The West Milford school district will not use different methods to teach boys and girls according to an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union adopted by the Board of Education Aug. 20.
The approved resolution authorized Superintendent Alex Anemone to sign an "Assurance of Voluntary Compliance" agreement with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (NJ-DCR) on behalf of the school district.
The agreement is in response to a complaint filed in February 2018 by the American Civil Liberties Union of NJ, and to the state Division on Civil Rights regarding training materials provided to staff during a mandatory Professional Development Training Workshop in 2017.
The workshop, titled: "Boys and Girls Learn Differently: Strategies for Teaching Across the Curriculum,” is based upon the theories and methods of Dr. Michael Gurian, founder of the educational organization and non-profit foundation, The Gurian Institute in Spokane, Washington.
According to the organization's website, "The Gurian Institute provides brain-based, research-driven, strategies-focused professional development, consulting, and training."
The website cites the Gurian philosophy and training methods that stem from “published scientific theory and research” showing evidence of biological differences in brain scans of boys and girls, and includes "science-based strategies for educating boys and girls most effectively.”
The methods encourage gender-specific classroom environments, interventions, and lessons based upon the research of Gurian and others supporting the theory of gender-specific learning differences.
According to the organization’s website, “The Gurian Institute has trained more than 60,000 teachers in more than 2,000 schools and districts. Schools and districts that utilize our resources have been featured in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, People Magazine, the Washington Post, on the Today Show and PBS, and in Educational Leadership, Education World, and other public and professional media.”
However, there are many opposing views with published scientific research on this theory as well, making it a divisive subject among the scientific and educational communities, as well as among a society with an increasingly popular, yet politically controversial, push toward a gender-neutral public environment.
According to the ACLU, the Gurian Institute’s methods reinforce stereotypes, have a harmful effect on the classroom and violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
According to published reports in March, 2018, Gurian defended the methods of the organization, stating that there is evidence that certain gender-based instructional tactics can help schools reach achievement goals.
According to the reports, Gurian said, “What the ACLU is trying to do is get districts to spend a bunch of taxpayer money to defend against something that is vapor anyway.”
He said the ACLU’s claims that teaching boys and girls differently is harming students are ludicrous.
“There are thousands of studies that show male-female brain difference,” Gurian said. “So, it’s kind of an ideology versus reality thing.”
The Gurian Institute's training "How Boys and Girls Learn Differently" was a mandatory professional development session administered to West Milford teachers in 2017.
Teachers of grades K-12 throughout the district each attended this training once, for about five hours during one professional development day as assigned, on one of three dates the session was offered.
Mary Bozenmayer, an 8th Grade Physical Science and STEM Teacher at Macopin Middle School, attended the training in October.
“No description was provided prior to the training other than the title How Boys and Girls Learn Differently,” Bozenmayer said, “In fact, I started that day eager to learn. I even posted on my school twitter and instagram feeds that morning about it. In hindsight, I did recognize that even the title of the program was problematic, but I had no reservations going into the training.”
She said the workshop material was presented by the district as recommendations (not requirements) for teachers on how to better differentiate learning to meet student needs.
“The session presented a variety of options that teachers could use to improve learning and behavior of students in their classrooms,” she said.
But Bozenmayer said that within minutes of the program starting, and “after hearing multiple gender stereotypes embedded within the content,” she started to question the intention and scientific facts supporting the presenters' claims.
“Early on in the program, they had us measure the lengths of our fingers to determine the amount of testosterone that we received in utero, which left me a bit puzzled as to what connection that had to differentiation,” she said.
Later in the presentation, she said the presenters displayed slides that listed educational strategies and characteristics specific to boys and girls.
“I became more and more skeptical that the training could improve differentiation of instruction for individual students,” she said. “Instead, it was encouraging educators to use stereotypical norms about male and female students to tailor instruction.”
Bozenmayer said later that evening, she flipped through Michael Gurian's book that was given to all attendees, and then conducted a bit more research on Gurian's educational ideologies.
As an active member of the WM Educational Technology Committee, and a regular teacher of after school professional development workshops for colleagues on a variety of topics (mostly technology-based), Bozenmayer said she was concerned about the material that was presented to staff.
“I became more and more disturbed that West Milford (a typically forward-thinking and relatively progressive district) would choose to financially support the Gurian Institute and promote its recommendations which lack supportive scientific evidence,” she said.
The Next Step: How the ACLU and NJ-OCR became involved
Bozenmayer said she initially brought her concerns to her Building Principal, Marc Citro, in the days following the training.
“Mr. Citro was incredibly supportive and listened to everything I had to say,” she said.
Since Citro had not attended the training, he recommended that Bozenmayer meet with the director of education (who is responsible for setting the professional development curriculum throughout the district) to share her concerns on how the training may have promoted gender stereotyping.
