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Note to Yearbook Advisors, HS Principals, and Superintendents: Editing Yearbook Photos is Perilous!

March 22, 2021 1 comment

In the “good old days”, Yearbook editors could oversee their publications without worry. Students told young men they had to wear a tie if they wanted to have their picture in the yearbook and the young women had to be attired in dresses and skirts that conformed to the dress codes. The yearbook messages that appeared next to the pictures were carefully edited to make certain that references to teachers and political events of the day were omitted.

As dress codes loosened in the 1970s and 1980s collared shirts were still required for the young men and young women moved away from the kinds of apparel they would wear to, say, a school dance or church social into more casual clothing. The editing of commentary loosened a bit as the behavior codes loosened as best exemplified by the addition of “smoking areas” to schools and the lyrics to songs that were played on the radio became more explicit. References to drugs, drinking, and sex, though, were routinely cut.

Over time, though, Yearbooks became more and more controlled by the students and Yearbooks themselves became vestiges of a bygone era when girls wore bobby sox and boys were not allowed to wear jeans. To remain relevant and honor the differences and uniqueness of each student, Yearbook pictures often integrated the special interests of students and, alas, their political leanings. And after a series of court cases that gained national attention, the commentary students write is definitely R-rated.

In 2004, a colleague and close personal friend of mine, Nate Greenberg, got swept up in a controversy over a yearbook picture that illustrates the reason that many school administrators despair of setting standards for yearbooks. As Superintendent of Schools in Londonderry NH, Nate was alerted by his HS Principal that a parent intended to sue the school district if the Yearbook did not publish their son’s picture as he submitted it. The picture depicts a smiling well-groomed young man with a shotgun on his shoulder.  His parents said this picture depicted his son’s hobbies, hunting and skeet shooting, and that his son wanted to show this in his yearbook picture the same way student-musicians and student-athletes and other student hobbyists were depicted doing activities they loved. The yearbook advisor, HS Principal, and Nate looked at this differently. As Nate was quoted in the article, allowing the picture of an armed student in the yearbook might send a signal that the school endorsed the use of guns— not a message he wanted to send five years after Columbine. The district ultimately prevailed, but the controversy dragged out for months and was headlined in local newspapers, picked up by the NRA, and Fox news. In the end, the defense was that the administration was supporting the student editors, who were the ones unsettled by the picture and the State Supreme Court upheld that decision.

This incident came to mind when I read Michael Levenson’s NYTimes article about a student whose Trump T-shirt was edited out of a yearbook in NJ. In this case, though, the yearbook advisor, the high school administration, and the Superintendent were not on the same page and, as a result, the yearbook advisor won a $325,000 settlement for having her name besmirched and for the harassment that ensued. Both the Yearbook advisor and Superintendent have retired and, in all probability, neither of them did so recalling the many positive experiences they had throughout their career.

The incident also illustrates how toxic things became between 2004 and 2017. My friend Nate had to respond to a few phone calls from regional reporters but the incident was quickly forgotten once the suit was settled. Contrast that to the experience of the besmirched yearbook advisor:

On June 12, 2017, the student whose logo had been removed appeared on one of Mr. Trump’s favorite programs, “Fox & Friends,” and said, “The people or person who did this should be held responsible because it is a violation of mine and other people’s First Amendment rights.”

That same day, Ms. Parsons said, she was summoned to a meeting with Ms. Dyer and was suspended. Days later, Mr. Trump drew more attention to the issue, decrying “yearbook censorship” at the high school in a Facebook post….

…Ms. Parsons, who said in court papers that she had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, said she was soon inundated with hate mail and harassing phone messages that called her a Nazi, a communist, anti-American and a “treasonous traitor liberal.”

She said she had been afraid to use her name when ordering takeout food and feared that drivers might try to hit her when she went for bike rides.

When she returned to school in September 2017, she said, she was “disrespected and ridiculed” by students and others who blamed her for removing the Trump references from the yearbook.

She sued the district in May 2019 and retired in February 2020.

Maybe the “good old days” had some merit to them. Maybe yearbook pictures should reflect the unity that high schools aspire to instead of the uniqueness that separates us from each other.

NY Post Hypocrisy is Boundless. How Can a Paper That Championed Bloomberg’s Chancellor With NO Classroom Experience Blast Chancellor Porter for “Barely” Teaching Before Rising Through the Ranks

March 15, 2021 Comments off

I confess that I felt a sense of de ja vu AND empathy when I read the NYPost headline and accompanying article chastising the decision to hire Meisha Ross Porter because she lacked classroom teaching experience.

The sense of de ja vu came because, like Ms. Porter, I had a series of breaks early in my career as an educator that enabled me to rise rapidly through the ranks. I won a Ford Fellowship after “barely teaching” (two years in a West Philadelphia HS) and then moving rapidly through the administrative ranks to become a Superintendent at the age of 33. I have mild regrets that I didn’t spend more time in the classroom or at the building level (where I served for 6 years), and in retrospect got OJT in my first few years as Superintendent… but when opportunities presented themselves for me— as they have for Ms. Porter— I seized them and never looked back.

BUT… the “lack of experience” criticism DID come into play early in my career whenever I assumed the leadership in increasingly large districts and whenever someone who disagreed with a decision wanted to ascribe blame. Whenever that occurred, though, I took the comment of a veteran Maine School Board member who assured one of his colleagues who expressed concern about my hiring since I had no experience as a Superintendent that I would solve that problem “one year at a time”. Sure enough, by the time I was hired for my final two jobs my “lack of experience” was no longer an issue.

I found the NYPost criticism of Ms. Porter particularly galling given their unqualified praise for the work done by Mayor Bloomberg’s appointee to the Chancellor: Joel Klein– an attorney with no experience whatsoever in public education. The fact that a white male who never set foot in a classroom was never questioned about his experience while an African American woman is “welcomed” with headline chastising her for “barely” teaching. The criticism was particularly galling given the content of the article that listed the many accomplishments Ms. Porter achieved in her years as an administrator. I wish her well… and hope that she continues to fight the good fight as she has done throughout her career. If she does well and the next mayor passes her over some district somewhere in the US will get a seasoned administrator with a good track record for turning around troubled schools.

WSJ Op Ed Demeaning Jill Biden’s Ed.D Reflects the Anti-Intellectual Brand of Trump’s GOP

December 16, 2020 Comments off

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Late last week the Wall Street Journal featured an op ed article by Joseph Epstein that chided President-elect Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, for using the honorific “Doctor”. NBC reporter Tonya Russell summarized the critique as follows:

“‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” wrote Joseph Epstein, a longtime contributor to The Journal. “Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.'”

Like Jill Biden I have an Ed.D and like her I wrote my dissertation on a practical research question: does a demanding application process yield a superior pool of applicants? And, like Jill Biden I was subjected to some who questioned its legitimacy and some who used the term in a sneering and derisive way.

As Ms. Russell noted in her NBC report, an ED.D requires the same number of years as a Ph.D and is often as rigorous. Increasingly the degree is a pre-requisite for an administrative assignment because School Boards and especially recruiting consultants view it as a means of objectively screening candidates. Early in my career I was able to get interviews based on the credential and three of those interviews led to jobs as I advanced from Assistant Principal to Superintendent of a 17,000 pupil school district in a 10 year interval. In the end, I was willing to accept the criticism from the likes of Mr. Epstein because I knew how much work went into earning my degree and came to understand that it was no different than the work that went into a “real” doctorate.