Thursday, December 17, 2009

Slow month

Sorry I've posted so little lately. End-of-semester obligations and holiday activities have crowded out time for other things. But the blog will be active again soon. Some things I'd like to get to soon:

  • A closer look at the promotional materials and claims of our reward tickets program

  • Should "staying in from recess" be used as a punishment?

  • The case against foreign language requirements

  • What the workings of our school system teaches kids about democracy

Stay tuned . . .

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Multiple choices

I may have to retract my criticism of standardized tests: this author makes a persuasive case that life really is a multiple choice test, even for kindergartners.

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Avert your eyes

The Einstein posts were fun, but ultimately frustrating. Few people would outright disagree with any of Einstein’s comments on education. It’s easy to imagine a school board member, a school principal, or a Congressperson nodding in agreement if they were to read those posts. Yes, yes, coercive and authoritarian approaches to education are bad; we need to engage the child in her own learning; the more autonomy for teachers and children, the better. Then they would return to their project of making the schools more authoritarian and coercive, treating the children like passive subjects to be dictated to, and eliminating autonomy all around.

What accounts for the disconnect between ideals and practice in education? When it comes to school administrators and teachers, it’s easy enough to understand: ideals are nice, but if your job, your raise, or your promotion depends on raising standardized test scores, you’ll do what you have to do. But what about parents? How do they make sense of what now goes on in the name of education?

I think many parents have a kind of cognitive bias in favor of giving the benefit of the doubt to the school. After all, many of us have little choice but to send our kids to school. To be openly critical of a school’s practices, while simultaneously sending one’s child there every day, could obviously be disturbing to the parent and potentially confusing to the child. Moreover, the message we receive in so many ways is that complaints are futile: everything is dictated from above; key decisions are made in Washington; one person can’t change anything. To criticize the school, then, would just make your kids less happy -- or maybe even turn them into alienated malcontents. As one parent said to me, after sympathizing with some of my concerns, “You have to just avert your eyes from a lot of what goes on.”

I know that reality never measures up to ideals. If our schools were engaged in a genuine effort to pursue humane educational practices like those Einstein talked about, it would be wrong to nitpick about imperfections. But what if we’ve averted our eyes to much more than we realize? What if our schools actually operate on an entirely different set of assumptions and values, and on ideals that are diametrically opposed to our own?

I see enough evidence to make me worry about the answer to that question, and I suppose exploring that issue is the mission of this blog. At some point, to avert one’s eyes is to deny reality -- the reality in which our kids spend a big chunk of their lives. Are we really doing our kids a service by making them the only people in this system who can see what's going on in front of them?

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 3)

A few more thoughts from Albert Einstein on education:

Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that is not right. Knowledge is dead; the school, however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those qualities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.

. . .

Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.

. . .

[T]he teacher should be given extensive liberty in the selection of the material to be taught and the methods of teaching employed by him. For it is true also of him that pleasure in the shaping of his work is killed by force and exterior pressure.

. . .

I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible. Apart from that, it seems to me, moreover, objectionable to treat the individual like a dead tool.

--Albert Einstein, 1936 (from Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (1982).

Part 1 here; part 2 here.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 2)

Despite the myth, Einstein was a good student, consistently getting high grades, especially in math. His troubles in school were the result of his conflicts with his teachers. He rebelled against the authoritarian approach to education that prevailed in the German schools he attended. Einstein had, in the words of a biographer, “a deep suspicion of authority in general and of educational authority in particular.” (1) “This contempt for authority did not endear him to the German ‘lieutenants’ who taught him at his school. As a result, one of his teachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class. When Einstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me.’” (2)

Eventually, Einstein left (or was expelled from) that school and eventually attended a preparatory school in Aarau, Switzerland. “It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teaching was based on the philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important to nurture the ‘inner dignity’ and individuality of each child. Students should be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached, by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations and then proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery. It was even possible to learn -- and truly understand -- the laws of math and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fed facts were avoided.

“Einstein loved Aarau. ‘Pupils were treated individually,’ his sister recalled, ‘more emphasis was placed on independent thought than on punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority, but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality.’ It was the opposite of the German education that Einstein had hated. ‘When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,’ Einstein later said, ‘it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.’” (2)

Einstein’s “‘early suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove of decisive importance,’ said Banesh Hoffmann, who was a collaborator of Einstein’s in his later years. ‘Without it he would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind that would give him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics.’” (2)

What would Einstein have made of our schools’ increasing emphasis on behavior management, obedience, and standardized test scores? Of this, or this? More importantly, what would those practices, if they worked as intended, have made of him?

Part 1 here; part 3 here.

(Sources: (1) Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (1971); (2) Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007).)

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Monday, November 16, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 1)

As the Baby Einstein phenomenon shows, our culture sees Albert Einstein as the ultimate icon of intellectual achievement, and with good reason. It is interesting, then, to read some of Einstein’s own thoughts about education:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

I am opposed to examinations -- they only deter from the interest in studying. No more than two exams should be given throughout a student’s [college] career. I would hold seminars, and if the young people are interested and listen, I would give them a diploma.

It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening with too much and too varied subjects . . . . Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality.

[T]he gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Part 2 here; part 3 here.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

False advertising

The makers of Baby Einstein products -- videos featuring bright colors and classical music that would supposedly help increase your baby’s intelligence -- are now offering a full refund to dissatisfied parents. The article reporting this news was one of the most emailed articles in the New York Times last week.

Now we can all laugh at the idea that parents could raise their babies’ IQ by playing Mozart to them. Then we can send our kids off to schools where first-graders have homework every night. Hmm.

At least the babies got to listen to some good music.

Related post here.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cure or symptom?

The other day I wrote about a survey that found that thirty-six percent of high school students felt that newspapers should not be allowed to publish a story without first getting government approval. Follow-up studies in subsequent years confirmed that finding.

