Wednesday, April 9, 2014

District materials on planned budget cuts

The district has now posted some material about the planned budget cuts. Also, board member Tuyet Dorau provided me with a copy of the material that the district provided to board members last night, which you can read here. (The handwritten notes in the margins are hers.)

UPDATE: The district has now posted those board materials as well.

Information about the planned ICCSD school budget cuts

UPDATE: Some district materials about the planned cuts are now available. See this post.

At last night’s school board work session, the superintendent presented his plan for addressing the $3.6 million budget shortfall for next year. A friend of mine took the following notes on the superintendent’s plan. There was a lot of information to process, and the note-taker warns that there may be inaccuracies in her notes. Also, these notes reflect only what the superintendent presented at the work session, not what may have been discussed later in the work session or the board meeting that followed it. News coverage of the meeting is here, here, here, and here. When (if?) I see that the district has posted an official account of the plan, I will update this post.

Disclaimer: I took notes as best as I could hear from where I was sitting. Members of the public were not provided copies of the budget handout. My numbers add up to more $3.6 million, so it seems likely that I have made one or more transcription errors. (I’m wondering if the world language/keyboarding/junior high general music cuts are double counted?—part of the course offering reduction savings—but also listed out separately?)

District Budget Adjustment

These are cuts from general fund spending; categorical funds were not included.

No reduction in force is planned, but staff may need to be reassigned.

$95,000 from building allocations for printing and other costs.

$26,000 from non-contractual meals provided to staff.

$10,000 from budget forecasting software.

$80,000 from discretionary busing (to be announced later).

$30,000 from athletics line item and 7th grade football eliminated.

$100,000 from not filling Director of Community Relations position, duties to be reassigned to other staff.

$125,000 from building level retirement (principal?), duties to be reassigned to other staff.

$223,000 from clerical staff, duties to be reassigned between media and office secretaries.

$89,000 from overtime (paid $600,000 in overtime this year to date).

$63,000 from ESC staff, duties to be reassigned.

$45,000 from general education para-educators, hours to be reallocated across the district.

$32,000 from substitute teachers, with a change in rules about substitutes for staff without direct student contact for most of the day.

$44,000 from nurses, adjust and re-prioritize staff responsibilities.

$16,000 from reduction in allowed extended contract days.

$91,000 from trades/crafts/custodians.

$628,000 from adjusting the number of course/section offerings and class size of 24-32 at high school level.

$322,000 from adjusting the number of course/section offerings and class size of 22-30 at junior high school level.

$124,000 from phasing out German language instruction at high school level.

$239,000 from cutting 7th grade world languages, phasing out German language instruction at the junior high school level.

$222,000 from reducing to one Dean of Students at each high school.

$88,000 from high school guidance, re-prioritize assignments.

$59,000 from reducing high school library staffing.

$90,000 from eliminating general music at the junior high school level.

$74,000 from eliminating 7th grade keyboarding as a required class, offering it only as an elective to those students who need it.

Elementary class sizes up to 24 at grades K-2, up to 30 at grades 3-6 (will not meet board aspirational goals).

$440,000 from eliminating 4th grade orchestra program and increasing the size of small groups for small group instruction for 5th-6th grade orchestra and band.

$177,000 from elementary guidance, reallocate current staff to cover retirements.

$88,000 from elementary library programs.

$170,000 from efficiencies in scheduling art, general music, and PE elementary teachers to minimize travel time between schools served.

$177,000 from shifting cost of reading instruction from general fund to Title I funds.

$88,000 from shifting cost of MARS professional development from general fund to categorical funds.

UPDATE: You can compare my friend’s notes with those of Paul Deaton here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Information is power. Who has it?

It looks increasingly like our superintendent won’t inform the school board of his planned budget cuts until tonight—the very night when the board is supposed to vote on the budget. School board members have been as much in the dark as the rest of us about possible cuts.

The board is required by law to submit its budget to the state by April 15. Tonight, April 8, is the last scheduled board meeting before that deadline. The agenda for the meeting includes a proposed budget summary, but the proposal just addresses broad categories of spending: so much for “instruction,” so much for “general administration,” etc. It doesn’t disclose the specific cuts in staff or programs that the budget will necessitate. Without those specifics, the board is in no position to assess whether the money should be allocated differently among those broad categories.

Perhaps for that reason, the board chair (at the superintendent’s suggestion) has scheduled a “work session” immediately before tonight’s meeting. The topic of the work session is “budget discussion.” That’s all the agenda says; it contains no additional information or enclosures. Tonight is awfully late for the board members to receive specific information about planned cuts; they’ll have to act on that information within an hour or two of receiving it.

The district has been aware of the $3.6 million shortfall since at least early January. Shouldn’t the board have been informed sooner about the administration’s planned response?

Coincidentally, the district also has community meetings scheduled this week and later this month as part of its redistricting process. (One was last night.) At these meetings, people will get a chance to respond to draft redistricting maps. I’m glad the district is getting input on draft maps; that will be much more useful than the exercises at the meeting I attended. But rather than release the draft maps in advance, the superintendent plans to unveil them at the meetings. Even the school board members, apparently, will not have advance notice of the drafts. The rationale is that this will “allow the superintendent to explain what decisions and compromises were made.” But the effect will also be to prevent people who are affected by specific changes from knowing about them in time to attend the meetings.

Is it really the job of the superintendent to withhold information from the school board and the public until he sees fit to release it? Does withholding that information benefit the board and the public, or does it just benefit the superintendent?  Who works for whom?

The work session will start at 5:15 tonight at the Educational Services Center.

Related post here.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Is the district about to cut elementary orchestra and band?

Word has it that our school district’s administration is planning to propose cuts in elementary school band and orchestra programs—possibly eliminating them entirely, which would mean that kids wouldn’t start instruments until junior high. Some band or orchestra teachers were told that if they had other job offers, they should take them. Building administrators were reportedly told not to talk about the possible cuts. The issue may appear on the agenda of the April 8 school board meeting.

There are different theories about what would be prompting any cuts. Some think it’s because the legislature is (as usual) dawdling about setting the allowable growth rate. But as I understand it (and I almost certainly don’t), the allowable growth rate for next academic year has already been set—it’s the rate for fiscal year 2016 that’s still unresolved—so it’s not clear how that would drive any cuts in next year’s staffing. Others I spoke to thought it was because of the district’s $3.6 million budget shortfall. Others suggested that the district was concerned about kids being pulled out of class for their instrument lessons (oh, the instructional minutes!), or about the buildings being too crowded to have adequate space for the lessons.

My first thought was that this sounds like the Washington Monument syndrome—that any proposal would be a ploy either (1) to get people to make a stink to their legislators about allowable growth or (2) to get grudging acceptance of some other cut that the administration is actually after. Yet budget and allowable growth dramas are a regular occurrence, and this is the first time I’ve heard any talk of cuts like these. I’ve emailed the superintendent to ask about the issue.

For what it’s worth, I consider my kids’ orchestra lessons to have been one of the most valuable parts of their elementary school experience—and certainly a far better use of their time than the behavior assemblies and the countless hours of standardized testing. And will the district really cut orchestra and band while using class time for things like the “employability” training described here?

Are the redistricting workshops a waste of time?

