Ethnic Studies appeal reveals Cambium audits flaws

“The critical educator cannot wait for the dominant group or the American structure to correct itself. The critical educator must understand that the oppressors cannot see the nature of their ways. Given this understanding, it is my belief that the dominant group is incapable of critical reflection or redemptive remembering….” Culture as a resource: Critically Compassionate intellectualism and its struggle against racism, fascism, and intellectual apartheid in Arizona, Augustine F. Romero, and Sean Martin Arce

Testimony began on August 19 in the Tucson Unified School District’s appeal of the finding of noncompliance with Arizona law 15-112, by John Huppenthal, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. The district is appealing the finding that TUSD’s Mexican-American Studies classes are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment towards a race or class of people, and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals in violation of the law.

The first witness was John Stollar, Chief of Programs and Policy for the Arizona Department of Education. Stollar, a long-time educator offered testimony as to the specifics of the controversial Cambium “audit” and his review of the department’s evidence. He was followed by TUSD Governing Board President, Dr. Mark Stegeman, who discussed his experience in the Mexican American Studies classrooms. TUSD Governing Board member Michael Hicks gave testimony regarding his rescission of his support for the district’s appeal. The day ended with testimony from Kathryn Hrabluk, the ADE’s Associate Superintendent of School Effectiveness.

The audit

The highly irregular audit commissioned by the SOPI, has been a source of controversy and confusion. While auditors clearly stated that they saw only a small fraction of the class materials and the classes themselves, they determined that the classes should be reproduced and offered to more students. According to testimony, auditors only reviewed 9 out of 180 possible lesson units. It is inconceivable that this 5% of the curriculum could constitute a representative sample from which to draw any conclusions. However, 3 of the 9 units contained “an overabundance” of political material.” The baseless finding by Cambium has served to justify the district’s appeal and MAS proponents’ support.

Stollar agreed with other education auditors who have reviewed Cambium’s work that the audit could not be considered an audit by most standards, “I don’t believe that they had sufficient information.” He told Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal that the auditors could not reasonably draw any conclusions as to whether the curriculum provided a balanced view of the issues it covered.

Stollar discussed Cambium’s effort to quit midway through the project, and the SOPI’s demand that the audit contract be fulfilled. The district had blocked efforts to conduct a complete audit. Contrary to instructions, TUSD administrators gave Mexican-American Studies teachers a heads up on the timing of classroom observation. At the time, Assistant Superintendent Maria Merconi discussed her concerns about this in an email to Superintendent Pedicone’s assistant Karen Bynum. In addition to providing those teachers who were observed the necessary notice to “sanitize” their lessons, Superintendent Pedicone also allowed the MAS Director and MAS teachers to refuse to cooperate with auditors and ADE investigators.

Evidence showed that Abel Morado of Tucson High School went so far as to allow the MAS teachers themselves to hand pick students for the focus group portion of the audit. The ideal focus group was to be comprised of past and present MAS students randomly selected by principals. Yet, THS Principal Abel Morado emailed Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce, and MAS teachers Curtis Acosta and Maria Frederico Brummer, asking them to “select students for focus groups.”

Over the years, one of the most common complaints by objective observers of TUSD’s Mexican American Studies classes is the anti-intellectual nature of the scatter shot curriculum. The frequent references to the fantastical place called Aztlan, migration theories that have no scientific foundation, and the easy to swallow, simple minded analysis provided by critical race theory have caused more serious educators to question the educational value of TUSD’s Mexican American Studies classes.

Mass movement

The second witness was Governing Board President and established educator, Dr. Mark Stegeman. Dr. Stegeman, a well respected professor of Economics, read from notes he took during visits to Mexican American Studies classes this past spring. His extemporaneous notes describing his experience in MAS teacher Curtis Acosta’s class, included phrases such as “this is a political rally,” and “he is mostly entertaining kids not educating them.” Dr. Stegeman, who in emotional testimony, confirmed what many educators have been saying for years; the classes are much like a “cult.”

