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The right-wing scheme to upend public education — for $125 per hour
On June 20, educational consultant Jordan Adams delivered a much-anticipated presentation to the Pennridge School Board, revealing his recommended changes to the Eastern Pennsylvania school district's social studies curriculum. Adams, the founder of Vermilion Education, appeared via Zoom. The curriculum experts who work for the district recommended that first grade social studies focus on "Rules and Responsibilities," "Geography," and "Important People and Places." Adams instead proposed that 6- and 7-year-olds learn "American History: 1492-1787" and "World History: Ancient Near East."
In his presentation, first reported by the Bucks County Beacon, Adams did not discuss how teachers could provide instruction on nearly 300 years of American history to students still learning to read and tie their shoes. Nor did Adams explain why his "chronological" approach was superior to the school district's proposed curriculum. Adams spent less than 90 seconds covering his proposal to completely restructure social studies for Grades 1 through 5, before moving on to his recommendations for older students.
Popular Information asked Adams about his process for curriculum development and how he came to the conclusion that his proposed changes would be beneficial to first graders and other students. Adams responded that he was asked to provide "a high-level overview" and his recommendations "aim to provide students with a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of American and world history and civics, reflective of historical figures, ideas, and events that have had an outsized impact on the world today."
Adams also proposed changes to the curriculum for seventh and eighth grade reading and language arts courses. He suggested that the books district staff had selected for these courses could "lead to destructive behavior on the part of students." As an example, he cited The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders, a classic young adult novel first published in 1967, is about two rival groups of teens, one wealthy and one working class. Common Sense Media, an independent site that reviews books and movies for children, notes "the indelible characters and compelling story have consistently hooked middle school kids, teens, and reluctant readers since The Outsiders was first published in 1967." Strangely, despite his stated concerns, Adams does not actually recommend removing The Outsiders from the required reading.
Adams added that the district needed to "ensure all texts are free from sexualized content that may best left to the home and to parent discretion." He said the books selected by the district would "raise questions" about why books with "sexualized" content were selected as opposed to "other worthwhile works."
One book singled out by Adams is War and Watermelon by award-winning author Rich Wallace. War and Watermelon is about a 12-year-old growing up in the time of the Vietnam War and Woodstock. But Adams focuses on a few snippets of sexualized content that he apparently believes is inappropriate for middle school students. Two of the passages involved girls who weren't wearing bras. Another involves a 12-year-old boy noticing that a 12-year-old girl had developed breasts.
It was an unusual approach for a consultant the school district is paying thousands of dollars to provide guidance. Notably, Adams, who is 31, does not have any experience developing curricula for public schools. According to Adams, he launched his company, Vermilion Education, in March. (It was formally incorporated in December 2022.) Under questioning from Pennridge School Board member Ronald Wurz, Adams admitted that Pennridge was Vermilion Education's only public school client. (Asked if he has any other clients, Adams said that he is "not at liberty to share about ongoing or potential work with other clients.")
In an interview, Wurz told Popular Information that Adams' presentation was "amateurish," "horrible," and reflected "a total lack of preparation." Wurz was particularly disturbed that Adams has already billed the district $7500 — the cost of 60 hours of work under the contract — to craft his recommendations.
Adams, who appears to have deleted his LinkedIn profile, does not hold any degrees in education. In 2013, Adams received a bachelor's degree in political science from Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution known for its right-wing ideology. In 2016, Adams received a master's degree in humanities from the University of Dallas, another private conservative school. Adams later returned to Hillsdale College as an employee, where he promoted a K-12 curriculum developed by the college, known as the 1776 curriculum, that is favored by right-wing activists.
Nevertheless, Adams was able to secure a contract with the Pennridge School District in April. The contract stipulates that Adams will provide "[c]onsulting services related to assisting district staff in the review and development of curricula." Adams is being paid $125 per hour for this work, with no limit on the number of hours, no specific deliverables, and no termination date.
The contract was added to the agenda less than 48 hours before the meeting by board member Jordan Blomgren. It drew immediate objections from Superintendent David Bolton. In an email, Bolton noted that there was no money budgeted for the contract, no one from the school district had reviewed the contract, and no one involved in developing the curriculum for Pennridge schools was consulted. Bolton's concerns were ignored by a majority of the board, who voted to approve the contract on a 5-4 vote.
Further, Bolton said he believed it was an effort to incorporate the 1776 curriculum without the involvement of administrators and teachers. Public records obtained by the Bucks County Beacon and shared with Popular Information reveal that, beginning in early 2023, members of the Pennridge School Board were pushing to "overlay" Hillsdale's 1776 curriculum in Pennridge classes.
Asked if his recommendations for Pennridge schools were based on the 1776 curriculum, Adams said that "Vermilion’s curricular recommendations draw from a variety of different resources depending on the goals and parameters outlined by a district."
Initially, Adams' contract was paired with a proposal from board members to eliminate the school district's four curriculum supervisors. The proposal was scrapped after board member Jonathan Russell noted that "the school board is required to ensure that employees charged with developing curriculum have appropriate qualifications, which includes five years of teaching and a principal or supervisory certification." Adams admitted he did not possess those qualifications.