The school district here is in the early stages of redrawing the boundaries of the school attendance zones, partly because it plans to open several new schools, partly because growth patterns have led to overcrowding, and partly because the school board has enacted a diversity policy that sets goals for reducing concentrations of kids from low-income families in any one school. (The district uses free-and-reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates as a proxy for low-income status.) The district has scheduled several “community engagement” sessions to get community input on the redistricting. I recently spent two hours attending one of those sessions, focused on redrawing the elementary school boundaries in (roughly speaking) the southeast quadrant of the district.

About fifty or sixty people attended the session. Attendees were randomly assigned to small groups and given two exercises to do. Long story short: I did not find the exercises to be a useful way to give meaningful input to the district. Here are some of my impressions from the meeting.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

“He will be a good employee for the job”

Iowa City parent Scott Samuelson has a great opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the real value of teaching the humanities. He cites research showing that undergraduate humanities majors earn more than those who major in professional or pre-professional fields, but argues:
Thinking of the value of the humanities predominately in terms of earnings and employment is to miss the point. America should strive to be a society of free people deeply engaged in “the pursuit of happiness,” not simply one of decently compensated and well-behaved employees.
Scott’s book, “The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone,” comes out next week.

Meanwhile, our school district’s “Guidance” program had fourth- and sixth-graders learning job interview skills this week. In some classes, the kids played the parts of employer and job applicant and then evaluated the applicant’s interview skills. Was the applicant “clean, neat and well-groomed”? Did he have “Hands relaxed (not clenched)”? Did he “honor the end of the interview”? The interviewers then wrote overall comments, such as “He seems like a good employee.” Here’s an example:

(Click to enlarge.)

The Iowa Core, after all, has twenty-five pages of mandatory standards devoted to “employability skills.” See if you can find the Iowa Core sections devoted to philosophy or the arts.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Five-acre field near City High to sell for $280,000

One of the primary rationales for the school board’s vote to close Hoover Elementary School was that City High, which is next to Hoover, is “landlocked.” “We can’t expand City without this,” the district asserted. “Adding Hoover alone is not even really enough.” To get that five-acre parcel of land for City, then, the district would have to close Hoover, even if that meant spending over ten million dollars to rebuild Hoover’s capacity somewhere else. The money to pay for that new construction will be part of the $119 million in bonding that the district plans to ask voters to approve.

Yet less than a thousand feet away from City, there was a five-acre undeveloped parcel for sale, called “Chadek’s Field.” The City of Iowa City is now on the verge of buying Chadek’s Field for just $280,000. That’s an awful lot less than ten million dollars.

If the district were genuinely concerned about City High being landlocked, and if it genuinely believed that even adding the Hoover property to City is not enough, why would it do nothing to pursue the Chadek property? Simply moving an athletic field from City to the Chadek land, just a block or two away, would have freed up considerable space at City. No matter how you feel about the Hoover closure, isn’t that a huge missed opportunity for the school district?

Fortunately, the land will go to the city, which plans to use it as a park, rather than to a developer, so the district could still try to work something out with the city to share the land. But since the district seems to have no interest in pursuing it, a big part of its rationale for closing Hoover is pretty hard to take seriously.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Naming names

From the March 11, 2014 ICCSD board meeting. (Transcript below.)

The proposal to regulate public comment at school board meetings seems to be motivated in part by a discomfort with any criticism that is directed toward specific people. When a member of the public starts to criticize specific board members or administrators by name at a board meeting, it’s as if a taboo has been broken. General criticism is one thing, but naming names goes too far. It’s the quickest way to tell the troublemakers from the team players.

Our school board’s chair, for example, has regularly prefaced the public comment sessions of board meetings with this warning:
We ask that you refrain from making personal or disparaging remarks about staff, students, or any other district personnel. Please keep your comments focused on programs and policies, not people, or you will be asked to stop immediately.
This norm against naming names is probably great for preserving peace and harmony when you visit your relatives at the holidays, but it’s not a recipe for good government. Keep in mind that district “staff” includes the superintendent. On its face, the chair’s first sentence prohibits any disparaging comments about the job performance of the superintendent and other central administrators charged with running the school system—though it does not prohibit favorable comments about them. The chair’s second sentence says that you will be asked to stop immediately if your comments are focused on “people”—which, of course, describes not only staff but elected board members as well.

But policies and practices don’t just materialize out of thin air. People make them. Voters seldom get to vote on policies or practices; they vote for individual people who run for the school board, which in turn hires the superintendent. If voters can’t connect policies and practices to actual people, they have no way to hold anyone democratically accountable for what happens in the school system.

The video above is a good example. During the discussion of the proposed public comment policy, one board member asked, “Who wrote the policy?” Another board member explained that “it showed up” at a committee meeting. The rest of the group fell silent. Then one administrator said he didn’t remember writing it, though he remembered that the district’s lawyer somehow “looked at it” before it was drafted. Then another administrator said that he worked on it with the administrator who doesn’t remember writing it—all because “it was asked for.” Good luck figuring out who initiated that policy.

At the most recent board meeting, the chair did not recite the usual warning before the public comment session. I don’t know what accounts for the change, but it’s a step in the right direction.

A transcript of the video appears after the jump.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


In the ongoing debate about the proposal to regulate how members of the public can express themselves at school board meetings, several people have argued that free speech must have its limits. One example, from this comment thread:
As for freedom of speech, all freedoms have their limits. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean it’s okay to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. It’s also not okay to disrupt a public meeting by calling another citizen a whore.
The writer is right that there are limits and that the government can punish a person for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. However, the writer’s conclusion does not follow from her premise, and does not appear to accurately reflect current law. I think many people would be surprised to know just how broad American protections of speech are.

The one example I’ll focus on here is from just three years ago. The plaintiff in the case was a man whose son was a Marine accidentally killed while serving in Iraq. During the son’s funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed on a nearby public street. Members of the church believed that God was punishing the United States, and particularly its military, for its tolerance of homosexuality. Timing their protest to coincide with the funeral, they held up signs saying, among other things, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11,” “America is Doomed,” “Don’t Pray for the USA,” “Thank God for IEDs,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God Hates Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “God Hates You.” The soldier’s father sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It’s hard to imagine a case better designed to test one’s tolerance for offensive speech. Yet the Supreme Court held, by a vote of 8-1, that the First Amendment prohibited the state from imposing liability on the church for its protest. Here are some excerpts from the court’s opinion. (For readability, I’ve omitted the citations and added boldface for emphasis; you can read the full opinion here.)
“[S]peech on ‘matters of public concern’ ... is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.’” The First Amendment reflects “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” That is because “speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” Accordingly, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.” . . .

Speech deals with matters of public concern when it can “be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,” or when it “is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public” . . . . The arguably “inappropriate or controversial character of a statement is irrelevant to the question whether it deals with a matter of public concern.”

Our opinion in Dun & Bradstreet, on the other hand, provides an example of speech of only private concern. In that case we held, as a general matter, that information about a particular individual’s credit report “concerns no public issue.” . . . To cite another example, we concluded in San Diego v. Roe that, in the context of a government employer regulating the speech of its employees, videos of an employee engaging in sexually explicit acts did not address a public concern; the videos “did nothing to inform the public about any aspect of the [employing agency’s] functioning or operation.” . . .

Given that Westboro’s speech was at a public place on a matter of public concern, that speech is entitled to “special protection” under the First Amendment. Such speech cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Indeed, “the point of all speech protection... is to shield just those choices of content that in someone’s eyes are misguided, or even hurtful.” . . .

