Monday, September 29, 2014

“Like a meeting, a boring meeting”

Karen W. at Education in Iowa writes about a video intended to help teachers learn to teach “close reading” as part of the Common Core. One of her reactions:
First, if reading logs didn’t already make your child think reading is a tedious chore, close reading just might convince them. My eight year old couldn’t look away from the first video but also commented throughout, “I could not go to that school. It is like a meeting, a boring meeting.”
All I could do as I watched the video was shake my head at what some people think is a good idea to do to children. Hats off to any kids who can sit through years of this stuff without becoming juvenile delinquents.

Meanwhile, a friend happened to remind me of this passage from To Kill a Mockingbird:
The remainder of my school days were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything—at least, what one didn’t know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half-Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
It’s amazing, given all time and energy and money devoted to educational research, how little anyone talks about boredom. It’s as if we’re all supposed to pretend it’s not there, or that it doesn’t matter, or that the concept has no bearing on what kids learn. You’d almost think that the people who are paid to develop the latest educational “improvements” had never been children themselves.
.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the child as reader

Here’s C.S. Lewis, in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”:
[T]he neat sorting out of books into age groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.
. . .

The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm: we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect. We must not imagine that we are Providence or Destiny. I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education, for all things are possible. But I should lay very long odds against it.
We can be glad, for his sake, that Lewis didn’t live to see reading instruction in the twenty-first century.
.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why not elect the superintendent of schools?

This week, prompted by our city’s charter revision process, the Press-Citizen published two opinion pieces advocating that we shift to a strong-mayor form of city government. Both pieces emphasize that we should vest real decision-making power in elected officials, rather than career bureaucrats. One writer writes: “Policy should be actively made by people who answer directly to voters, not passively rubber-stamped after it’s been staff-crafted the way Iowa City has done it for decades.” Says the other: “Our present city manager form of government puts too much power into the position of the unelected city manager and the staff. The council is usually passive due to its low salary and its relatively small time commitment compared to the staff.”

Hmm, that sounds familiar. How is it that no one ever applies that same logic to the administration of our public schools?

There are good arguments both for and against strong-mayor local government. As a result, different cities make different choices; strong-mayor government is one fairly common choice. Yet I’ve never heard of any school district anywhere in which the superintendent is elected. I assume there are statutes in every state that would forbid it. Why is the idea so unthinkable—and so different from strong-mayor city government—that it should not happen anywhere?

Maybe it reflects the (in my view, misguided) idea that education is a science and so must be insulated from the workings of democracy. Or maybe it reflects the idea that K-12 education is now so tightly micromanaged by state and federal bureaucracies that it needs to be run by professional bureaucrats rather than elected officials. Neither explanation reflects well on the state of public education.

How is it that aspects of democracy that are unremarkable in other contexts seem so alien to the world of K-12 education? What is it about education and democracy that doesn’t mix?
.

Monday, September 22, 2014

I’m probably wrong

A few weeks ago, I asked the school district for a copy of the legal opinion it received about its proposed (now enacted) policy regulating public comment at school board meetings. I thought I had a right to see the policy under the Iowa Open Records law. I now think that I’m probably (though not certainly) wrong about that.

The Open Records law protects as confidential only those “Records which represent or constitute the work product of an attorney, which are related to litigation or claim made by or against a public body.” Since everyone seems to agree that the legal opinion about the public comment policy was not “related to litigation or claim made by or against” the school district, I argued that the opinion was not confidential under the act. Just looking at the statute itself, I think that argument makes a lot of sense. But it turns out that there is case law saying that the act was not intended to “affect other specific statutory privileges recognized by the legislature, such as the attorney-client privilege.” It’s still something of an open question, because that case did not conclusively resolve the issue, and because it’s not clear that the district’s assertion of the attorney-client privilege has any statutory basis. But it lowers the odds that I’d win if I appealed the issue and increases the amount of work it would be to appeal. Add in the fact that I have only one month left to appeal—and that it’s one of the busiest times of the semester—and that’s enough to make me throw in the towel.

None of that has any bearing, though, on whether the district should have withheld that legal opinion from the public. The client in an attorney-client relationship is always free to waive the privilege. The district’s position is apparently that it will disclose only the bare minimum of what it is legally required to disclose, and that it will keep secret the maximum that it is allowed to keep secret. I don’t understand that approach. My guess is that there is nothing earthshaking in the attorney’s opinion, and that it probably confirms what many other lawyers (including me) have been saying about the First Amendment restrictions on what the school board can do. Why is the district so determined not to let the public hear that advice?
.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Update on open records request

I recently asked the school district for a copy of the legal opinion it received about its proposed public comment policy, as I wrote about here. The district responded that the document is protected by attorney-client privilege. (For more detail on my request and the district’s response, see below.)

I have to decide whether to pursue the matter further. I could, for example, appeal the district’s decision to the relatively new state Public Information Board. I won’t be able to make that decision until I’ve done some research on the legal issue involved. At some point, I’ll find some time to do that research, but for the next week or two that’s not going to happen.

For now, I’d just point out: Even if the district were to have a legal right to withhold the document, it is certainly not required to withhold it. In any lawyer-client relationship, the client always has the right to waive the attorney-client privilege. Its decision to assert lawyer-client privilege is a choice. In this instance, why does the district want to conceal from the public what its attorney thinks about the school board’s ability to regulate public speech at board meetings? That information could only help the public understand and evaluate the board’s policy and practices. Is there any good reason for withholding that information from the public?

