Monday, January 26, 2015

School board needs to stop daydreaming about restricting free speech

Here we go again. Our school board is talking yet again about community comment at board meetings. Tomorrow’s agenda includes a Powerpoint presentation (as if board meetings were not sleep-inducing enough already) about all the possible ways to restrict speech by members of the public at public meetings. The agenda item was requested by board member Marla Swesey.

Wasting more time on that topic would be bad enough, but the Powerpoint includes at least one slide that is outright misleading about what the First Amendment permits:

There is absolutely no legal basis for suggesting that the school board could restrict public speakers to “respectful” and “professional” comments. (See this series of posts.) If the board tries it, the district will get sued, will spend money needlessly on litigation, and will lose the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, this was the scene at the Eastside Elementary Orchestra concert at City High last week:

Yes, there were about a hundred people in the balcony, but the main floor, which would normally be crowded, was virtually empty, because fourth grade orchestra was eliminated in the budget cuts that hit the music program (and several other programs) last year. At least one member of the music staff went home after the concert and cried. Now we’re being warned that more cuts are on the way.

To spend one more minute, or risk even one dime, on trying to force community commenters to be more “respectful,” when the district has real problems like that to deal with, is a sign that board members are out of touch with the people they represent.

Kudos to board members Jeff McGinness and Tuyet Dorau, who voted against spending any more time on this futile enterprise. Great post by Mary Murphy on the First Amendment and community comment here..

Is there an optimal squeakiness?

One thing I’ve enjoyed about the book critic James Wood is the way he sometimes soft-pedals his own criticism and lets the book he’s reviewing indict itself. He’ll write a careful, restrained, and reasonable-sounding critique of a book, but then quote passages that reveal the book to be egregiously awful. You walk away from his review thinking not only that the book is terrible but that it’s very decent of Wood not to criticize it more harshly.

Something similar happens, I think, over at Karen W.’s blog. Karen does the unglamorous work of actually reading the education proposals that come out of the legislature and the state Department of Education (so we don’t have to). She comments in a matter-of-fact way and raises a few good questions, but she mostly lets that parade of horribles speak for itself.

For example, you can read her recent posts on the anti-bullying bill that would authorize schools to monitor kids’ social media accounts (and maybe even demand their passwords?), about the state’s plan to rank Iowa’s schools against one another, and about the state’s rules about what counts as “evidence” against its tourism-driven plan to require later school start dates. Even her more extended critiques are written in the calm voice of reason.

Not all bloggers (ahem) can muster that kind of restraint. Maybe that explains how she got invited to be on the state assessment task force, despite her previously skeptical stance toward the Smarter Balanced Assessments. (Or maybe our twenty-first century education officials didn’t realize she had a blog.) She ended up in a minority of one, but her dissent may find an audience with the legislature—certainly more of an audience than a simple blog post would have found.

Meanwhile, over at Parenting is Political, NorthTOmom describes a meeting she and her husband had with the vice principal of their daughters’ school about the amount of homework that the teachers were assigning. NorthTOmom methodically explained to the vice principal how the school was violating the district’s homework policy. When the vice principal refused to acknowledge the problem, NorthTOmom’s husband snapped, “There’s too much fucking homework!” Whether either approach will get results remains to be seen.

Michael Tilley, another local school blogger, recently wondered aloud what it takes to be effective at “squeaky wheel politics.” Seems like no one has solved that puzzle yet.

Monday, January 19, 2015

School budget cuts will be (mostly) your legislators’ fault

It looks increasingly like we’re in for more school budget cuts. The Governor has proposed a paltry 1.25% increase in supplemental aid (formerly known as “allowable growth”) for next year. According to our superintendent, that’s well below what it will take to avoid another round of cuts like last year’s. If last year was any indication, the district will probably consider eliminating fifth grade orchestra and band and cutting foreign languages from junior high entirely, and that would only be the beginning.

The blame for this will fall mainly on the Governor and the state legislature. Not only are they failing to provide the needed funding, but they are funding education “reform” ideas like the “teacher leadership” program with money that otherwise could have been made available for supplemental aid. As Karen W. points out, supplemental aid for next year would have been almost 4% (and for the following year, 6%) if that “teacher leadership” money had been used for supplemental aid.