The ritualized clapping, commonly referred to as the unity or Casear Chavez clap at the start of the classes, the ritualized recitation of the “You are my other self” or “In Lak’ ek” chant during the class, and the political rally type atmosphere of the class along with the seemingly senseless events surrounding the classes in the past few months all “formed the foundation of my assessment.”

Dr. Stegeman testified that the words “we are all still in the struggle” in one student’s personalized version of the “In Lak’ ek” chant, triggered a recollection of a book he had read years ago, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer, and he had an “epiphany.” His notes read, “this is a cult.”

Dr. Stegeman addressed each of the aspects of a mass movement as outlined by Hoffer by describing what he had witnessed in his experience with the Mexican American studies classes, community events, and the actions of MAS proponents. He referred to the classes’ denigration of the present and the glorification of the past with a reliance on a fabricated history. He testified about a writing prompt (writing topic for students) on the chalkboard of a classroom he visited that asked the students to “compare ethical issues along ethnic lines” in a discussion of the exploitation of “middle-aged European” males” and immigration laws.

The Professor compared the unwillingness of the MAS proponents to engage in community forums that would allow for a discussion of relevant issues by all sides, to Hoffer’s finding that mass movements normally have a complete disregard for the opinions of others. He pointed to the refusal of the MAS Advisory Board and the UNIDOS “student” group to participate in a district sponsored community forum as examples of this disregard for the public.

Student freedom to develop system of thought

The second day also included witnesses Kathryn Hrabluk a curriculum expert with the state’s Department of Education, who had begun her testimony on the first day, TUSD Superintendent Pedicone, a parent of a former Mexican American Studies student and an educator in the district, and director of the MAS program Sean Arce.

Kathryn Hrabluk, Associate Superintendent of School Effectiveness addressed the lack of curriculum in TUSD’s MAS program and the standard practices of curriculum development. The foundation of her assessment of the program was the question, “Are we truly offering them (students) an opportunity to develop their own systems of thought.” She based her conclusions in part, on materials sent by the district that were not made available to the Cambium auditors and audit finding that the press chose to ignore.

Hrabluk concluded that the MAS program did violate three of the four standards in Arizona law 15-112. Even violation of one standard may result in the loss of a 10% across the board funding cut for districts. She stated that the “disconnected and disjointed materials sent a consistent message, the basic message speaks to the inherent racism in this society,” and it “speaks to the oppressors as white society and the oppressed as Latino.”

Hrabluk noted that the materials are exclusively written for Latino students, and the MAS website clearly states that the curriculum has “an emphasis on Latino students in particular and students of color in general.” Hrabluk testified that the curriculum has an emphasis on developing a “Chicano identity” and that it views some Latinos are as “brown Anglos” and “self-haters” if they do not speak Spanish.

Students exploited

In the second day of hearings in the appeal by TUSD of the finding by Arizona Superintendent Huppenthal, that the district’s Mexican American/Raza Studies classes violate Arizona law, top administrator John Pedicone stated that “community and national activists” exploited district students.

When questioned about the student takeover of the April 26, TUSD School Board meeting he admitted that he believed the students were manipulated by national and University of Arizona associates. When asked who he believed was exploiting children, he inexplicably testified that it was Ward Churchill and adults from the University of Arizona.

He was questioned about an email exchange with TUSD Board member Judy Burns in which she describes the student takeover as “pretty impressive.” He replied to her email, “Too bad, Judy that they are so well meaning and exploited.” Despite the fact that he believed the students were exploited, he prevented charges being brought against the students’ “exploiters.”

School Board member Michael Hicks due to his concern for the students and role of adults in their exploitation had called for an investigation of the protest organizers. Pedicone demanded that charges not be pursued. Governing Board member Judy Burns was an instigator of the student takeover on April 26. She played out part of her role on her formerly public Facebook page.

