Do Black and Students with Disabilities’ Lives Matter to the U.S. Department of Education?

Institutional Bias, Power-Based Decisions, and Ineffective Practices?

Dear Colleagues,

Is Institutional Bias Driving the U.S. Department of Education?

Friday, July 10, 6:14 AM

   I rolled over in bed this morning and began to think about my 9:00 AM conference call with officials from the U.S. Department of Education (USDoE).

   Even though I had only slept about 5 hours, my mind started racing with thoughts about the call, and I realized there was no way I was going to fall back asleep.

   My conference call is with Angela Arrington, the Deputy Privacy Office at the USDoE who oversees Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the public. Also scheduled on the call are Gregory Campbell who is an FOIA Coordinator in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Nicole White, a Competition Manager in the Office of Safe and Supportive Schools, and Kelly Patrick, who works in the same office as Nicole.

   At its core, the essence of the call is the five-year USDoE School Climate Transformation Grant that was awarded to 69 school districts or collaboratives on October 1, 2019.

   The specific purpose for the call is to clarify an FOIA request that I submitted to the USDoE about four months ago to get information that may validate the existence of a potential conflict of interest within the Department. Indeed, I believe this conflict has existed within the USDoE (and, especially, its Office of Special Education Programs—OSEP) for at least 20 years. While it has shifted to the Office of Safe and Supportive Schools, the conflict remains the same.

   The conflict of interest concerns the funding and singular advocacy and promotion by the USDoE, OSEP, and now Safe and Supportive Schools of the National Technical Assistance Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and its PBIS framework. . .
. . . and, through that promotion and framework, the ineffective social, emotional, and behavioral practices for students across the country for at least the past 20 years—especially, students of color and with disabilities.

_ _ _ _ _

   But as my mind was racing, before I got out of bed to start drafting this Blog message on my computer, I began to integrate two previously-disparate thoughts.

   First, I thought of a communiqué, 2020 Determination Letters on State Implementation of IDEA, published on June 25, 2020 by OSEP that announced that (a) fewer than half of the states in our country are in compliance with federal special education law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—IDEA), and (b) just 21 states “met” these requirements for the 2018-2019 school year.

[CLICK HERE for this Report]

   Parenthetically, as a former Director of an OSEP grant for 13 years with the Arkansas Department of Education, I can tell you that one critical area where most states are out of compliance with IDEA involves the disproportionate discipline referrals and suspensions of students of color and with disabilities.

   The second thing that I thought about was the whole area of disproportionality, inequity, and the institutional racism that has existed for 400 years in this country—racism that contributed to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others.

   Here, I began to wonder whether there is implicit racial bias within the USDoE, and if this bias is influencing some of its policies, practices, and decisions. . . and actually contributing to the poor special education (and other educational) results in our states and schools.

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   I have written about issues of educational inequity and disproportionality in many previous Blog messages. Rather than lose the main thesis of today’s discussion, please feel free to read the most recent Blogs validating these important concerns in our schools today.

[CLICK HERE to see:

April 11, 2020. The Pandemic Unearths the Raw Reality of Educational Inequity and Disparity: COVID-19 Forces Us to Realize We Need to Change the Village]

[CLICK HERE to see:

November 23, 2019. Maybe It’s the (Lack of) Money that Explains the Relationship Between Black-White Achievement Gaps and Disproportionate Disciplinary Suspensions?]

_ _ _ _ _

   Both of the thoughts above converged as I prepared for my USDoE conference call, and I also wondered:

Why has disproportionality, racism, equity, and student achievement (especially for students of color, English Second Language students, and students with disabilities) not significantly improved in education when. . .
The National PBIS TA Center has especially focused on improving cultural competence, equitable practices, and school discipline and behavior management expertise in our nation’s schools since its funding by the USDoE (through OSEP) from 1997 to the present?

   Knowing many of the dominant OSEP and National PBIS TA Center “players” since 1997, I then wondered (with all due respect to my colleagues):

If their implicit biases, and their willingness to embrace a scientifically-flawed framework that has not produced consistent, widespread, and sustained results for students, staff, and schools (for over 20 years) are contributing to the lack of student, school, and state progress in their funded areas of focus.