The Johnson County legislators who are complaining about the paltry supplemental aid increase all voted for the teacher leadership program. Did they not realize that it would come at the expense of other educational needs, like music, foreign languages, and smaller class sizes?

With higher supplemental aid, our school board could always have chosen to fund a teacher leadership program by cutting music and foreign languages, if they really thought it was worth it. Instead, our state legislators made that decision for us, without any consideration of the cuts it would cause.

Can’t you just feel your schools getting better?

And if the state Department of Education has its way, the legislature will divert even more funds next year to pay for the expensive new standardized tests that the public is clamoring for. What will be left to cut?

So I have some sympathy for our school board members, who will have to decide where to make the cuts. But I do hope they look closely at how the district is spending its money, and not just at the usual targets. One thing they could do is to take a close look at how much the district is spending on standardized tests, above and beyond those that are required by the state. Here is a chart showing all the standardized tests that our district uses (click to enlarge):

That’s a lot of testing—and so, I assume, a lot of money. Some of it may be required because of strings attached to various revenue sources. Maybe some of it is even so beneficial that it’s worth cutting music, languages, and staff for. Is anyone asking?

Because surveillance and authoritarianism model kindness and respect

Just in time for Martin Luther King Day, the Governor has proposed to make our anti-bullying statute even more sweepingly authoritarian. As usual, the bill exhibits zero concern for whether schools might use it in ways that would violate students’ civil liberties.

If there had been a statute prohibiting people from creating a “hostile environment” by discussing someone’s “political belief,” can anyone doubt that King would have been prosecuted under it?

More in the comments here.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Quote for the day

Research documenting the validity of teacher judgment is, at present, shamefully hard to come by. About ten years ago, I read a brief monograph summarizing a few scattered studies that affirmed the validity of teacher judgment. The federally funded, master file on educational research called ERIC lists over 10,000 descriptors available for searching this comprehensive educational research database. As of 2001, “teacher judgment” did not even make list. The extent to which this obvious information asset is overlooked is one of the most appalling phenomena in education today.
George W. Elford, Beyond Standardized Testing: Better
Information for School Accountability, 2002

How could we ever live with less standardized testing? How would we ever know whether the kids were learning anything?

How much are we paying for “face validity”?

I learned a new term this week: “face validity.” “Generally, face validity means that the test ‘looks like’ it will work, as opposed to ‘has been shown to work’.” “Some people use the term face validity only to refer to the validity of a test to observers who are not expert in testing methodologies.” Others have equated it with “pandering to stakeholders.”

The idea of “face validity” seems relevant to the state task force’s recommendation that we adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced tests. The reason the Smarter Balanced tests cost so much more than the tests we’ve been using is that they use computer adaptive technology—varying the questions based on the student’s responses as the test goes along—and include time-consuming “performance tasks,” which purport to “require students to apply their learning to a real-world problem” (in a classroom, on a standardized test).

Not everyone agrees that expensive question types measure “higher-order thinking” and “real-world problem-solving” appreciably better than multiple-choice questions do. The task force’s dissenting member, Karen Woltman, examines some criticisms of performance task assessments here. Iowa City’s H.D. Hoover wrote twenty years ago that “People who think that multiple-choice tests measure trivial facts and performance assessments measure higher-order processes don’t know much about measurement.” I wonder how much has changed in the interim. His talk critiquing performance tasks is a great read.

One thing is true, though: “Performance tasks” and “computer-adaptivity” do sound so twenty-first century! Adding them to our tests enables the state to point to impressive-looking innovations in assessment. How much of the proposed eight-fold (or more) increase in cost is just paying for that kind of “face validity”?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Should ninth-graders be taking AP courses?

I’ve been wishing for years that our district would not teach the kids to chase unreflectively after praise rather than think for themselves about right and wrong. Now I’m starting to think that the district itself does the same thing.

It seems like I can’t go to a City High event or open a City High email without being reminded of the many accolades that City High has been awarded. Many of these are in the form of being named “one of America’s top high schools.” Everyone likes to hear nice things about their kids’ school, but I think most people know to take these assertions with a grain of salt. For one thing, test scores usually play a big role in the criteria, and our district’s high test scores are probably largely a function of its demographics, not its school policies. Are the district’s policies making those scores higher or lower than demographics alone would predict? Don’t ask. (And of course not everyone agrees that test scores are the ultimate measure of the quality of a person’s education.)

