Pennridge School District has become the poster child for MAGA style, Moms for Liberty-backed takeover of a school district.
Their board has been pretty relentless in pursuing repressive and reactionary policies. They have trouble telling creationism from science. They banned Banned Books Week. They tried to clamp down on student expression. And they blew up DEI policies (even as they demonstrated why they needed such policies in place).
Not content with tinkering around the edges, they brought in a special consultant to eradicate the so-called “woke” from the curriculum. As board member Ricki Chialkin put it, “Our end goal is that every single kid who leaves Pennridge loves this country and understands our constitution.” Or as that consultant told a Moms for Liberty gathering, “The fox is in the henhouse.”
At the end of September, the consultant issued a report that shows in greater detail where they are headed. And we’ll examine that in detail here. But first, let’s take a quick look at how Pennridge got here.
Jordan Adams and Vermilion
Vermilion is a consulting service that launched in January of this year. It appears to be just one guy. The address on its first contract proposal was a single family dwelling in a residential neighborhood in Hillsdale, Michigan.
The one guy is Jordan Adams. Adams is a Hillsdale College grad whose original undergrad plan at the conservative Christian college was to work at a think tank, then he went to grad school for a Masters of Humanities. He taught briefly, then went back to Hillsdale as interim director of curriculum for the Hillsdale College K-12 Education Office. Adams was part of the crew that screened the Florida math textbooks that DeSantis accused of indoctrinating students.
Adams first attempt to land Vermilion a gig was in Sarasota County, Florida, where Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms For Liberty, is school board president. So it should have been a very friendly environment in which to get his educational “dewokifying” services a first hire.
Adams made a couple of fumbles, not the least of which was sending Ziegler his real pitch without realizing it would become public record. So his promises to be an extension of the same right-wing movement that got her elected with the intent of reshaping public education. He even offered to use his position to spy for her. He would audit the district’s programs and screen for signs of staff and materials that weren’t of the correct ideology. He would even sit in on teacher interviews.
His mission was clear: root out and eradicate the wokeness from every corner of the district. His qualifications? Educationally non-existent, but ideologically right in line.
But local journalists went digging anyway. And folks started noticing how shady it all looked. Protests were mounted. And in a surprise twist, the board voted 3-2 against the contract, with some deciding that, political leanings aside, it was a lot of money to pay for a guy with no actual qualifications.
So he moved on to Pennridge School District for what would be his first, and so far only, job.
How are things going so far?
Pennridge hired Adams in April, using the same trick that had been tried in Sarasota of proposing the contract so soon before voting on it that the public barely had time to catch what was happening.
But they had figured it out by June, and they had plenty to say about it. The June board meeting ran until about 1 a.m. to accommodate the many folks who wanted to question his hiring. In particular, residents were baffled by the board’s decision to have Adams singlehandedly replace the in-house curriculum experts, particularly as it emerged that Adams does not have the state-required qualifications to create curriculum. Jenny Stephens has followed Adams’ adventures closely for the Bucks County Beacon, and it has not been pretty.
Another district might have been tempted to try fine tuning or back-pedaling that hiring decision. Instead, the far-right board majority dug in, and right-wing supporters even put out a call for “talented clappers” to come pack the meetings to give the appearance of support (those clappers need not have children in the district, or even live in the district).
Meanwhile, Adams attended the Moms For Liberty conference in July, where he presented a session on how newly elected board members can get their right-wing agenda in place within the first 100 days. Flood the zone. Denigrate expertise. Run it like a business. Play the victim card. Cut CRT and DEI. Remember that you represent the community, but only the part that agrees with you. The rest will yell at you, but just ignore them and keep implementing your programs while micromanaging everything, including curriculum and instruction.
In particular, maintain a public charade of neutrality while stacking the deck against those so-called “woke” teachers. Let your supporters do the yelling, while you adopt a Fox-style approach of “I’m just asking questions.”