Keep in mind that analogous opinions by the Attorney General at the state level are published and freely available. It would hardly be the end of the world if the public got to hear the legal opinion that was requested by public officials and paid for with public funds.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What does the district’s lawyer say about regulating public comment?

(Updated below.)

At the last school board meeting, some of the board members mentioned that the district had gotten a legal opinion from its attorney about the board’s proposed policy on public comment at board meetings. The policy—much toned down from what had been proposed earlier—is scheduled to come up for a vote at this week’s board meeting. I think people ought to know what the board’s attorney says about what the board can and can’t do in regulating public comment, so I asked the district for a copy of the opinion.

At the meeting last week, one board member said that the attorney’s opinion had not been included in the board packet because it was protected attorney work product. In fact, though, the relevant section of the Iowa Open Records law protects as confidential only those “Records which represent or constitute the work product of an attorney, which are related to litigation or claim made by or against a public body.” I have no reason to think the attorney’s opinion was related to any “litigation or claim made by or against a public body,” or that any such litigation or claim has been made by anyone at all, so I disagree that the opinion is confidential.

Moreover, it would be pretty anomalous if the attorney’s opinions on pending policies were confidential. Opinions by the board’s counsel should be treated no differently than opinions by the state Attorney General on state law issues, which are published as a matter of course. It makes sense that the public, and not just the board members, should hear what the board’s attorney says about the legality of a proposed policy, so they can comment in an informed way on the proposal and evaluate whether the board members are making a good decision.

I made the request a week and a half ago, and still haven’t received any reply. I know it’s a busy time of year, but it’s not a burdensome request, and it certainly makes sense that the public should see the opinion before the board votes on the policy. Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 8/25/14: The district has now responded to my request by saying that it will not provide the document because “the requested document is not subject to release as it is a privileged communication between the Board and District legal counsel.” I’m following up with a question about how the document is “related to litigation or claim made by or against a public body.” Again, stay tuned.
.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Signs of the times

Visited my old elementary school last week. I found this on the big two-story wall that we used to play ball against:


This one was on another big wall we used to use:


Well, problem solved, I guess.
.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Issues matter more than résumés

The school board appointed Oliver Townsend Sr. to fill the vacant board seat tonight. On the plus side: First, Townsend has an impressive résumé, including a term on the board in the 1980s. Second, the board did not appoint the incumbent who was voted out just last year, though some board members appeared tempted to.

Still, what a strange process. Although the applications for the position told us about the experience and qualifications of the applicants, they told us virtually nothing about how the applicants stood on important issues before the board. Yet that lack of information is exactly what the board members seemed to find appealing about Townsend’s application. Several board members talked about the importance of making a “neutral” choice, and avoiding candidates who “have some politics tied to them.” The board members also seemed determined to choose a candidate who would not run for reelection, so as not to give anyone a “leg up.”

If the board members were reluctant to impose their own policy preferences on the vacant seat, that’s admirable. But that’s not a reason to impose unknown or arbitrary policy preferences. If the board members were genuinely concerned about not overstepping their bounds, the sensible alternative would have been to hold a special election.

(I don’t know whether any board members talked individually with the applicants. If so, they may know more about Townsend’s politics. But if that’s the case, then their portrayal of the appointment as “neutral” is disingenuous and just for show.)

The whole discussion seemed to highlight the weird way in which school issues are treated differently than other governmental issues. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had impressive résumés; is that all we should want to know about them? But when it comes to school issues, there’s a strange reluctance to admit that people can disagree. The board members sometimes act as if good government is just a matter of getting everyone on board for the “right” solution, and as if education is too important to leave to “politics.” (Wars, the economy, our survival on the planet, fine—but not education!) I find that stance—and the accompanying emphasis on “unity”—just bizarre. The school board is a democratically elected body that governs a public school system funded by taxes. All of its decisions are political, as they should be. School governance requires making choices among conflicting values. How do we help anyone by pretending otherwise?

In 2013, we finally had a school board election in which candidates took clear stands on some important issues. Surprise—there were actual disagreements, and voters wanted to know about them! It turns out that not everyone wants to vote for school board candidates based solely on résumés and platitudes, without any discussion of where the candidates stand on important issues. Why do our board members want to?
.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Guest post: Equity in Practice

[Always happy to present another guest post by Karen W., from Education in Iowa. This is Karen’s second guest post on the topic of how curricular choices can raise equity concerns; the previous one is here.]

School board and community members debated redistricting and differentiated funding as a means to reaching the goals of the district diversity policy last week.

No doubt redistricting will be required to make substantial changes in the demographics of the district’s schools and differentiated funding might help improve academic achievement, depending upon how it is used.
However, it seems to me that there is something inherently unfair about shifting disadvantaged kids around only to keep doing to them in their new school buildings what wasn't working for them in their former school buildings.

That is, if shifting kids around is all we do, we may achieve something approaching equity on paper—school buildings with less variation in demographics than we had before—but we’ll fall short of equity in practice, which will require not just a disruption in the status quo about which kids are assigned to which buildings, but also a disruption of the status quo of universal curriculum and instruction.

Admittedly, this will be an uncomfortable conversation in a district where we like to say that all of our schools are excellent—without specifying for whom—but if diversity and equity are truly a priority, we are going to have to dive in and have this conversation, not just now, but as a part of the conversation around ongoing decision making about day-to-day operations of the district.

Apparently, it offends local sensibilities to offer comment or criticism without having a detailed solution in hand. Frankly, I have more questions than answers, but in the interest of starting the conversation I offer (without endorsement) the following ideas about what equity in practice might look like.