A little high school boosterism is to be expected. But if the district pursues certain policies just to chase this kind of accolade, then it can actually do some harm. One of the factors that goes into many of these “nation’s best” assertions is the number of students enrolled in AP courses. The number of AP sections has also been an ongoing bone of contention among people who are concerned about equity issues between City High and West High. These forces have created an incentive for the high schools to enroll as many students in AP courses as they can, regardless of whether those courses are in the best interests of the students enrolled.

I know a number of students who were invited to take AP U.S. History in the first semester of their freshman year in high school. I also know kids who accepted that invitation only to discover that the class was too hard and too much work, and who then dropped it. I’m open to the idea that there might be the rare ninth-grader who is genuinely driven to take a college-level U.S. History course, but that’s not what appears to be happening at our high school. I know at least six kids over the past two years who were invited to take the AP course as a freshman, and I don’t know all that many high school kids.

I have a lot of doubts about the value of AP courses. I would much rather the district craft its own honors-style courses than offer courses that are so single-mindedly focused on passing a standardized test created by some outside entity. Moreover, I don’t believe for a minute that an AP course is a substitute for a college course in the same subject matter. I wonder whether students are actually doing themselves a disservice to take an AP course rather than wait and take the college course (which the AP credit enables them to skip). For a couple of critiques of AP courses, see here and here.

But say what you want about high school juniors and seniors taking AP courses. Freshmen? If the course really is college-level, do freshmen belong in it? If the course is suitable for freshmen, is it really a substitute for college course work? My fear is that neither is true: that the courses are inappropriate for freshmen and overvalued, too.

Does the district’s pursuit of AP enrollments reflect thoughtful inquiry into the value and appropriateness of AP courses? Or it is just the result of chasing whatever the conventional wisdom values?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The money drain

As for which standardized tests the state should require, there’s one other point in favor of the Next Generation Iowa Assessments: not only are they much cheaper, but the money goes to an Iowa enterprise—the Iowa Testing Programs, which is part of the University of Iowa. The Smarter Balanced Consortium is not based in Iowa. Sure, the Smarter Balanced tests are likely to be administered by Pearson, which has lots of Iowa employees, but Pearson is a billion-dollar British multinational corporation. So who knows where the money ends up.

Of course my objections to the role of standardized testing in schools involve much more than cost, but money seems to be the language policy-makers speak, so . . . why the outsourcing?

How to contact Iowa state legislators about education policy

The school district here is encouraging people to go to Des Moines on Tuesday, February 17 to talk up the district’s legislative priorities. Contact Chace Ramey ( if you’re interested. (H/t Julie VanDyke.)

The district’s main priority is to convince the state to provide more supplemental state aid, which I’m all in favor of. While you’re up there, though, you might also speak up against the proposal to spend eight times as much (or more) on standardized testing. Low state aid + expensive new tests = more cuts to school programming.

I assume the district’s central administrators generate the list of the district’s legislative priorities. My sense is that school administrators think very differently about standardized testing than the average person does. I wish I knew what our board members thought about spending that much more on the tests.

You can also contact legislators by email. Here are some handy lists that you can cut and paste.

Senate education committee members:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

House education committee members:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

Johnson County delegation:,,,,,,,

Full names of the Education Committee members are here. You can find your own representatives here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Marilynne Robinson on standardized testing

Novelist and essayist (and Iowa Citian) Marilynne Robinson, in an interview for The Nation:
I hate the whole business about standardized tests, which implies that everyone should have basically the same aspirations and satisfy the same norms, and what could be more destructive, you know, of the sense of individual personality than that? The thing we know—the thing we know is that people are highly individuated, in terms of their gifts and their proclivities and their interests. We tell ourselves this all the time, but we don’t educate people in a way that makes it possible for them to respond to the fact that this is true. We don’t, you know. I mean it’s more and more regimentation. I think this is a terrible choice, and destructive, and I think that we can only do it because we tell ourselves this thing about our comparative failure as educators.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What the school board’s not talking about

I hear this post got a mention (during public comment) at our local school board meeting tonight. I’m pretty mystified about why school board members throughout Iowa aren’t kicking and screaming about the proposed enormous increase in spending on standardized tests. When it’s time to make the cuts, those board members will be the first ones to take the heat. Is it just that they’re so used to thinking of themselves as state employees rather than elected representatives that they’re just waiting for the state to tell them what to do? Or maybe they think it’s all a good idea?

