Responding to Our Critics & Setting the Record Straight

June 16, 2022 | News

EPIC was formed in response to what a growing number of parents believe are issues with biased curriculum, political activism in classrooms, and District 205 faltering in its core mission to properly educate all children and prepare them for future success–objective test scores are falling, and students are not meeting basic learning skills at grade level according to the Illinois state report card.

We are surprised that merely raising awareness about these issues — people never challenge our facts or citations to sources as wrong — has caused ideologues to rear up in rage.  Many in opposition to EPIC have responded angrily and condescendingly to the commonsense notion that schools should focus on academic achievement, provide full curriculum transparency, and hold district leadership accountable to deliver strong academic results.  They call us racists, when our parents are White, African-American, Asian, and Hispanic.  They call us anti-teacher, when in reality it is teachers and guidance counselors within the system who have served as our best whistleblowers.  They come to us, because they do not believe they can count on their union to protect them from the D205 cancel culture warriors.

EPIC’s detractors seem unaware, unconcerned, or disinterested that proficiency in core academic subjects has dropped significantly in the last several years.  Merit and academic rigor have been supplanted by a politicized educational dogma that has jettisoned curriculum that has worked for centuries, in favor of exalting victimhood, identity politics, oppression accusations, and so-called “equity.”  The results are not good.

District 205 schools are generously funded, with annual spending per student around $17,000.  Viewed another way, the district spends about $220,000 per student from kindergarten – 12th grade.  That’s a serious amount of money, so parents are rightly entitled to ask, what is the return on investment for the dollars spent on education?

According to 2021 data gathered from IAR and PARCC, only 59% of 5th graders at Field Elementary School (the top performer in the district) could “meet or exceed” standards for ELA, less than 40% of 5th graders at Lincoln, Emerson, and Jackson, and only 13% of 5th graders at Conrad Fisher could read at grade level. Math proficiency is substandard as well, with the top performing school, Jefferson, at 62%, while Field is at 48%, Edison 45%, Lincoln 32% and Conrad Fisher at an abysmal 6%. When the data is further sorted by low-income, academic proficiency in ELA and math is much worse. This is not new, as the numbers have been dropping steadily since 2015. 

A fair-minded, and non-partisan assessment of this data would suggest there’s a 5-alarm fire raging in Elmhurst public schools that calls for a community-wide all-hands on deck approach to remedy.  Every year there’s learning loss the problem compounds, and it becomes more difficult for students to catch up, with many ultimately giving up.

EPIC is deeply concerned about the drop in academic proficiency, and what we believe is driving it: the pivot away from things academic and educational to things ideological and political.

District 205 leadership, with the full support of the board of education, made the decision to prioritize Social-Emotional Learning and Equity as the cornerstones of our community education platform. If you’re a parent paying close attention, you’ll note that not one of District 205’s presentations this year warned about the significant drop in academic proficiency, created any urgency around the problem, or presented a detailed action plan for immediate improvement.

What does prioritizing Equity and Social-Emotional Learning mean?  It means ideological concepts, such as intersectionality, a core tenet of Critical Race Theory, which instructs children to categorize themselves as privileged (oppressor) or marginalized (oppressed) is promoted by the head of York English department. It means that Zinn Ed, and it’s overarching theme that the United States is an irredeemable oppressive regime founded to marginalize people of color, is a go-to resource for teaching children American history–even when the class syllabus tells parents another textbook is supposed to be used. It means that a noose hanging from the bleachers at the football stadium is investigated as a potential hate crime, but a noose draped over an American flag in a classroom is ok, because it makes the right political statement. It means all teachers in D205 must be subjected to Corwin Deep Equity “anti-racist” teacher training and learn to teach their students through a racial lens, even though they’re not racist, and many are offended by the concepts and ideas that Corwin Deep Equity training promotes. It means a Sandburg Middle School teacher can show 7th graders a slide presentation with a political banner denigrating law enforcement stating, “a man was lynched by police yesterday” (even though no man was actually lynched by police yesterday), and without even a courtesy balancing reminder that the vast majority of police officers are hardworking, dedicated civil servants who risk their lives to keep us safe. It means that teachers can explain to students that Thomas Jefferson was a racist slave owner, and therefore our founding and our Constitution are illegitimate, and they should feel shame instead of pride to be an American.  It means lower academic proficiency, but higher passing rates, and less homework, but more “re-learning,” and it means equity is more important than merit.  It means not merely usurping your role as a parent to teach your children your values, but using your tax dollars to actively denigrate them.  All of this occurred in District 205.

