Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Announcing the Nominees for the 5th Annual Curmie Award

It’s that time of year again: time to ask you, Gentle Reader, to help decide the appropriate recipient of the 5th Annual Curmie Award, presented to the person or persons who most embarrass the profession of educator. I remind you that the award is not for the most egregious act, but the one that shows the profession in the worst light. That is, a thoroughly heinous but isolated act shouldn’t necessarily get your vote over a less outrageous action that might be seen as either an exemplar of a systemic problem or a harbinger of bad things to come.

As usual, the transgressions in question must be directly related to the profession, to someone acting in an official capacity: junior high teachers who sleep with their students are abhorrent, but there’s nothing about that act that links directly to education. That there are unethical teachers is not news, and the same person might initiate a similar relationship with a child s/he knows through church, Little League, or the neighborhood. Similarly, idiotic decisions by politicians, pseudo-philanthropists, or university Boards of Trustees aren’t included because the perpetrators aren’t educators.

Lastly, I must have written, at least briefly, about the story in 2015, and the incident in question must have taken place either in calendar year 2015 or close enough to it that it had not really entered the public consciousness until 2015. An exception would be an older story that got new life: a lawsuit that went to trial, a newsworthy fact-finding report was released, that sort of thing.

Previous winners included the anonymous middle school teacher (and the teacher’s aide) in Mercer County, Kentucky, who punished an autistic boy by cramming him into a gym bag intended to hold gym balls; Lillian Gomez, a Florida teacher who figured that marinating Play-Doh and crayons in hot sauce and feeding the concoction to her autistic students would be a good way to teach them not to put things in their mouths; Principal Greer Phillips of PS 79 (the Horan School) in East Harlem, who ordered a lockdown, complete with false claims of an armed intruder—without notifying either the faculty or the police that it was only a drill—in a school with a high percentage of special needs kids less than a week after the events in Newtown, Connecticut; and the administration of Rhame Elementary School in East Rockaway, New York, for pulling Vuola Coyle from the classroom for the sin of having her students perform too well on standardized tests.

And now we have a new crop of contenders. As usual, Curmie chooses eight finalists and roughly that many (dis)honorable mentions. You, collectively, decide the recipient from among the finalists; there are no write-ins. If you think someone else should have been nominated, that is your right and privilege. Your choices: accept my apologies for the omission or write your own blog and remedy the situation.

Curmie wrote only 35 posts for the entire year, the fewest since the Curmie Award was instituted, and whereas education has gradually become the top topic here, there are a number of essays dealing with other issues altogether. Still, I wrote 11 posts about (depending on how you count) about 35 Curmie-worthy incidents. The competition is still stiff. Indeed, when I was trying to choose the nominees, I struggled to narrow the field to fewer than a dozen finalists and at least that many (dis)honorable mentions. Of course, the corruption and incompetence of the Arne Duncan-led Department of Education was an ongoing tragedy for education in this country, but there weren’t any specific examples (that Curmie wrote about) that rose to the level of Curmie-worthy stupidity.

There were plenty of stories I never got to, and others, of course, I never heard about. It’s a big profession, and even if the percentage of morons is quite low, there are still plenty to go around. Curmie is a life-long educator himself, and whereas he’s experienced at least his share of self-doubt, that’s at a personal level—there is no questioning the legitimacy of the profession or the skill, passion, and integrity of the majority of the teachers (and even administrators) out there. And here is where Curmie separates himself from, say, law enforcement: every cop in the country seems ready to defend every vicious, boneheaded, and brutal episode of police arrogance and ineptitude, apparently out of some presumed brotherhood. Curmie, less paranoid, seeks to root out the incompetents and the frauds in his own profession, because he doesn’t want to be represented by bozos.

And so: we start with the (Dis)Honorable mentions.
  • The Texas high school that not only painted Christian zealotry on the corridor walls, they used made-up quotations from the likes of George Washington and Ronald Reagan to do it. (It was tough to keep this off the finalists list.)
  • The Georgia elementary school teacher who punished an autistic child by putting him in a trash can. (This would certainly have been a finalist except that it’s too similar to a previous winner.
  • The Texas elementary school that fired a teacher for protecting herself and her students by locking a violent student out of her classroom.
  • The Georgia university advisor who threatened to call security to remove a student who had the audacity to come by without an appointment and wait for an available advisor. (This one would have been a finalist if Curmie were convinced that such advisors are actually educators.)

Those are, I think, all pretty scary. So what are the finalists like? Well, here we go, in chronological order (of when Curmie wrote about them, not necessarily of the events themselves).

First up is tiny Gustine ISD in Texas, where Principal Alan Luker faced a rather unique problem: someone was leaving feces on the gym floor. So, naturally, a couple dozen 4th and 5th graders were carted off to separate rooms for girls and boys and made to drop their pants. Apart from the outrageousness of this action—searching students without the slightest bit of actual evidence or parental notification (let alone consent), there’s a pragmatic problem: what the hell were they looking for. Unless the excretory processes of pre-teens have changed appreciably since Curmie was one of their number, the undergarments of the Pooping Vandal would be indistinguishable from those of the 95%+ of students who are completely innocent (of course, they might all be innocent, an eventuality apparently too complex for Luker’s feeble brain to contemplate).