The foundation that sponsored the surveys asked Joel Martin, a school administrator with twenty years of experience, to comment on the results. He wrote:

One positive finding is that more First Amendment courses are now being offered in high schools. A continued effort must exist to patiently make progress. The charge will continue to be lead [sic] by organizations and entities with specific financial backing and clear mission statements.

. . .

Curriculum adjustments to focus on the First Amendment issues of free expression need to be explored. The idea of incorporating this topic into increased curricular areas must be studied. The government or civics teacher late in a student’s educational career may struggle, despite a genuine effort, to do justice to the subject of the Constitution and First Amendment.

Courses and/or curriculum at lower grades addressing these issues may be prudent. Schools need to consider developing new course offerings aimed specifically at First Amendment rights issues.

I nominate Mr. Martin as the voice of contemporary American schooling. His heart is in the right place, but he is completely unaware of the contradiction between his ends and his means. Genuinely concerned about issues affecting freedom and human dignity, he can respond only in terms of a system that sees kids as passive recipients of information and proposes to solve every problem by adding more class hours or required courses. (One imagines teachers drilling the kids to prep them for the Iowa Test of Basic Freedoms.) Faced with students who have a low regard for freedom, Mr. Martin can think of one response: We need to do a better job of telling these students what to think!

(Notice, for example, one type of fudging that appears in almost all the commentary I have read on this survey. Granted, many of the survey questions revealed actual ignorance about the content and effect of the First Amendment. But some of the most disturbing findings, such as the ones I cited, were about students’ opinions, not about their knowledge of facts. Shall we instruct them that their opinions are wrong? The idea that there might be a distinction between informing kids about facts and altering kids’ opinions -- that is, between education and indoctrination -- seems never to occur to these commentators.)

Of course, lack of instruction is not the only possible explanation for the survey’s findings. The idea that an individual might have rights that trump those of the authorities could not be more foreign in our schools. Many kids perceive, accurately, that they are not allowed to voice, or even form, critical opinions about the institution that governs a large chunk of their waking hours. Even the idea that kids might have some say in what they learn about, or in how they spend their time, is now seen as a flaky Sixties-era relic that has no place in the Era of Accountability and Standardization. Now more than ever, school is the place that tells you what to do. The good student is the one who is quiet and follows instructions. To openly criticize the authority figures -- the activity at the heart of the First Amendment -- is, for most kids, unthinkable.

When that message is transmitted every day for thirteen years, devoting a few more semester-hours to the Constitution is like fighting a flood with a thimble. Maybe instead of instructing the kids about the value of this alien thing called freedom, we might try giving them some.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

Where did the kids get that crazy idea?

Should newspapers be allowed to publish a story freely without first getting government approval? Five years ago, survey researchers posed that question to over 100,000 high school students across America. Thirty-six percent of the students said that government approval should be required. Only a bare majority -- fifty-one percent -- disagreed, and most of them only “mildly.” Thirty-two percent thought the press had “too much freedom,” and thirty-five percent thought that “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”

But never mind that. The real problem is that our math scores are lower than Singapore’s!

Related post here.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Which crisis?

One of the main purposes of this blog is to explore the connection between test-driven education and the promotion of authoritarian values in our schools. As I argued at more length here, the pressure to raise standardized test scores has led schools to dwell heavily on obedience and behavioral compliance, which necessarily undermines any emphasis on the importance of inquiry, skepticism, and thought.

Is it worth it? Some might say it is. There is a crisis in American education, we are repeatedly told. We are falling behind our economic competitors. We are losing our advantage in the hyper-competitive global economy. The cure for this crisis is Accountability, which means more and more emphasis on standardized test scores as a measure of whether schools are succeeding. Creating good citizens is a nice ideal, but the economic reality is that we need to create good workers.

Is it true that, for the sake of our kids’ futures, we need to focus more on producing good workers than on producing capable citizens? Consider two sets of facts:

1. “[E]ighth grade students in the United States perform at a level that is slightly below average in mathematics and slightly above average in science. The countries whose students outperformed U.S. students in both subjects were Singapore, Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic and Hungary. . . . [O]nly five percent of U.S. eighth graders would qualify for inclusion among the world's top 10 percent in mathematics, whereas 45 percent of Singapore's students would fall into this category.” Those figures provide “‘ample evidence that our curricula and expectations for our young people are not demanding enough,’ said Norman R. Augustine, vice chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and chairman of the Education Task Force of The Business Roundtable, a corporate group.”

2. In 2002 and 2003, the President of the United States argued that America needed to invade and occupy Iraq to keep the world safe from Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The major news media applied little skepticism to that claim, and served largely as a vehicle for passing along the administration’s unscrutinized assertions. The slogan “Support Our Troops” was adopted by large numbers of people as a persuasive argument for going to war. Opponents of the war were widely vilified as unpatriotic extremists. That war uncovered no weapons of mass destruction, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, ensured generations of hostility toward our country in large sections of the world, and will eventually cost the United States two to three trillion dollars or more, most of it borrowed.

Which of those two paragraphs has more troubling implications for our kids’ futures?

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is teacher autonomy just a perk?

Yesterday, I talked about the value of treating teachers as professionals, and giving them the autonomy to make their own decisions about what works in their classrooms. My belief in that value grows out of my own experiences as a teacher at the college and professional school level. At the University of Iowa, where I work, like at virtually any university in America, professors are given a great deal of freedom in how they teach their courses. No one tells you what books to use, what lecture to give, what projects to assign, or how to evaluate students' success: it is the professor who makes those decisions, and that is one of the pleasures of the job. At most, the professor is constrained by a few paragraphs prescribing the general subject matter to be covered in the course. Any attempt to take that autonomy away from the teachers, any attempt by a central authority to micromanage the classroom, would prompt an outcry and a rebellion.

This is in sharp contrast to the way we treat our school teachers. Teachers often have no say in what books they use, what material they cover and in what order, what assignments they assign, and how they assess students' progress. Those decisions are dictated by a central authority -- usually the school board -- and are largely driven by even-more-central authorities, such as state and federal governments. Since the federal government has made so much hinge on test scores, there is all the more incentive for central authorities to micromanage the classroom in attempts to raise those scores. (See this egregious example.)

