative and veteran teacher who opposed the law, sees it as a legislative move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.”

Educators also voiced practical considerations. It can be tough for districts to find parents to devote time to curriculum review. Many have had to scramble, Hoy and others said. Only three non-educators agreed to serve on a math curriculum committee in Twin Falls, which meant that only three educators could participate — fewer than half the optimal number, said the educator who led the committee. Ditto for a science curriculum committee in Coeur D’Alene.

“My family and I are very religious. My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’ ”

Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District

Having many non-educators involved also changes how materials are judged. Educators want to know, for example, if lessons are clear and organized, and whether they connect to prior learning and support students of differing levels. By contrast, “parents don’t understand the pedagogy of what happens in a curriculum,” said Hoy. They “look at the stories, the word problems, the way they are explaining it.”

Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican state legislator who sponsored the law, initially agreed to an interview but did not respond to several requests to arrange it.

Related: Population booms overwhelm schools in the West: ‘Someone’s going to get left behind’

During the review process in Twin Falls, a district with 9,300 students in southern Idaho, parents objected to a theme around peaceful protests, the tone of questions around climate change and lessons that included social emotional learning.

The curriculum with social emotional learning “got nixed pretty quickly,” said Davis, the English teacher leading the committee. Social emotional learning (SEL) — tools and strategies that research shows can help students better grasp academic content — has become a new lightning rod for the far-right across and is often conflated with Critical Race Theory or CRT.

Chris Reid, a banker and vice mayor of Twin Falls and father with seven children in the public schools, said he was eager to help select the new English Language Arts curriculum and make sure materials were “age-appropriate” and not include “revisionist history,” LGBTQ themes or sexuality introduced “to younger-age children.”

“My family and I are very religious,” said Reid, sitting one afternoon in his mezzanine office at First Federal Bank. “My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’”

Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District, in his office at First Federal Bank. Participating in the curriculum review, he said, convinced him that teachers “are not trying to indoctrinate my child.” Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Despite some tense conversations, Davis, the teacher, said the process was overall “not threatening.” He also liked the curriculum choice, the myPerspectives textbooks by Savvas Learning Company. He does, however, see risks with the new mandate, including that a parent or community member with an agenda “could hamstring the district from getting the best textbook,” he said. “It could literally be one member of the committee.”

Committee member Anna Rill, a teacher at Canyon Ridge High School, said the difficult conversations about content “made us think a little more about the community you are living in and that you are serving.”

Twin Falls, named for the waterfalls formed by the Snake River Canyon dam, which in the early 1900s turned the area from desert into a rich agricultural region now called “The Magic Valley,” is politically conservative (70 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2020). L.H. Erickson, director of secondary programs for the school district, said he thought the curriculum “should meet the values and ideals of your community.”

Increasing public involvement makes good sense because schools must be responsive to parent views, said Erickson. “Parents give us their children for several hours a day and a lot of trust and we want to make sure to earn and keep that trust.”

Reid, the father of seven, liked being able to share his. “I got to hear other perspectives; they got to understand my side on the content,” he said. The experience led him to conclude that, “teachers are not evil. They are not trying to indoctrinate my child.”

Related: States were adding lessons about Native American history. Then came the anti-CRT movement

The new law may help to build bridges in Twin Falls and some other communities. But in West Bonner County, which serves about 1,000 students in rural north Idaho, a year-old dispute over an English Language Arts curriculum continues to fuel division.

The blow-up began last summer. In June, before the new law went into effect, the curriculum review committee, which included a few parents, chose the Wonders English Language Arts curriculum from McGraw-Hill. The school board approved it quickly and unanimously. The materials were purchased and delivered. “They were stacked in the hallways,” one parent said.

Then, some local conservative activists loudly objected, saying the materials contained social emotional learning components. In developing the curriculum, McGraw-Hill had partnered with Sesame Workshop to include SEL skills that language on the Wonders site said included “a focus on self-confidence, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior.” At a meeting on Aug. 24, 2022, the school board voted 3-1 to rescind the curriculum.

Sally Toone, a rancher, teacher for 37 years and recently retired state representative, voted against the Idaho curriculum review law, which she said was a move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.” Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Because the existing curriculum is out of print, the district lacked a reading program last year.

“We had no spelling lists, no word work. The first unit was on the desert and we live in north Idaho,” said Whitney Urmann, who taught fourth grade last year at West Bonner County School District’s Priest Lake Elementary School. “Very early on, I stopped using the curriculum,” Urmann said.

She had two workbooks for her entire class and few books leveled to her students’ abilities. Other materials were incomplete or irrelevant, she said. From mid-October on, she said, she purchased materials herself, spending $2,000 of her $47,000 salary to be able to teach reading.