In a case such as this, a jury is “unlikely to be neutral with respect to the content of [the] speech,” posing “a real danger of becoming an instrument for the suppression of ... ‘vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasan[t]’” expression. Such a risk is unacceptable; “in public debate [we] must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate ‘breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.” . . .

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.
So suppose Person A, while in the audience at a school board meeting, were to call Person B, a speaker at the meeting, a “whore.” (I’m treating the example as a hypothetical, since I have no first-hand knowledge that it ever occurred.) Suppose Person B is a community activist who had recently run for school board and had already announced his intention to run in the next election. No one reasonably understands Person A to be suggesting that Person B is actually selling sexual services; it’s clear that Person A means that Person B has “sold out” in some way that’s relevant to school issues. Does Person A’s epithet count as speech on a matter of public concern?

If picket signs saying “God Hates Fags” and “You’re Going to Hell” near a military funeral pass the test, it’s awfully hard to see how calling a political candidate a “whore” could fail it.

Depending on the hypothetical, Person A’s comment could certainly run afoul of other permissible restrictions. For example, the board can insist that members of the audience not interrupt those who have the floor. But the board can’t single out for punishment only those interruptions that use harsh but protected speech on matters of public concern.

From some of the commentary online, you would think that speakers at our school board meetings were being routinely shouted down. That’s not at all true. It’s definitely true that at least one speaker has spoken with an intensity and a harshness that makes some people uncomfortable. It’s precisely that intensity and harshness that some people hope the proposed policy will ban; the policy’s defenders have repeatedly argued that it’s fine for people to express criticism as long as they do it “respectfully.” It’s hard to see how that rationale could be constitutional in light of cases like the one above. (And it’s not the only one.)

I consider myself lucky to live in a country with such broad protection of speech. People are free to disagree about that, of course. But, like it or not, First Amendment protections are very broad. When the board members make their decision about the proposed speech regulation policy, they should do so with their eyes open.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dorau, McGinness oppose public comment policy

Credit to school board members Tuyet Dorau and Jeff McGinness for opposing the proposal to regulate how members of the public can express themselves during the public comment sessions at board meetings. Dorau argued that the proposal was unnecessary and questioned whether it could be applied in a viewpoint-neutral way. McGinness, the only lawyer on the board, said that he is now convinced that the proposal is unconstitutional.

Four other board members were unwilling to give up on the policy, but agreed to send it back to committee for review. It appears that the board will ask its lawyer, for the first time (!), to review the legality of the proposal.

Maybe this episode is working its way toward a happy ending, though an awful lot of time and energy will have been spent on it. Although it’s discouraging that people aren’t more alert to civil liberties issues, the debate over this policy may well be a case study in the value of a relatively open approach to public comment. On this proposal—like on the visitor ID issue and the Martin Luther King Day issue—the abundance of dissent and criticism may ultimately result in better policy-making. At least it offers that chance.

The policy’s defenders argue that “uncivil” and “disrespectful” speakers deter other people from speaking. Yet there has certainly been no shortage of people speaking their minds at board meetings. What do those people have that the (unidentified) others don’t?

One awkward moment stood out at tonight’s meeting. Tuyet Dorau asked, “Who wrote the policy?” The chair of the committee that approved it, Brian Kirschling, could say only that “it showed up” at the committee meeting. No other board member would answer the question. The central administrators gave inconsistent responses and had no direct answer. For all the talk about “accountability” in education, funny how hard it is to find out who actually does what. Who triggered this lengthy detour into what is likely to be a dead end?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

More bogus labels from No Child Left Behind

The newspaper dutifully reported this week that two local elementary schools—both with a high percentage of low-income students—have been designated “persistently low-achieving schools” under No Child Left Behind, because of the standardized test scores of the students. This designation allows the schools to receive federal grant money if they take certain types of corrective action—all of them based on the assumption that there is something wrong with how the schools have been educating the kids.

The district has stated, wisely, that it will forgo the grant money, explaining that the schools are already making changes. I can’t say whether those changes are good or necessary, but I wish the district would address the federal government’s faulty logic more directly. The district, and its school board, should be shouting: This designation, and the test scores that it is based on, tell you nothing about the quality of the education at those schools. Schools and teachers aren’t to blame for the poverty in their attendance areas. That doesn’t mean the schools shouldn’t do their best with whatever kids they have—but No Child Left Behind’s labels are dishonest and its “improvement” schemes are fraudulent.

Kids are more than just test scores

Credit to Mary Murphy for prompting an apparent change in our district’s practices on admitting kids to “gifted and talented” programs. Parents at some schools had been told that their kids’ admission to a gifted and talented class depended entirely on one or two standardized test scores—even if those tests had nothing to do with the subject matter of the class. Mary pointed out that state law puts several requirements on how schools admit kids to gifted and talented classes, including:
  • Schools must base their admission decisions “on a comprehensive appraisal of the student.”
  • Schools must consider both subjective and objective factors.
  • Schools must consider multiple criteria, “with no single criteria [sic] eliminating a student from participation.”
  • Schools must consider data “with direct relevance to program goals, objectives and activities.”
  • If there are more openings than applicants, the school must select students “according to the extent to which they can benefit from the program.”
The district now appears to be bringing its practices into compliance with the state requirements. (See the superintendent’s responses after the jump.) State law or no state law, it would be hard to defend restricting gifted and talented classes solely to kids who score high on standardized tests.

Interestingly, judging from the superintendent’s email, the district appears to consider grades and grade point average to be “subjective” criteria—which implies that it considers standardized test scores to be the only objective measure of a student’s performance. This seems clearly wrong. The whole point of requiring “subjective” criteria is to ensure that the school engages in “comprehensive appraisal of the student,” rather than reducing the student to a number. Moreover, it’s discouraging to think that the district would see teachers as incapable of objectively grading a student’s performance in a class.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

No criticism allowed?

Last night, a school board committee made it clear that the purpose of its proposed public comment policy is “to encourage the community to engage and feel they have the ability to do so without being attacked or criticized.” (See pages 3-4 here.) Yes, they want to regulate some people’s speech to ensure that other people don’t feel criticized.

This strikes me as reflecting a very peculiar understanding of what the First Amendment permits a governmental body to do. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I read reports like the one described here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“The pernicious effects of an artificially controlled public debate”

When I wrote last week about how our school board would be risking expensive litigation by approving a proposal to regulate speech at board meetings, I linked to a federal case from Virginia, Bach v. School Board of the City of Virginia Beach. That case can give you some idea of the kind of litigation the board’s policy could trigger.

Here’s what happened in Bach: A school board in Virginia passed a policy “designed to preserve decorum and order” at board meetings. One clause in the policy required speakers to:
Avoid references, statements, or conduct reasonably likely to result in disruption or undue delay in the orderly transaction of the business scheduled for consideration by the Board. This provision means and includes, but is not limited to, attacks or accusations regarding the honesty, character, integrity or other like personal attributes of any identified individual or group. Such comments are prohibited because, by virtue of their personal nature, character and/or manner of presentation, they would fairly call for an immediate response by the person or group so identified, thus delaying or disrupting consideration of agenda items scheduled for consideration by the Board.
A member of the public sued, arguing that the provision was an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. He argued that the provision acted “as a filter to screen out any negative comments toward the current administration, while allowing their proponents to speak at will.” The board never actually enforced the policy against the man who sued. He argued that the policy was invalid on its face, regardless of how it was applied, because it would deter protected speech.

