Friday, December 31, 2010

Debate or Groupthink? An exchange with a school board member

A few weeks ago I wrote that the local climate for discussing school issues is too chilled by fear: parents’ fear of offending the people who take care of their kids every day, and teachers’ fear of how their employers might react if they say anything critical of a district policy or practice. I really believe in the old civics-lesson idea that free and unrestricted debate is likely to lead to the best policy decisions, and that a “Groupthink” dynamic that discourages dissent is a recipe for bad outcomes. And I think we should encourage robust debate on school issues not only because it’s likely to lead to better policy decisions, but also because it’s important to model a healthy democratic process for the kids.

That post prompted one of our school board members, Tuyet Dorau, to email me about the topic, which led to the following exchange. Although I don’t think we see entirely eye-to-eye on this subject, I really appreciate her willingness to respond publicly. That kind of willingness to engage publicly with parents on their concerns about school issues is an important ingredient in the kind of healthy debate we should be shooting for.

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Your assertion (in the PC online forum) that there is a blanket policy preventing staff members from speaking up is incorrect. I know that I am not the Administration nor do I speak for the entire Board, but I personally welcome different perspectives.

During school visits, I make it a point to seek out teacher input. Often during redistricting I sought out the perspective of teachers and administrators from different buildings. I think the point is that there is a time and place and each party must be willing to come to the table to discuss the matter in a reasonable and rational fashion. It does no one any good for a teacher to blast a policy when or if they have not brought it up to their Administrators. Perhaps their building administrator has a different perspective that can be equally as valuable.

I believe one of my jobs on the Board is to look at the various perspectives (student, parent, community member, teacher, staffer, administrator, legislator, etc) and try to piece together what are areas of agreement, disagreement and where can we work to agreement. It’s not always perfect, but it is a process that does better under respectful dialog as opposed to a guns a blazin’ approach.

We’ll have a chance to speak more in person.

Warmest Regards,

Tuyet Dorau
Iowa City Community School District

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Hi -- It sounds to me like what you’re doing as a school board member is all to the good. But my point is that the public, not just the school board members, should get to hear about the teachers’ experiences and opinions about PBIS and other policies that affect the kids. Why should we be kept in the dark about that? So I disagree that teachers should ever be discouraged from speaking out publicly about policies that affect the kids -- because it would deprive the public of information that it should have access to. It’s great if teachers discuss their concerns with administrators first, but that shouldn’t mean that they have to stop there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The superintendent and the passive voice

At a recent meeting with parents about cutbacks in the time the kids are allowed for lunch, our superintendent explained that school principals have squeezed lunch and recess because of the pressure they feel to raise standardized test scores. Under No Child Left Behind, principals who fail to meet test-score benchmarks could eventually get fired. The superintendent wasn’t defending this system -- in fact he sympathized with us and agreed that the system was regrettable -- but was just trying to explain the context in which the principals made their decisions.

But people don’t just “get fired.” Somebody fires them. And who is in charge of hiring and firing school principals? The very person who was sympathizing with us and telling us how regrettable the situation is.

Will our superintendent and school board members commit to not firing principals and teachers for failing to meet unrealistic and harmful standardized testing goals?

No response from school board members on the fifteen-minute lunch

It’s been almost six weeks since Katina Lillios emailed the school board about the petition to extend our elementary schools’ lunches beyond fifteen minutes. Seventy-seven people have signed the petition. There have been several articles in local newspapers about the issue, and the superintendent even met with parents about it.

How many school board members have responded to Katina’s email, or even acknowledged receiving it? None.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Is there anything our school officials won’t do for federal money?

Here’s a comment that a local parent posted on the petition to extend our district’s fifteen-minute elementary school lunch period:

I ate lunch with my son last year for his birthday and what was more appalling to me than the 15 minute lunch was the fact that in the middle of winter his class filed in the lunch room in full winter gear, boots, snow pants, and coats zipped with their hats and gloves shoved down the inside. We were told that there was no time to get dressed for recess so they had to sit and not only eat very quickly but do so while roasting. It still upsets me to think about.

Why is this happening in Iowa City public schools? Because, as our superintendent explained, school administrators are under tremendous pressure, under the No Child Left Behind Act, to raise standardized test scores. If they fail to meet the ever-escalating testing benchmarks, they could eventually lose their jobs. That pressure leads them to try to maximize instructional minutes at the expense of lunch and recess.

I don’t believe that there is any administrator in the world who could think that the scene described in the above comment is good for the children. The only explanation for it is that administrators can no longer do what’s best for the kids without putting their jobs at risk. No one should be surprised. The whole purpose of No Child Left Behind is to use federal funds to coerce school officials into doing things to the kids that they would not otherwise be willing to do.

At what point will our district say no?

