Our district has created a new website, Engage Iowa City Schools, to “start an online conversation” about “your thoughts and ideas to enhance our educational system.” If there was ever a website designed by school administrators, this is it. All of the district’s worst tendencies – the infantilization, the hovering micromanagement, the obsession with control, the discomfort with dissent – are built right into the site.
Rather than just allow people to start threads and debate topics of their choice, the district has chosen four topics, and participants have to either suggest an “idea,” or respond to someone else’s “idea,” about one of those four topics. (One of the topics is “What Are the School District’s Biggest Strengths?”) If you respond to an idea, you are prompted with the phrase “I would improve this idea by . . .” The site repeatedly admonishes users that the site “relies on positive interactions,” that they should “be respectful” and say nothing “derogatory,” and that there “is no need to sharply criticize another member’s ideas.” “If you need to ask yourself twice if it’s appropriate, it’s probably not appropriate.”
In fact, even to sign up for the site – a public forum established by a government entity – you must agree not to say anything that is “inappropriate” or “otherwise objectionable.” The company that administers the site makes it clear that it reserves the right to censor any material that it, “in its sole discretion, deems objectionable,” and to deny access to anyone who violates its guidelines. As the district’s community relations director put it, “If someone has an idea, you can like it, but you can’t put an idea down, so hopefully it will have the ability to keep things positive and productive just because of how it’s designed.” (See this post.)
Even the district’s embrace of behavioral conditioning and material rewards is reflected in the site. By creating an account and posting ideas or comments, you earn points that you can then redeem – I’m not making this up – in the “Rewards Store,” for items that range from tickets to a high school play (200 points) to lunch with the superintendent (750 points). I currently have fifty-two points, but when I find a way to post my “idea” that the district should stop using material rewards for behavior management, I’ll get ten more.
Is there any other public institution that works so hard to control and manage the way people talk about it? One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is that free and vigorous debate will lead to better policymaking. Why is our district so afraid of it?
Here’s my Idea: Let’s see ten or twenty more blogs by parents like this one, or by students like this one, or by concerned citizens like this one. Let them link to each other and disagree with each other and argue with each other and maybe even get angry (oh no!) sometimes. Let them treat each other like adults and not get too caught up in whether everyone is showing sufficient respect. Then see what ideas survive the debate and end up persuading people. I’d submit that idea to our district’s website, if only it would let me.