Equity might look like more art, music, and physical education. But not in math class, where equity might look like more explicit instruction and Singapore Primary Mathematics.

Equity might look more like Core Knowledge reading and less like balanced literacy.

Equity might look like a reduction in special education services (due to improved effectiveness of universal instruction, not through ignoring the needs of students, please!).

Equity might look like increased diversity in extra-curricular activity participation, even at the high school level, which means equity might require reinstatement of 4th grade strings and 7th grade football.

Equity might look like rethinking technology use and internet filtering practices at school.

Equity might look like an acceleration policy that serves kids in regular education classrooms through appropriate subject matter and whole grade acceleration rather than in exclusionary pull-out programs at the elementary school level.

Equity might look more like the low-SES school described by Kitchen Table Math commenter palisadesk here:
However, I’ve never seen the attitude that seems to prevail in upper-SES schools, even in my district, where responsibility for kids’ learning the basics is offloaded to the home. It was hammered into me from the get-go that it was MY responsibility to teach kids the things they needed to learn, not the parents’ responsibility (which in many cases they did not have the resources to do anyway). It helps that the families in general support a more instructivist stance and expect us to be hammering the foundation skills. We allocate 20 minutes daily across the grades to structured practice of math skills. Counting, math facts, metric conversions, fractions, formulae—depending on the grade. Our math results are better than those in some of the middle-class schools, which I find interesting. We are doing something right.

Even so, it is an uphill struggle because many kids need far more instructional time than we can provide, and issues like absenteeism, frequent moves, family crises and hunger do affect kids’ learning no matter how well we can teach them. But I haven’t seen the following in any of my schools for over a decade:

1. movies shown during instructional time

2. “art” projects in reading or math. No dioramas, foldables, posters etc.

3. “discovery” learning. “Guided discovery” is a bit different—in a science activity, students might be led through a series of steps to “discover” something (really, to observe it) and detail their observations, but they aren’t turned loose with stuff and expected to “discover” something.

4. “group” work with the exception of leveled groups for reading and math; when not directly taught by the teacher the groups will have individualized seatwork or follow-up assignments.
And here, in response to another commenter’s hypothesis that low-SES students in high-SES-area schools should be worse off than those in low-SES schools:
I think this may well be true, for several reasons. As Allison explained, the low-SES kids don’t have the outside tutoring/afterschooling etc. that higher-income families routinely provide, and they tend (this is a generalization) to respond poorly to unstructured learning situations, which much “group work” and “exploratory learning” seems to be. They haven’t got the resources at home or school to do artsy projects, may not have access to a computer or the Internet (or even a telephone!) at home, may have other responsibilities after school, not be able to afford field trips and school clubs/sports etc.

A previous school I worked at was in a neighborhood separated by a large city park from a very wealthy area of manicured million-dollar homes. The school for that neighborhood served these very affluent families, who comprised most of the enrollment, but on the edge of the neighborhood, bordering a freeway, there was a smallish public housing project. The children there also attended this school. So you had the very poor and the extremely rich. The school got allocated some extra special education staff for the “project” kids, but both socially and academically those children were isolated and tended to be academically unsuccessful. A top teacher from my school transferred there a few years ago and tells me that the great divide is still present, and the school does not have the kind of supports low-SES kids need.

For example, at my school the library has been kept open after school for parents and children to come in and use the computers for research, skill practice, homework and so on. Even though math facts are taught, many children need much more practice than can be given in class; we recommend some online sites for practice and pay for some sites where children can practice reading skills online (about 40% of our students have internet at home). Teachers also proved tutoring and support over the lunch hour and run academic clubs like math clubs and spelling clubs to reinforce basics in an engaging way.

Upper-income schools don’t, in my experience, provide this kind of thing. Their students are leaving after school for Little League, swimming, horseback riding and gymnastics. Our students are leaving to care for younger siblings or help mom and dad at the bakery.
.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Distaste for democracy

Our school board members are apparently determined to fill the board vacancy by appointment, rather than by holding a special election. This is a defensible stance, but I think a disappointing one, for the reasons I discussed here. The seat can be filled in only two ways: by the incumbents or by the voters. Letting the voters choose is the more democratic, less self-serving option.

What’s especially interesting is that the board is also apparently determined to choose someone who will not run for re-election. This means that not only will the seat be filled by appointment, but the appointee will not face any democratic accountability for his or her actions while on the board. We’re supposed to see that, somehow, as doing the public a favor.

I know there are arguments to support both of those choices, and reasonable people can disagree. But there seems to be something about school governance that leads officials to gravitate, when given a choice, to the less democratic option. Education seems to touch some chord of discomfort or distaste that people have toward otherwise fairly ordinary features of democracy. Somehow there’s always a good reason for setting them aside.

Good opinion piece by Hani Elkadi here.
.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Elections aren’t a waste of money

Our school board’s chair, Sally Hoelscher, announced her resignation from the board yesterday, citing personal reasons. The board can now choose to fill the position by appointment or (by not acting within thirty days) can trigger a special election.

The last vacancy was filled by appointment, and I expect this one to be, too. I don’t think that’s the end of the world. It would take four of the six remaining members to approve an appointment—in effect, a supermajority—and there’s about a year left in Hoelscher’s term.

Nonetheless, I hope the board will choose to hold an election. And I certainly hope that the board members won’t justify an appointment on the grounds of “avoiding a costly election.” Democratic control of the public schools isn’t just an extravagant frill.