Why do we give our college professors so much autonomy? Why do we not seek to hold them accountable with the same methods that we use to hold school teachers accountable? Is it just because they are spoiled, self-policing, tenured prima donnas who refuse to be told what to do? Or is it because we see them as professionals who know better than central administrators how to teach their particular subjects?

In other words, is teacher autonomy just a perk that comes at the expense of the students' education? If so, how can we justify giving it to our college professors?

Or is teacher autonomy an important element in providing a good education? If so, how can we justify denying it to our school teachers?

..How can I comment?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day thoughts

Actually, here in Iowa City, we had our school board election a couple of months ago, before this blog existed. (Today we vote for City Council, in an election that appears headed for an unusually lopsided result.) But today seems like as good a day as any to comment on the school board election, and on school board elections generally.

School board elections here have always seemed somewhat mysterious to me. I read the voter guides and candidate questionnaires, and I find it virtually impossible to detect any differences at all between the candidates. It is as if each candidate is trying as hard as possible not to reveal his or her actual opinions about any issues, for fear of losing the vote of someone, somewhere. I find myself trying to read between the lines -- to detect subtle differences in emphasis that might reveal, to those who know the code, something about the candidate's true leanings. It reminds me of the way Kremlinologists used to scrutinize photographs of Brezhnev and his circle for tips about the otherwise inscrutable workings of the Soviet hierarchy.

Once in a while, the voters are so concerned about an issue that the candidates cannot avoid discussing it. This year, the issue was redistricting -- in particular, how and when to redraw the boundaries between our two high schools, our middle schools, and our elementary schools. In fact, last night there was a district-wide forum on the issue that drew 160 people.

I won't deny that there are important issues involved in drawing boundaries between school districts. Still, there is some irony here. The teachers, and even the principals, now have so little autonomy over what goes on in their classrooms that the classroom experiences of a west-side fourth-grader look more like those of an east-side fourth-grader than they ever have. The curriculum, the books, the schedule, the goals, the educational philosophy, and the underlying assumptions about how kids learn are the same everywhere, because they are decided centrally -- often not even by the school board, but by the state or even the federal government. It is as if the most central aspects of educational policy have been taken off the table in school board elections. As a result, the major issue in our election was about where to draw the boundaries between these increasingly similar schools.

One unfortunate result is that voters then focus on the other ways in which the schools differ -- for example, which school gets more resources, and which school has more at-risk kids, and which school has more wealthy families, etc. The debate is funneled toward these particularly divisive issues and away from more fundamental questions about what the goals and methods of education should be.

I am largely skeptical about proposals for "school choice," though I hope to explore the topic at some point on this blog. But it's hard for me to believe that nationwide uniformity in educational practice is a good thing. There is a chance, after all, that the prevailing assumptions about what is good for children are, in fact, wrong. Should we put all our eggs in one basket, in a kind of nationwide experiment on our kids? I'm much more comfortable with a less centralized system, one that allows different places to make different choices, and one that treats teachers as professionals who are in the best position to know what works in their classrooms, rather than as actors reading from a centrally-written script.

If educational policy were decided locally, school board elections would actually hinge on those educational issues. As it is, no election hinges on educational issues. I have strong feelings about educational policy, but even I will admit that, when I vote for Congress or for President, many other issues are more important to me. By federalizing educational policy, we have basically taken educational issues away from the voters. Is that what a country that cared about education would do?

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Quote of the day

"Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative."

Dear Reader (and I use the singular advisedly): Sorry for the inactivity this week: too many other obligations, and too many internet connectivity problems, to keep up with the blog. Am headed out to buy a new router, if not a new computer. Stay tuned.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Obedience counts, ctd.

The other day I cited this article for its criticisms of what passes for character education in today's schools. Really, it's worth reading in its entirety -- a thoughtful, sane take on the character education phenomenon.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Theodore Sizer

Is this blog hopelessly idealistic about what school could be? It's easy to conclude that the practices of today's schools, while perhaps unappealing, are necessary, because there is no other way. That response certainly serves the interests of those who benefit from the system the way it is, as well as those who would just prefer not to have the boat rocked. But in fact there are alternative approaches; they aren't unthinkable, and there are schools that put them into practice.

Theodore Sizer, who died on Wednesday at age 77, was the founder of the "Coalition of Essential Schools," based on the idea that schools should be egalitarian communities, "rooted in a kind of democratic pluralism." "In his ideal, educational policy should be determined from the bottom up, at the level of the school, rather than as a result of state or federal directives. Schools, he argued, should abandon one-size-fits-all educational methods like standardized tests, grading and even the grouping of students into classes by age." There are now several hundred Essential Schools across the country. Sizer's obituary is worth reading, as a reminder that things do not have to be the way they are.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quote for the day

"If we want children to resist [peer pressure] and not be victims of others' ideas, we have to educate children to think for themselves about all ideas, including those of adults."

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Obedience counts

This is National Character Counts! Week. Character Counts! is a program of character education used in schools across America, including the schools here in Iowa City.

Critics argue that programs like Character Counts! promote a conservative agenda, because of their emphasis on personal responsibility to the exclusion of social responsibility. Although the national Character Counts organization claims to be non-partisan and to have no political agenda, it often appears -- alongside Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the Christian Coalition, and the John Birch Society -- on lists of conservative organizations. (For example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) In fact, the phrase "character counts" is a kind of rallying cry in conservative circles, dating back to the Clinton impeachment.

I'm not sure what to make of all that. I don't really object to my kids learning about the value of Honesty, Respect, Caring, Responsibility, and Courage, the five values promoted by our school's program. I would object, though, if the program chose to promote Obedience, Obedience, Obedience, Obedience, and Obedience. After a closer look at the program's materials, I'm starting to worry.