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that the federal government decides to cut off school funding to any state that doesn’t institute corporal punishment in its public schools. Suppose the state of Iowa, to ensure the continued flow of federal dollars, then passes a statute requiring local school districts to use corporal punishment. Suppose districts that refuse to comply would incur penalties, such as administrators getting fired, funds getting cut off, and accreditation being withheld.

What would our school board, our superintendent, and our local school administrators do in response? Would they take a stand against beating kids as a form of punishment? Would they refuse to engage in practices that hurt the kids, even if that meant risking state and federal penalties?

Or would they convince themselves that the loss of federal money would do more harm to the kids than the occasional beating? Would they imagine themselves, as they execute the new policy, to actually be protecting the kids by not beating them as badly or as frequently as they’re supposed to? Would they start using words like “spanking” and “paddling” instead of “beating,” or phrases like “behavioral consequences” instead of “corporal punishment”? Would they begin to cite research showing that beating the kids leads to higher short-term compliance with rules? Would they remind themselves that the kids can just behave better if they don’t want to get beaten? Would they start to think that some kids actually deserve a good whupping now and then?

Would they say they were only following orders?

On second thought, let’s not do that thought experiment.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Iowa Public Radio to cover the school lunch issue

Iowa Public Radio will cover the school lunch issue on "The Exchange," today (Friday, December 17) at noon. Both Katina Lillios, who organized the petition to extend the lunch period, and Steve Murley, the Iowa City school superintendent, will be on the program, which will also be available afterward via podcast. Details here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thoughts about the school lunch meeting, part 2

The thing that most surprised me at last night’s meeting with the superintendent about the fifteen-minute lunch period: There are apparently no state or federal requirements on how elementary schools must allocate the time in the school day. How many minutes to give to math, reading, art, music, gym, lunch, recess: it’s entirely up to us as a community.

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So why has lunch been squeezed down to fifteen minutes or less? According to the superintendent, it’s because school administrators know that they’ll be subject to penalties, under No Child Left Behind, if they fail to raise standardized test scores. Those penalties can even lead to administrators and teachers getting fired. In response, the administrators have concluded that they have to add instructional time to the day, and there are only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess. The superintendent did not endorse this system, but was just describing the objective reality. So much for what our community would choose for our children. More on that issue in an upcoming post.

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The superintendent started the meeting by talking about how the “twenty-minute lunch period” came about, and conceded that some schools may be counting time getting to and from lunch as part of the “twenty minutes.” This attempt at spin went over like a lead balloon. No one in the room acknowledged his characterization at all, and discussion quickly moved on to the actual fifteen-minute lunch period and how the fifteen minutes even included time waiting in line and cleaning up.

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A paraphrase that I think captures the essence of the evening:

PARENT: There is more to education than raising test scores. We want to educate the whole child.


ANOTHER PARENT: Evidence shows that kids learn better if they eat a healthy lunch and have sufficient down time to socialize and play.


ANOTHER PARENT: I don’t see why my first-grader needs an hour of math instruction every day. If math were fifty minutes long, and lunch was twenty-five minutes long, nobody would be here complaining that we need to cut lunch and add to math.

ANOTHER PARENT: We need to question the assumption that more is always better. Piling additional instructional time on the kids is counterproductive, even if raising test scores is your goal.

SIXTH-GRADER: After about forty minutes of any class, I start to zone out anyway.


PARENT: So how do you suggest we solve this lunch problem?

(Drum roll please . . .)

SUPERINTENDENT: I think we should make the school day longer.

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In fairness, a few of the parents were open to the idea of extending the school day to make more time for lunch. I don’t know whether that’s because they’d be against redrawing the line between instructional time and down time, or just because they sense that the administrators won’t be willing to extend lunch any other way.

One student said -- and was quoted in the paper -- “I’d much rather have a long day than a short lunch.” That’s exactly the choice the superintendent wants us to see. Considering the possibility of a longer lunch in the existing school day would force a discussion of whether the administrators’ interests actually differ from the kids’ interests, a subject I sensed the superintendent would prefer to avoid.

My sense was that the superintendent already wanted to extend the school day, and hoped to use the school lunch issue as a way to win parents over to the idea -- thus pleasing both parents and administrators. I know a lot of parents whose reaction will disappoint him.

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For a while discussion turned to how the district’s behavior management program, PBIS, was creating a negative and overly restrictive atmosphere in the schools. The superintendent’s defense of PBIS struck me as particularly lame. He said that there is nothing wrong with PBIS itself, because all it means is setting clear community expectations about how the kids should act. I’ll agree that PBIS, defined in that way, is unobjectionable, but it’s also a meaningless platitude. No one objects to the schools setting clear expectations about behavior. But it is simply false to say that that is what PBIS is. PBIS is a specific approach to achieving behavioral goals -- one that emphasizes rewards and external motivators, and puts no emphasis on helping the kids develop their own intrinsic sense of right and wrong that is independent of simply obeying whatever rules the authorities present them with. All of the non-imaginary objections to PBIS follow from that fact.