One of the most common complaints about the board, after all, has been that it is unresponsive to community input. There are many controversial issues currently before the board, including the recent budget cuts, redistricting, and the implementation of the long-term facilities plan. There is no better way to gauge community preferences on those issues than by holding an election. An election would certainly be a far better indicator than the district’s hyper-managed “engagement” efforts (and may even be less expensive!).

Of course, this blog has been ranting for years about K-12 education’s disrespect for democratic values. Democratic control of public education is as enfeebled as it’s ever been. In my dreams, our board members would use this occasion to welcome public input and to proudly defend the importance of democratic control. At the very least I hope they don’t add to the disrespect by suggesting that democracy is just a costly luxury. .

Monday, May 26, 2014

What the board members said about redistricting when they were candidates

I wrote yesterday that there’s no reason to think that the community supports using major elementary school boundary changes to meet the district’s diversity goals. One reason for that is that most of the current board members did not campaign on that kind of approach when they were running for the board.

Right before the 2011 board election, there was a candidate forum focused entirely on issues related to redistricting. Here’s what the candidates who were elected had to say (transcript after the jump):



I included Karla Cook in that clip, even though she’s no longer on the board, because she was elected, which tells us something about what the voters wanted, and because she was part of the 4-3 board majority who enacted the Diversity Policy, which directed the superintendent to meet numerical goals for the percentage of kids eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch at each school. Marla Swesey and Sally Hoelscher also voted for the Diversity Policy, while Patti Fields and Jeff McGinness voted against it. (Once it passed, McGinness said that he would work to move forward with it.)

The Diversity Policy did require the superintendent to meet the diversity goals by certain dates, and put very few restrictions on how to meet them. It did not, however, require that the goals be met through extensive redistricting. In fact, it contained language suggesting a preference against “non-voluntary movement of students,” and its supporters on the board emphasized the possibility of using incentives such as magnet schools to entice students to change schools voluntarily.

The superintendent’s proposal, however, uses “non-voluntary movement” as the primary (and almost exclusive) means of meeting the diversity goals. Under the proposed maps, for example, almost 80% of the kids at Coralville Central would change schools; so would 63% of the kids at Kirkwood and 54% of the kids at Lincoln. Those changes would be attributable almost entirely to pursuing the diversity goals, since there is no new school opening in that cluster. Although the changes do not involve much busing, many of them would send kids (especially kids from low-income areas) to schools significantly farther from their homes. It’s awfully hard to square that kind of extensive, diversity-driven redistricting with the board members’ positions as candidates.

My point isn’t that board members can never change their views, though fidelity to campaign stances does have value in a democracy. My point is that there is no reason to think the community supports the superintendent’s approach, and that, if anything, the election of these board members is evidence of the opposite. We can only speculate about what would have happened to candidates who campaigned on boundary changes like these, because nobody did.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

That was then

I’ve been drafting a post about what our current board members said about redistricting when they were running for the board, and I came across this moment, on a different issue, from the 2011 school board campaign (transcript after the jump):



All five of those candidates, after they were elected, supported the plan to close Hoover Elementary and build 500-student schools in cornfields on the edge of town. (Four of them voted “yes” on the closure. Swesey, after explaining why she was going to vote “yes,” voted “no” when it became clear that there were enough votes to pass it without her support. In any event, she later opposed reconsidering the closure.)

It’s enough to make you wonder whether there’s any point in going to candidate forums.

Sure, board members can change their minds about an issue. But if you run for office on one platform, and then suddenly realize, after you’re elected, that you support a very different one, shouldn’t you get the community on board for your new opinion before imposing it?

School board should reject top-down approach to redistricting

I posted last week about some of my doubts about the superintendent’s recommended elementary school boundary changes. But there’s another, more basic objection to the proposed maps: there’s no reason to believe that they have the support of the community.

If watching national education policy for the last ten years should teach a person anything, it’s skepticism toward top-down “reforms.” From the creators of No Child Left Behind to Arne Duncan to Bill Gates to proponents of the Common Core, today’s education “reformers” have one thing in common: they’re so sure they’re right that they don’t care whether the affected communities agree. As they impose their policies on local school districts, regardless of whether the people in those districts want them, they often use the most high-minded rhetoric. When the people who want to privatize education and close schools in impoverished neighborhoods—inevitably citing studies about “student achievement”—tell you that their cause is “the civil rights issue of our time,” it’s a good moment to be skeptical.

The proposal to enact major boundary changes to meet the district’s diversity goals, largely by sending kids from low-income families to schools farther from their homes, has some unfortunate parallels to other top-down policies. I believe its supporters have the best of intentions (unlike some of the obviously profit-driven participants in the national ed reform debate). But there’s no indication that supporters of this approach have persuaded the community of its wisdom, or even that they’ve persuaded the low-income families who are its supposed beneficiaries and who will bear the brunt of the disruption. The board shouldn’t impose a change of this magnitude if the community doesn’t support it.

I’d feel differently if the current board members had run for office advocating major diversity-driven boundary changes, but they didn’t. (On that, more in my next post.) Nor has the community “engagement” process demonstrated support for that approach. At the community workshops, the district pointedly instructed the public to take the diversity policy’s numerical goals as a given, asking the participants only for input on how to use redistricting to meet the goals, not on whether to do that. It’s almost as if the district learned its lesson from the facilities workshops: if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.

I sometimes hear, in response, that “you can’t please everyone,” but that’s just fighting a straw man. Of course you can’t please everyone; no one is suggesting that every change has to be unanimous. Any redistricting is going to make some people unhappy. But that can’t justify imposing a change that doesn’t have the support of most of the broader community. It’s a big leap from “You can’t please everyone” to “So therefore we should adopt my ideas regardless of what the community wants.”