Related post here.

What the Governor’s not talking about

So the Governor announced some pretty paltry supplemental school aid plans (formerly known as “allowable growth”) this afternoon. No reference to any kind of separate funding of expensive new standardized tests or the technology for them. I suppose that could be a sign that shifting to the Smarter Balanced Assessments is not a high priority for his administration. On the other hand, it could just be a sign that standardized tests, like the Common Core, are unpopular, so the Governor doesn’t want to talk about them. (They will be all the more unpopular if there is no designated funding for them.) I couldn’t help but notice that the state Department of Education initially announced the task force’s recommendation of the new tests in the middle of Election Day and then released the actual report on New Years’ Eve—not exactly trying to get people’s attention. If it’s such a great idea, why aren’t they proudly publicizing it?

Standardized tests and your cat’s body mass index

Someone recently showed me this system for measuring a cat’s body mass index. (Don’t ask why.) The system requires you to measure your cat’s girth and lower hindlimb and then plug those measurements into a formula containing numbers that go to the fourth decimal place. Don’t divide by 0.7063; make sure it’s 0.7062.

Four decimal places! Of course, a measurement is only as precise as its least precise input. Call me crazy, but I think I’m a long way from being able to measure my cat’s “lower hindlimb” with enough accuracy to justify using multipliers that go to the fourth decimal place.

I thought of cat BMI when I read the state task force’s report recommending that Iowa adopt the expensive, computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessments:
Computer-adaptive testing, where the computer selects more or less difficult items based on the student’s answers to prior questions, is better able to pinpoint (more reliably and with fewer items than a fixed-form assessment) the performance of students performing at both high and low levels of performance (e.g., students who are gifted, students with disabilities). This means more precise scores for Iowa students.
Better able to pinpoint the performance of students performing at both high and low levels of performance! Now, maybe you’re different from me, and maybe one of your big worries is that the annual standardized tests aren’t pinpointing your child’s performance precisely enough. Even so, do you really believe that any standardized test, no matter how good, could “pinpoint” your child’s academic “performance”?

Schools are constantly reminding us that kids’ test scores can vary depending on how much they’ve slept and what they ate for breakfast. There’s even evidence that scores are affected by random events like variations in air pollution and whether there’s been a recent violent crime near the school. Then there’s the question of whether a student is really trying to do well on the tests, or just trying to get through them—a question that will only grow larger when the tests take twice as many hours. So how precisely can these tests possibly measure your child’s ability?

And never mind that the whole assessment regimen is built on the assumption that the Iowa Core standards are themselves some kind of precision instrument, and that “performance” will be maximized by preventing even small departures from their supreme wisdom. It must be reassuring for education officials to imagine such a well-oiled machine. But there’s no empirical basis for the assumption that the Common Core is precisely the best way to turn your child into a capable adult.

There’s no point in obsessing over precision at the top of the pyramid, when it’s non-precise assumptions from there on down.

The task force would have you believe that standardized tests are like thermometers, and that more money buys you more decimal places in the temperature reading. If you believe that, I’ve got a Feline Fitbit I’d like to sell you.

Friday, January 9, 2015

No price too high for standardized tests?

[This post appears as a guest opinion in the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen; I’m posting the published version here with some additional notes afterward.]

Should we spend three times as much on standardized testing as we currently do, or eight times as much?

That question captures the range of current establishment opinion. The establishment answer, of course, is eight times as much—and more.

Currently, Iowa requires schools to administer the Iowa Assessments every year. Because those tests are developed by the University of Iowa, we get them at cost: about $4.25 per student.

But in 2013, the state created a task force to determine whether to require a different set of assessments as of 2016-17. The task force considered two possibilities: the Next Generation Iowa Assessments and the Smarter Balanced Assessments. The former would cost $15 per student. The latter cost significantly more and would need to be supplemented with a separate science test, for a likely total cost between $30 and $40 per student. Those tests would also require unknown millions to buy and maintain the necessary technology; the task force—incredibly—didn’t even try to estimate the cost.