The court found the provision unconstitutional. Here are some excerpts from the case. (Again, for readability, I have omitted citations and added boldface for emphasis. You can read the full opinion here.)
The Supreme Court has long since warned about the pernicious effects of an artificially controlled public debate and have held that the First Amendment serves to prevent such manipulation. . . .

Two other school boards enacted policies similar to the contested provision in this case, and the courts reviewing these policies found both to be content-based restrictions. These policies contained different language, yet each had the same effect. Participants in an open session of a public meeting were permitted to praise the actions of school employees but were prohibited from making any critical or accusatory comments. The Baca Court, following the decision of the Leventhal Court, held that it is “difficult to imagine a more content-based prohibition on speech than [a] policy, which allows expression of two points of view (laudatory and neutral) while prohibiting a different point of view (negatively critical) on a particular subject matter.....” The Plaintiffs allege that the contested provision draws the same distinction on the content of the speech — favorable versus unfavorable — and under the reasoning in Baca and Leventhal, it cannot be considered content-neutral.

The Defendants [that is, the school board] explained that the contested provision only prohibits attacks that are targeted at school officials in their personal capacity. According to the Defendants’ interpretation of the contested provision, a speaker, therefore, is free to allege that a school official lied about spending school funds for personal use. That same speaker would be cut short, however, if the speaker called the school official a liar. The Defendants believe that this example demonstrates that the contested provision regulates the manner of the speech not its content.

The First Amendment affords the broadest protection to political expression in order to sustain the unfettered interchange of ideas to bring about political and social change and promote the will of the people. The Supreme Court has repeatedly explained that “it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions, and this opportunity is to be afforded for vigorous advocacy no less than abstract discussion.” This includes the ability to question the fitness of the community leaders, including the administrative leaders in a school system, “especially in a forum created specifically to foster discussion about a community’s school system.” The contested provision tests the boundaries of the fine distinction between content-based and content-neutral regulations. First Amendment scholars, judges, and attorneys could engage in endless debate over whether it discriminates against speech on the basis of its content by allowing general praise while silencing criticism. Fortunately, the Court need not engage in such a comprehensive analysis, for a policy that deters individuals from speaking out on an issue of public importance violates the First Amendment. The contested provision has that effect and for that reason is unconstitutional.

If the contested provision would have been written in the language of the Defendants’ argument at trial, the Court may have concluded that it is a content-neutral restriction on the manner of speech. The Defendants’ lengthy explanation, however, does not solve the constitutional issue before the Court. Potential speakers do not have the benefit of the Defendants’ scholarly research of the constitutional basis of the contested provision when attempting to determine if their comments are in conformity with Bylaw 1-48(B)(2). Their only guidance is the Bylaw itself, and thus, the contested provision must be examined on its face without regard to the Defendants’ technical interpretation of its proscriptions. Some citizens may share the Defendants’ reading of the contested provision and may feel free to criticize school officials’ conduct without threat of sanctions. Other citizens, however, may not appreciate the distinction drawn by the Defendants between attacking the conduct but not the individual. These citizens may see no distinction between stating, “the principal is a liar” and “the principal lied to us about spending the money.” According to the Defendants’ interpretation, the latter would be acceptable but the former forbidden by the contested provision. It is reasonable for these citizens to read the contested provision and conclude that most comments critical of school officials constitute an attack on their honesty, character, or integrity and are therefore improper subjects on which to speak. Accordingly, their concerns may not be shared with their fellow citizens, and the “robust public debate” the First Amendment seeks to foster will be thwarted.

There is no indication that the School Board acted in bad faith in enacting or enforcing this restriction. The video shown by the Defendants demonstrates that Mr. Bach was not silenced when he accused several officials by name of being involved in a conflict of interest. Yet the content of the contested provision may prevent many citizens from so speaking. . . . A policy that chills protected speech cannot stand. The Court FINDS that the contested provision in Bylaw 1-48 is unconstitutional as a prior restraint upon speech in a limited public forum.
In that case, the school board policy also required speakers to refrain from “obscenity, vulgarity, or other breach of respect.” That particular clause was not the subject of the lawsuit, so the court did not examine whether it, too, was impermissibly broad or vague. But this case, from the Supreme Court, would certainly support an argument for striking down that clause, too.

Legal questions are seldom 100% predictable. Bach, and the two similar cases it cites, are from different jurisdictions and are not binding on courts here; nor do they involve exactly the same clauses that appear in our district’s proposal. My point here is just that the district is asking for trouble and needless expense with the language in its policy. How much is it worth?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Whose culture?

In the debate over our school board’s proposal to regulate how members of the public express themselves at board meetings, some board members argued that the policy is just an attempt to establish a particular culture of respect and decorum. I do think the board wants to enforce a particular culture, but that’s one reason I think the policy is a bad idea.

Not everyone shares the board majority’s view about what is appropriate decorum. There are all kinds of cultures of public participation out there, even in Iowa City. Some cultures (and some individuals) are freer with the “amens” and the audible expressions of disapproval. In some cultures, people are more comfortable with using strong language, or expressing strong emotion, when speaking publicly. That is not a reason to treat those cultures as somehow “wrong” or “impolite” or “threatening.”

Yes, there is a point at which the speakers and the audience could prevent the board from conducting business or could drown out other speakers. The proposed policy, though, goes way beyond what is necessary to prevent those problems. Some degree of audible audience reaction is to be expected at any public meeting; a board that wants to be inclusive should put up with it. It’s not for the board to tell the public what kind of culture to have.

There’s another “culture” at work here, too: the culture of bureaucracy and the establishment, which naturally values “positivity” because it favors the status quo. Loud applause for the school district’s accomplishments has never provoked any regulation. Loud booing, however, would almost certainly violate the policy’s requirement of “respect and decorum.” If that isn’t viewpoint discrimination, I don’t know what is.

The value of “verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance”

I wrote last week about our school board’s proposal to require members of the public who speak at board meetings to show “respect and decorum” and to prohibit them from making “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” remarks. Defenders of the proposal have argued that some speakers have been too “caustic” and that the board should engage in “moderation” to ensure that other speakers are not “intimidated,” “to make sure all voices are heard.” (See Karen W.’s post here.)

The policy itself is framed almost entirely in terms of protecting the sensitivities of the listeners and the people who are spoken about, with many references to ensuring a “positive,” “safe,” “civil,” “dignified,” and “respectful” environment. The policy makes no mention of protecting the First Amendment rights of members of the public. Nor does it make any mention of the great value of dissent and criticism in the policy-making process. Nor does it acknowledge the inherent dangers of allowing a government body to decide what is or isn’t acceptable speech.

I want to quote a portion of a case called Cohen v. California, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1971. I’m not arguing that this case applies directly to the board’s proposal; there are many potentially relevant distinctions between the two situations. Instead, I’m quoting the case because it does a particularly nice job of explaining the good reasons for tolerating political speech that makes people uncomfortable.

For readability, I’m omitting the court’s citations; you can read the full opinion here. I’ve also boldfaced some passages for emphasis.
This case may seem at first blush too inconsequential to find its way into our books, but the issue it presents is of no small constitutional significance.