Although the superintendent defended his contentless version of PBIS, he at least conceded that there may be problems with the way PBIS is being implemented. All right. If he wants to think of all the actual content of PBIS as an “implementation problem,” fine, let’s work on that implementation problem.

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Am I being too harsh? The guy came out on an eight-degree night to meet with us for an hour and a half when he could have been at home with his family, and I appreciate that. And he understood -- and even anticipated and sympathized with -- much of what we had to say. But I’m afraid my experience has taught me that school administrators often try to placate parents by sympathizing profusely with their concerns, only to then enact policies that exacerbate those very concerns -- usually asserting that they have no choice because of decisions made at higher levels. I sometimes think it must be the first strategy they learn in Parent Management class in education school.

If this superintendent increases lunch and recess time without extending the school day, and gets rid of the harmful aspects of PBIS, and resists as much as possible the dehumanizing pressures of No Child Left Behind, I’ll be his biggest fan, and you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, I’ll view him the way I hope my kids will someday view public officials who tell them what they want to hear: skeptically first, and hopefully second.

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Above all, I was struck yet again by how our “public” school system is primarily driven by factors other than the community’s preferences. Here is an issue -- allocation of time in the school schedule -- which is entirely in our community’s hands. Yet even the identity of the people deciding the issue remains unclear. The superintendent said that the schedule is decided by individual principals, but also mentioned that the district “suggests” a rough schedule outline to the principals. My experience is that “suggestions” made by one’s employer carry a lot of weight. But, conveniently, this division of responsibility between the district and the principals allows each to blame the other for the outcome.

The superintendent explained that our district operates “more like a confederation than like a nation,” and that the district gives a lot of discretion to individual principals. I’d be in favor of that system, but for the fact that principals are the least democratically accountable of any actors in the system. We can vote for the school board members, who hire the superintendent. But if they delegate the policymaking to the school principals, what possible role is there for public input into those decisions? (Even the superintendent acknowledged that the PTAs do not play that role.) My suggestion that each school might have a parent council that would advise the principal on policy decisions -- an idea borrowed from our Canadian friends -- received a polite nod from the superintendent before he moved on to the next person.

Of course I have no way of knowing how much the parents in the room last night were representative of our district’s citizens as a whole. But when I heard the stories of kids being rushed through lunch in their winter coats and/or in near silence, I couldn’t help thinking how little resemblance our school system bears to any system that our community would ever consciously choose to create.

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More soon. Part 1 here. To read all posts on the school lunch issue, click here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thoughts about the school lunch meeting, part 1

A group of parents and students met with our school superintendent tonight to talk about our concerns that the lunch period in our elementary schools -- which is only fifteen minutes, including the time spent waiting in line and coming and going -- is too short. (Their petition is here.) Over the course of the meeting, people expressed other, related concerns as well -- such as some schools’ practice of insisting the kids eat lunch very quietly, or while fully dressed in their outdoor winter clothes (since there is otherwise not enough time to dress for recess). People also expressed dismay at the role No Child Left Behind, with its forced emphasis raising standardized test scores, has played in causing school administrators to increase instructional time at the expense of the lunch and recess.

The superintendent, who is new this year, was personable and good at conveying that he understood people’s concerns. Nonetheless, I left the meeting feeling that there was a noticeable gulf between him and the parents in the room. What was missing was any acknowledgement from the superintendent that, when school administrators are deciding that it’s a good idea to make the kids eat lunch in under fifteen minutes, without giving them time or permission to converse in normal voices -- and sometimes even bundled up in winter clothes -- something has gone very, very wrong. The superintendent seemed to respond to those concerns by saying, “Well, I can see your point.” Meanwhile, the parents in the room seemed to be thinking, “What the hell is going on in the Iowa City public schools?”

Part 2 here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The incredible shrinking recess

Over at Parenting is Political, northTOmom is arguing against cutbacks in recess time in Toronto elementary schools. Students there currently get two fifteen-minute recess breaks, plus an hour-long break for lunch/recess. Under a new system that is being implemented in many Ontario schools, they would get two forty-minute breaks, with each one evenly divided between time to eat and time to play. That would give the kids twenty more minutes to eat, but thirty fewer minutes of unstructured play.

I hope Toronto holds the line against cuts in recess time. I wonder what they would think of Iowa City, where my fifth-grade daughter gets one thirty-five minute break for lunch and recess combined, plus a five-minute bathroom break, and that’s it until she goes home at three o’clock.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

“We must treat each one of them exactly as we wish for our own loved ones to be treated.”