Attorneys confronted Dr. Pedicone with an email written to him by Dr. Lupita Garcia about MEChA and its role in recruiting students for a University of Arizona conference on “occupied peoples” that compared Arizona students to Palestinian students. The Superintendent claimed that he did not know very much about MEChA on campus. He admitted that he did not know whether the district sanctioned MEChA clubs. Dr. Garcia is the same brave administrator who put a stop to, and exposed the theft of millions of dollars of Title 1 monies from disadvantaged students’ schools to fund the training of undocumented immigrants and other politically connected adults as community organizers.

When asked why the district rebuffed efforts by the Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with the district in bring them in line with state standards, Pedicone testified that the curriculum is “deeply imbedded” in the community. This despite the fact that parents and students are widely rejecting the classes. Enrollment is down, and only 375 students out of approximately 53,000 students take the classes.

Pedicone admitted that the Mexican-American Studies classes did not have a coherent curriculum and that he hired Assistant Superintendent Maria Merconi to work on the lack of “vigilance in structure.” Earlier in the year TUSD Board member Adelita Grijalva admitted that the Board had failed in its role to review and approve curriculum in violation of state law.

Pedicone described two of the six MAS classes he has visited. He visited Government, Literature, and history classes. He testified that he spent about 15 minutes in two of the MAS classrooms he visited, but in four classrooms he spent more time.

He told of a simple project in Jose Gonzales’s classroom in which a cartoon was placed on the board, and students were to identify which political view was represented. He expressed hope that the cartoon project would lead to a more academic lesson, but he left the classroom before finding out if that was the case.

On other occasions, students have described to the Tucson Independent Daily a “fun game” employed by one of Gonzales’s substitutes, in which students are asked to determine the color of a historical figure. When told about nefarious activities in history, the students are asked, “What color do you think he/she was?” The students dutifully and joyfully respond, “White!”

Pedicone did describe Acosta’s classroom, which at the time of his visit was being taught by a substitute, as an average classroom. He saw books including The Tempest by William Shakespeare which was in use by the substitute at the time, Maria Frederico Brummer, and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Under questioning by the district’s lawyer, Pedicone admitted that he didn’t “delve deeply into the pedagogy being used.” Recently complaints have been made about Ms. Brummer’s MAS approach to non-MAS classes.

Pedicone was questioned about the underlying philosophy of the classes and agreed that they are based on the pursuit of social justice and that the disjointed curriculum is founded on the “problematizing process.” According to testimony, he did not deny the state’s contention based on the writings of Arce and Romero that this process includes a deliberate attempt to “racismize” students.

Pedicone admitted that he had never been in an MAS elementary class. He admitted that he had not attended the middle school Social Justice classes. He admitted that he only met with students who favored the classes. He admitted that he did not set up similar meetings with students who were opposed to the classes as he had with students in favor of the classes.

Fear of retaliation

Testimony was presented by a Tucson Unified School District teacher whose child took a Mexican American Studies department American History class this past school year. The witness is currently employed in the district and her daughter took an MAS American Government class at Rincon High School with Jose Gonzales. Like other parents who have expressed concerns about their children’s experiences in the classes, she did not come forward earlier because she did not want her child to experience retaliation.

Fear of retaliation, and instances of retaliation have kept students, parents, and educators silent for a number of years. Reports of retaliation have been ignored or dismissed at the school level, at the district level, and even by the Superintendent. As a matter of fact, immediately prior to the teacher’s testimony, Dr Pedicone admitted that he only met with students who favored the classes. One educator reportedly attempted to contact Pedicone with concerns about the classes, but this person’s calls were never returned, and this individual was almost immediately laid off despite nearly eleven years with the district.

The witness explained that when her daughter first signed up for the classes, she was excited for her. She felt that as a student at Rincon, her daughter had been sheltered and she thought that the classes would give “her daughter a different perspective” and “thought it would be important to round out her education.”

Although the teacher’s daughter took the classes before the law went into effect, the teacher’s testimony was allowed; due to the immediately prior testimony of Superintendent Pedicone that the district had not changed the classes at all since before the law went into effect. The student has graduated and took the class in the 2009-2010 school year. Parents of students enrolled in TUSD MAS classes since the law went into effect have come forward to report similar experiences, however the fear of retaliation and the district’s apparent unwillingness to protect students and teachers has prevented any such testimony in this hearing.