Continuing her independent research on the Gurian programs, she found this was not the first time the ACLU crossed paths with the institute.
“Through a Google search, I found out that the ACLU had been involved with Gurian in the past, when his ideologies have been used to support single-sex educational programs across U.S.,” she said.
In fact, according to published media coverage, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in 2014, seeking a federal investigation into several school districts in Florida that had implemented the Gurian methodology, stating that the districts' single-sex classroom programs violated federal anti-discrimination laws.
Still in search of more information about the organization, Bozenmayer said she emailed the ACLU with questions about the Gurian Institute on Oct. 15, 2017.
“I was hoping that the ACLU could provide me with information about Gurian to prepare for a meeting with the director of education (rather than trying to read and process the multitude of scholarly literature debunking his methods- life is busy and I was hoping they could provide me the ‘Cliff's Notes’).”
Unfortunately, she said the ACLU did not respond to her request for information until after meeting with the administration.
Bozenmayer said that she met with Director of Education Daniel Novak on Oct. 18, 2017.
“We had a long talk about the intention of the training overall, and I shared how I strongly believed it promoted gender bias,” she said. “Mr. Novak was not in attendance for the session on Oct. 9, so he could not directly address some of the issues I raised about the material delivered/displayed on that day, but assured me that the earlier training sessions in district included some different material than my colleagues and I received on (that day).”
The ACLU finally responded to Bozenmayer’s emailed request for information on Oct. 20, offering resources and information.
“They asked if we could speak over the phone about the situation in the district,” she said.
Bozenmayer said from then on, she had minimal contact with the ACLU - they worked independently within its organization to submit an OPRA request to the district for more information about the content of the training and related financial costs of the program to the district.
The ACLU reached out to Bozenmayer again in early 2018 to ask her to write about her experience of attending a Gurian Institute training workshop for its blog, describing the issues she had with the training.
Bozenmayer shared her experience with the ACLU as requested.
Her essay titled: “Gender Stereotyping Has No Place in My Classroom” was featured on the ACLU’s “Speak Freely” Blog on March 22, 2018.
“I walked out of the session determined to do something about it. I contacted the ACLU, which sent a letter on Thursday warning the school district that the training and the teaching philosophy it is based on encourage discrimination based on gender,” she wrote in the blog.
The ACLU sent a letter to the West Milford School District on March 22, 2018 about the related issues with the training content.
“On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, we write to express our serious concerns about the content of the District’s ongoing professional development for staff that trains teachers to instruct students differently based on sex stereotypes,” the letter said. “ Such instruction violates civil rights laws; the staff trainings that promote it must cease immediately. Further, in order to remedy the harmful effects of the improper trainings that have already occurred, the District must provide corrective training as well as alternative educational materials.”
The organization told the district that it would pursue legal action if a settlement of the complaint could not be reached.
According to a statement from West Milford Superintendent Alex Anemone in 2018, the district was evaluating the claims in the letter and said it was fully confident that no laws have been violated.
According to Anemone at the time, one of the board’s district goals is to “Improve academic performance through increased design and implementation of differentiated instruction.”
“Differentiated instruction is the term we use as an academic community to describe meeting the needs of every student at their own level,” Anemone said in the 2018 statement. “In order to accomplish this task, our administration and staff have taken part in a wide variety of training sessions, worked in school-based professional learning communities, and increased student interaction with instructional technology. The professional development session provided by The Gurian Institute provided staff members in attendance with a repertoire of instructional strategies considered to be ‘best practice’ for all learners.”
In reaching the agreement signed Aug. 20, the district agreed not to implement any of the methods used in the training, to hold discrimination training sessions for its staff, and to report future training session content to the organization, according to the agreement.
When asked if she had personally received any feedback or differential treatment (positive or negative) from coworkers, supervisors, District Administrators, etc., as a direct result of the reporting of her concerns about this program to the ACLU/NJDCR, Bozenmayer stated, “I have received feedback from a handful of colleagues, some positive and some negative.”
She said she has not detected any significant differential treatment by supervisors or administrators. “I received a handful of supportive notes and emails from parents and students in the district following the release of my blog post on the ACLU website and the press that followed.”
Bozenmayer said she was satisfied with the outcome of this matter.
“I am thrilled that the community discussions surrounding this issue may have helped encourage some students to start a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the middle school this past January, asking me to be their adviser,” she said. “The club has been a great success, creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies at Macopin.”
“I walked out of the session determined to do something about it. I contacted the ACLU, which sent a letter on Thursday warning the school district that the training and the teaching philosophy it is based on encourage discrimination based on gender,” - Macopin Teacher Mary Bozenmayer