   Said a different way:

Maybe USDoE staff are as responsible (as the states and districts) for the poor results reflected in the 2020 Determination Letters on State Implementation of IDEA Report
. . . because of the stubborn promotion of their own flawed PBIS and other (e.g., MTSS) frameworks that they have "sold" to states and districts as "the way" . . .
Frameworks that many researchers and practitioners have expressed concerns about for many years?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Why People Stick to their Beliefs, No Matter What

   Critically, two of the psychological processes that best explain the hypothesized phenomenon above are: Cognitive Immunization and Confirmation Bias.

   A March 28, 2016 Psychology Today article, “5 Reasons Why People Stick to their Beliefs, No Matter What,” stated that Cognitive Immunization “helps to explain why some beliefs become even stronger when challenged. They also help to explain how we cannot let go of some beliefs in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.”

   The article continues, “In fact, one characteristic of strong and resilient beliefs is their internal logic and structure, even when they defy logical verification as a whole. As a result, believers come to arguments well-prepared, having become adept at using their Confirmation Bias—the natural inclination to avoid any information that contradicts a strongly held belief, while seeking out information that strengthens it."

   The article goes on to describe five research-based, psychologically-driven ways that people maintain and defend their beliefs even in the face of objective data:

  • We isolate ourselves from people who hold outside beliefs in order to shield our ideas from even the possibility of contrary voices and arguments. Forms of isolation play a role in most group memberships, ranging from strong examples such as military basic training, to subtle examples such as a spouse who tries to exclude one of his or her partner’s unappreciated friends.
  • We try to reduce our direct exposure to other beliefs and ideas that might challenge our own. We can see stronger examples in hardline nation states with totalitarian regimes that ban media and free speech. At the same time, all forms of education use similar principles, whether in selecting appropriate texts for the classroom or in prescribing the best nutritional advice.
  • We connect our beliefs to powerful emotions. One approach involves anchoring negative emotions to belief failures. The obvious example is the fear of an unpalatable afterlife as a result of non-compliance to a religious doctrine. On the other hand, we also scare our kids deliberately in order to shape their behaviors and steer them away from risk, whether in the form of electricity or pools, or both at the same time.
  • We associate with like-minded groups in which we work together to undermine rival beliefs and the groups proposing them. Targeting competing beliefs is common in politics, especially along party and ideological lines. Academics have also made this into a fine art under the rubric of the scientific method by highlighting the weaknesses in theoretical adversaries’ arguments while ignoring their strengths.
  • A final technique for immunizing our beliefs relies on repetition. Repetition is, of course, the backbone of all learning (for better and worse), including the essentials, such as grammar; the extraneous, such as sporting allegiances; and the repugnant, such as racism.

[CLICK HERE to Read the Entire Psychology Today Article]

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Back to the FOIA Conference Call

   One of the reasons why I filed the FOIA request with the USDoE was because of its continuing practice of requiring districts awarded specific federal grants (funded by your tax dollars) to use the personnel from or affiliated with the National PBIS TA Center.

   This has most recently occurred with the last two five-year School Climate Transformation Grants (first from 2014 to 2019, and now with the second set of awardees starting this past October, 2019).

   The USDoE’s website describes the School Climate Transformation Grant as follows:

The School Climate Transformation Grant—Local Educational Agency Program provides competitive grants to local educational agencies (LEAs) to develop, enhance, or expand systems of support for, and technical assistance to, schools implementing an evidence-based multi-tiered behavioral framework for improving behavioral outcomes and learning conditions for all students.
Projects should: (1) build capacity for implementing a sustained, school-wide multi-tiered behavioral framework; (2) enhance capacity by providing training and technical assistance to schools; and (3) include an assurance that the applicant will work with a technical assistance provider, such as the PBIS Technical Assistance Center funded by the Department, to ensure that technical assistance related to implementing program activities is provided.

