Monday, August 22, 2011

Candidates’ responses: Jeff McGinness

Jeff McGinness, one of our school board candidates, is the first to reply to my list of questions. Here are his responses (I’ve added a link to the article he mentions):

1. Should the school board ensure that elementary school students get more than fifteen minutes for lunch? If so, what should the minimum lunch period be? (See the petition about this issue here.)
Unquestionably, yes. My oldest Gavin, now in second grade at Weber, requests home lunch everyday because he knows his time is limited if he has to stand in line for school lunch. If an 8 year old recognizes the problem such that he changes his own habits I question how the district cannot similarly recognize the issue. I know the administration is finally starting to look at the issue because I had a conversation with Steve Murley in which he mentioned his own kids doing the same thing.

One option being talked about is placing the scheduled recess following lunch, instead of before or at some other time. It has had some success at a few of our schools and gives kids more time. The obvious concern is that kids may then voluntarily shorten their own lunch to go play. Thus, they should look at extending the time by 5 minutes in addition to moving around recess times.
2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?

NCLB and its accompanying designations have been extremely harmful to our district and the communities’ perception of many of our schools. Jason Lewis, Twain PTO President, recently wrote a very good op-ed piece in the PC that talked about the issue in depth. The jist of the piece was to stop calling his school a failing school just because of a designation. Like Jason, I am very critical of a designation that implies the school, teachers, or administration of a particular school are solely to blame for underperformance. The reality is that we have an ever shifting population with accompanying shifts in demographics in many of our schools.

As a district, we need to get past the negative perceptions created by SINA designations and focus on the many positive things we have happening in our district. Simultaneously, we need to use the SINA designations as they arise to insure we have adequate teachers and programming in place to address the unique needs of each school.
3. Do you think that standardized testing plays too large a role in our school system? If so, what should the school board do about it?
Standardized testing is a fact of life and will never go away completely. It provides a measuring stick for performance and gains, as well as a tool for identifying students with specific or heightened needs. It also identifies students who are learning faster, thus keeping them engaged through placement in higher level classes.

I do not think our current testing protocol is excessive. While we do have a number of tests, we have not as a district gone the way of many others by teaching to the test. Our curriculum is based up what is needed to best equip our students for either the next level of education, or the real world.

This issue will obviously have to be reexamined if merit pay becomes a reality as there would be heightened incentive for teachers to teach solely to the test. (p.s. I am against merit pay based upon standardized tests or student performance in part for this reason.)
4. Local school boards have been increasingly subject to state and federal mandates. Do school board members have an obligation to think independently about whether those mandates are good for kids? If so, what should a school board member do if he or she concludes that those mandates are not in the best interests of the kids, or are contrary to our community’s values? (See this post.)
The board’s job and mandate is to look out for the best interests of all of the children in the district and insure that all of them have the best opportunity for success. When faced with a state or federal mandate that runs counter to that obligation it is the board’s duty to work to address the issue on a state or national level. Our district, like many across the country, is part of associations focused on the betterment of our schools. These associations not only provide resources for boards and districts, but they also serve as a lobbying voice for its member districts.

We also have a community that is very passionate about education. Rather then wait and respond to potentially negative mandates, it would be my goal to be proactive and utilize passionate community members to talk to legislators about and kill bills before they become law.
5. Do you support the current pervasive use of token rewards to get students to comply with school rules? If not, what role should the school board take in reining that practice in?
Pervasive is a very subjective term. Confounding the problem is the assumption built into your question it is truly pervasive across the district. My oldest is now in second grade at Weber and I have not found his teachers use of rewards to be either excessive or pervasive. He seems to appreciate the system not because it is a form of bribery, but it provides him added incentive. Thus, I think we need to examine first whether use of these programs is truly pervasive by talking to the teachers and, more importantly, the students and the parents.