It is understandably tempting for people, even for those who consider themselves progressive, to impose their policies on the community when they have the chance, even without public support. But in the long run, that just legitimizes the kind of top-down government-by-elites that is hostile to progressive values (and to many strands of conservative values as well). If you’re against top-down governance only when you disagree with the policies, you’re not against top-down governance.

Everybody’s got a great idea. The best thing you can do for people, though, isn’t to impose your great idea on them. It’s to empower them democratically. Then try to win them over to your idea. I’m sure that in any community-driven system, many of my ideas would be voted down, but I’d trade all of my policy preferences for a school system that reflected the community’s values. I’d much rather put my kids’ education in the hands of the greater Iowa City community than in the hands of any set of people who think they know better.

Related posts here and here.
.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Expensive construction is expensive

According to the latest school board agenda packet, the administration is recommending that the district delay the renovation and expansion of Twain Elementary that was supposed to begin this summer, because the bids came in much higher than expected.

It’s not a good sign when the very first project in the Facilities Master Plan has to be delayed and re-bid, “with possible revisions in the scope,” because it’s too expensive.

At some point, won’t it make sense to reconsider tearing down existing capacity while building new capacity elsewhere? I’m all in favor of Twain getting renovations, air conditioning, and a gym or multi-purpose room, but what is the urgency about adding new classrooms? Under the most recent redistricting proposal, both Twain and the new South elementary school will be only two-thirds full. Even if the district wants to leave some extra space to try a magnet school at Twain, the capacity is there in the short-term, and the addition can wait. But instead, the Twain project includes not only renovations but an addition—and then it turns out to be so expensive that the whole thing may be delayed.

Just wait until we see the actual price tag for the Mann and Longfellow additions, which are much bigger than the Twain addition. Both of those schools could have gotten air conditioning, renovations, and multi-purpose rooms sooner if the projects hadn’t been accompanied by huge, expensive additions—none of which would be necessary if Hoover were kept open. Now those schools will have to wait much longer—all the while wondering whether the projects will ever happen as planned, or whether they too will end up facing “possible revisions in the scope.”

We don’t need to tear down 300 seats of capacity at Hoover. We don’t need to build 330 seats of new capacity onto Longfellow and Mann. We don’t need to rush into adding capacity to Twain. What those buildings need is air conditioning, renovations, and multi-purpose rooms. The district’s drive to shift toward fewer, larger elementaries, farther away from where people live, is what’s delaying and endangering the construction that we actually need.
.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Board needs to consider both costs and benefits of proposed attendance zones

When the school board was debating its Diversity Policy last year, I had mixed feelings. It does seem wrong that the district’s low-income families are packed very disproportionately into three or four elementary schools, and it’s not hard to imagine how that could put a strain on the resources of those schools. The Diversity Policy was an attempt to address that problem. It did so by requiring that the percentage of kids receiving free- and reduced-price lunches at any school—the district’s proxy for low-income status—be no more than fifteen percentage points above the district-wide average. What bothered me about the Policy, and the reason I ended up opposing it, was that it committed itself to those numerical goals without any inquiry into what it would take to meet them. I don’t think it makes sense to adopt a policy that pursues one value with no consideration of its effect on other, possibly competing values. (In fact, that kind of approach is the cause of many problems in education policy today. See posts here and here.)

I didn’t get too worried about it, though, because I knew that any implementation of the policy would need to get board approval, so the discussion of costs and benefits could wait until there was a concrete proposal for meeting the diversity goals. Now the superintendent has recommended specific redistricting maps for portions of both the east and west sides. This means we can finally get a sense of just what it takes to reach the diversity goals, and just what the concrete disadvantages are. My fear, though, is that the board will argue that it has to adopt these maps to “comply with the policy,” and that we will never get the discussion of whether the benefit of pursuing the goals outweighs the cost.

In the community meetings that the district held to get public input into the map-drawing process, the issue of whether to pursue the goals was always kept off the table. People were asked only to discuss how to pursue the goals through redistricting. It’s as if the district is determined to implement the policy without ever discussing—or seeking public input on—whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

But there are costs, and not just fiscal ones. The map-drawing process has made it clear that the burden of meeting the goals through redistricting falls primarily on the kids from low-income families. There is no way, for example, to bring Kirkwood’s FRL rate down without sending many of its FRL kids to schools much farther from their homes. For complicated domino-effect reasons, it also requires sending many FRL kids who go to Coralville Central to a more distant school, too, even though Coralville Central’s FRL rate is close to the average.

The same is true of FRL kids at Twain and Grant Wood schools. In some cases, it’s very clear that low-income areas (e.g, Broadway and Dolphin Lake Point) have been singled out to be sent to more distant schools. (I understand that the construction of a new school on the east side means that some redistricting has to happen there. But it’s clear that some of the choices of how to do that were driven solely by meeting the diversity goals.)

When you live off Fifth Street in Coralville, walking to Lincoln is a very different task than walking to Kirkwood. It’s especially a concern when you’re talking about families who have fewer resources and may be less able to drive their kids to and from school—for example, in bad weather. The district could offer a bus, but taking a bus to school is also different from walking to a nearby school, and could, for example, make it harder for kids to take part in after-school activities.

There are also legitimate concerns about the intangible costs of identifying some kids as being from low-income areas and as being brought into a different school for the stated purpose of spreading the FRL kids out. (I don’t even like using the phrase “FRL kids,” but that is how the policy works, and “low-income kids” is an even worse shorthand.) And there are concerns about how welcome those kids will feel, and about how their destination schools will respond to their presence there.

