Tuesday, February 8, 2011

George W. Bush, School Superintendent

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.
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9 comments:

KD said...

Interesting post. I'm not sure what progressive means either. Despite Obama winning the popular vote in Iowa City I think there is still an undercurrent of racism in our community which I think has worked its way into how certain schools are viewed.

Is George Bush the school superintendent? I'm not sure that NCLB really intended for schools to cut lunch periods to nothing, for instance, to achieve educational goals. While I think we need to do away with NCLB, the fact that the ICCSD is shortening the lunch period, shows me that they aren't really sure what to do to improve.

Maybe at one time George Bush was the school superintendent.....but since Barack Obama and Arne Duncan have chosen to do little with NCLB, they are the superintendents now.

Chris said...

KD -- No argument from me on that last point. The national Democratic Party certainly shares responsibility for NCLB, and is fair game for being described as authoritarian and corporate-captive in other areas as well. I don't want a President or Congress of either party -- even one that I agree with -- to impose a uniform educational approach on every public school in America.

Were the specific effects of NCLB intended or unintended? I don't know, but I don't think you had to be clairvoyant to anticipate how that incentive structure would play out. You didn't have to be an Alfie Kohn progressive, either. You just had to be skeptical about grand government plans to transform society, realistic about people's tendency to pursue their self-interest at others' expense, and reluctant to put all your eggs in one basket. Those qualities used to be part of what "conservative" meant, which is one reason the labels no longer really work in this context.

FedUpMom said...

Chris, I'm with you on the drift of the word "conservative". I'm so old that I remember when people on the right wing tended to support the government, while those on the left criticized the government.

BTW, anytime you're ready to cross-post to Kid-Friendly Schools, be my guest. You've got some great stuff here.

northTOmom said...

"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."

I believe this is true. Many of my politically progressive friends think I'm way out in left field on education issues. (A lot of them have a particular attachment to homework, for instance.) I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps insecure economic times make people more prone to a kind of magical thinking vis a vis complex problems. For instance, despite evidence to the contrary, the belief that people (kids included) get ahead by hard work alone, persists. Quality of life--for both kids and adults--becomes almost irrelevant. It's as if everyone's present life is a means to some future end. So play time for kids is given short shrift, and leisure time is not valued for adults. This is especially true in North America. (And it might explain Americans' hostility to the French, who persist in asserting the value of their particular version of "joie de vivre.")

But I think other things are at play here too--it's such a complex subject. A book that I've found illuminating with respect to some of these issues is Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood.

FedUpMom said...

northTOMom, so true. That's why, if you complain that the homework doesn't help your kid learn, people say, "so what -- they have to do it anyway!" It's as if making kids do stuff they don't want to do is by itself a worthy goal. Whether the stuff they don't want to do serves any other purpose is irrelevant.

We could just as well make our kids carry rocks around the yard. At least they'd get some exercise.

Chris said...

That's right. Every rule needs only one justification: that people need to learn to obey rules!

Chris said...

By the way, FedUpMom, sorry I've been such a slouch about cross-posting. I blog mostly to vent, and with only an occasional spark of hope that anyone else might be listening; posting something once seems to get it out of my system. But I've really been enjoying my relationship with your blog and do intend to keep cross-posting, when I'm not already brooding over my next rant . . .

Indie said...

[I wrote the following comment a couple days ago, but was having trouble posting it at the time, so I saved it... and then promptly forgot about it.]

A very thought-provoking post.

You're right on, of course, when you suggest that the American public education is about as far as you can get from true progressive education in the vein of Dewey, etc. On the other hand, progressivism more broadly has always contained a strand of technocracy. At its core, that is what standardized education in America reflects: a belief that everything can be systematized, data-mined, analyzed, and improved under the eye of a well-trained specialist. In short, it reflects a belief in the primacy of science--and the belief that education is, in fact, a science.

I believe that although science offers much to the educator, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are working with imperfect and varied "specimens" and that our "laboratory" is anything but a controlled environment.

On another (but somewhat related) note, given the recent thrust of your blog, I'm curious to know if you're familiar with the Sudbury schools concept, and if so, what you think of it.

Chris said...

Indie -- That's a great point about progressivism and technocracy. And your question about Sudbury schools (which I think is actually very related) deserves a fuller response than I can give it right now (unless I decide to stay up very late tonight), but when I have a little more time I'd like to write a longer comment or a post in response.