The tests we’ve used for years are now inadequate, we’re told. We need tests that incorporate “constructed responses” that require human graders, or tests that the students will take on computers, with technology that can adjust the difficulty of the questions to the student’s responses. We need to make the kids sit through twice as many hours of testing as they do now.

The task force recommended the most expensive tests (though not unanimously). If you suspect there are diminishing returns from all this expensive additional testing, you’re a Luddite.

What will get cut to pay for these tests? No one will say. Don’t believe for a minute that the state will fund these new tests at no sacrifice to other educational funding. Every dollar the state spends on testing will be one less dollar available for general school funding—at a time when many districts are already making severe budget cuts. No matter how it’s spun, the school districts are about to get hit with an enormous unfunded mandate.

Standardized testing is now the Defense Department of the school budget: only the most deluxe, big-ticket, exorbitant program will do. Never say no, regardless of what has to be sacrificed. The testing companies get richer; your kids’ education gets poorer.

The only thing standing between us and this enormous increase in spending on standardized testing is our legislature. If your school district has to make class sizes larger, cut band and orchestra, eliminate foreign language classes, or worse—all so we can have the shiniest new standardized tests—you’ll know who’s responsible: state legislators who decided that no price was too high.


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

By not even trying to quantify the costs of the technology that will be necessary, the task force violated the legislature’s explicit charge. The act creating the task force provided that “the task force shall consider the costs to school districts and the state in providing and administering such an assessment and the technical support necessary to implement the assessment.”

The dissent to the report focuses largely on the fact that the task force did not assess the full costs of the Smarter Balanced tests. You can read it in full here.


The task force report works hard to minimize the actual cost of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, stating that the tests will costs about $22.50 per student. In fact, the cost will be significantly higher, for several reasons:

First, the $22.50 figure is an estimate that comes from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—that is, by the people who have a major interest in getting the state to adopt the tests. In fact, as the Consortium admits, the actual cost will depend on what is charged by the private vendors (Pearson?) that will administer and score the tests. If those charges come in higher than the Consortium’s estimate, no one will be surprised.

Second, the Consortium’s additional “interim” tests add another $4.80 per student to the cost. The report refers to those tests as “optional,” but its inclusion of this chart seems to promote their use. (These interim tests would also add to the number of hours the kids have to sit for tests.)

Third, Iowa law requires a science assessment. Unlike the (far less expensive) Next Generation Iowa Assessments, the Smarter Balanced tests do not include a science assessment, so the state will have to pay for a separate science test. That test could cost another $10 per student.

Fourth, if some districts are not ready to conduct the tests via computer, they can use paper-and-pencil versions of the tests—for $10-12 more per student than the online versions.

For those reasons, I used an estimate of $30 to $40 per student, and that’s just for the tests themselves, not for the necessary technology. I would have preferred not to estimate at all, but the task force didn’t assess those costs itself.


Then there are the technology costs. Even the task force report admits that its estimate of the per student cost does not include the tech costs that will be necessary in districts across the state of Iowa—which, as the dissent points out, are likely to be “significant and ongoing.” What will those costs be? Don’t ask the task force.

The tech costs won’t just be for equipment and bandwidth, either. They will almost certainly require ongoing expenses for tech staff to maintain the tech infrastructure, as well as ongoing upgrades. There goes a teacher.

On the lack of information about the tech-readiness of Iowa’s school districts—and on some of the debacles experienced in other states—read Karen Woltman’s post here.


The task force report argues that using the Smarter Balanced tests could enable districts to save money by eliminating some other tests they are currently using. But if that’s true, it’s also true of the much less expensive Next Generation Iowa Assessments, and the task force doesn’t claim otherwise. Moreover, this argument conveniently ignores the fact that the Smarter Balanced tests do not include the statutorily-required science assessment—which means the Smarter Balanced tests will actually cause expenditures on additional tests.


Though it works hard to minimize the cost of the new tests, the report also works hard to make the current tests look more expensive. Although the Iowa Testing Program lists the cost of the current tests as $3.50 per student, the report says that they cost “$4.25 to $6.25” per student, citing a document that is not available online.