There will also be disruption for all kids, rich or poor or in-between, who are affected by the boundary changes. At Coralville Central, for example, eighty percent of the current students will be assigned to other schools. Maybe that kind of short-term disruption should not carry much weight if there are clear long-term benefits—though that’s easy to say if you’re not the third-grader who has to go to an unfamiliar school while her friends go somewhere else. Either way, it’s still a cost that should factor into the analysis.

Do these possible costs outweigh the possible benefits? There is no obvious right answer. My inclination is not to presume that I know better than the people who are supposed to benefit from the policy. But I’ve seen no evidence that the district’s low-income families on the whole support this policy, or that they agree that they’ll be better off as a result of these proposed attendance zone changes. That would make a big difference to me, but (so far, at least) it just isn’t there. Without that, the board shouldn’t adopt such large-scale boundary changes that would send so many kids from low-income families to schools much farther from their homes.
.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The needless, drastic rezoning of Coralville Central

It’s become clear that the district intends to comply with its diversity policy almost entirely through redistricting, not through incentives or “voluntary movement,” and primarily by moving kids from low-income families to schools that are significantly farther from their homes, and without regard to what those particular families might want or what the larger community wants. I don’t feel much sympathy with that project. I hope to find time to comment on it at more length sometime soon.

In the meantime, one aspect of the proposed maps seems indefensible, no matter how you feel about the larger project. Coralville Central is a school with an free and reduced-cost lunch (FRL) rate of 42% -- just a few points above the district average and easily in compliance with the diversity goals. Yet the latest proposed map would take 80% of its kids and move them to different schools, bringing in kids from other schools to fill those seats. What possible logic could drive that proposal?

I’m guessing that it’s because the diversity policy requires attendance zones to be contiguous and prohibits “islands.” The most direct way to lessen the FRL imbalance on the west side would be to trade students between Lincoln (4% FRL) and Kirkwood (74% FRL). But it’s difficult or impossible to connect any part of Lincoln to the Kirkwood zone, so the plan uses Coralville Central as a kind of middleman. If that’s the rationale, it’s a bad one. Contiguity isn’t important enough to justify enormous changes to the attendance zone of a school that could otherwise simply be left alone.

I have a lot of doubts about moving kids from Kirkwood to Lincoln, but at least I can understand the logic. Major changes to the Coralville Central zone make no sense at all.

UPDATE:Here’s a counterargument: Many of the families who are currently bused to Coralville Central from the neighborhoods north of Route 80 are within two miles of Kirkwood, and thus would no longer qualify for a bus. So the proposed map would enable the district to discontinue those buses. Much of that cost, however, wouldn’t be saved, but shifted. Putting those Coralville Central kids into Kirkwood would then mean that a roughly equal number of Kirkwood kids would have to move out, and the new plan would put them into Lincoln, reducing the FRL disparity between Lincoln and Kirkwood.  Some would go to Lincoln, and some would go to Coralville Central, bumping Coralville Central kids into Lincoln, with the ultimate effect of reducing the FRL disparity between Lincoln and Kirkwood.  Some of the transferees to Lincoln would automatically qualify for a bus, and the rest might be given busing anyway because of the difficulty of walking from Coralville to Lincoln.

So the proposed map means that fewer kids from relatively well-off families are taking the bus to school and more kids from low-income families are, for the sake of bringing down FRL disparities. Whether that’s a good idea is debatable, but at least it has a rationale.

Either way, the result is enormous, all-at-once changes to current attendance zones. Whether the larger community supports that kind of “start-from-scratch” approach to boundaries is a question that the district does not seem eager to ask. At all of the community redistricting meetings, the district has instructed people not to question whether the diversity goals are a good policy, but just to discuss how to meet the goals. Many people at the meetings have been understandably resistant to this kind of paternalistic “engagement.” The district has demonstrated no interest in wanting to know what the public thinks about the most central question raised by the maps: whether the cost of meeting the diversity goals outweighs the benefits. Why?
.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Magnet schools I’d like to see

Our school district is thinking about turning one of our elementary schools into a magnet school. I think it would be great if the district could make a magnet school work, though I do have some questions about the idea. In any event, the news got me thinking about what sort of magnet school “themes” I’d find most appealing. Here are my ideas:

  • School’s Not Boring Magnet School
  • Humane Lunch Period Magnet School
  • Students Have Autonomy Magnet School
  • Intrinsic Motivation Magnet School
  • Local Control Magnet School
  • Free Time Is Important Magnet School
  • Think For Yourself Magnet School
  • Standardized Tests Are Overrated Magnet School
  • No Homework Magnet School
  • Democracy and Individual Rights Magnet School
  • Question Authority Magnet School

I won’t hold my breath. Most of them are probably illegal.
.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Little kids, not goblins

Not a perfect analogy, I know, but for what it’s worth: In 2009, our elementary school became a receiving school for families who chose to transfer out of “schools in need of assistance” under No Child Left Behind. About sixty or seventy new students showed up at the school. Not all of them were eligible for free-and-reduced-price lunches (“FRL,” our district’s proxy for low-income status), but enough were that the school’s FRL rate rose significantly. By 2010-11, the FRL rate was more than twice what it had been four years before.

My only point is: This was not a big deal. I can’t speak for other parents, but I had three kids at the school and so was in contact with a lot of other families and kids there. The particulars of the transition were rocky, since the influx of new students overcrowded the school and was announced just days before the school year started. But the presence of the new arrivals at the school just wasn’t a big deal. They were just a bunch of Iowa Citian little kids.