Appellant Paul Robert Cohen was convicted [of violating a statute that] prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person . . . by . . . offensive conduct. . . .” He was given 30 days’ imprisonment. The facts upon which his conviction rests are detailed in the opinion of the [lower court], as follows:

“On April 26, 1968, the defendant was observed in the Los Angeles County Courthouse in the corridor outside of division 20 of the municipal court wearing a jacket bearing the words ‘Fuck the Draft’ which were plainly visible. There were women and children present in the corridor. The defendant was arrested. The defendant testified that he wore the jacket knowing that the words were on the jacket as a means of informing the public of the depth of his feelings against the Vietnam War and the draft.” . . .

Admittedly, it is not so obvious that the First and Fourteenth Amendments must be taken to disable the States from punishing public utterance of this unseemly expletive in order to maintain what they regard as a suitable level of discourse within the body politic. We think, however, that examination and reflection will reveal the shortcomings of a contrary viewpoint.

At the outset, we cannot overemphasize that, in our judgment, most situations where the State has a justifiable interest in regulating speech will fall within one or more of the various established exceptions [such as obscenity and “fighting words”], discussed above but not applicable here, to the usual rule that governmental bodies may not prescribe the form or content of individual expression. Equally important to our conclusion is the constitutional backdrop against which our decision must be made. The constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous as ours. It is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity and in the belief that no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests.

To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance. These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, these fundamental societal values are truly implicated. That is why “[w]holly neutral futilities . . . come under the protection of free speech as fully as do Keats’ poems or Donne’s sermons,” and why “so long as the means are peaceful, the communication need not meet standards of acceptability” . . . .

Against this perception of the constitutional policies involved, we discern certain more particularized considerations that peculiarly call for reversal of this conviction. First, the principle contended for by the State seems inherently boundless. How is one to distinguish this from any other offensive word? Surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us. Yet no readily ascertainable general principle exists for stopping short of that result were we to affirm the judgment below. For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.

Additionally, we cannot overlook the fact, because it is well illustrated by the episode involved here, that much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated. Indeed, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter has said, “[o]ne of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures—and that means not only informed and responsible criticism but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation.”

Finally, and in the same vein, we cannot indulge the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process. Indeed, governments might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views. We have been able, as noted above, to discern little social benefit that might result from running the risk of opening the door to such grave results.

It is, in sum, our judgment that, absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, the State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display here involved of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offense.
I don’t doubt that there is some conduct the board could permissibly prohibit. I do doubt the board’s ability to write a policy that singles that conduct out. I especially doubt the board’s ability to apply such a policy in a viewpoint-neutral fashion. But what worries me most is that the rationale for broad protection of speech, expressed so well in Cohen, seems to be lost on much of this board. (Board member Tuyet Dorau has been the notable exception.)

Schools are, as a rule, authoritarian and undemocratic institutions. It’s hard to have faith in their ability to prepare your kids for life in a democracy. Elected school boards, on the other hand, are the most democratic element of the system. It’s awfully disappointing, then, when the elected school board’s policy on public speakers makes no mention, and reflects no recognition, of the importance to democracy of free speech.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Speech is free. Regulating it costs money.

There are a lot of good reasons why our school board should not try to regulate how members of the public express themselves at board meetings; I identified some of them here. But I’m afraid arguments about the inherent value of vigorous debate and free speech are not going to sway enough board members. So this week, I tried to speak the school system’s language by focusing my objections on a different subject: money. Here’s my letter to the board:

I’m writing about the proposed public comment policy. Though I don’t think any policy regulating the speech of members of the public at board meetings is necessary or wise, I want to focus on one specific issue here: the potential for needlessly provoking expensive litigation.

At the last meeting, one board member suggested that people haven’t objected to the policy itself, but to how it might be applied. As a legal matter, though, I don’t think that’s the case. The way the policy is currently worded, it could generate litigation even if the board applies it fairly—and even if the board never applies it at all.

I'm not an expert on Constitutional law, but I do know that there are two ways to challenge a law that arguably infringes on freedom of speech. The first way is called an “as-applied” challenge. Under that type of suit, a plaintiff argues that the government has applied a law in a way that infringes on freedom of speech. The second way is called a “facial” challenge. Under that type of suit, the plaintiff does not have to wait for the government to apply the law unfairly; instead, he or she argues that the mere enactment of the law violates the First Amendment, because the law is so vague or overbroad that it chills protected speech, even if the government never applies it unfairly.

My concern is that the proposed policy is open to a facial challenge. The most problematic clause is the one requiring speakers to show "respect and decorum" and prohibiting “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” remarks. Those words are simply too vague and open to interpretation; they could easily be interpreted to prohibit some protected speech. Since speakers won’t know in advance whether a given remark will run afoul of that clause, they may be deterred from saying things that are protected under the First Amendment: exactly the concern that facial challenges are there to address.

As a result, a would-be litigant won’t have to wait until the board applies the clause in a way that seems unfair. Instead, he or she could sue right away to ask the court to strike down the policy, on the grounds that it risks chilling protected speech.

The district is much worse off if its policy is subject to a facial challenge than if it is merely subject to an “as-applied” challenge. The board can at least control how it applies its policy. But, under the proposed policy, no matter how perfectly fair, even-handed and conservative the board intends to be with the policy, it can face expensive litigation via a facial challenge.

My suggestion (if you adopt a policy at all) is to delete that clause and substitute a clause requiring speakers’ remarks to be germane to school district business. As I understand it, the “limited public forum” doctrine exists precisely to allow the government to restrict certain forums to particular subject matter, so that kind of clause seems much safer from a facial challenge. The board could still trigger a lawsuit if it applied the clause in a way that penalized protected speech, but at least that’s within the board’s control.

That said, if the board wants to minimize the risk of costly litigation, it should not adopt any policy regulating how people express themselves at board meetings. I believe it will be very hard for the board to apply such a policy in a viewpoint-neutral way. For example, I doubt the board will consistently treat speakers who compliment district employees the same way it treats speakers who criticize them, and I doubt it will consistently treat people who applaud others’ remarks the same way it treats people who “boo” them—as it would be constitutionally required to do. Ultimately, trying to regulate how people express themselves at board meetings is just asking for litigation and needless expense.

For example, here is a link to a case involving a similar policy adopted by a school district in Virginia. In that case, the school district enacted a policy designed to “preserve decorum and order” at board meetings. The policy prohibited speakers from “attacks or accusations regarding the honesty, character, integrity or other like personal attributes of any identified individual or group.” The court held that the policy violated the First Amendment, stating:
The Supreme Court has long since warned about the pernicious effects of an artificially controlled public debate and have held that the First Amendment serves to prevent such manipulation. . . . A policy that chills protected speech cannot stand.
Two similar cases are here and here. Those cases are not from the Supreme Court and so are not the final word on the matter. Here is one case, not quite as analogous, in which a court upheld a planning commission’s ejection of a disruptive speaker. But to the extent that there is any uncertainty in the law, that’s exactly what generates arguments and litigation. If the board proceeds with the policy, it will be risking litigation, and that risk has a dollar cost. Given the school district’s many urgent fiscal needs, I do not believe that risk can be justified.

Several other bloggers—all of them lawyers, incidentally—have chimed in on the proposal as well; see posts here, here, and here.

Should the school board regulate public comment at board meetings?

Our school board is considering adopting a policy to regulate how members of the public express themselves at school board meetings. Among other things, the policy would require speakers at the public comments sessions to show “respect and decorum” and would prohibit “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” remarks. At the last school board meeting, I spoke against the policy; this is a rough transcript of what I said.