The $4.25 figure supposedly comes from adding a $.50 processing fee and a $.25 barcode fee. I’m willing to trust the report about the existence of those fees, though a source would be nice.

The $6.25 figure is what districts would pay if they didn’t agree to allow some field-testing of new questions—which means no one has to pay it.

Then the report asserts that the current Iowa Assessments have a hidden $2.25 additional per-student cost because of “additional data managing and reporting” costs borne by the state. I didn’t include that figure in my estimate, for three reasons. First, the report gives no citation at all for that assertion. Second, there is no way to tell whether the report is comparing apples with apples: will there be similar “data managing and reporting” costs if we use the Smarter Balanced tests? Third, if the report is just counting money the state spends using the test results, it can’t fairly include that as part of the price of the tests.

Moreover, even if you include the $2.25, you’re only up to $6.50—a far cry from what the Smarter Balanced tests cost.


One of the most striking paragraphs in the entire task force report is worth reprinting here in full:
The other costs that cause concern are related to districts’ technology readiness to support online testing. While there is no doubt that some districts are behind in technology readiness, schools will not be required to make devices and internet connections available to each and every child simultaneously. As the Consortium notes, “A 600-student middle school could test its students using only one 30-computer lab.” In these ways, the costs of upgrading school technology infrastructures are not likely to be overly burdensome on the whole. Besides, these are costs the state of Iowa should shoulder. We must better incorporate technology into the delivery and conduct of not just our assessments, but our instruction as well. The future of assessments is online, but so is the future of teaching and learning. Investing in devices and bandwidth is necessary and should be done by the state regardless.
Well, the Consortium assures us that we can test 600 students with just 30 computers, so we don’t have to bother quantifying technology costs. You might think giving 600 seven-hour-long tests on just 30 computers would be “overly burdensome,” or, say, an unimaginable nightmare. But the salesperson lobbyist Consortium told us it’s okay, so it’s cool.

But anyway, we should buy a lot of technology! We’re sure it will be useful and necessary, for lots of stuff that we can’t actually identify because we’re just an assessment task force. But that’s what the future’s all about, right—computers? So there’s no need to consider how much it will cost, even though the legislature told us to.



Don’t even get me started on the assertion that “the future of teaching and learning” is online.


Notice the double standard. When the report wants to make the existing tests look expensive, it includes extra costs that it claims are borne by the state. But when it wants to make the Smarter Balanced tests look less expensive, it argues that “Besides, these are costs the state of Iowa should shoulder”—as if that somehow means they don’t cost the districts anything. Of course, any money the state spends on testing is that much less money it can spend on other educational needs, including supplemental aid to the districts.


Although the task force didn’t quantify the total cost of adopting the new tests, it assures us that this unknown cost is “proportionately small,” compared to the total education budget. So what? It’s also small compared to the national debt, or to the gross national product of Bulgaria. What matters isn’t how much of the total budget it is; what matters is how we’re going to pay for the increase. What will get cut to pay for these tests? If we don’t know, how can we know whether the tests are worth having?

Instead of giving us a cost-benefit analysis, the task force gave us a benefit analysis—really, closer to an advertisement. Is that what the legislature asked it to do?


One reason the Smarter Balanced tests are so expensive is that they use “computer-adaptive testing,” which means that the technology will vary the difficulty of the questions in response to a student’s answers as the test goes along. There is not universal agreement that computer-adaptive testing is even desirable, though, let alone worth paying for. Commenters make some interesting points about it here.


The report emphasizes that computer-based tests will enable districts to get the test scores back much more quickly. Is that worth paying a lot of money for? The tests are going to be given toward the end of the school year. If Susie gets a lower-than-hoped-for “problem solving” score, will the school somehow re-teach that year’s math curriculum to her in the last month of school? How would they even know what to fix?

If there is a connection between the quick score reporting and the improvement of your child’s education, you won’t find it explained in the task force report. Am I wrong to think that, at best, the scores will be used primarily to evaluate curricular choices and recommended teaching strategies, which schools don’t change overnight? (Large bureaucracies aren’t exactly known for being nimble.) If the ultimate point of the scores is to improve the curriculum next year and beyond, what is gained by getting the scores in days instead of weeks?