I suppose the orthodox thing to say is that the increase in racial and economic diversity enriched the experience for everyone. Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that, at least in terms of my own kids’ school experience, the presence of the SINA transfers at the school was a big non-event. If we hadn’t been told it was happening (and it hadn’t caused crowding and last-minute logistical problems), I doubt I would even have noticed.

I certainly can’t speak for the families who transferred in. I don’t know whether they found it a welcoming place or whether it improved their kids’ school experience. I wasn’t crazy about the way the school administration reacted to the change. That was the year the school implemented PBIS; it felt as if the administration had decided that the arrival of the transfer kids was exactly the moment when everyone needed a more intense (and more dehumanizing) kind of behavior management. But that was a problem with the administration, not with the kids. The kids were fine.

I know people have a lot of different concerns about redistricting; I share some of them. I don’t like the process the district has used; I was against the particular diversity policy the board adopted; I think there is value to keeping the distance to elementary school short, and to minimizing disruptive changes to kids’ lives. I’m never automatically persuaded by assertions about what “research has shown.” But I don’t need an academic study to convince me that we don’t need to pack the bulk of our low-income families into three or four elementary schools, some of which have FRL rates near eighty percent. I can’t help but think that we can bring those numbers down without doing anything outlandish with the boundaries.

In any event, to the extent that fear of the unknown is playing a role in the discussion, it shouldn’t. It’s easy to imagine stuff that just isn’t real.
.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

School budget cuts are only the beginning

This is an extended version of my guest opinion in the Press-Citizen today.

Families in the Iowa City area were disappointed to learn of the school district’s planned cuts to band, orchestra, foreign language and other programming because of a $3.6 million budget shortfall. Many have contacted state officials to urge them to increase funding for K-12 education. But the state is on the verge of making matters worse, not better—and causing more cuts—if it moves forward with its plan to adopt an expensive new regime of standardized tests.

When Iowa adopted its version of the Common Core standards, it also became part of a consortium of states that have pledged to adopt new Core-aligned standardized tests, called the Smarter Balanced Assessments. The legislature has not yet approved the Smarter Balanced tests, but it has required that Core-aligned tests be implemented by 2016 and has tripled the number of grades in which the tests would have to be given. These changes were adopted with bipartisan support.

The tests currently in use, the Iowa Assessments, cost about $3.50 per student to administer and are required in three grades. By conservative estimate, the new tests will cost at least $22.50 per student and will be required in nine grades. That means that the state is about to make districts spend at least nineteen times more than they are currently required to spend on standardized testing. (Because our district already tests in nine grades, it would have to spend over six times as much as it currently spends.)

And that’s just the cost of the tests themselves. Because the new tests are designed to be administered by computer, they would also require a substantial investment in new technology. They would also almost certainly require an ongoing increase in tech support staff.

The legislature also decided to require a science assessment in nine grades. The Smarter Balanced Assessments do not include a science component, so districts would have to pay for additional standardized tests to meet that requirement. Those tests could cost another $10 per student.

Where will all the money come from? If the state spends that much more on standardized testing—at the same time that the Governor is pushing tax relief—the funding can only come at the expense of other educational needs. To pay for all this gold-plated testing, the schools will have to make even more cuts like the ones we’re seeing now. Will French go the way of German? Will band and orchestra be cut from elementary school entirely? Will class sizes increase? Will teachers be laid off? What else will we have to sacrifice for the sake of all this testing?

So yes, people should contact their legislators and the Governor. But it’s not enough to ask for more education funding. We should demand that the state let us fund the kind of education we value, instead of imposing its own idea of test-driven education on our schools.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard protest after protest about the cuts to music, foreign language, and other programs. If the state chose not to implement expensive new standardized tests, would there be even a single complaint? How did our schools end up so far from what our community values?

_______

Here’s some additional information that I couldn’t fit into the guest opinion:

There are several reasons to think that the Smarter Balanced Assessments will cost more than the $22.50 per student estimated by the consortium. First, that figure includes only the year-end “summative assessments,” not the optional additional tests the consortium offers, which could add another $5 per student. Second, the cost figures are only estimates; some of the administration and scoring services will have to be purchased from private vendors, who may well charge more than the consortium estimates. Third, paper-and-pencil versions of the test, which could be necessary if the technology is not ready, will cost an additional $10-12 per student.

One reason the Iowa Assessments are relatively inexpensive is that they are produced by the University of Iowa, which provides them to Iowa school districts at cost. Other states pay as much as $15 per student to use Iowa-created tests, but that’s still a significant savings over the cost of the Smarter Balanced tests.

_______

The legislature may well appropriate funds to pay for new standardized tests, though it’s unlikely to cover all the associated expenses. But even if it does, that’s money that it could have used for other (more compelling) educational needs. If the state won’t give us the allowable growth that we need to pay for things like music and language classes, it will be because it has already spent the money on standardized tests.

_______

There has been an interesting back-and-forth between the state Department of Education and the legislature on the Smarter Balanced tests. Under both Governors Culver and Branstad, the Department made a commitment to the Smarter Balanced consortium to adopt the tests. Meanwhile, though, the legislature decided that schools would have to continue using the Iowa Assessments until it decides otherwise. That put the Department in an awkward spot. The Department continued to push for the Smarter Balanced tests, but the legislature decided only that it would settle on some set of Core-aligned tests by 2016-17, and it created a task force to make a recommendation. The task force has not yet issued its report—but its members were all chosen by the Department.