The board’s decision, said Margaret Hall, the board member who cast the dissenting vote, “has created some ill feelings.” Indeed: Two board members who voted to rescind the curriculum now face a recall after parents gathered enough signatures on petitions to force a vote.

Shouting at one school board meeting in June went on for nearly four hours.

The dispute, and the subsequent absence of teaching materials, has upset some local parents.

Hailey Scott, a mother of three, said she worries that her child entering first grade, an advanced reader, won’t “be challenged.” Meanwhile, her third grader is behind in reading, said Scott, “and I fear she will be set back even more by not having a state-approved curriculum in her classroom.”

Whitney Hutchins, who grew up in the district and works at the Priest Lake resort her family has owned and operated for generations, recently decided with her husband to move across the state line to Spokane, Washington.

“This is not the environment I want to raise my child in,” said Hutchins, mother of an 18-month-old. She said the curriculum law is part of a larger problem of extremists gaining control and destroying civic institutions.

“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers,” she said. “It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”

Whitney Urmann, a fourth grade teacher at Priest Lake Elementary School last year, said that by October she had exhausted all available materials in the reading curriculum, which is out of print. Credit: Image provided by Whitney Urmann

Hutchins doesn’t see things improving. The school board, on a 3-2 vote, chose Branden Durst — who was previously a senior analyst at the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation and has no educational experience — as the district’s new superintendent over Susie Luckey, the interim superintendent and a veteran educator in the district.

Durst said that he wanted the job because of the district’s challenges, including around curriculum. “I have a lot of ideas that are frankly unorthodox in education. I needed to prove to myself that those things are right,” he said. Those ideas could include using a curriculum developed by the conservative Christian Hillsdale College, he said.

Durst is currently assembling a new committee with plans to quickly adopt a new English Language Arts curriculum, but declined to share details.

“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers. It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”

Whitney Hutchins, mother who recently decided to leave Twin Falls for Spokane, Washington

Jessica Rogers, who served on the committee that picked the Wonders curriculum, said she saw hints of trouble long before the vote to reject the curriculum. She said the curriculum adoption committee anticipated political attacks, including over images that showed racial diversity. “One of the things we did was go through the curriculum and see where the first blond-haired, blue-eyed boy was,” she recalled, adding that they noted pages to use as a defense.

It was, she said, “bizarre.”

Rogers and her husband recently built a home atop a hill with a broad view of Chase Lake. As her three daughters had a water fight on the patio, she hoped aloud that building in the West Bonner County School District was not a mistake.

This story about curriculum reviews was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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To fight teacher shortages, schools turn to custodians, bus drivers and aides 

MORGAN CITY, La. — Jenna Gros jangles as she walks the halls of Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. The dozens of keys she carries while she sweeps, sprays, shelves and sorts make a loud sound, and when children hear her coming, they call out, “Miss Jenna!” 

Gros is head custodian at Wyandotte, in this small town in southern Louisiana. She’s also a teacher-in-training.  

In August 2020, she signed up for a new program designed to provide people working in school settings the chance to turn their job into an undergraduate degree in education, at a low cost. There’s untapped potential among people who work in schools right now, as classroom aides, lunchroom workers, afterschool staff and more, the thinking goes, and helping them become teachers could ease the shortage that’s dire in some districts around the country, particularly in rural areas like this one. 

Brusly Elementary School has 595 students, ranging from ages two to seven. Principal Lesley Green says teacher retention is one of her top priorities: “Because we know that the best thing for our babies is stability and consistency. And that’s very important at this age level, especially where they thrive off of routines, procedures and familiar faces.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In two and a half years, the teacher training program, run by nonprofit Reach University, has grown from 50 applicants to about 1,000, with most coming from rural areas of Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and California. The “apprenticeship degree” model costs students $75 dollars a month. The rest of the funding comes from Pell Grants and philanthropic donations. The classes, which are online, are taught by award-winning teachers, and districts must agree to have students work in the classroom for 15 hours a week as part of their training.

We have overlooked a talent pool to our detriment,” said Joe Ross, president of Reach University. “These people have heart and they have the grit and they have the intelligence. There’s a piece of paper standing in the way.” 

Efforts to recruit teacher candidates from the local community date back to the 1990s, but programs have “exploded” in number over the past five years, said Danielle Edwards, assistant professor  of educational leadership, policy and workforce development at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Some of these “grow your own” programs, like Reach’s, recruit school employees who don’t have college degrees or degrees in education, while others focus on retired professionals, military veterans, college students, and even K12 students, with some starting as young as middle school.

“‘Grow your own’ has really caught on fire,” said Edwards, in part because of research showing that about 85 percent of teachers teach within 40 miles of where they grew up. But while these programs are increasingly popular, she says it isn’t clear what the teacher outcomes are in terms of effectiveness or retention. 