Next: in a year dominated by dress code kerfuffles, largely precipitated by egregiously sexist concerns for the way high school girls dress—lest the boys be distracted by legs or collarbones or shoulders (OMG! Shoulders!)—there are actually two Curmie nominees related to what students wear. The first comes from Harrisburg (PA) Sci-Tech High School, where an (of course) unnamed Assistant Principal threatened senior Alexus Miller-Wigfall with suspension for wearing a dress that was “too revealing” to prom. So far, this is a pedestrian story about a puritanical idiot in school administration; Lord knows, there are enough of them. But this case takes on an especially unsavory aroma: the threat occurred three days after prom and was apparently motivated by the fact that Ms. Miller-Wigfall has “more boobs than other girls,” who “have less to show.” (More boobs? Two aren’t enough for this girl?) Oh, and the dress code, as usual, is written by an illiterate: “Dresses and Gowns [yes, “Gowns” is capitalized] MUST cover all body parts….” Yes, all. No faces may be seen in school or at prom.

Curmie stated above that Arne Duncan won’t garner a Curmie nomination this year, but you can’t talk about anti-educational idiocy without mentioning the test-and-punish fetishists he encourages. The signature case comes from the State Education Department in Florida, which devised a testing apparatus whereby students who got perfect scores on a standardized test actually hurt their school and their teacher by not improving on the previous year’s perfect score. How often does this happen? Actually, tens of thousands of times annually. Yes, there’s a provision that allows districts to correct the record, and indeed the problem might have been fixed by now, but the mere fact that the default position was to punish teachers and schools for not improving on perfection tells us everything we need to know about the corporate-driven lunacy that now infests public education.

Our other dress-code-related nominee is just a couple hours down the road from Curmie, in the Cypress-Fairbanks School District in greater Houston. Administrators there made Jef Rouner’s daughter wear a shirt over her sundress and jeans under it because it had spaghetti straps. There are two or three other incidents of the horrors of feminine shoulders that Curmie wrote up, at least briefly, this year, but this one is special. Rouner’s daughter, you see, was five at the time. Yes, five. If her shoulders were too distracting for other students (or for teachers… ewwwww), then Houston, we have a problem. There is a rule against shoulder-baring, but of course there is no rationale for such a prohibition other than instilling in young girls the idea that all subsequent sexual harassment they endure is in fact their fault.

Next up: Bedford (VA) Middle School, and specifically Assistant Principal Brian Wilson and School Operations Chief Frederick “Mac” Duis, who suspended the 11-year-old son (identified as “RMB”) of Bruce and Linda Bays for a year marijuana possession. One problem: every field test of the substance found in the boy’s backpack came up negative. Not “inconclusive,” negative. It wasn’t pot, and school officials (admittedly, led on by an overzealous—to say the least—cop) went ahead and threw the boy out of school even though they knew the kid was guilty of—at most--pretending to have marijuana. (That’s also against school rules, but that wasn’t what the boy was charged with.) A judge later described the “hearing” the school granted the boy as “the pretense of a trial which in truth is but used as a means of depriving a defendant of liberty through a deliberate deception of court.” As far as Curmie knows, these asshats still have their jobs.

And so we move on to the great state of Colorado, where Florence High School seems to have been turned over, lock, stock, and altar to Pastor Randy Pfaff, a run-of-the-mill religious charlatan with an ever-so-predictable persecution complex. Of course, the real problems are Principal Brian Schipper and Superintendent Rhonda Vendetti, who have allowed the school to become essentially a wing of the Cowboy Church at the Crossroads (could Curmie make that name up?). Prayer meetings are publicized over the school P.A. system; the church distributes flyers on school property; there’s a prayer request box in the faculty lounge; all-school assemblies involve concerts by Christian rock bands and are based off Gospel passages. You get the idea. That an evangelical preacher would seek an audience of adolescents is reasonable enough; that public school administrators would cater to his every whim is unconscionable.

On a different front, Marquette University, an institution with a solid academic reputation, tarnished it considerably by firing tenured associate professor John McAdams over a blog post. Perhaps Curmie, a tenured professor who writes a blog in which he sometimes criticizes (OK, ridicules) powerful people, is a little sensitive about this one, but really… wow. Yes, it is true that McAdams acted a little unprofessionally in calling out a grad student teaching assistant by name, but that’s an offense that (in isolation, at least) wouldn’t merit withholding tenure, let alone revoking it. And the insistence by Dean Richard C. Holtz that everything McAdams writes needs to go through a mind-boggling array of university censorious asshats administrative offices is borderline Stalinist. Curmie can’t help but agree with The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: “Only myopia can account for failure to see the threat to academic freedom.”

Finally, there’s Glen Oak Elementary School in Lewis Center, Ohio, where administrators (and presumably the school board) fired 5th grade teacher Nicole LeMire for doing precisely what actual experts say to do when confronting a classroom bully: call him out in front of the class. Of course, people who don’t know what to do (and who are themselves bullied by the bully’s parents) are quick to judge. If, has been suggested, LeMire had a history of unprofessional conduct that was… you know… actually unprofessional, then this perfectly reasonable behavior may serve as an excuse to get rid of a problem teacher. But, if so, it’s still an act of cowardice if not malice.

So there you have it, Gentle Reader: the list of nominations for the 5th Annual Curmie Award.  Please vote for your... uh... favorites in the box in the upper right corner of this page (assuming you’re looking at it on a computer screen).  You may vote for as many or as few nominees as you choose, but please vote only once.  Voting closes at 5:00 pm CST on Tuesday, January 12.  High vote total wins (this isn’t Time Magazine or PolitiFact, after all).  Please note: you are welcome to comment on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, but you cannot vote there.

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