   While the USDoE emphasize that the words “such as” in the bolded sentence above “prove” that any viable PBIS-savvy technical assistance provider can be used by any grantee, their actual actions speak louder than their politically-correct assurances.


  • For the entirety of the first 2014 School Climate Transformation Grant, districts/SEAs awarded the grant were required to send representatives every year to the National PBIS TA Center’s October national conference.
  • For five years at this conference, not a single presenter who did not support and reflect the TA Center’s PBIS framework were invited to present.
  • At the first Grant Directors’ Conference for the newly awarded 2019 School Climate Transformation Grants—held in Washington, DC earlier this year on January 27-28, 2020—grantees were made to listen to an entire day of USDoE-funded National PBIS TA Center and National SEL TA Center directors or affiliates who discussed only their Centers’ PBIS and SEL frameworks and the specific consultants (with e-mails included) who were available to provide (“free”—i.e., funded by your tax dollars) technical assistance services.
  • Significantly, a number of grantees complained about the wasted time devoted to these “info-mercials,” and some felt pressured to change the directions of their already-approved and funded School Climate Grants to (a) conform to the TA Centers’ frameworks, and (b) use their consultants.

   For a comprehensive past and present description of the USDoE’s singular advocacy and promotion of its National TA Center’s PBIS framework, read the February 15, 2020 Blog article:

“Did a Misguided U.S. Department of Education E-mail “Confirm” Its Improper Favoritism of the PBIS Behavioral Framework? Using the School Climate Transformation Grant to Misrepresent, Re-Brand, and Strong-Arm Educators toward Only “Department-Approved” PBIS Consultants.”

[CLICK HERE for this Blog Article]

_ _ _ _ _

   Briefly connecting the dots between the USDoE’s actions and the Psychology Today article (both above), I would like to suggest that USDoE staff may be psychologically “sticking to their PBIS beliefs” (no matter what) by:

  • Isolating themselves (and School Climate Transformation Grant Directors attending the annual Grant Directors' Conferences) from people who hold outside beliefs in order to shield their ideas from even the possibility of contrary voices and arguments.
  • Trying to reduce direct exposure to other beliefs and ideas that might challenge our own.
  • Connecting their beliefs to powerful emotions. For example, deliberately scaring grantees with losing their funds (see the February 15th Blog) in order to shape their behaviors and steer them away from alternative PBIS approaches.
  • Associating with (creating) like-minded groups that work together to undermine rival beliefs and the groups proposing them. Remember the article’s point that: Academics have made this into a fine art under the rubric of the scientific method by highlighting the weaknesses in theoretical adversaries’ arguments while ignoring their strengths.
  • Immunizing their beliefs through repetition—in fact, over 20 years of repetition.

   But in executing these belief-defending actions, the USDoE staff involved are also denying millions of students and staff, and thousands of schools the information that may improve their science-to-practice approaches, and their school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management outcomes.

   Critically, this especially involves millions of students of color, ELL students, students living in poverty, and students with disabilities.

   And if the thesis of this Blog is accurate—even in small part—the USDoE’s “implicit bias toward practice” may inadvertently be exacerbating the implicit bias of racism in our schools.

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The Misuse of Political Power in Education

Back to the FOIA Conference Call

   Another reason for my FOIA request to the USDoE was to hopefully get to the bottom of a situation that I described in the February 15th Blog (please read that Blog for the entire description—including quotes from relevant e-mails between me and USDoE staff).

   Here is a brief summary of the situation:

   After I heard about the presentations at the January School Climate Transformation Grant Directors’ meeting in Washington, DC (note that I am the Outside PBIS Consultant on three of the 69 grants awarded), I decided to get clarification on what actually occurred.

   Hence, I e-mailed Carlette KyserPegram, the U.S. Department of Education’s Program Manager for the School Climate Transformation Grant in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Office of Safe and Supportive Schools.  I also copied Ms. KyserPegram’s supervisors in her office, as well as Frank Brogan, the Assistant Secretary in charge of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

   After a series of e-mails, the last one (on February 13, 2020) from Ms. KyserPegram stated:

Good Afternoon Dr. Knoff:

Attached please find the slides that you requested.