In the instances that it is truly being used excessively, based upon feedback from groups of parents, I think it would be the obligation of the board to work through and with the administration to address the issue.
6. How should the schools approach the teaching of moral or ethical values? (See this post and this post.)
The best way I can answer your question is through balance and deference. We need to balance the desire for having free and critical thinking young adults with the desire for having students with certain moral and ethical values. There is no bright line and as both your post and the critiques of your alternative statement show drafting a policy needed to accomplish that balance is perhaps impossible. Coupled with that is the need for deference to parents own moral and ethical guideposts. Teaching of moral and ethical values is a very slippery slope and has the potential to run afoul certain populations’ religious beliefs.
7. What should the district’s plan be as the number of SINA schools grows and the number of schools into which those students can transfer shrinks?
The districts most recent action on this issue is a step in the right direction. Specifically, they opted to shift the 10% discretionary funding from busing to tutoring. Thus, more of the money is being spent on programming rather then transportation. As we continue to get more SINA schools, however, additional steps are needed. Of particular importance to me is the need to strengthen the PTO/PTAs of our allegedly underperforming schools. In addition, more alternative education opportunities need to be explored. One such option is converting one or more schools to year round alternatives – assuming there is sufficient community support.
McGinness also asked that I include this link for “more general information about my background, motivation and goals.”

Links to other candidates’ responses are here.


FedUpMom said...

He makes an interesting point about teaching moral and ethical values. A lot of public schools are really running scared with the church vs. state issues. I can see that they don't want to encourage discussion of morality, which might result in kids' bringing up their religious beliefs.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- I totally agree. As soon as you start teaching the kids your idea of what's ethical or moral, you're not educating anymore, you're indoctrinating. Moreover, there isn't necessarily a broadly shared consensus on what the right answers are, at least in many cases.

What concerns me is just how much the schools *are* trying to indoctrinate my kids, and with authoritarian values that I find repugnant -- e.g., unthinking obedience, always doing what's "expected," putting a high value on being quiet and docile, etc. Doing no ethical instruction at all would be an improvement.

Best of all, though, would be to acknowledge that kids are inevitably going to have to make their own decisions about their conduct -- about when they should or shouldn't do "what's expected" -- and then to give them some help with that process. That's the kind of thing I was trying to get at with the first approach in this post. But that will never work if the school comes at it with the agenda of getting all the kids to settle on the same exact set of values. You can't teach kids to make their own decisions unless you're willing to give them the freedom to reach decisions different from the ones you would reach yourself.

As one parent said to me this morning, when they're teenagers and everyone is getting drunk at a party, I don't want them to do "what's expected."

You might be right that schools would get nervous inviting kids to answer ethical questions that might bring their religious beliefs into play. I think it could certainly be done constitutionally -- as long as the teacher really is just asking questions, not dictating answers -- but it could ruffle some feathers. To the extent that's true, though, it's a shame: it takes some of the most important questions in life off the table for discussion in school, which in turn sends the message that those things (the humanities, basically) are unimportant and secondary to the real business of filling out worksheets and learning to be a well-behaved employee.

But I'd settle for an enthusiastic endorsement of the idea that the schools should not be in the business of indoctrination, period.

Chris said...

By the way, I think McGinness makes at least one valid point about PBIS, which is that there is apparently a lot of variation in how it is administered in different schools in the district. Much as I'd like to see the whole thing thrown overboard, I'd also be happy just to see the more offensive aspects of it toned down, as they are in some local schools.

That's why I focus some of my questions about PBIS on our school principal. As the example of some other local schools shows, PBIS doesn't have to be run in a way that emphasizes the acquisition of rewards and the competition for prizes. The principals really are setting policy to a great extent on that issue, yet it's hard to see how they are at all accountable to the public for the decisions they make.

Mandy said...

I felt his answer to the question about standardized testing rang pretty hollow. I think it shows how a kid did on a one test on one day. I think more and more colleges and universities are using them less and less for admissions and it's really only NCLB that forces the continued use of standardized tests.
My thoughts were pretty similar to yours Chris regarding the moral and ethical values. On some level there is no way to avoid moral and ethical teaching in school but I absolutely find chanting, pledging and singing to be sickening especially when the majority of the kids do not even understand the meaning of what they are chanting, only that the "have" to do it.