The other day I wrote about Tolstoy’s dismay at the level of compulsion that he saw in the schools of his day. I think there is too much compulsion in our schools today. I’m not against forcing kids to do some things: if my daughter has a burst appendix, she goes to the hospital, whether she wants to or not. But I am against the use of excessive force, and most of the compulsion I see in schools today seems to be unjustified, if not outright counterproductive. I’m worried that No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on raising test scores, is leading schools to take a top-down, “make ’em learn” approach to education that’s bound to have unhappy consequences on our kids’ attitudes toward school and toward learning. If you force a student to learn algebra at the cost of making her hate math, you’ve won the battle but lost the war.

A school’s first task should be to build on -- or at least not to kill -- the natural sense of enjoyment and fulfillment that all kids get from satisfying their curiosity about the world -- that is, from intellectual activity. A good school should be a place where the kids would choose to go, even if they didn’t have to. It should treat the kids as individuals to be engaged and won over, rather than as subjects to be dictated to.

I suppose there is only so much that individual school principals can do to pursue that philosophy, given how many decisions are imposed on them from above. But I do think there are differences in attitude and approach. That’s one of the reasons I liked what I saw in a recent newsletter from the principal of our local high school, John Bacon:

How can City High truly be The School That Leads? How do we live up to this proud tradition? How do we put meaning behind our motto? There are many ways we must do this, including these:

1. We must lead in delivering engaging instruction. We can hook our students into what we are teaching so that they look forward to coming to class each day. There is an element of performance to great teaching. We have a tremendous faculty and we must keep getting better.

2. We can lead in “customer service”. We must be family friendly, highly positive, with excellent communication. All stakeholders must be treated with respect and dignity each day.

3. Most importantly, we must lead in caring for our students. We must call them by name in a positive way each day. We must listen to them and respect them. We must treat each one of them exactly as we wish for our own loved ones to be treated.
Now, some of that has an over-the-top, motivational-speaker quality to it, and of course it’s easier to state goals than to put them in practice. (My kids aren’t in high school yet, so I can’t speak to the practice.) But as a statement of goals, from a principal working within a system that’s not of his own making, this seems like a good one. I’ve heard only good things about John Bacon, from both students and school staff, and I count this as one of them.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tolstoy in the schools of Marseilles

Over at Kid-Friendly Schools, FedUpMom has a brief post about how China’s high test scores have come at the expense of real learning.

Here’s Tolstoy, writing almost a hundred and fifty years ago:

Last year I was in Marseilles, where I visited all the schools for the working people of that city.

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The school programmes consist in learning by heart the catechism, Biblical and universal history, the four operations of arithmetic, French orthography, and bookkeeping. In what way bookkeeping could form the subject of instruction I was unable to comprehend, and not one teacher could explain it to me. The only explanation I was able to make to myself, when I examined the books kept by the students who had finished the course, was that they did not know even three rules of arithmetic, but that they had learned by heart to operate with figures and that, therefore, they had also learned by rote how to keep books.

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Not one boy in these schools was able to solve, that is, to put the simplest problem in addition and subtraction. And yet, they operated with abstract numbers, multiplying thousands with ease and rapidity. To questions from the history of France they answered well by rote, but if asked at haphazard, I received such answers as that Henry IV. had been killed by Julius Caesar. The same was the case with geography and sacred history. The same with orthography and reading. More than one half of the girls cannot read any other books than those they have studied. Six years of school had not given them the faculty of writing a word without a mistake.

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After the lay school, I saw the daily instruction offered in the churches; I saw the salles d’asiles, in which four-year-old children, at a given whistle, like soldiers, made evolutions around the benches, at a given command lifted and folded their hands, and with quivering and strange voices sang laudatory hymns to God and to their benefactors, and I convinced myself that the educational institutions of the city of Marseilles were exceedingly bad.
At the root of the problem, Tolstoy believed, was the degree of compulsion -- which “becomes worse and worse in every year and with every hour,” to the point where “There is left only the despotic form with hardly any contents.” To the contrary, Tolstoy concluded, “the criterion of pedagogics is only liberty.”

But why listen to people like Tolstoy and Einstein when we have Arne Duncan, E.D. Hirsch, and that principal with the baseball bat?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A public meeting on the school lunch issue

Should kids get more than fifteen minutes to eat lunch at school every day? The issue will be discussed at a public meeting with the Iowa City school superintendent on Monday, December 13, from 6:00 to 7:30, at Shimek Elementary School. I hope anyone interested will attend and speak up. More information here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fear vs. the First Amendment

When I published an opinion piece last week that was critical of the way our school district, and our particular school, are teaching kids about good behavior, several people asked me whether I was worried that expressing my opinion might negatively affect the way the school treated my kids. In fact, although I have disagreements with our school principal and think that she could do better at handling questions and criticism, I have absolutely no reason to think that she or anyone at the school has treated my kids differently because of anything I wrote or said. But there are apparently a lot of other people who would think twice about expressing similar opinions, for that reason.