Our school, for example, explains the meaning of "Respect" to the students this way:

Hallway: Go directly where you need to go. Use body basics.
Lunchroom: Body basics. Voice level 1 or 2.
Playground: Line up quickly when the bell rings. Use line basics.

If your child asked you what "respect" is, is that what you would say?

To show "Responsibility" in the hallway means to "Use line basics," and "Voice level 0 or 1." (Apparently the line between responsibility and respect is a very thin one.) To be "Caring" on the playground means to "use equipment appropriately," and "return equipment." To show "Honesty," you should "follow the rules even when an adult is not around," and "play fair and follow [school] game rules." To show "Courage," on the other hand, is to "follow the rules even if others don't."

To be fair: not all of the definitions focus on obeying rules. (For example, to be "Caring" means to "greet others with a smile and wave," and to "care for self, others, and school.") But most of them do.

Again, I know that schools need to have rules. But it's another thing to create a culture that prizes obedience to authority above all other values. It may serve the school's interest in maintaining order, but does it serve the long-term interests of the kids -- or, for that matter, of democracy? Does it develop character? And what message does it send when words like "courage," "responsibility," "respect," "caring," and "honesty" are co-opted in an effort to keep the kids quiet in the halls?

Click to enlarge

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

I miss Fezziwig

The other day I wondered why Evidence has become our master instead of our servant. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Evidence is only one member of the new management team, which includes Expertise, Accountability, Productivity, and National Competitiveness. Alas, Wisdom, Curiosity, Individuality, and Humaneness -- perhaps never as high on the letterhead as they should have been -- are now scanning the want ads, and praying that their COBRA doesn't run out.

When I think about this change in management, I think about Scrooge's visit, with the ghost of Christmas past, to the office of his former employer, Fezziwig. It is Christmas Eve, and the fat and jovial Fezziwig is closing up early to put on his annual Christmas party. Scrooge, gripped by "the strangest agitation," watches as Fezziwig's family, friends, employees and neighbors pour into room: "In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. . . . There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer." Old Fezziwig himself dances to top them all. By the end of the party, when everyone has exhausted themselves, Fezziwig's apprentices -- one of whom is Scrooge's younger self -- are "pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig."

The ghost chides Scrooge: "He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?"

Momentarily not himself, Scrooge replies, "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

As I watched my daughter head off to her fifth straight day of standardized testing last week, I couldn't help thinking that our schools have become more Scrooge than Fezziwig. We seem to have made a collective decision that the things that are "impossible to add and count up" simply do not matter. If a school fails to raise its test scores, it can get in serious trouble. But if it turns out kids with no intellectual curiosity, kids who see reading as a chore, kids who perform just to please the teacher and get by, kids who've never learned how to use good judgment, ask a good question, or make a good decision, kids who see adults as adversaries, kids who take no pleasure in learning -- nothing bad will happen to it.

The teachers do what they can to promote a broader conception of learning, but that's the system they're up against. When it comes time to hold schools, principals, and teachers "accountable," it's the test scores that count; the rest might as well be volunteer work. That's where Accountability has gotten us. Scrooge, of course, was a paragon of Accountability, at least until the ghosts knocked some sense into his head.

..How can I comment?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quote for the day

"We tend to think, now, of the ideal family as a little hatchery for future contributors to the Social Security system, non-criminals who will enhance national productivity while lowering the cost per capita of preventable illness. We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul. We have lowered our hopes abysmally, for no reason obvious to me, without a murmur I have ever heard. To fulfill or fall short of such minor aspirations as we have now is the selfsame misery."

--Marilynne Robinson on "Family," in The Death of Adam.

Robinson attributes that lowering of hopes to "a new upsurge of that famous Western rationalism, old enemy of reasonableness, always so right at the time, always so shocking in retrospect." When the time finally comes to put test-driven education -- and all its accompanying "programs" -- to rest, I can't think of a better epitaph.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Should poor kids get less humane treatment?

One reader points out that the rewards ticket program seems to have been adopted only in the elementary schools with families of lower socioeconomic status, but not in the high-SES schools, in our district. One of the common criticisms of these programs is that they function as big tracking systems, so the poor kids get trained to be quiet little worker bees, while the kids from high-income families don't.

Expect more posts on this issue.

..How can I comment?


This blogger has a guest opinion in today's Press-Citizen on our Orwellian reward tickets program.

Update: That link has gone stale, so here is the text of that guest editorial:

School Rewards Program Conjures Orwell

The calendar reads 2009, but in the Iowa City schools, it’s looking more like 1984.

Elementary schools across the district have begun to implement a new program of “Positive Behavioral Supports.” Translated, that means a campaign to saturate the kids with a pervasive program of token rewards for complying with school rules. Under this program, teachers are tasked with continually handing out dozens of little red tickets reading “Stellar Job!” to kids who are well-behaved in the hallways or lunchroom, or at recess. The students collect the tickets to be entered into a lottery at the end of each week, where they can win a prize -- a special lunch with the teacher, perhaps, or the chance to sit in a special chair. (The details vary from school to school.)

Ideally, according to the program’s promotional materials, the students will feel the way good employees feel in a well-managed workplace.

The poor teachers who are saddled with this program are sometimes even wearing the ticket books on strings around their necks, so they will remember to dispense their daily quota.

The plan is for the program to move eventually into the classroom itself, and then into the community and the home. For example, the program’s website explains how local businesses could be recruited to give discounts or free merchandise to kids who accumulate tickets. Parents are exhorted to “participate on the leadership team” and even to pass out reward tickets at home. If all goes according to plan, not a minute will go by when the kids aren’t reminded of their school’s rules about good behavior.

And let’s be clear what the program means by good behavior. Students aren’t getting tickets for thinking critically, for asking good questions, or for being kind to someone else. They are getting tickets for standing in line, following instructions, and being quiet. That’s what it means to do a “Stellar Job!” Winston Smith would feel right at home.