I think everyone agrees that the board can put limits on how long a person can speak, though as a policy matter I think the board should err on the side of listening more rather than less. I also think that the board can insist that spectators not be disruptive while someone is speaking at public comment – though I think there ought to be some tolerance for audience reaction and applause, etc.

Like others, though, I’m very concerned about any attempt to regulate what people say during public comment. Words like “disrespectful” or “abusive” or “bullying” mean different things to different people. Those terms could easily be applied to controversial or strongly expressed opinions that are protected free speech. If anything, the board should be welcoming dissent and criticism of district policies and practices, because those things help produce better policies in the long run, even if they’re uncomfortable in the short run.

I wanted to make two specific suggestions. First, I think it would be helpful if the board identified specific statements that have been made in the past that would run afoul of this policy. There must be a perception that there’s a real problem being addressed by the policy, but I haven’t heard anyone identify specific comments that ought to have been banned. If we heard actual examples, maybe it would be possible to pinpoint the problem in a way that isn’t as vague and overbroad as the language here. Or it might bring to light that the comments at issue are in fact protected speech of the type that can’t be prohibited, even if it’s offensive. As it is, though, it’s virtually impossible to tell whether a particular comment would violate this policy, which in itself raises free speech concerns.

My second suggestion is to simply have a rule limiting public comment to topics that are germane to school district business. If a comment is germane to school district business, it’s hard to imagine how that comment could be out of bounds. Certainly if someone tries to bring up the superintendent’s private life in a way that has nothing to do with district business, that comment could be fairly ruled out. But criticisms of a board member’s or administrator’s conduct on school issues have to be fair game. In borderline cases the board should still err on the side of permitting comment, but as a policy I don’t think a germaneness rule would be objectionable. The remaining restrictions would just be redundant at that point.

Finally, I’d urge the board to remember that one of the principles supporting rigorous protection of free speech is that the best response to speech that you think is wrong or offensive is not to shut it down but to counter it. If someone resorts to name-calling toward a board member or an administrator, for example, I hope someone else will point out that ad hominem arguments are inherently weak and usually a sign that the speaker has nothing better to offer. Getting bad arguments out in the open and refuting them is a much more effective way of fighting them than forcibly suppressing them is. After all, they’re going to be saying all those things somewhere else and you won’t be there to answer it, so why not get it out and respond to it? I hope that’s one of the principles our kids will learn in school when they study the Constitution.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The not so Iowan core of the Iowa Core

Although our governor is trying to downplay the uniform, national aspect of the Common Core and assert that the Iowa Core is a home-grown approach, it turns out that in 2011 he wrote to the Smarter Balanced Assessments Consortium—the designers of the standardized tests geared to the Common Core—asking to be promoted from an “advisory state” to a “governing state” and saying:
We have also adopted the Common Core standards which are now known as our Iowa Core standards. Our new Governor, State Board Chairperson, and State Director of Education believe this is the right time for Iowa to be involved in building a system of formative, interim, and summative assessments, organized around the Common Core standards.
At that point, the previous governor and his education officials had already signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to adopt the Smarter Balanced Consortium’s summative assessment by the 2014-15 school year. None of that sounds very home-grown to me.

Now the governor is facing a legislature that wouldn’t be rushed into approving the Smarter Balanced tests and a task force, created by the legislature, that could recommend different choices about assessments instead. I don’t know why our governors have been so sure that the legislature would willingly sit on the sidelines while Iowa jumped on the Common Core bandwagon.

Karen W. recently pointed out that the Iowa Core’s “21st Century Skills” standards on “civic literacy” pay scant attention to constitutional rights. The standards do (somewhat opaquely) touch on federalism, though, declaring that students must “understand the differences among the complex levels of local, state and national government and their inherent, expressed, and implied powers,” “understand the design and features of the Constitution prevent the abuse of power by aggregating power at the national, state, and local levels and using a system of checks and balances,” and “understand issues concerning the relationship between state and local governments and the national government.” I can’t say that these are the people I would put in charge of making sure my kids learn those topics. But maybe my age is showing: constitutional rights and federalism are so Twentieth Century.

Well, I’m out of hours. If I had more stamina, I’d want to look more closely at people’s objections to the standards themselves. Even if you like the idea of nationwide uniform standards, you might not like these. Some have argued, for example, that the standards for grades K-2 are developmentally inappropriate; others have argued that the high school math standards are hopelessly inadequate to prepare kids for college. Here’s a good article expressing other objections (largely from a liberal point of view) to the Common Core. But I’ll leave the further Googling to you.

Thus endeth the micro-blogathon. Not sure I’ll be signing up for another one of these any time soon.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Defer to your betters

One reason many liberals (and others) are skeptical of the Common Core is that they have concluded that the federal government has been captured by the wealthy—especially on the issue of education—and that the imposition of the Common Core on local school districts is effectively the rich deciding that they know what’s best for everyone else.

One way that cities and towns differ from states and the nation is that a good number of them are populated largely by relatively poor people and by minorities. Supporters of the Common Core are determined to take policy-making power away from local governments. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but the effect is the same regardless.

Call me crazy, but I tend to be skeptical about proposals to disempower people for their own good.

Opportunity cost

The Common Core mandates, in elaborate detail, exactly what we want kids to learn and when. It gives no attention whatsoever to the question of how kids learn. Worse, it assumes that how kids learn is entirely unrelated to the question of what we make them learn—that the decision to march kids through a prescribed regimen of skills and topics on a prescribed schedule, no matter what any given kid might be ready for or interested in, will have no effect on how well those kids will learn, or on their long-term attitude toward learning.

None of that strikes me as very wise. If policy-makers should be thinking hard about anything today, it’s about how kids learn, about how to cultivate intrinsic motivation and intellectual curiosity, and about how create a school experience that kids see as engaging rather than as an alienating chore. They should also be thinking hard about what values schools are teaching and modeling by how they treat the kids in their care. Instead, their idea of how to improve education is by making a long list of goals and ordering schools everywhere to meet them (or to go through the motions of meeting them).

Speaking of opportunity cost: Check out Karen W.’s posts (e.g., here, here, and here) on how much more we’ll be spending on standardized testing if we adopt the tests that are designed to along with the Common Core—the so-called Smarter Balanced Assessments. Long story short: we could be going from our current assessments, which cost about $3.50 per student, to a cost per student of $20 or more. Is that what we should be pouring our scarce education dollars into? Also check out how much more time the students will spend taking tests. For full coverage of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, there’s no substitute for Karen’s blog.

Buyer beware

One thing that’s frustrating about so much of the discussion of the Common Core is that so many of the participants are either outright self-interested or constrained by their situations from expressing their honest thoughts about the matter. The administrators in our district, for example, have been putting on sessions for the parent-teacher organizations extolling the virtues of the Iowa Core. Our schools have to follow them; therefore they must be good! In a few years, if the prevailing education fad is the exact opposite of what they’re now doing, they’ll be there to tell us how great that policy is, too. What’s the point of trying to debate the merits of a policy with people in that situation? (Upton Sinclair was on the mark.)

My co-panelists on the KCRG discussion of the Common Core were a Cedar Rapids schoolteacher and her employer, the Cedar Rapids superintendent. They both spoke in favor of the Core. But would a teacher who was critical of the Core have felt as free to appear on the show and contradict her boss?

The effect is to generate an enormous noise machine in favor of whatever fad currently has the institutional momentum. How does this phenomenon serve the goal of providing kids with a good education?