Then a local teacher published an opinion piece that seemed to be defending the school district on some of the issues I raised. When I invited him to discuss those issues at more length on this blog, though, he let me know that he wasn’t really intending to take a position on what school policies should be, but merely to say that teachers should not be criticized for policies that they don’t have any say over. I agree with him about that, and I understand why he wouldn’t want to get involved in publicly debating the district’s policy. But I also think it’s a shame if teachers in the system feel free to publish only the most uncontroversial opinions, when their contributions on more debatable issues would actually be very valuable.

Today, someone posted the following comment in response to that teacher’s piece:

Amazing comments.

As a teacher with more than 30 years in the ICCSD, I can say that the teachers I know dislike PBS (knowmn as “PBIS” in some schools)

However, because of the unruliness in an increasing number of students who have not been taught the basics of socially acceptable behavior, the PBS system is being implemented on a district-wide basis. This decision has been made at the expense of the majority of the students, in my opinion.

Until the ICCSD allows the individual schools to handle discipline in a realistic manner instead of a “one size fits all achools” model, the majority of students will be subjected to this policy that is a total waste of time and resources.

If the public wants to make a difference, show up at School Board meetings and state your opinion.

The teachers I know who have protested this approach have been told by their administrators to be quiet.
Set aside for the moment the question of whether district-wide PBIS is a good policy. (I happen to think that it’s a bad policy policy for any set of kids, including those who aren’t already well-behaved, but I’ve explained my reasons elsewhere.) Is there any excuse for an administrator telling a teacher to “be quiet” when the teacher thinks a district policy is bad for the kids? If that report is true, how is it not a scandal? How is it not a betrayal of the kids?

Of course teachers are going to be reluctant to contribute to debate about school policies if they’re worried about how their employer might react. In fact, public employees have a constitutional right to speak on matters of public concern, and it would be great if they took advantage of it. Unfortunately, the courts have muddied the contours of that right to the point where speech is obviously going to be chilled. You can read more about the right of public employees to engage in free speech here. (Notice, for example, point number 9.) The inspiring message for public employees: Yes, if you speak out on a matter of public concern, you might win the lawsuit that you bring after you’re fired! When that’s the good news, who needs the bad news?

But we don’t need a constitutional amendment to address this problem. Nor can this problem, like so many others, be blamed on federal or state mandates. On this issue, the buck stops with our superintendent and our school board, period. Do they believe that free and open debate produces better policies -- and thus is better for the kids -- or don’t they?

If they do, they have the power to do something about it. They can encourage teachers to speak out publicly on school policy issues. They can instruct school principals to encourage teachers to speak out. They can actively solicit public comment from teachers on school policy issues. They can discipline administrators who discourage teachers or parents from speaking up. They can enact policies providing teachers with more generous legal protection against retaliation than the courts have provided, and incorporate greater protection for speech into teacher contracts. Is there any reason why they should not do those things? How can they possibly expect to reach good policy decisions when the people closest to the kids -- parents and teachers -- are worried about the consequences of speaking up?

If our school officials aren’t furious about the possibility that teachers are being told to “be quiet” about matters of public concern, I’d sure like to know why. These are the people who are someday going to teach my kids about the purpose and value of the First Amendment? When they do, what are they going to say?

Follow-up post: Debate or Groupthink? An exchange with a school board member

Yet more follow-up on Press-Citizen opinion pieces

The other day I posted about a guest opinion piece in our local paper. I read the piece, which was written by a local teacher, as defending the district’s approach to teaching behavior that I had criticized in my own guest opinion the week before, and as suggesting that criticism of those policies somehow amounted to “negativity” that was unsupportive of teachers in the system. This prompted me to speak up in the comments on the piece, since I thought the piece did not directly confront the legitimate concerns that people (including me) had expressed about the district’s policies. More importantly, I thought it was wrong to suggest that criticism of district policies is somehow unsupportive of teachers. I don’t think opposing a school or district policy is unsupportive of teachers, any more than I think opposing a war is unsupportive of the troops.

At the same time, I sensed that the author and I had some areas of agreement. I emailed him and invited him to exchange emails to discuss the issue further, and offered to post that exchange on this blog. Yesterday, he wrote back to me. He said that his main point was that people shouldn’t criticize teachers for policies that they have no role in adopting, and on that I agree completely. He said that he was reluctant to get into any public exchange about the specific policies, though, and I think that’s understandable. I really appreciate that he took the time to reply. Here’s part of what I wrote back:

Thanks for clarifying -- I totally agree that no one should hold the teachers responsible for policy decisions that they don’t get to make. I have always tried to make it clear that my disagreements are with the policymakers (which sometimes includes the school principal, since she does appear to have some discretion in how PBIS and other programs get implemented at Hoover). I really do believe that the teachers -- because they’re actually *with* the kids all day -- are the people in the system who are most likely to treat the kids humanely and respectfully, and are often the people who take the edge off of some of the policies that I find objectionable. Which isn’t to say that they necessarily agree with me about everything or about anything -- I assume there is variation among their opinions on policy issues, just as there naturally is in any large group -- or that they are infallible.