I’m reluctant to turn my child’s every waking hour over to the latest enthusiasm of these so-called experts. The objections to this program are too numerous to list here. A sampler:

I want my kids to do the right thing because they have thought about what’s right and developed a set of values of their own, not because someone is paying them to. I want school to help them think about their conduct and values, not develop unthinking responses to artificial stimuli. I want them to be treated as human beings to be engaged, not laboratory subjects to be manipulated. I want them to learn that language -- even a little phrase like “Stellar job!” -- should have real meaning. I want them to learn that passive obedience to authority is not the highest value. I want to prepare them to become citizens in a democracy, not subjects of a totalitarian state.

Why has our school system adopted this program? Its supporters won’t say it outright, but the reason is clear: These schools are desperate to raise their test scores, and live in fear of what will happen to them, under the No Child Left Behind law, if they don’t. If creating Orwellian obedience schools is what it takes to squeeze a few more test points out of the kids, so be it. No Child Left Behind forces the school systems to think in these terms.

But not the parents. Parents remain entirely free to see the kids as human beings rather than as data points. I hope they’ll speak up.

Until there is a standardized test that measures intellectual curiosity, creativity, initiative, inquiry, and character, we shouldn’t turn our schools into test-prep centers. I’d like this single-minded obsession with test scores to pack up and leave our schools once and for all -- and take Big Brother with it.

..How can I comment?

Alfie Kohn on our red tickets

In an exchange of emails with A Blog About School, Alfie Kohn, author and advocate of humane approaches to education, had this to say about our reward tickets program:

"Ugh" is right. What drives me crazy about programs like this one is the tendency to do things TO children (like dangling goodies in front of them) to make them behave in whatever ways the adults demand, rather than working WITH children to help them become independent, critical thinkers who are part of a democratic community. In other words, the problem with PBIS and umpteen similar programs that have come and gone before it is not only with the technique (essentially, manipulation) but also with the goal (compliance).

In response to your blog: I'm not sure it's necessary to say, in effect, "Research may support the use of rewards, but research isn't everything." If the outcome evaluated in the research is temporary compliance, then, sure, rewards, like punishments, can be "effective." But if the outcome being studied is kids' commitment to good values or learning, generosity or responsibility or love of learning, then research not only fails to support the value of incentive programs; scores of studies demonstrate that rewards -- and a behavioral focus more generally -- actually do harm. I've reviewed this literature in Punished by Rewards, Beyond Discipline, and in many articles (available on my website). In effect, carrot-and-stick control makes no sense regardless of whether we're concerned about respectful ways of dealing with children or what the data say. There's no need to concede the latter to the behaviorists!

I am certainly not conceding that research supports the use of programs like this one, or that they "work" in achieving anything other than short term compliance. My point has only been that value judgments have to come first, before we can decide what's important to measure. Kohn's books and articles, which thoroughly review the evidence about the effects of rewards programs, appear here. His conclusion: we're in for some more "unintended consequences," to put it mildly.

By the way, Kohn's email was titled: "PBIS = TKLP (Treating Kids Like Pets)".

Related posts:

Behavioral, yes. Positive and supporting? Maybe not.

Evidence and values

What’s good for General Motors . . .


Weird science

Some company in Connecticut

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

Treating kids like pets, continued

Scenes from the first week of school

..How can I comment?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's good for General Motors . . .

Our school's rewards ticket program comes with its own promotional materials, which make a special point of noting that, under the program, the teachers' treatment of the kids would parallel the way good business managers treat their employees.

For example, happy employees, we are told, like to "feel the mission of the organization makes them feel like their jobs are important." Under the rewards program, students will "feel that the mission of the school makes them feel like their jobs are important." (Emphasis theirs.)

Happy employees "have a supervisor who cares and pays attention"; the students will "have a teacher who cares and pays attention."

And so on. As one parent said to me, "I wonder what the schools that produce managers look like."

It's no coincidence that the program's materials read like this (click below to enlarge), since big business is one of the prime backers of test-driven education. If you need any confirmation, check out this creepy press release from the National Association of Manufacturers, commending the new Secretary of Education for his commitment to "using data to help drive decision-making and accountability in education" and his advocacy for "performance-based evaluation systems," with the goal of preparing the students "for the high-performance workforce that is necessary to succeed in today's hyper-competitive global economy," and ensuring their "success in high quality middle class jobs, including those in manufacturing."

I know the kids are going to have to get jobs someday. But school isn't the "workplace." School should be an extension of the home; teachers are stand-ins for parents, not for bosses. Parents know that there is a lot more to their children than their future earning potential. We should focus on what's good for the kids, not on what's good for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Caution: Experts at work

In The Schools Our Kids Deserve, Alfie Kohn quotes an article describing Success For All, a program for elementary school instruction. Kohn reminds us that the article was written "by a journalist who supports the program, at least for poor schools."

Success For All, designed by Robert Slavin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, "tells schools precisely what to teach and how to teach it--to the point of scripting, nearly minute by minute, every teacher's activity in every classroom every day of the year. . . . Teachers must use a series of catch phrases and hand signals developed by Success For All. In kindergarten and first grade every piece of classroom material (readers, posters, tapes, videos, lesson plans, books--everything) is provided by the program. . . . Success For All . . . teaches reading primarily through phonics. . . . Students are tested, put into groups based upon their skills levels, drilled in reading skills, regrouped, and drilled some more. . . . [A first-grade teacher] stands at the blackboard and says, 'Okay, let's get ready for our shared story. Ready, read!' The students read the first page of the story loudly, in unison. . . . 'Okay, do your first word,' she says. The students call out together, 'Only! O [clap] N [clap] L [clap] Y [clap]. Only!' . . . 'If you work right, you'll earn points for your work team! You clear?' Twenty voices call out, 'Yes!'"

At the time the article appeared, Success For All had already been adopted in 1,100 schools across the country, largely in an attempt to raise reading scores. I'm not sure whom I feel sorrier for, the teachers or the kids.