An email was admitted into evidence in which the witness wrote to the Arizona Department of Education, “Mr. Gonzales her teacher, seemed like a nice guy. I met him at a rally that she was told she had to attend as part of her grade. She was told her grade would be better if she brought a parent. I was a bit disappointed by the fact that part of her grade was to attend rallies for Raza Studies, for laws the program found upsetting, and for “Chicano Americans.”

The teacher testified that it was her understanding that the rally had initially been intended show opposition to Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB1070, however the district would not allow this. As a result, the rally focused on the Aztec people. “It was not about participation in history” but about their “religious beliefs.” The teacher found “no tie to American History.”

The classes are based on the belief that Chicano students must be “rehumanized through transformative resistance and social action”, and a reconnection to their Aztec roots is essential. In an earlier news report this year, a young elementary student reported that, “she never knew she had one-fifth Aztec blood” before taking TUSD’s Mexican American Studies classes. According to experts, this statement cannot be accurate unless the child is actually hundreds of years old.

The teacher explained in the email that “as a TUSD teacher I have been told never to use my opinion to sway a child.” She wrote that she was “not against rallies” if the student is allowed to make his or her own opinions known without bias and bad grades attached. “I am not against Chicano American presentations if they are used as an educational tool with presentations about that history. This was not the case from what I saw through my daughter.”

The teacher was uncomfortable that the students had to go to the rallies “or family gatherings.” She was uncomfortable with an “instructor who was clearly biased and presented his class in that matter.” She stated that Gonzales “said things about Anglo-Saxons, and how the Anglo-Saxons had treated people badly, particularly Chicano people.” She further stated that her daughter “experienced fellow students, primarily Hispanic, who as the course progressed had more and more of a chip on their shoulders.” Other students have come forward to the ADE, but these individuals will not offer testimony due to fear of reprisal. Those who have come forward also reported similar experiences with their classmates’ change of attitude.

Silence is betrayal

Sean Arce, the Director of the Mexican American Studies department, missed his “Inherit the Wind” moment, and ended up sounding more like Ronald Reagan than Martin Luther King. His attorney, Richard Martinez was more like a “potted plant” than Clarence Darrow. The performance by the Raza heroes at the second day of hearing on the legality of TUSD’s ideologically based Mexican American Studies classes was a total flop.

Martin Luther King told us that “Silence is betrayal.” Sean Arce’s form of silence was denial of responsibility and ownership. He betrayed the very program he claims to support by denying understanding or ownership of almost all of the writings and underlying principles of the program, including ones he co-authored. When questioned about the academic paper “Culture as a resource: Critically Compassionate Intellectualism and its Struggle Against Racism, Fascism, and Intellectual Aparthied in Arizona,” Arce, who is noted as a co-author of the paper with Auggie Romero, denied most of the work was his and testified that the passages were written by Romero. He used the “I don’t recall” response about as often as Mafia capos invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid incrimination.

It appeared that with almost no thought or comprehension of what he was saying, Sean Arce the Raza Studies hero in TUSD’s Ethnic Studies saga, answered most of the first questions asked by state lawyers with the response that any answer would violate attorney client confidentiality. This despite that the questions did not require him to reveal any protected discussions with his attorney.

TUSD’s brand of “Ethnic Studies” classes are based on an ideology rather than a neutral position which explores all perspectives and includes all cultural contributions. Many MAS students, parents, and district staff have complained about the single political perspective and oppressive nature of the classes. The issue comes down to whether MAS classes are used as tools for indoctrination. After two full days of hearings the only reasonbable answer based on the evidence is a resounding, “Yes, this is what indoctrination looks like.”

Related articles:

TUSD’s MAS curriculum for grades K-12 includes Aztec spirituality Part II

America Without Borders: TUSD’s Mexican American Studies elementary lesson

TUSD’s Mexican American Studies appeal hearing concludes

TUSD’s Mexican American Studies educators claim to create resentment, and re-birth