Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thoughts about the school lunch meeting, part 2

The thing that most surprised me at last night’s meeting with the superintendent about the fifteen-minute lunch period: There are apparently no state or federal requirements on how elementary schools must allocate the time in the school day. How many minutes to give to math, reading, art, music, gym, lunch, recess: it’s entirely up to us as a community.

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So why has lunch been squeezed down to fifteen minutes or less? According to the superintendent, it’s because school administrators know that they’ll be subject to penalties, under No Child Left Behind, if they fail to raise standardized test scores. Those penalties can even lead to administrators and teachers getting fired. In response, the administrators have concluded that they have to add instructional time to the day, and there are only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess. The superintendent did not endorse this system, but was just describing the objective reality. So much for what our community would choose for our children. More on that issue in an upcoming post.

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The superintendent started the meeting by talking about how the “twenty-minute lunch period” came about, and conceded that some schools may be counting time getting to and from lunch as part of the “twenty minutes.” This attempt at spin went over like a lead balloon. No one in the room acknowledged his characterization at all, and discussion quickly moved on to the actual fifteen-minute lunch period and how the fifteen minutes even included time waiting in line and cleaning up.

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A paraphrase that I think captures the essence of the evening:

PARENT: There is more to education than raising test scores. We want to educate the whole child.

SUPERINTENDENT: I agree.

ANOTHER PARENT: Evidence shows that kids learn better if they eat a healthy lunch and have sufficient down time to socialize and play.

SUPERINTENDENT: I know.

ANOTHER PARENT: I don’t see why my first-grader needs an hour of math instruction every day. If math were fifty minutes long, and lunch was twenty-five minutes long, nobody would be here complaining that we need to cut lunch and add to math.

ANOTHER PARENT: We need to question the assumption that more is always better. Piling additional instructional time on the kids is counterproductive, even if raising test scores is your goal.

SIXTH-GRADER: After about forty minutes of any class, I start to zone out anyway.

SUPERINTENDENT: I hear you.

PARENT: So how do you suggest we solve this lunch problem?

(Drum roll please . . .)

SUPERINTENDENT: I think we should make the school day longer.

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In fairness, a few of the parents were open to the idea of extending the school day to make more time for lunch. I don’t know whether that’s because they’d be against redrawing the line between instructional time and down time, or just because they sense that the administrators won’t be willing to extend lunch any other way.

One student said -- and was quoted in the paper -- “I’d much rather have a long day than a short lunch.” That’s exactly the choice the superintendent wants us to see. Considering the possibility of a longer lunch in the existing school day would force a discussion of whether the administrators’ interests actually differ from the kids’ interests, a subject I sensed the superintendent would prefer to avoid.

My sense was that the superintendent already wanted to extend the school day, and hoped to use the school lunch issue as a way to win parents over to the idea -- thus pleasing both parents and administrators. I know a lot of parents whose reaction will disappoint him.

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For a while discussion turned to how the district’s behavior management program, PBIS, was creating a negative and overly restrictive atmosphere in the schools. The superintendent’s defense of PBIS struck me as particularly lame. He said that there is nothing wrong with PBIS itself, because all it means is setting clear community expectations about how the kids should act. I’ll agree that PBIS, defined in that way, is unobjectionable, but it’s also a meaningless platitude. No one objects to the schools setting clear expectations about behavior. But it is simply false to say that that is what PBIS is. PBIS is a specific approach to achieving behavioral goals -- one that emphasizes rewards and external motivators, and puts no emphasis on helping the kids develop their own intrinsic sense of right and wrong that is independent of simply obeying whatever rules the authorities present them with. All of the non-imaginary objections to PBIS follow from that fact.

Although the superintendent defended his contentless version of PBIS, he at least conceded that there may be problems with the way PBIS is being implemented. All right. If he wants to think of all the actual content of PBIS as an “implementation problem,” fine, let’s work on that implementation problem.