I will concede that Success For All is different in degree from our reward tickets program. But is it different in kind?

..How can I comment?

Monday, October 12, 2009

People, or data points?

A reader writes:

The whole atmosphere of public school is geared toward generating data points, not compassionate, ethical, complex, and intellectually engaged human beings. Within that problematic framework, however, you find a lot of great teachers who are really trying their best.

Amen. The teachers are doing everything they can, and are in no position to complain about the problematic framework. But they've been given the project of putting a humane face on a less and less humane system. I'm very grateful to them for it, but I don't envy them.

..How can I comment?

A true believer

The other day I took issue with a statement made by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. It's worth taking a closer look at the article in which that statement appeared.

Hirsch, one of the Godfathers of high-stakes testing, was attempting to explain why, since high-stakes testing was formally incorporated into the No Child Left Behind law, reading scores have fallen. The problem is not with the use of high-stakes tests, he explains; the problem is the "unintended consequence that much time is being misspent on how-to skills and test preparation."

Unintended consequence? Gee, I guess nobody could have seen that coming. But Hirsch's proposed cure is no better than the disease. He proposes to have the state dictate a uniform curriculum that would apply to the first five grades of every elementary school -- every child reading the same material. Then we can base the high-stakes test on that uniform curriculum! (How this will eliminate the incentive to use drills and test-prep exercises is unexplained.)

This is revolutionary fervor disguised as expertise. If we have failed, the argument goes, it is only because our stranglehold was insufficiently tight. Conveniently, all failures can be explained away in this manner. Hirsch, for all his advocacy of "cultural literacy," seems never to have heard of the word "hubris."

..How can I comment?

Quote for the day

"I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living."

..How can I comment?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

ITBS week is here

This is the week when the students at our elementary school (and presumably everywhere in America) hunker down and take their Iowa Test of Basic Skills. We are told that they should "get a good night's sleep, eat a good breakfast and use good test-taking skills" -- for whose sake, exactly, is never explained. This blog, of course, will keep talking about the effects that high-stakes testing is having on our schools and on our kids. But there are other people who have made the case better than I ever could -- particularly FairTest, and authors such as Alfie Kohn and Deborah Meier. Check them out!

..How can I comment?

Our "evidence-based" world

Readers of this blog (if I dare to use the plural there) are familiar with the plan, currently being instituted in my children's school, to immerse the kids in a running stream of little red tickets reading "Stellar job!", culminating in a lottery-like drawing at the end of each week. At a recent school meeting, parents were assured that this behavioral rewards program is "evidence-based."

This phrase -- "evidence-based" -- has been cropping up more and more frequently. You may remember it from the last time your health insurer denied you coverage. In fact, its primary function is to deny -- to scoff at the naive idea that we should direct our resources toward any effort that has not received the blessing of an empirical study in a peer-reviewed journal. It flows from the principle -- or the unexamined assumption -- that the only things that have value are those that can be measured.

Don't get me wrong: evidence is a wonderful tool. But when did evidence become the master instead of the servant? Instead of a flashlight helping us see, it's now the searchlight on the prison tower, marking off the boundaries of what's permissible to consider. Don't go beyond that fence!

And what a small and dreary prison yard. Where is the standardized test that measures intellectual curiosity, creativity, inquiry, initiative, or character? If I advocate that those qualities should be central to education, I suppose I am not being "evidence-based."

Fortunately, those qualities have not disappeared from our schools. But they're now subsisting on the considerable charity of teachers, who, when their hands are not chained, do all they can to inject some humanity into the institution. What a far cry from being at the heart of the enterprise.

..How can I comment?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Evidence and values, ctd.

I recently read an astounding assertion by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Defending the pervasive use of standardized testing in the schools, Hirsch wrote this:

Ample research shows that scores on fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are the most reliable predictors of Americans' future economic status and ability to become effective citizens.

I sure would like to see the empirical model that enables researchers to measure effective citizenship. Hasn't Hirsch fallen into exactly the problem I discussed here?

To be fair, Hirsch probably means that you can't be an effective citizen if you can't read well. But what if effective citizenship hinges on other qualities too? What if the schools conclude (as they seem to have concluded) that they can't maximize reading scores without taking an increasingly authoritarian approach to school discipline, and without putting special emphasis on passive compliance and obedience? Is that what makes a good citizen? Doesn't your answer depend on your values?

Life would certainly be easier if research and evidence could tell us what our values should be. But value judgments are not testable. Evidence can help shed light on the consequences of different choices, but it can't tell you whether to like or dislike those consequences. When competing values are at stake -- which is almost always -- the discussion inevitably has to move beyond evidence to the question of what kind of people we want to be.

..How can I comment?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quote for the day

"I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude."

..How can I comment?

Evidence and values

When people discuss rewards programs like the one I argued against here, they often frame the question as whether the program "works." Such a program, its supporters say, is "evidence-based," and there is research showing that it works.

I agree that evidence is important, and that we should look at the research about programs like these. But it's also true that there are some things evidence can't do.

For example, at a recent meeting to discuss the use of reward "tickets" at our school, one parent, a preschool teacher, explained why she opposed the program. "I know that kids need help learning good behavior, but if one of my preschoolers did a good thing, and I responded by handing him one of these tickets, it would just feel so condescending."

I am sure there are people who don't think there is anything wrong with acting condescending toward a four-year-old. There are also those, like the woman at the meeting, who do. Is there any research, any experimental design, that could prove one right and the other wrong?

To someone like me who opposes this kind of program, the issue is one of values. The fact that the program may "work" to increase compliance with school rules doesn't lead me to support it, any more than I would support corporal punishment if the evidence showed that it "worked." So I'm afraid that until we start talking about values, we're just going to be talking past one another.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Prize or feedback?

One supporter of the rewards program disagrees with my characterization of the program as culminating in a "prize." She points out that the student who is chosen in the drawing at the end of each week does not receive a tangible item, but instead "gets a special lunch with the principal or teacher, gets to sit in a special chair, gets to do a special job in the classroom, etc."