Adams told Popular Information that he was qualified to do educational consulting based on his "combined ten years of experience teaching history, civics, and economics to k-12 students, coaching teachers, and reviewing and writing curricula." This includes his five years working at Hillsdale on the 1776 curriculum and five years working as a teacher, including time as a substitute teacher while attending graduate school.
How a consultant with little experience and no academic credentials lands a $125-per-hour contract
Adams' work on the 1776 curriculum appears to have attracted the attention of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing advocacy group concerned about "woke" ideology. The first school district that considered hiring Vermilion Education was Sarasota County in Florida. The chair of the Sarasota County school board is Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty. "I work in education circles and certainly [Vermilion] was brought to my attention," Ziegler said.
Adams was also recruited by the DeSantis administration in Florida to review math textbooks submitted by publishers. In one of Adams' reviews, he concluded that a math textbook, Stats: Modeling the World, may violate the state's prohibition against Critical Race Theory. As evidence, Adams cited one of the math problems which involved data related to racial profiling in policing. According to Adams, the math problem may be an effort to indoctrinate students with the belief that "racism [is] embedded in society and legal systems and/or that race is the most important factor in considering an aspect of society."
The proposal to contract with Vermilion in Sarasota "drew a swell of public opposition." Opponents were concerned that Vermilion had "no track record" and Adams was "unqualified to provide the contracted services." On April 18, the board bucked Ziegler and rejected the proposed contract on a 3-2 vote.
On Facebook, Ziegler cheered Adams' contract with Pennridge, saying that Adams would conduct a "woke audit" of the curriculum.
Last week, Adams appeared at the Moms for Liberty national conference in Philadelphia. Adams led a "strategy session," which was closed to the media, entitled "The First 100 Days: Getting Flipped School Boards to Take Action." Adams declined to elaborate on what was discussed at this session, saying it was "reserved for attendees at the summit."
Hiding the ball
As part of his effort to secure a contract with Sarasota County schools, Adams sent the board members a "brief" pitching Vermilion Education and its services. The document, titled Education Restored, begins with a "Letter to School Board Members" from Adams. In the letter, Adams promotes Vermilion as an extension of the right-wing movement that has elected new school board members intent on radically reshaping public education:
If you're reading this, you're likely already part of one of the greatest reform movements of our lifetime. Like all great reform movements, those who have the authority to make a difference must make a difference if their officers are to have any meaning at all. This requires — as you have already demonstrated — great courage on your part, and great sacrifice.
Grassroots volunteers have kindled your elections and process experts have shown you the ropes of governing. What Vermilion Education offers is a trusted ally with classroom and reform experience, a partner who will get into the specific details of your district and work alongside you and district staff to ensure your policies and the wishes of parents are a success.
In the brief, Adams offers a variety of services to eliminate "ideology" from schools that he claims are corrupting children. For example, Adams pitches a "Character Program Audit" because he claims that many programs focusing on building character now feature "ideologies hostile to shared understandings of right conduct and responsibility, undermining the wishes and efforts of parents to raise upright young men and women."
In another section, Adams pitches himself as a mole that can be embedded within the school district to implement policies over the objections of staff members. "When you are uncertain whether you have an ally on staff in the district," Adams writes, "Vermilion is your trusted liaison within the academic details to ensure that your intentions — and the intentions of the community — are fully implemented."
Adams was apparently unaware, however, that this brief would become public as part of the consideration of the contract in Sarasota County. So he contacted Ziegler and asked her to remove the brief because it was "proprietary." Ziegler was able to do so, and Adams sent her a "non-proprietary" version of the brief that was shared with the public. The new version of the brief removes the "Letter to School Board Members," all the other language highlighted above, and many other sections that reveal the political nature of Adams' work.
Both versions of the brief were obtained by Popular Information through the volunteer group Support Our Schools, which acquired them through a public records request.
The 1776 curriculum
Released in 2021, Hillsdale's 1776 curriculum was inspired by a commission initiated by former President Trump to promote “patriotic education” in response to The New York Times' 1619 Project. Its creators insist that the curriculum is accurate, unbiased, and “seeks to tell the entire grand narrative of the American story.”
But according to Princeton History Professor Sean Wilentz, the 1776 curriculum “fundamentally distorts modern American history into a crusade of righteous conservative patriots against heretical big-government liberals.”
The curriculum, for example, inaccurately depicts the founding fathers who owned slaves as “closet abolitionists.” Meanwhile, it suggests that progressivism is fundamentally “anti-American,” describing it as a "rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence."
It also claims that systemic racism doesn’t exist and says policies that promote diversity constitute a “regime of formal inequality." The civil rights movement, the curriculum asserts, was “turned into programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the Founders." The curriculum asks students to consider if federal laws outlawing discrimination at restaurants and other private businesses open to the public “violate the right to assembly and to private property.”
So far, “about a dozen school districts from several different states have formally inquired” about the curriculum, Hillsdale claims. In 2022, South Dakota’s K-12 social studies standards were changed to align with the 1776 curriculum. That same year, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) also announced that he plans to “open upward of 50 new charters with Hillsdale’s ‘1776 Curriculum.’” In May 2023, lawmakers in Ohio introduced a bill that would replace the state’s social studies curriculum with social studies standards inspired by the 1776 curriculum.