Emails and internal documents indicate that USD 383 administrators sought diversity training because teachers requested it.
Through state open-records laws, The Mercury obtained documents about virtual training sessions for district employees from educational consulting company BetterLesson. According to the internal documents, and a statement from district superintendent Marvin Wade, teachers in the district requested more training in areas like culturally responsive learning. Wade said he and USD 383 director for teaching and learning Paula Hough thought of BetterLesson as a “potential partner” with USD 383.
Wade said administrators chose BetterLesson for its virtual training options and because the company is recognized by Kansas educational associations. Wade also said BetterLesson’s programming “does not merely teach content.”
“It defines terminology and concepts, then facilitates reflection and dialogue about what this information means to the educator as they prepare to apply this knowledge in ways that promote higher-level thinking within their classrooms,” Wade said.
The information in question more specifically covers the area of culturally responsive teaching and learning — a topic that has sparked interest from Manhattan-area residents. Sixty to 70 people attended each of the two most recent board meetings. Many were in favor of the cultural trainings, while others opposed the programming, citing the potential for “indoctrinating” children.
Most of the people who spoke against the BetterLesson programs said it promotes a concept called critical race theory. Developed in the 1970s and 80s by legal scholars and civil rights activists, critical race theory is intended as an educational movement to help people recognize racism embedded in U.S. laws and systems and how those laws affect people of color.
In the internal documents, one of the pages from BetterLesson says the culturally responsive teaching curriculum is not the same as critical race theory.
The statement reads, “Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic and political inequalities between whites and non-whites, especially African-Americans. Culturally responsive teaching and learning is an assets-based approach to supporting all students, especially those from historically marginalized communities, in reaching their full potential.”
Wade has said these kinds of teacher training opportunities are part of the district’s long-term strategic plan for improved diversity, equity and inclusion. In an email dated April 16, Wade told Hough he wanted to discuss funding options and sustainability for the BetterLesson programs. The topic then appeared as an action item on the April 21 board meeting agenda.
The board approved the purchase of the program 4-1 at that meeting but rescinded the purchase at the next meeting.
After the approval, Wade said one of the district’s accountants told him the account the seminars were charged to was “inappropriate,” as professional training cannot be paid for with at-risk funds. The state allows schools districts to designate certain funds related to programs and services for at-risk students who are not on grade level in either reading or mathematics, frequently absent from school and homeless or migratory.
“To rectify this dilemma, I informed the board and community of the need to ‘rescind’ the request for approval due to a lack of appropriate funds,” Wade said.
Board members received only six pages on the BetterLesson curriculum in their agenda packet for the April 21 meeting.
Some of the BetterLesson training content asks teachers to have their students brainstorm the “mainstream” views of children who may fit into marginalized groups and pick out the positive and negative stereotypes of each group. Another portion of the programming has teachers and students tallying the race and ethnicity of the main characters in library books and asking how the story portrays those characters who are non-white. None of these examples were included in the agenda materials.
Wade said the removal of the BetterLesson programming “in no way diminishes the need for staff training in the areas of equity, diversity and inclusion.”
“As we strive to raise the achievement and success level of all students and decrease the disparity between our higher and lower achieving students, our staff deserves access to knowledge about systemic bias, social justice, and culturally responsive teaching and learning,” Wade said. “How the context is taught and learned is of critical importance — though avoiding the conversation no longer remains an option.”