Part of your article did seem to be defending the approach the schools have taken to discipline and to teaching good behavior, so that was the part that I thought was in response to some of the points I made. But if you were just trying to call out some of the more extreme commenters, I don’t have any disagreement with that. On the other hand, teachers are public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love, so I think they should expect to face some scrutiny and probably can’t afford to be too sensitive to criticism. On the whole, I stand by the idea that a robust public discussion of school policy issues is far, far better for the kids than is no discussion at all, even if it occasionally brings out the worst in some people.

I certainly don’t mean to drag you into the debate about whether PBIS or Social Thinking or 15-minute lunches are good policies. I can understand why a teacher working for the district would be reluctant to get involved in that debate. I think it’s unfortunate that teachers do feel that reluctance, since I think they would have a lot of good experience to bring to bear on those questions, and they certainly have some constitutionally protected rights to speak about matters of public concern, not to mention contractual and statutory rights to discuss working conditions. But realistically, I know that employees are unlikely to want to get involved in speaking out about their employers’ practices, especially if they disagree with them. All the more reason, then, that parents and ordinary citizens should speak up. From some of the responses I’ve gotten, it seems like a lot of people are taken entirely unaware by the idea that there might be different ways to approach teaching about behavior, and that some ways might convey different messages and teach different values than other ways. Unless someone speaks up to make those arguments, a real policy debate can’t ever occur.
It does seem to me that the environment for free speech on local school issues is less than ideal. More on that in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some responses from school officials

I received an email tonight from one of our school board members, Tuyet Dorau, in response to my post on the reward tickets program (PBIS). She discovered the post as a result of my comments on the guest opinion in the Press-Citizen today. She says she does not recall receiving my letter about the program, and I’m certainly willing to give her the benefit of the doubt about that. (I did send it to her, but I believe she had just been elected to the board and had not yet taken office at that time.) In any event, she says she is willing to discuss the PBIS issue further, which I really appreciate, and I will take her up on the offer.

She remains the only school official who has responded to my letter, though I should point out that the superintendent to whom I sent the letter has since left the job and been replaced by a new superintendent. I’d love to hear from the new superintendent about PBIS, but it would be inaccurate to say that he did not respond to my letter.

The new superintendent has also contacted the organizer of the school lunch petition and offered to meet with parents to discuss that issue. This seems like a positive step.

Finally, my daughter reports that the fifth- and sixth-grade students at her school were told today that their lunch would now be twenty minutes long, rather than fifteen. I haven’t confirmed that report, and I don’t know whether other grades are affected by any change. Stay tuned . . .

This is all good news.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Follow-up to the Press-Citizen opinion piece, ctd.

A local teacher has written a guest opinion in the Press-Citizen that is apparently in partial response to mine. I say “apparently” because he seems to be responding an article that is very different from the actual one that I wrote. Still, discussion is good, and I have posted a comment and may post more. I have also invited the author to engage in an email exchange about the issues he and I have raised, which I would then post on this blog.

By the way, for the record, the background of this blog is not meant to evoke Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” It is a reference to the idea of “talking to a brick wall,” which is how I often feel when trying to raise issues about the schools with school administrators. (See, for example, this post.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Will school officials respond?

Here’s the latest article on the petition, organized by Katina Lillios, to get local school officials to allow the kids more than a measly fifteen minutes to eat lunch every day. Will the superintendent or school board members respond? (I hope this is not an indicator.)

Stay tuned . . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

What is “content”?

Last week, I wrote an opinion piece in our local paper, arguing that our school district is teaching kids behavior rules in a way that promotes authoritarian values and discourages critical thinking. (The unedited version of it is here.) The piece elicited a variety of responses, which is unsurprising, since people vary in how comfortable they are with relatively authoritarian approaches to discipline and behavior. I’m not comfortable with them, at least partly because I see our country becoming more authoritarian, and I wish it weren’t. I don’t think thirteen years of “do as you’re told” is the best way to produce capable citizens of a healthy democracy, regardless of what effect it might have on standardized test scores. I’d much rather live in a country whose people are inclined to ask good questions, to develop their own sense of right and wrong, to be skeptical of other people’s assertions, and to think for themselves about the institutions they find themselves in, than in a country of people who score well on their math tests. That’s one reason why most of us would be more comfortable here than in, say, Singapore, where math performance is high and you can go to jail for criticizing the government.