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Am I being too harsh? The guy came out on an eight-degree night to meet with us for an hour and a half when he could have been at home with his family, and I appreciate that. And he understood -- and even anticipated and sympathized with -- much of what we had to say. But I’m afraid my experience has taught me that school administrators often try to placate parents by sympathizing profusely with their concerns, only to then enact policies that exacerbate those very concerns -- usually asserting that they have no choice because of decisions made at higher levels. I sometimes think it must be the first strategy they learn in Parent Management class in education school.

If this superintendent increases lunch and recess time without extending the school day, and gets rid of the harmful aspects of PBIS, and resists as much as possible the dehumanizing pressures of No Child Left Behind, I’ll be his biggest fan, and you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, I’ll view him the way I hope my kids will someday view public officials who tell them what they want to hear: skeptically first, and hopefully second.

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Above all, I was struck yet again by how our “public” school system is primarily driven by factors other than the community’s preferences. Here is an issue -- allocation of time in the school schedule -- which is entirely in our community’s hands. Yet even the identity of the people deciding the issue remains unclear. The superintendent said that the schedule is decided by individual principals, but also mentioned that the district “suggests” a rough schedule outline to the principals. My experience is that “suggestions” made by one’s employer carry a lot of weight. But, conveniently, this division of responsibility between the district and the principals allows each to blame the other for the outcome.

The superintendent explained that our district operates “more like a confederation than like a nation,” and that the district gives a lot of discretion to individual principals. I’d be in favor of that system, but for the fact that principals are the least democratically accountable of any actors in the system. We can vote for the school board members, who hire the superintendent. But if they delegate the policymaking to the school principals, what possible role is there for public input into those decisions? (Even the superintendent acknowledged that the PTAs do not play that role.) My suggestion that each school might have a parent council that would advise the principal on policy decisions -- an idea borrowed from our Canadian friends -- received a polite nod from the superintendent before he moved on to the next person.

Of course I have no way of knowing how much the parents in the room last night were representative of our district’s citizens as a whole. But when I heard the stories of kids being rushed through lunch in their winter coats and/or in near silence, I couldn’t help thinking how little resemblance our school system bears to any system that our community would ever consciously choose to create.

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More soon. Part 1 here. To read all posts on the school lunch issue, click here.
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7 comments:

northTOmom said...

Chris -- What is the school's current schedule? The proposal to extend the school day seems like such a cop out. Why do administrators not get that quantity does not equal quality, and does not necessarily lead to better results? Given the example of Finland--shortest school day and shortest school year in the OECD, yet highest results on Pisa tests--how can they possibly justify more instructional time as a means of raising test scores? And then there is the issue of whether or not your city, as a community, agrees that raising test scores is the main goal of education....

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I hope you'll cross-post this at the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools. I posted a little piece about superintendents that you might find interesting.

FedUpMom said...

The good news about proposals to lengthen the school day is that they will never come to fruition. It costs money and would annoy the teachers' union, so forget it.

What a dumb idea. "What we're doing isn't working, so let's do more of it every day!" Yeah, great.

Chris said...

northTOmom: Here's a first-grader's schedule; here's a fifth-grader's schedule. I don't have to look too hard to find ten minutes that could be reallocated to lunch, but school administrators see things differently . . .

FedUpMom: Yes, for once I can be grateful for institutional obstacles to change. I know if I were a teacher who had to work a longer school day, I'd certainly expect to get paid more.

northTOmom said...

Chris: Wow that's a big difference in recess/free time between 1st and 5th grade. In what grade does the change occur? I wonder what makes administrators think that at a certain age a child no longer needs breaks. Maybe you should ask to see research demonstrating that denying kids adequate lunch and recess time is an acceptable or beneficial educational practice. (I doubt they could come up with any--all the current research points in the opposite direction!)

FedUpMom said...

northTOmom, you wonder why 5th grade is so miserable? I can predict the answer -- they're getting the kids ready for middle school!

Chris said...

northTOmom -- Here's a third/fourth grade schedule. Not quite as bad as fifth, since they still get a second recess for fifteen minutes in the afternoon, but still ridiculously stingy.