How to drive good people from the teaching profession

Supporters of the Common Core are always reassuring us that it preserves “flexibility” and does not impose any particular curriculum, but it’s plainly designed to decrease teacher autonomy. Yes, many of the standards are so broad and general that you could arguably satisfy them in any number of ways (which at some point, after all, undermines the rationale for them). But open up, say, the literacy standards and read through them for a while.

If you’re a school district, you could let teachers develop their own ways of satisfying these sometimes very abstract but always very extensive standards, and allow them to demonstrate that their lesson plans meet the goals. That would be quite a bit of work to impose on teachers and those who supervise them, who are busy enough as it is. Or you can find someone else who has already done all the work for you—a national textbook publisher—and who has provided you with expert-certified assurances that their product meets the Common Core standards. Even then the teacher will probably have to demonstrate that he or she is teaching the text in a way that satisfies the standards. If you think “checking all the boxes in the Core standards” exactly equals “teaching literacy well,” then you won’t be bothered by funneling teachers’ time and effort into this system. If you don’t, then you’d worry about diverting energy from the latter to the former.

In other words, the Core is a recipe for making teachers into functionaries. That process had already begun before the Core came along, and the Core will only accelerate it. The sheer volume of standards will push districts and teachers toward adopting someone else’s ideas of how to satisfy them, rather than allowing teachers to use their own experience and judgment in deciding how to teach. Just let the national curriculum voluntarily-chosen Core-compliant textbook make all the decisions. All you have to do is read the script. What a great class! What a fulfilling job!

Add to that all the efforts to decrease teachers’ job security and measure their performance by the test scores of the kids who happen to be in their classes. It’s a miracle that anyone with any other options chooses to go into K-12 teaching today. Personally, I’d run screaming in the other direction, and I’m not alone. (Read this teacher’s take, as just one recent example.) There will always be some talented and capable people who are drawn to teaching, but how will the Core’s vision of education do anything but decrease that pool of people?

Is uniformity worth it? Is it even real?

Yikes, it’s seven o’clock and there are whole categories of objection to the Common Core that I haven’t even touched on yet. But first, what about the argument that we need a uniform set of standards to make it easier for kids to adjust when they move from one school to another? This concern is especially important, the argument goes, for addressing the “achievement gap” between poor kids (whose families may be less likely to remain in one school district for long stretches) and kids who aren’t poor.

This argument is clearly the best one Common Core supporters have to offer, and really the only one that gives a substantive reason for sacrificing state and local preferences for the sake of signing on to a uniform federally-driven project. How powerful is the argument, though? And does it outweigh the cons of centralization?

First of all, it’s important to notice (despite the assertions of Core supporters) that this argument is completely inconsistent with local or even state control of education. The way to ensure that kids can move freely between school districts without a hitch is to have to have a national curriculum. If this is really the concern underlying the Common Core, why do its supporters hasten to assure us that they find the idea of a national curriculum abhorrent? (Answer: PR.)

But I don’t doubt that kids who move from one place to another are burdened and disadvantaged by the disruption to their schooling. This would have to be a particular problem in a subject like math, where the ability to master some concepts depends on prior mastery of other concepts. (Even then, a much less detailed list of coverage goals would achieve about as much.) As for some of the other subjects, well, I’m less convinced. Has any teacher ever complained that the new kid can’t handle this year’s social studies class because he didn’t learn to “understand the rights and responsibilities of each citizen and demonstrate the value of lifelong civic action” in the previous year? Has any sixth grader ever struggled because she missed the fifth grade class on how to “understand the changing nature of society”?

But again, either the standards are specific and meaningful, in which case they are tantamount to a top-down national curriculum, or they are broad generalities that are likely to be applied in ways that vary greatly from one district to another. Suppose you teach fourth grade in a Common Core state, and you determine that your lesson plan teaches the kids to “Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.” How confident are you that your fourth-graders are coming away with the same abilities and skills as those of your colleague in a different Common Core state?

Moreover, when a kid shows up at a new school (and maybe it’s his third or fourth new school) and is not at “grade level” in his classes, how often is that because his previous schools weren’t teaching the same skills? Isn’t it quite possible that the student was struggling in his previous school, too? How much will adopting the Core really address the causes of why disadvantaged kids struggle in school?

When I think of all the ways poor kids are disadvantaged in their lives, educationally and otherwise, I don’t come away thinking, “What those kids need is uniform standards.” What I actually think is: What those kids need is some money. While Iowa is spending time and money on developing and pushing the Core, which will require even more spending on standardized tests and on the fancy technology that the new tests require, it has fallen into the bottom half of states in per-pupil spending. Why not give those kids who move from school to school more actual services, more individualized attention, more small class sizes, to help them get to where they need to be? But no, apparently the way to help those kids is by imposing uniform standards and expensive standardized testing schemes on their school districts.

So sure, considered in isolation, it would be great if students could move seamlessly between one school and another, anywhere in America. But Common Core supporters are offering a chimerical vision of that ideal to get us to trade away our ability to have any meaningful say over what goes on in our kids’ schools and what kind of approach to education we want our schools to follow. The Common Core supporters want you to think that the Core is just an objectively correct, expert-driven approach that no one could possibly quibble about. Just like No Child Left Behind was. Who could possibly choose anything other than top-down, standardized-test-driven education for their kids?

How about this federal education policy?

Again, there are many good reasons to think that the federal government is poorly suited to the task of determining K-12 education policy. But do you know what the federal government is actually very well-suited for, what it’s particularly competent to do? Stimulating the economy, lowering unemployment, alleviating poverty, and mitigating the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. The federal government is perfect for that job! But on those issues, it sits on its hands, while telling us that “the only way to end poverty is through education.” Give me a break.

See Matt Bruenig here and Freddie deBoer here. Also me here.

Thought experiment

Imagine the students who attend Iowa schools after the adoption of the Common Core. Imagine them when they are ten or twelve years out of school. Take a look at the standards. How many of those students, at age thirty, will have all the skills described in the standards? How many will be fluent in all of the math concepts listed in the standards? How much different will those numbers be than they are for the thirty-year-olds who attended Iowa schools before the Core standards? What evidence is there to think that the difference will be significant?

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to this thought experiment. Maybe the Common Core will transform society as we know it. Or maybe not. My own feeling is that people attribute near-magical powers to K-12 education, when experience shows that the choice of one curriculum over another doesn’t make nearly as much difference in actual adult knowledge and abilities as we’d like to think it does.

This isn’t an argument against the Core per se—just an argument that it’s not so obviously and urgently important that it has to be imposed on everyone everywhere.

A thousand things badly

One important objection to the Common Core standards is that they are inseparable from the larger project of high-stakes test-driven education. If they are not enforced by using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers’ adherence to them, then they’re largely toothless. But as soon as jobs and promotions and salaries become contingent on raising test scores, then the clear incentive is to focus on what gets tested to the exclusion of what doesn’t, which is very hard to defend. So then there’s pressure to put even more subjects into the standards and onto the tests. The Iowa Core covers several subjects in addition to those in the Common Core, but the absence of standards for art, for example, has led people to propose that they adopt standards (and a test??) for that, too. (And of course there are some qualities that won’t ever be assessed by a test score, like whether your kids’ school has a humane atmosphere and models humane values, and whether it provides enough time for physical activity, recess, and down time, and whether it provides an even minimally decent time period for lunch.)