A couple of the commenters suggested that there is not enough time to get the kids thinking and reasoning about their behavior because “there is content to be covered.” I think this partly misunderstands my objection, which is that the time the schools are already spending on behavior, through programs like PBIS and our school’s use of Social Thinking, is being spent in a way that discourages critical thought. But more importantly, I’m not sure what people mean when they talk about “content.” To me, developing kids’ ability to reason about their conduct in the world, and their relationship to the social peers and to authorities, is content, and is at least as important as how quickly they reach arbitrary benchmarks on their reading and math scores.

I’m afraid that our obsession with standardized test scores has led us to disregard big parts of the “content” of what it means to be well educated, such as the importance of curiosity, initiative, reflectiveness, creativity, skepticism, and a meaningful sense of oneself as an autonomous and thinking human being. To me, those are the qualities that are fundamental to being well educated, regardless of whether you know how to use the quadratic formula. (As one mom said to me, “When I imagine what I want my kids to be like, I don’t think, ‘I want them to be really quiet and obedient.’”) The pursuit of higher test scores, at any cost to those qualities that are hard to test, strikes me as greatly diminishing our conception of education.

Many people readily believe that what goes on in elementary school math classes will determine the future of our country’s economy. But if you suggest that immersing kids in authoritarian institutions for thirteen years might affect the future of our democracy, you hear a collective “P’shaw!” I’m afraid that the latter is teaching our kids much more thoroughly and effectively than the former, and that we’re going to reap what we sow.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Youthful tendency disorder

How to explain kids’ puzzling misbehavior? The Onion chimes in.

(C/o Kid-Friendly Schools)

News from Connecticut: No more tickets

Last year, I linked to the blog of Aimee in Connecticut, who was trying to convince her school district not to adopt PBIS, the same school-wide behavioral rewards system that we have here in Iowa City. Now she reports that, after a change of administrators and input from parents and staff, the school has decided to shelve the most objectionable aspects of PBIS in favor of an approach that’s more consistent with her community’s values. An excerpt:

At that informational meeting what was outlined is not the “canned” version of PBIS with extrinsic rewards at its core. Rather, it was very encouraging to hear that the committee has been mindfully tailoring a program specific to our needs as a community of learners. In particular, BCS will not be using a system of external motivators. We seem to be taking the best parts of PBIS - consistency, information gathering, well articulated expectations - and combining them with a more responsive format. Noted were the importance of building positive relationships, providing meaningful learning experiences, and meeting the needs of the full array of students - those behaving regularly to those who struggle daily with behavior.

It was explained that teachers will have autonomy to decide what classroom management works best for the students in their classrooms. Teachers are being encouraged (and hopefully supported), to reduce (and even eliminate) the reliance on “class-wide” punishments/incentives such as needing a certain number of stars for the class to get a reward. Students have shared how detrimental this type of system is for developing a positive, caring community.
Read the full post.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Follow-up on Press-Citizen guest opinion

This is to follow-up on the guest opinion that I wrote for the Iowa City Press-Citizen today. Space in the Press-Citizen is very limited, so I will add a few thoughts here. First, I want to point out some things that the piece is not saying:

  • I am not telling anyone who has children with autism what they should do. I don’t know enough about that experience to have an opinion about it, and I feel for anyone whose family is affected by autism or any other disability. Nor am I criticizing the use of Social Thinking for kids who have autism. As I say in the article, “It is easy to see how such an approach could be valuable for a child who has a neurological disorder that makes social interaction hard.”

  • I am not suggesting that it’s terrible for a neurotypical child to be “treated like she has autism.” I am objecting to the contents of a specific program as applied to neurotypical children.

  • I am not endorsing anarchy or saying that the school shouldn’t care about how the kids act. In fact, I’m saying the opposite: that a genuinely rigorous approach to addressing problem behavior would involve getting the kids to think about why they should act in a certain way and to begin to develop their own moral reasoning, rather than just instructing them to follow directions and conform to expectations.

  • I am not making a personal attack on anyone. These are policy issues, and more discussion of policy issues can only be to the good. Nor am I being unsupportive of my kids’ school. I believe I am being supportive of our school by trying to get people talking about the policies that govern a large part of our kids’ lives.

  • I am not blaming the teachers. I am very happy with my kids’ teachers. I know they have relatively little say in the policies that they sometimes have to execute (which isn’t to say that they agree with me).

  • I am not saying that nothing good happens at my kids’ school, or that they never try to get the kids to think and reason. I’m talking very specifically about the school’s approach to behavior and discipline, not its approach to education more generally.

What I am saying comes down to two things.