Related: Teacher shortages are real, but not for the reasons you’ve heard

Nationwide, there are at least 36,500 teacher vacancies, along with approximately 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers, according to estimates by Tuan Nguyen, anassociate professor of education at Kansas State University. At Wyandotte, Principal Celeste Pipes has three uncertified teachers out of 26. 

“We are pulling people literally off the streets to fill spots in a classroom,” she said. Surrounding parishes in this part of Louisiana, 85 miles west of New Orleans, pay more than the starting salary of $46,000 she can offer; some even cover the full cost of health insurance. 

Data suggests not having qualified teachers can worsen student achievement and increase costs for districts. An unstable workforce also affects the school culture, said Pipes: “Once we have people here that are years and years and years in, we know how things are run.”

Jenna Gros, head custodian at Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, stops to tie a student’s shoe. She said she makes it a point to develop relationships with students: “We don’t just do garbage, you know?” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

As Gros walks the hallways, she stops to swat a fly for a scared child, ties a first grader’s shoelaces and asks a third about their math homework. Her colleagues had long noticed her calm, encouraging manner, and so, when a teacher’s aide at Wyandotte heard about Reach, she urged Gros to sign up with her. 

Gros grew up in this town — her father worked as a mechanic in the oil rigs — and always wanted to be a teacher. But with three children and a salary of $22,000 a year, she couldn’t afford to do so. The low cost and logistics of Reach’s program suddenly made it possible: Her district agreed to her spending 15 hours of her work week in the classroom, mentoring or tutoring students. She takes her online classes at night or on weekends.

Like other teacher-candidates at Reach University, Jenna Gros spends 15 hours a week in classrooms. She sometimes observes teachers, and other times helps children in small groups. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Current employees are also in the retirement system, meaning the years they’ve already worked count toward their pension. For Gros, who has worked for 18 years in her school system, that was an important consideration, she said. 

Pipes said people like Gros understand the vibe of this rural community — the importance of family, the focus on church, the love of hunting. And people with community roots are also less likely to leave, said Chandler Smith, the superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish School System, a few hours’ drive away. 

His district is the second-highest paying in the state but still struggles to attract and retain teachers: It saw a 15 percent teacher turnover rate last year. Now, it has 29 teacher candidates through Reach. 

Related: Uncertified teachers filling holes across the South 

In West Baton Rouge Parish, Jackie Noble is walking back into the Brusly Elementary school building at 6:45 p.m. She’d finished her workday as a special education teacher’s aide around 3:30 p.m., then babysat her granddaughter for a few hours, spent time with her husband, and picked up a McDonald’s order of chicken nuggets, a large coffee and a Coke to get her through her evening classes. Some Reach classes go until 11 p.m. 

Noble was a bus driver in this area for five years, but she longed to be a teacher. When she mustered the courage to research options for joining the profession, she learned it would cost somewhere between $5,000 to $15,000 a year over at least four years. “I wasn’t even financially able to pay for my transcript because it was going to cost me almost $100,” she said. 

When Noble heard about Reach and the monthly tuition of $75 a month, she said, “My mouth hit the floor.”

Ross, of Reach University, said he often hears some variation of: “I had to choose between a job and a degree.” 

“What if we eliminate the question?” he said. “Let’s turn jobs into degrees.”

Brusly Elementary is quiet as Noble settles down in a classroom. She moves her food strategically off camera and ensures she has multiple devices logged in: her phone, laptop and desktop. Sometimes the internet here is spotty, and she doesn’t want to take any chances. 

It’s the night of the final class of her course, “Children with Special Needs: History and Practice.” Her 24 classmates smile and wave as they log on from different states. They’ve been taking turns presenting on disabilities such as dyslexia, brain injuries and deafness; Noble gave hers, on assistive technologies for children with physical disabilities, last week. 

Reach began in 2006 as a certification program for entry-level teachers who had a degree but still needed a credential. It then expanded to offer credentials to teachers who wanted to move into administration as well as graduate degrees in teaching and leadership. In 2020, Reach University started the program focused on school employees without a degree.

Kim Eckert, a former Louisiana teacher of the year and Reach’s dean, says she was drawn to the program because, as a high school special education teacher, she saw how little opportunity there was for classroom aides in her school to boost their skills. She started monthly workshops specifically for them.  

Kimberly Eckert, dean of Reach University and the 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, stands outside Brusly Elementary School in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. She says there’s an untapped pool of potential teacher candidates working as secretaries, bus drivers and janitors that society hasn’t traditionally considered as possible educators. “We definitely have blinders on. I think we’re conditioned to think that teachers look and sound and behave a certain way and we need to push ourselves and those limitations as well.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In growing the Reach program, Eckert drew from her teacher-of-the-year class, hiring people who understood the realities of classroom management and could model what it’s like to be a great teacher. She shied away from those who haven’t proven themselves in the classroom, even if they have degrees from top universities. “Everybody thinks they can be a teacher because they’ve had a teacher,” she said, but that’s not true. 