Adams said an awful lot of the quiet part out loud, not expecting that someone would record it and give the recording to the Bucks County Beacon. One might begin to suspect that Adams is not very good at this.
At the end of September, Adams handed in a preliminary report. It’s slim, but telling. It covers English Language Arts, History, and Other Concerns. Let’s dive in.
Reading/English Language Arts
Analysis Fiction and Nonfiction is an “extra” reading course for 7th and 8th graders “based on student outcomes from the regular English Language Arts courses.” This is, unfortunately, not an uncommon phenomenon these days — extra reading and/or math courses for students whose Keystone Test results might pull the school’s rating down.
Adams offers five “opportunities” for improvement, with recommendations to go with them.
First, introduce “additional works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.”
This is the one he has the most to say about.
Adams notes that ELA teachers face students who not only lack reading proficiency, but also are not very interested in reading. (Nothing mysterious here; how many people are really interested in doing things they don’t do well.) “Vermilion Education recommends” several ideas to “effectively increase reading interest and proficiency.” Adams throughout the report speaks of Vermilion Education recommending or analyzing, as if Vermilion Education is anything other than Jordan Adams with a website and logo. But that gets us to skip past an important question — does Jordan Adams have any qualifications for declaring what will increase reading proficiency and interest? (Spoiler alert: he does not.)
So what does he recommend?
Raise the reading level of texts. Adams talks about meeting students where they are and then challenging them, and claims that research has proven that grade level texts are key to reading proficiency (and he offers a footnote to an opinion post that doesn’t prove that at all). In fact, the issue of leveling texts has been debated by researchers long and hard.
If the book is too hard for some students, don’t differentiate by giving struggling students lower reading level work. Instead, give struggling readers an abridged version or the audiobook version. Isn’t the abridged version at a lower reading level? Doesn’t the audiobook require no reading at all? Adams says that the most struggling students should, as homework, listen to the audiobook while reading along in their abridged version.
Use high-quality texts. What’s a high quality text? Here Adams shows his Hillsdale classical learning training. A high quality text is “well-written, meaning that the language is clear, inspiring, and formative of student sense of language.” It is “timeless and universal,” having been read by millions of people for generations. And it should use plots, themes, and characters “that deal with the fundamental questions about human beings and the world.”
Adams asserts that many ELA programs make the error of relying on contemporary young adult books, or books “endorsed by a teacher association or a library group, such as the American Library Association.” Adams argues that for students the text must “provide a foil to their own lives,” saying that the more different the text is from their own experience, “the more interesting and engaging it is likely to be.” One might suppose that this would lead to recommendations that, say, conservative white students should read books about Black history with a leftist slant. It does not.
In general, Adams doesn’t care for the idea of shaping units around themes. Just pick great books.
Texts, therefore, should determine the themes, not themes determining the text. “What books should students read and encounter?” should be the principal question in shaping such a course. The answer should be “The very best that has been thought and said,” and nothing less. That is a quote from 19th Century poet and educator Matthew Arnold.
Finally, spend more time reading. Spend the class reading aloud, while having students pre-read at home. Discuss what they have just read. Do just that, every day. Somehow this is going to fascinate 12 and 13 year olds.
Ensure that texts and topics will not “disproportionately affect those who have experienced trauma.”
Adams wants to steer unpleasant topics away from the classroom, and so approves the removal of works about drunk driving, criminals, and mental health.
Get mental health lessons out of reading class
The newest version of the course gets rid of a mental health unit. “Vermilion Education understands that mental health instruction will be taught where required outside of subject-area units.”
Ensure nonfiction articles include questions to help students identify the writer’s perspective, thus shielding teachers from being unfairly accused of bias.
As with the traumatic topics, Adams seems prone to concern trolling. So instead of saying, “These works represent viewpoints with which I disagree,” he says that he’s just afraid that someone else might accuse this teacher of bias.