The legislature did decide to triple the number of grades in which tests would be required, starting in 2016-17. The bill to create the assessment task force and to require testing in nine grades received bipartisan support, including the support of every legislator from Johnson County, including Senators Joe Bolkcom, Bob Dvorsky, and Sandra Greiner, and Representatives Dave Jacoby, Bobby Kaufmann, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, and Sally Stutsman.

_______

The federal government, including the Obama Administration, also bears responsibility for this increase in testing. Iowa’s push for increased standardized testing was part of its attempt to receive federal Race to the Top funding, which incentivized exactly that approach. Alas, even though we adopted the Common Core standards and joined the Smarter Balanced consortium, we didn’t get the money.

_______

Education in Iowa recently had a terrific post on just how little we know about Iowa’s readiness to shift to computer-based testing, including a discussion of testing debacles in other states that “ought to be keeping Iowa proponents of Smarter Balanced Assessments up at night.” An excerpt:
[The Department of Education] can’t ask the Iowa Legislature to appropriate funds for tech readiness if they don’t know what is needed, leaving schools to fund needed tech readiness upgrades out of existing school budgets that are already stretched thin. This might be much less of a concern for schools ahead of the curve tech wise, but ought to be a concern nonetheless. Diverting local funds from the classroom or needed facility maintenance or upgrades will hardly make the Common Core and the accompanying standardized assessments more popular.
_______

Of course, there are also non-fiscal objections to the role standardized tests now play in our schools. Here are FairTest’s concerns about the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

_______

Where does the money go? It’s hard to say exactly, because each state will do its own contracting with vendors for Smarter Balanced test administration and scoring.  But you can bet that Pearson stands a good chance of getting those contracts in Iowa.

Needless to say, standardized testing, together with all its associated “educational services,” is a major industry. Pearson’s North American Education division, for example, reported £536 million in operating profit in 2012—the equivalent of about $900 million.

Does anyone think that the Smarter Balanced Assessments—or for that matter, the Common Core standards—would have been adopted on such a wide scale if there weren’t millions of dollars to be made by for-profit testing companies like Pearson?

_______

The same bill that increased the required testing also established a “teacher leadership” program that will take experienced teachers out of the classroom to spend more time mentoring junior teachers; it will begin in 2015. We have yet to see how this program will affect local budgeting decisions: will more programs become expendable, or will class sizes grow, when the most experienced teachers start mentoring other teachers instead of teaching kids? (The legislature did appropriate funds, but again, that could only make less money available for other needs.)

_______

Notice that our district is already using the Iowa Assessments in three times more grades than it’s required to (not to mention all the other standardized tests it gives). Apparently that category of expense didn’t come up when the administration was making budget cuts.

_______

The single best place to go for information about the status of standardized testing in Iowa, and of the Smarter Balanced Assessments in particular, is the Education in Iowa blog. Its posts on Smarter Balanced Assessments are here.

_______

Source note: The current requirement that the Iowa Assessments be given in fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade is in Iowa Code section 256.7(21)(b) and (b)(1). The requirement that testing be given in third through eleventh grades as of 2016 appears in section 256.7(21)(b)(2), which also requires the science assessment.
.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Should the district keep using Everyday Math?

The district has started up its every-seven-years review of its math curriculum. I know from four years of blogging that there is a good deal of dissatisfaction out there with Everyday Math, the district’s curriculum for elementary school math. I’m no expert on the topic, but my own household’s experience with Everyday Math has not been a particularly positive one. My concerns came down to these four:

First, I thought the Everyday Math curriculum, at least in its current incarnation, sent some mixed messages that were frustrating for the kids. The sense I always got from Everyday Math is that it was designed by people who thought that elementary-age kids just need to be exposed to lots of different math concepts, and that mastery is not important until later. I have some sympathy for that kind of patient approach, but the problem was that the kids felt that they were supposed to have mastered the concepts, and felt frustrated and upset when they hadn’t. There is so much testing all through elementary school; of course if you give kids a math test, they’re going to think you’re expecting them to get the answers right—but often Everyday Math hadn’t equipped them to do so. In the end, the curriculum seemed like neither fish nor fowl: the patiently-cycling-through-concepts was inconsistent with the constantly-testing.

Second, whatever you might think about Everyday Math’s pedagogic philosophy, its materials often seemed needlessly unclear and hard to understand.

Third, because of the first two concerns, I’m afraid Everyday Math creates a lot of bad feelings toward math of the kind that too many people take from their school experience.

Finally, Everyday Math is too reliant on parental help, which raises a serious equity issue. There is a frequent homework, which ought to be unnecessary in elementary school, and many parents feel the need to supplement the Everyday Math program with their own instruction. As a result, kids whose parents can help them end up potentially far ahead of kids whose parents can’t—an advantage that’s compounded by the fact that our system uses math test scores as a criterion for entry into gifted and talented programs and advanced classes in junior high and high school. So it would be a great step forward, in terms of educational equity, if there were a curriculum that enabled kids to learn math in the classroom without as much outside and after-school help.

But I know others have even stronger opinions on the subject. (Feel free to let loose in the comments!) My only point here is: now is the time to speak up. I am hoping (against hope?) that this will be a real review, not just a rubber-stamping of a choice already made, via a committee hand-picked for compliance. The committee should engage in a real debate about people’s concerns about Everyday Math and about potential alternatives. If you have strong feelings on the subject, you should apply to be on the review committee; you can apply using this form. You can also chime in on the email survey that the district is circulating, or by emailing Pam Ehly, the curriculum director, at ehly.pam@iowacityschools.org.
.

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.