The result, in Iowa, is that we have four hundred pages of “core” standards, and may end up with even more. Nobody wants to think about the fact that there are only so many hours in the school day (knock on wood), and that sometimes you have to choose between doing some things well and doing a thousand things badly. It’s a check-list approach to education that is driven more by the desire to say that the school “covers” certain material than by any concern for what the students actually learn.

The people enacting these standards—the national group that drew them up, the President and Congresspeople who pressured the states to adopt them, the Governor and his education department who proposed them, and the state legislators who approved them—have no idea whether they can be meaningfully satisfied within the confines of our school day and school year, or what their actual consequences will be on the school experience, or what teachers can realistically accomplish with their actual students. You know who does? Your kid’s teacher.

What's wrong with a national curriculum?

Common Core supporters are adamant that “It’s not a national curriculum!” It’s true that the Common Core doesn’t prescribe one set of texts or one set of lesson plans. But the Core will clearly channel school districts into a narrow set of curricular choices. Once there is a detailed and extensive national set of standards and a set of corresponding standardized tests, how many real textbook options will there be? Our own district has shifted over to Houghton-Mifflin language arts textbooks that are specifically designed to satisfy the Common Core standards, and, from what I hear, many teachers hate them.

What Common Core supporters aren’t so good at explaining is why a national curriculum would be such a bad thing. In fact, almost all of the arguments offered to support the Common Core standards would support a national curriculum as well (as the host of the panel discussion I participated in astutely pointed out). It seems plain that Common Core supporters reject the idea of a national curriculum just because they are afraid it is unpopular, not because it goes against any of their principles. If they tried to articulate just why a national curriculum was a bad idea, they might find that their rationale is hard to square with their support for the Common Core.

The Iowa Core speaks!

Perhaps I should just let the standards speak for themselves. Force yourself through this, from the introduction to the Iowa Core’s section on 21st Century Skills:
As each Iowa student is provided access to essential concepts and meaningful learning experiences in the core academic content areas, it is imperative that we also look to 21st century skills to build capacity in students so they are prepared to lead productive, satisfying lives. According to Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the 21st century skills set “is the ticket to economic upward mobility in the new economy” (Gewertz, 2007). Business and industry is providing a very clear message that students need the skills to “work comfortably with people from other cultures, solve problems creatively, write and speak well, think in a multidisciplinary way, and evaluate information critically. And they need to be punctual, dependable, and industrious.” (Gewertz, 2007).

The Framework for 21st Century Learning stated, “We believe schools must move beyond a focus on basic competency in core subjects to promoting understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes into core subjects” (2007). 21st century skills bridge the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of students from the core academic areas to real life application.

“The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of the school.”
-Ray McNulty, ICLE
Iowa High School Summit, December 10, 2007

Descriptions of the new global reality are plentiful, and the need for new, 21st century skills in an increasingly complex environment is well documented. In one form or another, authors cite (1) the globalization of economics; (2) the explosion of scientific and technological knowledge; (3) the increasingly international dimensions of the issues we face, i.e. global warming and pandemic diseases; and (4) changing demographic as the major trends that have resulted in a future world much different from the one that many of us faced when we graduated from high school (Friedman, 2005 and Stewart, 2007). The trends are very clear that each Iowa students will need essential 21st century skills to lead satisfying lives in this current reality.

Descriptions of what constitute essential 21st century skills are plentiful as well. In the 2007 session, the Iowa Legislature established the Iowa 21st century framework as:
(1) civic literacy
(2) employability skills
(3) financial literacy
(4) health literacy
(5) technology literacy

Within this 21st century skill framework are the common strands of learning and innovation; communication, information, and technology; and, life and career skills. The development of the Iowa 21st century essential concepts and skills was a collaborative process engaging the expertise of p – 16 educators, business, and industry representatives. Sources used for this work included the 1991 SCANS report, What Work Requires of Schools, and Framework for 21st Century Learning, from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The committee surveyed the literature and endeavored to bring together the common elements of these frameworks. The members have outlined the concepts, dispositions and habits of mind believed essential for success in the 21st century.
For a document that can’t get enough of the word “literacy,” it sure is poorly written (not to mention poorly proofread). I would like to keep people who think and write this way as far away from my kids’ education as possible. Maybe there are people who are impressed by this kind of pompous bureaucratese, and who swoon at the thought that “business and industry is providing a very clear message” about what “each Iowa students will need.” (It has citations, so it must be indisputably true!) For the rest of us, I’m afraid this is the closest thing we have to a Berlitz guide to this kind of edu-speak.

What quadrant of the Rigor and Relevance Framework am I in?

Notice also, by the way, the helpful charts that are included in the Iowa Core. Here’s one from the section on “civic literacy” that I referred to in my last post (click to enlarge):

You can see how the chart helps teachers teach and students learn. So much better than what a teacher could come up with on his or her own. Interesting, too, how the standards manage to turn the discussion of individual rights into a discussion of compliance with school rules.

(Good luck figuring out what the quadrants mean, or how any purpose is served by presenting that information in the form of quadrants. If you can find the answer on the Department of Education’s website, you’ve got more spare time to kill than I do.)

Meaningful coercion v. meaningless red tape

Sometimes it feels like a memo went out to supporters of the Common Core instructing them simply to deny that there are any downsides to the enterprise, regardless of how illogical or internally contradictory the denials are. “We’re going to have uniform standards in every state—but don’t worry, we still have local control.” “We’ve got hundreds of pages of detailed standards—but don’t worry, we’re not dictating a uniform curriculum.” “Every kid will have to meet these grade-by-grade standards—but don’t worry, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

As Karen W., and later the Washington Post, pointed out, supporters have begun to realize that the Common Core is not wildly popular (that it is, in Mike Huckabee’s words, “toxic”), so the new strategy is simply to rebrand it in some way that will distract people from what it actually is. (When the advice is, “Let’s keep doing it, but call it something less toxic,” you know you’re in trouble.) This is all just PR, and it undermines their credibility. The fact is, either the standards mean something—in which case they are clearly a big incursion on local control and teacher autonomy—or they don’t, in which case they are a pointless waste of time. The actual standards seem to fall into either one category or the other. The math standards are very detailed about what concepts must get covered from one year to the next; to say that they are not dictating curriculum is slicing the baloney very thin. By contrast, some of Iowa’s “21st Century Skills” standards are largely meaningless. It’s hard to imagine a civics class that wouldn’t arguably satisfy most of the standards in the section on “civic literacy.” So why not just pass a law saying that schools must teach civics?

Take a look, for example, at this portion (drawn pretty much at random) of the 21st Century Skills section of the Iowa Core for middle school:
Essential Concept and/or Skill: Understand the rights and responsibilities of each citizen and demonstrate the value of lifelong civic action.

• Understand rights, roles and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.
• Understand issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.
• Understand what is meant by the “scope and limits” of a right.
• Understand participation in civic and political life can help bring about the attainment of individual and public goals.
• Understand the functions of political leadership and why leadership is a vital necessity in a democracy.
• Understand the importance of voluntarism as a characteristic of American society.
Does this meaningfully constrain the social studies teacher? Is there any reason to believe that the kids in two different schools will come away with the same “skills” simply because their social studies teacher had to convince some administrator that his or her lesson plan satisfied these standards? Or do they just add a thick layer of red tape onto the job of teaching, with no meaningful benefit?

Do you believe that a standardized test can assess whether a teacher has complied with these standards and whether a student has met them?