As indicated in the attached slides, the PBIS TA center is a U.S. Department of Education grantee whose purpose is, among other things, to assist SEAs and LEAs that received or will receive School Climate Transformation Grants (SCTGs) with developing and implementing PBIS frameworks that are designed to keep students engaged in instruction and improve academic outcomes.

The PBIS TA center does not advocate for, fund or support the implementation of any singular approach to PBIS, and the Department does not endorse any particular product or model of PBIS. As the Department funds the PBIS TA Center to provide no-cost technical assistance to SCTG grantees, the presentation (at the January Directors’ meeting) gave SCTG participants information about the Center’s resources and services available to them. However, SCTG grantees are free to use consultants of their choosing in addition to, or instead of, the services of the PBIS TA Center, and this is what we communicate to grantees. As I said in my earlier email, at no time during the meeting were grantees told they could not use consultants outside of those affiliated with the PBIS TA Center.

C. KyserPegram

  [ NOTEThis is Ms. KyserPegram’s entire, unedited response. ]

_ _ _ _ _

   While the last statement in this e-mail was not the perception of many of the grant awardees at the meeting, with this sanitized, politically-correct, “we-follow-all-of-the-rules” response, I figured my communications with Ms. KyserPegram were done. 

   BUT. . . what happened next completely shocked me !!!

_ _ _ _ _

   At 3:43 PM on the same day—less than two hours after receiving Ms. KyserPegram’s response, I received the following unexpected and incorrectly routed e-mail from Rita Foy-Moss who is a Program Officer in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Schools.

   Sending the e-mail to Carlette KyserPegram, and copying it to Nicole White, Ms. Foy-Moss’ e-mail simply said:

   “Good show!

     Thank you.


   Seven minutes later, at 3:50 PM, Ms. Foy-Moss e-mailed me again, saying:

   “Foy Moss, Rita would like to recall the message “SCTG and the U.S. DoE’s Singular Promotion of the PBIS TA Center and Staff”—the title of the first-sent e-mail.

_ _ _ _ _


   Clearly, Ms. Foy-Moss mistakenly included me on the first e-mail above.

   Just as clearly, she was positively reinforcing her colleague, Ms. KyserPegram for the e-mail that she sent to me earlier that day (quoted above).

   But what exactly was she reinforcing???

   To be fair, some hypotheses explaining Ms. Foy-Moss’ cryptic message reinforcing Ms. KyserPegram’s original e-mail to me might include that it:

  • Was written in such politically vague and/or correct language that no one could question that motives or actions of the U.S. Department of Education relative to the School Climate grant or the Washington, DC meeting;
  • Reinforced the U.S. Department of Education’s procurement policies without taking the pressure off of School Climate grantees who were not using National PBIS TA Center consultants;
  • Did not acknowledge—much less confirm—my requests to clarify the impressions of some School Climate grantees who felt pressured to work with National PBIS TA Center consultants and to utilize their PBIS framework in their grants;
  • Avoided addressing my requests (to Ms. KyserPegram) for “equal time” for PBIS presenters, who are not from or affiliated with the National PBIS TA Center, at future Washington, DC Directors’ meetings; and
  • Maintained the practices within the U.S. Department of Education of promoting the PBIS framework and work of the Department-funded National PBIS TA Center.

   Ultimately, whatever Ms. Foy-Moss intended, she must have been concerned (horrified???) enough about her e-mail “getting into the wrong hands” to have sent me a retraction within seven minutes.

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Back to the FOIA Conference Call

   Ms. Foy-Moss’ e-mail is what prompted my FOIA request.

   In essence, I wondered if her e-mail represented a “smoking gun” that would uncover other USDoE memos or e-mails (acquired through the FOIA request) that would prove that the USDoE was not engaged in just Cognitive Immunization, Confirmation Bias, or Implicit Bias, but pure power politics.