The report also asserts that the new tests will provide “more precise scores for Iowa students.” I have a lot of concerns about K-12 education, but I have to admit that I have never complained about my kids’ scores on the annual standardized tests not being precise enough. In any event, call me skeptical that any test will ever “precisely” measure a kid’s “academic performance.” (See this post.)

The report also asserts that the tests will measure kids’ “ability to transfer their learning to real-world situations”—by giving them a standardized test in a classroom. Again, call me a skeptic. (See this post.)

The report also asserts that the tests will help our students “compete against students across the country and beyond” in “today’s global economy,” because the same tests have been adopted by “21 states and a U.S. Territory.” Now Iowa can finally prevail in its age-old rivalry with the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On those topics, more in upcoming posts. In the meantime, I can’t resist raising one question: how much do you want to bet that the same kids who do well on the current (inexpensive) tests will also do well on the new (very expensive) ones? If so, then what is actually being measured?


What’s missing from the report is any concrete explanation of how these tests will be used to improve your child’s education. There are all kinds of fun, expensive things you can do with data. Many of them have no meaningful bearing on real life. A marginally more “precise” “total writing” score might be a victory for the test designers, but just how does it make your child’s life better? Through what series of events does that occur?

I came away from the report with the discouraging sense that our state education bureaucracy has really lost its way. Nobody wants to admit that the ability of empirical data to tell us how to turn kids into capable, independent adults is severely limited. Standardized testing has legitimate uses, but it’s not vested with magical powers. It’s almost as if education officials have constructed a reassuring, imaginary universe in which their job is to manipulate abstractions—like in those infernal box-folding questions on the tests—rather than to deal with the messiness of the living, breathing, infinitely varied bodies and minds who arrive in the classrooms every morning.

They can dream. But if they want us to spend millions of dollars, they owe us much more specific, realistic information about costs, benefits, and what will get cut.

Monday, January 5, 2015

When “consider the costs” means “don’t consider the costs”

When our legislature created the state assessment task force, it explicitly required that “the task force shall consider the costs to school districts and the state in providing and administering such an assessment and the technical support necessary to implement the assessment.” Yet the task force’s report, which recommends adopting very expensive new standardized tests, did not even try to estimate the costs of the technology and tech support that will be necessary to make those tests work.

Karen Woltman, the only person on the task force simply by virtue of being a parent, dissented from the recommendation because of its failure to consider the full cost of the new tests. Here is her dissent in full:

The Smarter Balanced Assessments are by far the costlier of the two assessment options in front of the Task Force. Whether the Smarter Balanced Assessments are worth the additional costs cannot be determined without quantifying all of the costs involved. This has not yet been done.

The information reviewed by the Task Force shows that the Smarter Balanced Assessments will take more than twice the amount of time to administer as the equivalent portion of the Next Generation Iowa Assessments and do not include a required science assessment. Science and social studies assessments can be added to the Next Generation Iowa Assessments for a total test administration time that is still 2 to 3.5 hours shorter than the Smarter Balanced Assessments alone.

The information reviewed by the Task Force shows that the Smarter Balanced Assessments will cost more per student, at an estimated $22.50 for the summative assessment only, and that those costs do not include a required science assessment. The Next Generation Iowa Assessments can include a science assessment for an estimated total cost to Iowa schools of $15 per student.

However, the Task Force lacks adequate information about the costs for school districts and the state to build and maintain the necessary school technology infrastructure to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessments. No comprehensive survey of the current state of school technology infrastructure has been conducted yet; consequently, these costs have not been quantified and are unknown at this time. The limited evidence in front of the Task Force suggests that these costs will be significant and ongoing. Even if the Legislature were to appropriate money for these costs, the appropriation would likely come at the cost of reduced supplemental state aid and thus would be in effect an unfunded mandate.

At the outset of our work, task force members agreed that our recommendations should be guided by what is best for Iowa’s children. Accountability testing is something we do for the adults, great instructional programming–including high quality art, music, world languages, and extra-curricular programs–is what we do for the children. Ultimately, it is best for Iowa’s children to obtain the accountability data required with the least impact on instructional programming possible. The Smarter Balanced Assessments divert more time and money from instruction than necessary for accountability purposes, and for these reasons, I respectfully dissent from the task force’s recommendation to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments. Based on the evidence currently in front of the Task Force, I would recommend adoption of the Next Generation Iowa Assessments instead.