At the end of the day, we have seen example after example of how the District 205 education platform thrives on teaching grievance and oppression.  This is increasing hatred and despair, at a time when we should be encouraging more love and respect based on our common history and humanity.  D205 has replaced telling students that character counts with warnings their inherited skin color dooms them to vice or virtue.  Teachers (some not all) have denigrated students for their “privilege” of parents who raised them to work hard, succeed and achieve.  Teachers and administrators (some not all) have denigrated their country as virulently racist, and insisted that the only “solution” is to surrender in abnegation to their politically preferred narrative.  Is it any wonder why student mental health problems are on the rise?

EPIC’s position is clear.  The role of a taxpayer funded public education system, first and foremost, is to teach children to read, write, speak, spell, and compute accurately, truthfully, and effectively. We do not believe it is the role of our school system to imbue children with certain political beliefs, ideology, or moral values, especially those that conflict with what parents teach their children at home.   The D205 Board seems to recognize this with their Board policies that demand balance when teachers present controversial issues.  Yet they have shown a baffling unwillingness to enforce it.

Throughout the school year, EPIC challenged District 205 leadership to be more honest and transparent about curriculum.  We made public comments at school board meetings, met independently with board members, teachers, and administrators, held small group discussions, and hosted an educational SEL symposium to inform and educate parents and provide clarity around SEL curriculum.

A group calling itself Respect Our Students and Educators D205 (ROSE D205) emerged as the voice of opposition to EPIC.  According to the ROSE D205 Facebook page, their goal is “to ensure that our schools provide an inclusive, diverse and welcoming learning environment for all.” That sounds wonderful, but the truth is, most everyone is already in favor of being inclusive, welcoming, and diverse, including the folks in EPIC.  ROSE D205’s spokesperson, Ioana Fernandez, further explained “they want to ensure that EPIC’s vision never becomes reality.”

What, exactly does this mean?  EPIC advocates for children to achieve academically, and ROSE D205 is not in favor of this?  EPIC advocates for full curriculum transparency, so parents can see exactly what their children are learning in school, but ROSE D205 disagrees?  EPIC believes district leadership should be held accountable to produce academic results, does ROSE D205 agree?  What really is the substance, then, that ROSE D205 stands for?  Again, if it isn’t academic excellence, which can be established by objective metrics, then it must be something else.  What?  It is hard to have a substantive debate with a group who isn’t sure what they’re for, they just know that they’re not for EPIC.  But given the nature of their leadership, it appears that it wants more left-wing radical politics in our classroom.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Shortly after EPIC hosted their SEL symposium, ROSE D205 launched a counterattack, hosting a virtual presentation led by their so-called SEL superstar, and Elmhurst resident Mawi Asgedom. The language in the ROSE D205 invitation aggressively smeared EPIC, calling speaker Jennifer McWilliams, “dubious” and labeling her presentation “misinformation.” Other members of ROSE D205 went so far as to investigate Ms. McWilliams and try to smear her personally on social media.  (Again, they won’t fight facts with facts, they just want her cancelled).

Mr. Asgedom promotes himself as an “SEL entrepreneur.”  He recently sold his SEL company, Mawi Learning, to ACT for an “undisclosed” but likely, substantial sum of money.  Congratulations to Mr. Asgedom for finding a market niche in the educational field and exploiting it for his own commercial gain.  But let’s not pretend that renders him a neutral arbiter instead of an advocate.

Even so, we tuned in, listened carefully, and agreed with some of the things Mr. Asgedom had to say about ways to help children develop soft skills, like self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making. But just as SEL has gone beyond this when it comes to the classroom, Mr. Asgedom’s presentation quickly turned to attacking EPIC and Jennifer McWilliams.  Among the most inaccurate and egregious accusations was that Ms. McWilliams was “fearmongering” when she identified ways that political operatives masking as educators use SEL as a gateway to promote Culturally Responsive Curriculum or Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Mr. Asgedom’s audience had no interest in a substantive discussion around the issues.  Instead, they wanted their prejudices affirmed, and were eager to gather evidence to build their case in support of SEL and against EPIC. Fortunately, the ROSE D205 mission to destroy EPIC’s credibility backfired.  Anyone with a computer, a search engine, and a little bit of intellectual curiosity can test whether Mr. Asgedom was correct, and if Ms. McWilliams was wrong.