   And if you believe that something like this would never occur in a federal agency like the USDoE, please know that the USDoE’s Office of the Inspector General proved (in 2006) that (from 2002 through 2006) USDoE staff planned, manipulated, and changed multiple state department of education Reading First grants to ensure that the nationally-proven Success for All Reading Program (and others) would never receive federal funding.

   The Reading First program involved over $6 billion dollars that went primarily to high-poverty Title I schools to improve elementary students’ reading skills. And the USDoE staff involved were the actual federal grant program directors overseeing the program.

   In fact, because of the identified USDoE staffs’ malfeasance, thousands of students nationwide were denied one of the most effective reading programs in our country’s arsenal.

   Moreover, Congress eventually de-funded the Program (for Fiscal Year 2009), in essence, to punish the USDoE, and because the integrity of the USDoE’s continued oversight of the program could not be assured.

   Critically, the Inspector General’s investigation started when Dr. Robert Slavin, the Program’s creator, filed an FOIA request with the USDoE that uncovered incriminating staff e-mails that demonstrated the bias against his Success for All Program.

[CLICK HERE to see the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s September 2006 Report on the Reading First debacle]

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Summary: Effective and Ineffective Practice

Friday, July 10, 11:11 AM

   The FOIA conference call is over, but I have no news to report

   It was a cordial, respectful, and professional call, and I believe that all of the USDoE staff on the call are dedicated to our nation’s students and schools, and to the mission of maximizing their academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

   But we will need to wait and see if the call was truly productive.

   On the call, I provided much of the same history that I have shared (above) with you. But at the beginning of the call, I suggested a resolution that would encourage me to withdraw the FOIA request, and the precious staff time needed to complete it.

   The core of my proposal was that the USDoE would agree to actively involve me in the relevant planning and evaluation sessions that would guide the functional implementation of the School Climate Transformation Grant for the next four-plus years.

   This would ensure that multiple “PBIS expert voices” would “be at the planning table” so that the districts and schools involved in the Grant Program would have the benefit of different, proven ways to positively impact school climate and student behavior.

   Included in this proposal also would be a USDoE agreement to involve me and other PBIS national experts—not affiliated with the National PBIS TA Center—as presenters and mentors at the required School Climate Transformation Grant Directors’ Annual Conferences.

   The USDoE leaders on the call agreed that they would bring my proposals to the Department’s Leadership Group.

   We will see what happens. . .

_ _ _ _ _

   My friends, please understand that my FOIA request and the proposals above are all about initiating, maintaining, and sustaining a systemic change of a social, organizational, and institutionalized culture within the USDoE (and across many state departments of education in this country) that has allowed a flawed framework to be promoted for too long.

   This culture has not occurred because of who is in power (i.e., the political party of the current President), but because of who is implementing the power (i.e., USDoE staff, some of whom have worked in the Department for up to four different Presidents—two Republican and two Democrat).

   While the change may begin with confrontation, it will ultimately succeed with collaboration.

   And the process toward success will not be pretty or linear, perfect or universal. Moreover, it will involve hard work and courage, compromise and dedication.

   While this PBIS and SEL School Climate Grant issue pales against the depth and breadth of the implicit, explicit, and historical issues of bias, prejudice, and racism embedded in the Black Lives Matter movement, I believe that the two overlap.

   Simplistically, they overlap because we need to systemically change the social, organizational, and institutionalized culture of racism that has occurred over the past 400 years. And part of this change must occur with changes in how we fund, successfully educate, and support Black and other students of color, ELL students, students with disabilities, and students from poverty.

   The PBIS framework has had over 20 years and millions of dollars of federal and state funds to demonstrate its ability to be part of this change process. It is now time to listen to some “new” voices.

   It also is time for some to (a) look in the mirror, (b) confront the reasons why—motivated by psychology, politics, or power—they are “sticking to their beliefs” (no matter what), (c) admit and apologize for their past behavior and decisions, and (d) re-focus and re-dedicate themselves to the children and adolescents in our schools and communities nationwide.