Morris County Superintendent Aron Dody’s doctoral thesis is built on the premise that implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) is necessary to improve student achievement.  But his budgetary actions do not reflect what he says is “a critical role in improving children’s academic performance.”

Dody’s dissertation was brought to our attention by community members disturbed by his criticism of staff members.

He wrote that some USD 417 staff members “were detached and non-committal towards the implementation” of SEL programs and demonstrated “low self-efficacy,” which “can undermine the students’ judgments of their abilities and cognitive development.”

The Sentinel asked Dody to respond to concerns among staff and the community.  He responded, “my research is not critical of staff at all,” but he would not comment on our other questions.

We asked if he has a plan to improve student achievement that is at least as descriptive as the efforts listed in his thesis to improve SEL.  Dody has been superintendent since the 2018-19 school year, during which time proficiency has declined in math and reading.  Only 37% of students are proficient in math, and just 32% in English language arts, according to the 2022 state assessment.

The district’s building needs assessment report lists nine budgetary changes needed to remove barriers to getting students to proficiency, none of which mention SEL.  We asked Dody which of those recommendations were implemented, but he apparently doesn’t want to say.  (State law requires each district to publish a report for every school; the report on the USD 417 website is just a summary for the entire district.)

Their Budget at a Glance report shows a $450,000 increase for Instructional Support Services, so we asked how much was for additional SEL training that he promoted in his thesis.  We also asked him to explain why, given the instructional barriers and budgetary needs identified, there is a similar increase in Administration spending, more than an $800,000 increase in Operations and Maintenance, and a $600,000 increase in Transportation.

Giving lip service to academic improvement isn’t surprising

Dody’s unwillingness to answer these simple questions isn’t surprising.  It’s a pattern reflected across the state.

As explained in a new book from Kansas Policy Institute, the Sentinel’s ownerGiving Kids a Fighting Chance with School Choice, the Kansas public education system – management, not teachers – prioritizes the institutional interests of the system over student needs.  The book tells one story after another of education officials consciously deceiving parents and legislators…de-emphasizing academic improvement…and even ignoring state laws designed to improve achievement.

That’s why nothing will change until parents put enough pressure on the Legislature and the Governor to pass money-follow-the-child legislation so every parent can send their children to the school that they believe is best for them.

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