Read Karen’s posts about her experience on the task force here.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The series of posts that dares not speak its name

Reading through the report of the state’s assessment task force—which recommends that the state adopt very expensive new standardized tests, without even quantifying the total cost—is enough to bring the dreaded word blogathon to mind. I’m not crazy enough to commit to another blogathon. But let’s just say that there is an awful lot of raw material for blogging in that report. My free time is very scarce lately, so it would be unwise to promise so many posts in so many days, but some of these posts will practically write themselves. In other words, stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What parent engagement looks like

Guess which task force member was the only one to vote against adopting the Smarter Balanced Assessments (click to enlarge):

Hint: She’s the one with the shortest title.

More on the task force’s charge here..

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Local control, we hardly knew ye

At last we have a simple test for whether a legislator or state official has even a shred of belief (beyond empty lip service) in the idea of local control in education:
Do you believe that the state, rather than local school districts, should decide what day the school year must begin?
If there are any arguments for why that should be a state decision, rather than a local one, I have yet to see them anywhere.

Nearly every school district in Iowa has requested an exemption from the state-mandated start date, but the state knows better. After all, there are tourism and State Fair profits at stake. (There’s a petition here, if you’re interested.)

At the local level, of course, people can reasonably disagree about when the school year should start. Personally, I like the current calendar for our district. School starts awfully early, but so does the university calendar, which affects many parents in the district. Many university workers are nine-month employees, whose on-campus duties wrap up in May. Extending school until late June will simply shorten the summer for those families, since the parents have to be back on campus in mid-August regardless. Either that or the parents will pull their kids out of school in early June because the family’s summer plans take them elsewhere.

But surely there are people in the district who would prefer the later start (and even some who would prefer—ugh—year-round school). Fine, hash it out democratically and let the school board, not the state, decide.

Greener grass?

Here’s Paul Fussell, on teaching for a year at the University of Heidelberg in 1957:
As the year went on, I became increasingly disenchanted with the American university, with its nervous concern about student well-being (in every aspect except the intellectual) and its hypertrophied and needless administration, constructed, presumably, on “business” lines. I began to see American colleges as little more than overgrown and pretentious high schools, where genuine education seemed increasingly unlikely. It was hard to forget Mencken’s satire of the American “proliferation of colleges.” “They are even spattered,” he notes, “over such barbaric States as Mississippi and North Dakota, where it would be dangerous to be educated in any real sense.”

The University of Heidelberg allowed students to live where they pleased in town. There were no “dormitories.” Their social and sexual lives were regarded as their own business, the university having no deans, counselors, or “relationship advisors.” The university assumed that students, being adults, could have their misbehavior, if any, attended to by the police, not the university, which had quite a different mission, the development of intellect, a mission performed by no other social institution. At Heidelberg there were only three “administrative officers.” There was a president, elected from the faculty each year. He (never she—this was the 1950s) occupied the presidential office for a year and, while continuing his scholarship, performed the few ceremonial duties attaching to the office. There was a bursar, who took in the students’ and the state’s money and made it over, in appropriate shares, to the faculty. And there was a housing officer, who helped the students find lodgings with the town’s many landladies and adjudicated the inevitable disputes with them. There was no provost, no alumni officer, no vice president in charge of development, no head of the division of athletics, no coaches, no head of academic advising (the students were assumed to be bright enough to find in the catalog what they were interested in), no Office of Alcohol and Drug Education, no Budget Office, no Career Planning and Placement Office, no university chaplain, and no “bookstore” selling more T-shirts and condoms than books. The students attended the lectures and seminars they considered useful adjuncts to their continuous reading. The point was to pass examinations at the end of their university years, and any way they prepared themselves was fine.
I’m not at all convinced that the kind of university Fussell describes would educate people more effectively than the ones we have in “barbaric” America today, but I can’t say I’m all that sure it would do worse, either. Maybe universities have always been more about credentialing than educating, in which case a system that makes the credential much, much more expensive has a lot to answer for. In any event, it’s always interesting to see that there are alternatives to the things we take for granted.

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.