That's important to point out, and I suppose I'd feel even worse if the student were given, say, a bag of candy. But it still strikes me as a prize, and my sense is that the students experience it as one. It functions the same way the tickets themselves function -- as an incentive, as something they can "win." In terms of its function as feedback, I don't see a real distinction between the special chair and the tangible item.

..How can I comment?

Behavioral, yes. Positive and supporting? Maybe not.

Here is a letter that I am sending to the members of our school board:

I write to express my disagreement with a program that is currently being instituted in the Iowa City schools, and specifically in Hoover School, which my three daughters attend.

Hoover has recently started running a school-wide program of “positive behavioral supports,” apparently as part of the “Safe Schools Healthy Students” grant. As part of this program, teachers and staff are continually giving red “Stellar Job!” tickets to students whom they observe doing something praiseworthy in the hallways or lunchroom or at recess. The students collect the tickets to be entered into a lottery for a special prize at the end of each week.

Before I continue, I want to emphasize three things. First, I am not writing to criticize Hoover’s teachers or principal, who, as I understand it, had no choice in the adoption of this program, and who, for all I know, may dislike it themselves. Second, I am not taking any position on whether reward systems make sense for kids with learning disabilities or with autism; I hope the school system will take the opinions of the parents of those children into account in making those decisions. Third, I don’t doubt that this kind of program can increase compliance with school rules, at least in the short term. I object to it anyway, because I fear that those gains are coming at too high a cost, in terms of the messages that are being sent and the values that are being instilled.

I am against this program for several reasons:

1. The use of reward systems and token economies in education is very controversial. Many parents are uncomfortable with it, and a lot of research has raised concerns about its long-term consequences. Principal Kehoe at Hoover helpfully forwarded me an article defending the practice, but for every study one can cite in its favor, one can find a study that is critical of it. Moreover, all the empirical research in the world cannot resolve differences over values, which are at the heart of many parents’ objections, including mine. Given the lack of consensus on the pervasive use of rewards, and the significant number of parents who dislike it, the Board should not be adopting it as a school- or district-wide practice.

2. By essentially paying the students to be well-behaved, the program sends the message that good behavior is a chore -- a “job!” -- something you wouldn’t choose to do unless you’re compensated. The school might as well be telling the kids: “We know that nobody would want to be well-behaved, unless there’s something in it for them!” That is the opposite of the message I want to send my kids. I want them to do the right thing because they have thought about what’s right and developed a set of values of their own, not because someone else is paying them to. It may not be as easy as handing out reward tickets, but I think it’s the schools’ job to help students learn to think about their own behavior and values, rather than to develop unthinking responses to various artificial stimuli.

3. I am uncomfortable with the program’s emphasis on payment. The tickets are basically a stand-in for money -- or worse, for lottery tickets. The program creates a culture in which success is defined as the accumulation of these tickets -- I am told that some students have become virtually obsessed with getting more tickets. Though its goal is to encourage good behavior, the program actually promotes -- and depends on -- a type of greed.

4. The program models a disrespectful -- and frankly, kind of creepy -- way of interacting with other people. Rather than treat the kids as human beings to be engaged, it treats them more like laboratory animals to be manipulated. Kids know when they are being manipulated. But this program puts the stamp of approval on that kind of manipulation, and on treating other people instrumentally, as a means to an end. I hope that when my daughter someday approaches her Congressperson about an issue she cares about, she’ll offer a persuasive argument, not a bribe. But I worry that this program is teaching exactly the opposite lesson.

5. The rewards themselves seem dishonest. Standing quietly in the hallway is not the same as doing a “stellar job!” on something. To say otherwise is to devalue the meaning of language, to lower the standards of excellence to the point where they are virtually meaningless, and to rob the teachers of credibility. The kids know they didn’t do a stellar job of anything, so the lesson is that it’s okay to twist language -- to say what you don’t mean -- to get other people to do what you want. (A much more appropriate message would be “Thank you!,” although I would still object to the program for the other reasons I have identified.)

Genuine praise comes from sincere pleasure at a child’s achievements, and will happen naturally without programs and grant money. But this program is not about praise, it is about feigning praise to get compliance. By forcing the teachers to say things they don’t really mean, the program ends up modeling insincerity.

6. The program forces the school to become a kind of Big Brother, constantly scrutinizing the kids and passing judgment on them. Do we really want the school to try to get inside their heads to that degree? There is no reason to think that kids will react to that kind of pervasive scrutiny any differently than we, as adults, would react to it; if anything, they will have fewer defenses to the feelings it would provoke and the stress that it would create. A child should be encouraged to develop a conception of self that is his or her own, not dependent on the constant approval of someone else. A little freedom, a little privacy, and an occasional break from the watchful eye of the teachers are healthy ingredients in the process of growing up, even if the kids might be a little less orderly in the hallways as a result.

7. The distribution of reward tickets is inevitably going to be arbitrary. A student who is on her best behavior may still not get tickets, and so will feel inexplicably punished. Moreover, even well-intentioned teachers can fall victim to unconscious biases; studies have shown, for example, that kids who are perceived to be physically attractive are likely to receive more favorable attention from their teachers. In a system where the teachers are passing out scores of reward tickets every day, there is every reason to be concerned that the tickets will be distributed in ways that are arbitrary and unintentionally hurtful.

8. We are being encouraged to think of these behavioral manipulation techniques as “positive,” and as distinguishable from a system of punishing students for bad behavior. But there is no real distinction. If you reward well-behaved students with lottery tickets, then by definition you are punishing those students to whom you don’t give a ticket. Maybe some use of punishment is inevitable in a school full of kids, but to claim that this system is not about punishment is disingenuous.

