In the comments on my last post, northTOmom expressed surprise that our school makes the kids wait in line outdoors until school starts in the morning. “I suppose when I complain about our schools in Toronto,” she wrote, “I should be grateful for these small blessings: longish lunches/recesses and fewer arbitrary draconian rules than in the schools of Iowa City! (I thought it was a progressive city!)”
I’m never sure exactly what “progressive” means, especially in the context of education. (One of No Child Left Behind’s key sponsors, after all, was Edward Kennedy.) But, for what it’s worth, Johnson County is one of the bluest counties in America. Barack Obama won seventy-five percent of Iowa City’s popular vote. Iowa City has a reputation as an artsy, intellectual, socially liberal college town; the Advocate even named it America’s third most gay-friendly city. So why do so many features of our public schools seem like they could have been designed by the most authoritarian, anti-intellectual, corporate-captive elements of America’s political spectrum? (Examples here, here, here, and here.)
One could speculate: Maybe it’s because what we think of as progressive educational ideas are just not that widely shared, even among people who consider themselves liberal. Maybe academics, having gotten where they are on the strength of their standardized-test-taking skills, are happy to support test-driven educational policies. Maybe it’s because Iowa City, source of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and home to ACT and Pearson, is the standardized testing capital of the world.
But those speculations, even if there’s some truth to them, are beside the point. The fact is: What goes on in Iowa City public schools has virtually nothing to do with what the citizens of the Iowa City district want or believe. Turnout in school board elections ranges between three and six percent. Once elected, the school board serves largely to implement policies that the federal and state governments have imposed on it. The school board hires a superintendent to carry out the day-to-day administration of the schools, and he then gives a good deal of discretion to individual principals. By the time the superintendent and principals are making decisions about what actually goes on in the schools, there is very little reason for them to worry about what Iowa Citians think. They are far more likely to concern themselves with the incentives and penalties built into the federal No Child Left Behind Act; if they don’t raise those test scores, they could lose their jobs. So test-prep it is, with all the accompanying emphasis on creating quiet, obedient followers-of-instructions who will be great low-level employees some day. And progressive education -- with its concern for critical thinking, for the humanities, for the autonomy and basic dignity of the kids -- be damned.
In other words, there’s a reason our school district’s policies seem like they could have been designed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney: because they were. Set aside, for the moment, your own political leanings. Is it really a good idea to impose a nationwide approach to education on every community, regardless of whether that approach conflicts with a community’s own values? If that’s “conservative,” then the meaning of that word sure has changed.
Related post here.