For example, Adams recommends getting rid of Rez Dogs, which “may be understood to argue that even when one doesn’t think he or she is racist, he or she is in fact racist.” The Green Bicycle quotes a lot of Quran; it may be okay to let students read that, “but if they do then the same standard should be equitably applied to religious texts from other religions as well.”
Not that he is biased against these things. He’s just afraid that somebody else might come after Pennridge teachers.
Get rid of all sexualized content.
Adams reports that is done. Pennridge 7th and 8th graders will not hear about sex again.
Adjusting the reading list
The list has been scrubbed of that modern stuff, and filled with items like My Side of the Mountain, Treasure Island, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and Black Beauty.
Based on these so-called improvements, Pennridge parents can now have full confidence that their 7th or 8th grade student will not be exposed in these courses to official curriculum that a) may deepen or lead to destructive behavior, b) distills potentially counterproductive instruction in mental health at the expense of sound reading practice, c) contains biased or partisan content, or d) contains sexualized content
The reading program adjustments are the work of someone without a solid background in the study of reading, but who went to a private school that emphasized only the classics. Someone who sees education as the business of protecting students from dangerous ideas.
Adams reports on some of the improvements in social studies grades 1-5 and 9. They are what one might expect.
He calls for teacher guidance that emphasizes story and personal biography. “This improves from the restricted study of human trends in abstraction and isolation based on group identity or according to graduate school research practices.” That’s in keeping with the conservative view that all social issues are the result of individual choices and have no systemic or identity-related causes.
Adams is also happy to recommend the use of materials that are “free of bias and ideology, including the Core Knowledge Foundation, 1776 Unites, Hillsdale College, Center for Civic Education, and the Bill of Rights Institute.” None of those are remotely free from bias, but this is the Hillsdale view—right wing bias is just straight up truth. “Bias” and “indoctrination” only apply to ideas with which they disagree.
This is all “in the judgment and experience of Vermilion Education,” which means the judgment of Jordan Adams based on his few years of working with Hillsdale’s Christian nationalist school program.
Adams also takes a page to respond to various criticisms. In particular, he was shocked and surprised by district employees criticizing him at the August meeting and that he sure didn’t remember any district folks complaining in meetings. When brought up at a meeting, someone in the audience called out “They were afraid they’d lose their jobs.”
Grab bag of ideology and biases
Adams wrapped up the report with a whole list of other concerns. The 11th grade honors class is reading The Kite Runner. He also has so many problems with materials listed for Black History Month, including items that might be critical of police or Trump or insurrectionists in Congress.
Then he looks at a resource list about implicit bias and systemic racism from the Southern Poverty Law Center (the people who pick on his good friends at Moms For Liberty). Many of those are Not Okay.
And a 12th grade course entitled “Social Issues in Today’s World” deals with prejudice and racism and gender roles and discrimination and a host of other divisive issues that “may be handled in an unbiased and nonpartisan manner, but many are usually also associated with a one-sided ideological or partisan treatment.” Which is certainly true, but given his belief that Hillsdale’s conservative Christian materials are bias free, I suspect that Adams’ concern about one-sidedness is itself rather one-sided
Again, it’s not that he’s personally upset by these topics or that he is calling anyone biased, but these topics “may expose teachers to accusations of bias or ideology.” He’s just looking out for them, exactly as he told the Moms For Liberty that he would.
Research and Commentary
Adams provides a bibliography of the “research and analysis that undergird these recommendations.” Billed as “research and commentary,” it consists entirely of commentary. There’s not a single piece of legitimate research in the bunch. Mostly it’s blog post commentary with some posts dressed up as “reports” from advocacy groups. Adams, even when he dresses himself up as a consulting agency, is in over his head, dealing with responsibilities that appear to be beyond his education and experience. But he fits in with the current Pennridge Board, whose desire to yank the district’s curriculum to the right apparently extends beyond simply hiring an under qualified consultant. I hope they’re careful; the whole business may expose board members to accusations of bias and ideology.