The 15 hours a week of “in-class training,” which can include observing a teacher, tutoring students or helping write lessons, is designed to allow students to test out what they’re learning almost immediately, without having to wait months or years to put their studies into practice. Michelle Cottrell Williams, a Reach administrator and Virginia’s 2018 teacher of the year, recalls discussing an exercise in class about Disney’s portrayal of historical events versus the reality. One of her students, a classroom aide, shared it with the fifth graders she was working with the next day. 

Noble says she’ll carry lessons about managing students from the bus to her classroom. She was responsible for up to 70 students while driving 45 miles an hour — so 20 in a classroom seems doable, she said. 

She can’t wait to have her own classroom where she is responsible for everything. “Being with the students approximately eight hours a day, you make a very, very larger impression on their lives,” she said. 

Related: In one giant classroom, four teachers manage 135 kids — and love it 

In May, Reach graduated its first class of teachers, a group of 13 students from Louisiana who had prior credits. The organization’s first full cohort will walk across the stage in spring 2024. 

There are promising signs. Nationwide, about half of teacher candidates pass their state’s teaching licensure exam; more than 60 percent of the 13 Reach graduates did. All of them had a job waiting for them, not only in their local community, but in the building where they’d been working. 

But Roddy Theobald, deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and researcher at the American Institutes for Research, says far more research is needed on “grow your own” programs. “There’s very, very little empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these pathways,” he said. 

One of the challenges is that the programs rarely target the specific needs of schools, he said. Some states have staffing shortages only in specific areas, like special education, STEM or elementary ed. “Sometimes they result in even more teachers with the right credentials to teach courses that the state doesn’t actually need,” he said. 

Reach University has several state Teachers of the Year among its faculty for its ‘grown your own’ program, including from Virginia, Idaho, Delaware and Hawaii. Dean Kim Eckert, herself a 2018 teacher of the year from Louisiana, says she wanted the best educators with the latest information in front of her teacher candidates. “It’s not like a typical university where in four years you’ll have your own class and you’ll be a great teacher. You are in your own class right now,” Eckert says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Edwards, one of the first researchers to study “grow your own” programs, is investigating whether teachers who complete them are effective in the classroom and stay employed in the field long term, as well as how diverse these educators are and whether they actually end up in hard-to-staff schools. 

“States are investing millions of dollars into this strategy, and we don’t know anything about its effectiveness,” she said. “We could be putting all this money into something that may or may not work.” 

Ross, of Reach University, says his group plans to research whether its new teachers are effective and stay in their jobs. In terms of meeting schools’ specific labor needs, Reach has agreements with other organizations such as TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the University of West Alabama to help people take higher-level courses in hard-to-fill specialties such as high school math. But while Reach staff look at information on teacher vacancies before partnering with a school district, they don’t focus on matching the district’s exact staffing needs said Ross: “Our hope is the numbers work themselves out.”

Jenna Gros, the head custodian of Wyandotte, makes it a point to know children’s names and speak to them as she works. “It’s about building a bond. You have to be able to bond with them in order to make them feel like they are someone and that they can be someone,” she says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In Louisiana, Ross said he believes the organization could put a serious dent in the teacher vacancy numbers statewide. Some 84 percent of all parishes have signed on for Reach trainees, he said, and 650 teachers-in-training are enrolled. That amounts to more than a quarter of the teacher vacancy numbers statewide, 2,500.

“We’re getting pretty close to being a material contribution to the solution in that state,” he said. 

His group is also looking to partner with states, including Louisiana, to use Department of Labor money for teacher apprenticeships. At least 16 states have such programs. Under a Labor Department rule last year, teacher apprenticeships can now access millions in federal job-training funds. Reach is in talks to use some of that money, which Ross says would allow it to make the programs free to students and rely less on philanthropy.  

A straight-A student since her first semester, head custodian Jenna Gros expects to graduate without any debt in May 2024. She expects to teach at this same elementary school. At that point, her salary will almost double.

She said she loves how a teacher can shape a child’s future for the better. “That’s what a teacher is — a nurturer trying to provide them with the resources that they are going to need for later on in life. 

I think I can be that person,” she said. She pauses. “I know I can.” 

This story about grow your own programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Judge says DPS must release documents related to Uvalde shooting response

Watch a series of discussions in Uvalde on resilience, recovery and healing

This community-centered event will examine the path forward for Uvalde, with lessons for other communities that have suffered from gun violence. On May 24, 2022, Robb Elementary School in Uvalde was the site of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

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