Chris said...

Mandy -- Thanks for commenting! I think a lot of people hear "standardized tests" and think, "Well, of course you have to see how the kids are doing." But that understanding of the role of standardized tests in schools is about twenty years (or more) out of date. Right now, they're being used to penalize teachers and schools for many things that are entirely outside their control, to force all school systems to follow a particular set of assumptions about what all kids should learn and at what pace, and to justify ratcheting up academic and behavioral demands without regard to what's age-appropriate. Moreover, because standardized test scores are now the *sole* measure of whether a school is succeeding, the testing regime has the effect of squeezing out time spent on other activities, on down time and physical activity (lunch and recess), and on subjects (such as art and music) that don't appear on the tests or can't be easily tested. The emphasis on high-stakes testing is also leading schools to put more and more emphasis on unthinking obedience to get the kids to "sit still" and to maximize instructional time.

In other words, the current testing regime has costs -- lots of them. It would be nice to see more acknowledgement of those costs in public discussions of the issue.

Are schools "teaching to the test"? Teachers and at least one local principal have told me that the teachers have had to eliminate some of the more engaging activities that the kids enjoyed in favor of concentrating on tested subjects. (If that's not teaching to the test, what is?) The superintendent admitted to parents that lunch and recess have been squeezed because of the pressure to raise test scores. Given the effects that test scores have had on our local schools -- as kids have been shifted from school to school because of the SINA designation, and some SINA schools may even close -- it would be hard to believe that standardized testing wasn't having an effect on how principals and teachers see their jobs. (Our music teacher even had the kids sing a song at the school concert that justified music instruction on the grounds that it would raise test scores and grades.) It seems pretty clear that Iowa City is not immune to the negative effects of high-stakes testing. (In fairness: McGinness did acknowledge some of those negative effects in his answer to Question 2.)

As for the "chanting, pledging, and singing," I think sometimes I get too abstract in the way I describe what is going on every day at school. I plan on posting some more concrete descriptions of what they have the kids doing very soon.

Mandy said...

I asked B what she thought specifically about the morning routine and if she knew what the pledging meant or why they have to do it. When we talked further I suggested she ask her teacher these questions and maybe have a class discussion. When she came home today she told me she asked and didn't get much of an answer and they had to get to math.
The standardized tests should be interesting this year for L. He will have to take them and have accommodations made but I am quite sure they will not be any sort of indicator as to his knowledge on the subjects tested. The way they tested his reading level last year wasn't an indication of where he was and everyone knew it but because of how the tests had to be administered the test was wrong but a note couldn't even be made in the information. (he tested well below where he was actually reading) I could careless what the "level" says but what is so frustrating is when he goes to the Extended School Year program or another grade, so much time is wasted when the teacher starts him out at the lower level and he's reading it fluently so we have to have the conversation AGAIN. I'm frustrated, L is frustrated and I'm sure the teacher is frustrated as well. Why bother will the testing, the write up when it's all useless information? I could go on and on.

KD said...

Mandy when you talk about pledging do you mean the Pledge of Allegiance, or something related to PBIS?

Mandy said...

They say the Pledge of Allegiance and the school pledge which I think is based on the character education. (I have not seen a copy of the pledge, just based on the bit I heard and what my 10yo told me) What I find most bothersome is they are just mindlessly reciting the words and have no idea what Pledging means let alone what allegiance is. They do get to choose whether or not to say it, but I would prefer they were making (or learning to make)an informed decision instead of just doing what they are told and what everyone else is doing, not to mention I think it opens up an opportunity for a great discussion. I have spent their lives trying to explain about peer pressure and standing up for what they think is right, even if it means disagreeing with their friends. It seems that has been undermined 5 days into the school year.

KD said...

Interesting about the Pledge of Allegiance...I don't think either of my kids have said it more than a few times.