9. Even if I agreed with the pervasive use of rewards, I would object to what is being rewarded here. The students are not getting tickets for thinking creatively, for asking good questions, or (with a few exceptions) for being kind to someone else -- even if the school wanted to reward that behavior, it would be impossible to reliably identify it in the hallways and the lunchroom. Instead, the students are being rewarded for being quiet, for following the rules, and for obeying the teachers. Ask any kid what it means to “be good” in school, and you get the same answer: “Be quiet, and do what the teacher says.”

I know that schools need to have rules and to enforce them, but I object to the increasing emphasis on unquestioning obedience to authority as the one value that stands above all others. I want my kids to learn that obedience to authority is not the highest value. I want them to learn to think for themselves, to question the world they find themselves in, and not to let their self-worth or values depend on some authority figure’s opinion. I want to prepare them to become citizens in a democracy, not subjects of an authoritarian state. I worry that thirteen years of “Be quiet and do what the teacher says” is not advancing those goals.

I don’t mean to say that our school teaches nothing but compliance with rules. Of course the school is also trying to engage the students and make them think. And I understand that without some order in the classroom, teaching becomes impossible. I’m talking about a matter of degree: at some point, an overemphasis on obedience will necessarily undermine any emphasis on inquiry and thought. Sure, all schools want their students to learn to think, but inevitably actions speak louder than words: no one gets kept in from recess for failing to think deeply or to ask a good question.

I should add that the emphasis on unquestioning compliance with the wishes of others is especially a concern for the parents of girls -- it is exactly the habit you don’t want them taking into their adolescent years.

10. I can’t help but wonder whether this program is yet another result of our school systems’ increasingly single-minded pursuit of higher standardized test scores. It appears to be part and parcel of the general increase in strictness, regimentation, and rigidity that has followed from the effort to squeeze every last testing point out of the students. I’m just one person, but for what it’s worth: I do not care whether you add a few more points to my daughters’ standardized test scores. It is not worth turning the school into a behavioral laboratory or a military academy. I am much more concerned that my daughters grow up in a humane environment where the main emphasis is on thought and inquiry, rather than on compliance and obedience. I believe you can get a good education -- in fact, a better education -- without being immersed in reward systems or authoritarian values.

It seems ironic that this is all being done in the name of preparing the students for college and for adulthood. To me, that reflects an impoverished and short-sighted understanding of what a school should be, and of what it means to be well-educated. I believe that this emphasis on test scores is failing our kids: that it is not at all anticipating what adulthood will demand of them, or even what might someday attract the attention of a college admissions officer. By making so much contingent on raising test scores in the short term, our system is distorting the broader mission of schools, for the worse.

11. Finally, the program is simply unnecessary. I have never heard anyone complain that the students at Hoover were too noisy in the hallways, too disorderly at lunch, or insufficiently inclined to line up after recess. Hoover wasn’t broken, and did not need to be “fixed” in this way.

Thank you for listening.

Related posts:

Evidence and values

What’s good for General Motors . . .

Alfie Kohn on our red tickets


Weird science

Some company in Connecticut

The risks of rewards

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

Treating kids like pets, continued

Scenes from the first week of school

..How can I comment?

Comment policy

People, including me, can naturally get pretty worked up about anything that affects their kids. But this is a small town, and when the argument’s over, we all have to keep living with each other. I’ve done enough web-surfing to be leery of opening up this blog to unlimited anonymous comments. I want to make sure that the focus stays on ideas, and not on personalities. So, at least for now, I’m going to take comments only through email.

Parents, students, teachers, and interested onlookers: I’d love it if you sent me your thoughts at ABlogAboutSchool [ at ] gmail [ dot ] com. Please be aware that I may post or quote your emails on the blog.

UPDATE: For posts after September 15, 2010, I have enabled comments. (See this post.) I still welcome comments by email on earlier posts.

Welcome to A Blog About School

A funny thing happens when you talk about school with another parent. Maybe you’re waiting outside the building at three o’clock for the kids to get out. You’re making small talk with another dad. You start talking about what the kids are saying about school.

“My kids say they only get fifteen minutes for lunch,” he might say.

“Yeah, I think that’s all they get,” you say.

“And just getting through the line takes time.”

“Especially if they’re buying lunch.”

“My kids bring their lunch, but they never finish it. There’s not enough time in fifteen minutes.”

“Sometimes mine eat theirs on the way home.”

“Seems like they could give them more than fifteen minutes for lunch.”

“Yeah, seems crazy.”


Shoulders are shrugged.
The bell rings.
The subject is never revisited.

I imagine a prisoner in solitary confinement, using a spoon to tap out messages in Morse code on the bars of his cell. Suddenly, he hears some tapping in response -- someone else wants to talk! Then the moment passes and he’s alone again.

Of course, you could talk to the principal, or the superintendent, or the school board. You would probably get some sympathy -- these are all good people trying to do their best. “Yes, it really is too bad that lunch has to be so short. But it’s so hard to accommodate the schedule, and the kids start to get unruly, and the next group of kids needs the room,” etc.

As you stand there, by yourself, you wonder: But what if all the parents agreed that fifteen minutes was too short? Would that make a difference? And then you realize: it doesn’t matter, because no one will ever know how many parents agree with you. There is no mechanism for expanding that conversation beyond the three o’clock small talk. Sometimes it almost seems as if that is by design.

Therefore: a blog. On a blog, I can toss out some ideas -- not just to parents, but to teachers, kids, people at other schools, anyone who’s interested -- and see what kind of response they get. Even if it doesn’t change any minds, it might at least reassure a few people that they are not alone in their opinions. (On the other hand, it may just prove that I am, in fact, alone. I promise not to be surprised.)

In the spirit of any self-respecting blog, I have posted an inaugural rant. Although it’s a response to a very specific practice that has recently begun at my kids’ school, it can also serve as a kind of initial manifesto for this blog, and, hopefully, as something that will stimulate some debate.

Of course, I have no idea where this is going. Maybe I’ll get tired of it in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, thanks for tuning in.

UPDATE: On the issue of the fifteen-minute lunch, a group of parents has petitioned the school superintendent for change. See this post.

..How can I comment?