Mr. Asgedom surprisingly shied away from CASEL, the platform and the framework deployed by District 205 to teach Social-Emotional Learning to our children.  If Mr. Asgedom, as a self-proclaimed SEL expert, with years of experience in the field, is unaware that the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning or CASEL, promotes CRT under the guise of “Transformative SEL” that would rather undermine his claims to expertise in a manner relevant to D205 parents and students.

The CASEL website is replete with content devoted to “Transformative SEL” that explains, among other things, that SEL is “aimed at redistributing power” and provides “academic content that integrates issues of race, class and culture.”   SEL, as self-described by the D205 vendor on the issue, is indeed a gateway for CRT.

The educational literature likewise confirms CRT advocates deliberately reject critical thinking in favor of critical theory, in order to achieve a political end game–turning your students into political social justice warriors.  (See, e.g., Social Education 82(1), pp. 14–17, 2018 National Council for the Social Studies (“We use the term critical in a way that is distinct from the broader educational goal of encouraging critical thinking”); id. (“Critical theory’s emphasis on emancipation is most visible in educational practice through critical pedagogy. This approach to teaching and learning centers an analysis of oppression and builds knowledge from the lived experiences of the participants.”); id. (“Develop tasks and a Taking Informed Action activity that push students to take tangible steps toward alleviating the injustice explored in the inquiry.”).

Is Mr. Asgedom not aware that CASEL invited radical SEL activist, Deena Simmons, to speak at their symposium promoting “Transformative SEL”? Some of the more controversial quotes attributed to Ms. Simmons are, “done poorly, SEL is white supremacy with a hug,” and “our education is based on a foundation of whiteness’ and we ‘are spiritually murdering’ our students.”   Does he agree with these sentiments?  Does this version of SEL belong in D205? Can district leadership confirm exactly which version of SEL is being taught to our children?

SEL was introduced into curriculum, and sold to parents as a means to help students develop soft skills.  In reality, educational activists use SEL as their hook to attack parents, our institutions, and our nation, and adopt CRT in the classroom.

Supporters of Social-Emotional Learning say, “we want to help students” and use words like “research shows” and “evidence based.”  So, what does the actual evidence really tell us about SEL?

ROSE D205 provided a link to a video testimonial as their evidence that Mawi Learning’s version of SEL works and is “helping” students.  The school used in the testimonial is Lincoln Park High School (LPHS) in Chicago.  The “actual” academic results are much different than what ROSE D205 and Mawi Asgedom promote.  Academic proficiency in core subjects, math, reading, and science at LPHS is at 52%, 52%, and 41% respectively.  So, this means nearly half the student body cannot read or do math at grade level.  If this is success, what does failure look like?

A research piece titled, “The Scale of Our Investment in Social-Emotional Learning,” published in the Journal of Transforming Ed, describes in its executive summary the “considerable investments in SEL” and “Based on calculations, U.S. K-12 public schools devote a total of approximately $21–47 billion per year to SEL in terms of: (1) expenditure on SEL-related products and programs and (2) teacher time focused on SEL.”

These are massive sums of money, and parents would be remiss if they didn’t ask, who is actually benefiting from all this largesse?  It doesn’t seem to be students and parents, when the facts confirm academic proficiency at the local, state and national levels is substandard and falling fast.

Parents should take note of the new mantra being promoted by Illinois’ teacher union powerbrokers, and progressive activists and educators, that standardized tests to measure academic achievement and proficiency are “a relic of the past and racist.” It’s a feckless attempt by self-interested ideologues and profiteers to deflect attention, avoid accountability, and bully anyone who dares to ask why students aren’t learning academically.

The truth is, the people benefiting the most from the immense sums of money being dumped into DEI, SEL and Equity curriculum are the people selling it, and not our children.

EPIC stands firm in its position that academic achievement, full curriculum transparency that shows parents exactly what their children are learning, and holding District 205 leadership accountable to produce strong, and measurable academic performance results for ALL students is the path for success in our community schools.

Parents should “beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 


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