First, I believe that our schools’ expectations about the kids’ behavior have ratcheted up to the point where they are overly restrictive, unrealistic, and not age-appropriate. I say “schools” in the plural, because I sense that this is increasingly true in many schools and school systems, though my only direct experience is with Hoover. Hoover has started to remind me of a military academy. On multiple occasions over the past year, the kids have been made to eat lunch in utter silence -- “voice level zero” -- because some of them were being too loud. Kids are allowed to use the bathroom only so many times each day and for so long. (One mom told me that her daughter runs to the bathroom as soon as they get home after school.) Recess and lunch are shorter than ever. When the kids get to school in the morning, they’re expected to wait outside until the bell rings, and then line up single file and walk silently to their classrooms. Why? Who could they possibly be disturbing during those five minutes? (The other day, one boy showed up as the bell rang and said “Hi” to a friend in another line. “Shhhh!” the other boy responded, “Don’t talk!”)

Our school’s “character education” program -- which ostensibly promotes traits such as courage, respect, responsibility, and honesty -- in fact is used mainly to convey the importance of obedience and compliance with school rules. “Respect,” for example, is defined to mean “Line up quickly when the bell rings,” and “Lunchroom: Body basics. Voice level 1 or 2.” “Honesty” means “follow the rules even when an adult is not around” and “play fair and follow [school] game rules.” “Courage” means “follow the rules even if others don’t.” And so on. Posters and signs appear throughout the classrooms and hallways as constant reminders of the rules and required “voice levels” for different activities.

First- and second-graders now have homework, to prepare them for when they’re in third and fourth grade. (Before, it was the third- and fourth-graders who had homework, to prepare them for when they’re in fifth and sixth grade.) Five-year-old boys are expected to sit still and be quiet for unrealistically long periods of time. When they don’t, it’s always the kid who has the problem; no matter how many little boys act out, no one ever questions whether the school’s expectations are age-appropriate.

I believe that this ratcheting up of expectations, and the accompanying emphasis on behavioral compliance, is a direct result of No Child Left Behind and the increasing pressure on schools to raise their standardized test scores at any cost. Ask any teacher about how schools have changed over the last ten years. Is it because kids are an utterly different species than they were ten years ago? Or is it because the laws have changed?

Second, I’m objecting to the approach that our schools are taking to deal with behavior issues. Of course schools will always have rules, and part of growing up is learning to treat others with care and respect. But it is possible to talk with kids about behavior in ways that aren’t in tension with the goal of developing thinking, questioning, intellectually curious people. Rather than instruct the kids to do whatever is expected of them, the schools could engage them in real discussions to get them to talk and to reason about how they choose to treat other people and about their own developing moral understandings. Is that approach as easy as just making rules and handing out reward tickets? Probably not, but at least it has the advantage of not teaching values (do as you’re told and don’t ask questions) that are inconsistent with the whole idea of educating people.

But instead of approaches that view children as ripe for intellectual engagement and full of potential for growth, we get behavior programs that are modeled on the treatment of disability. (The reward ticket program, incidentally, also has origins that are intertwined with the treatment of autism. Its emphasis on the use of frequent concrete rewards for desired behavior is an echo of some of the most common treatments for autism, and the program itself is a school-wide version of an approach promoted by prominent autism researchers to help reduce self-destructive behaviors associated with autism and other developmental disabilities. My objections to the program are here.) I think that represents a missed opportunity and an unfortunate diminishment of what education should be about.

I don’t send my kids to school to learn that unquestioning obedience to authority and unthinking conformity are the highest values, but I’m afraid that’s the message that our school risks sending by the way it deals with behavior issues. I think that’s bad for our kids and bad for the future of our country. I look forward to the day when the posters in the hallway will urge the kids to ask good questions, to reach their own conclusions, to show initiative and creativity -- to use their minds -- instead of just to walk single file and keep their “voice level” down.

Sacrificing thought for “good behavior”

[An edited version of this post appeared today in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

I recently learned that our school, Hoover Elementary, was using a guidance curriculum designed for autistic children in all of its third- and fourth-grade classrooms. When I asked why, I was told that the kids weren’t “taking turns speaking” or “being respectful of others.” Eventually, after some parents (including me) complained about its content, the school district decided to discontinue that curriculum outside special education classrooms. I’m afraid, though, that the incident raises larger concerns about how our school system conceives of education.

Some background: Autism is a brain disorder that causes affected kids to have trouble communicating and interacting with other people. Children with autism often have a hard time participating in ordinary conversation, and struggle with many of the social skills that come naturally to most people -- for example, using someone’s facial expressions and tone of voice as cues to what that person is thinking or feeling.

As a result, many treatments for autism focus on developing interactive skills. One such program is Social Thinking, a treatment developed specifically for kids with autism or other social learning disabilities. Social Thinking’s goal is to train kids to discern and conform to the social expectations of the people around them. For example, it teaches the kids to recognize how other people feel when you behave in the way they expect, as opposed to when you behave in a way that is “surprising.” “The motivation for this learning,” the program’s creator explains, “comes from the desire to be socially validated (socially included) by others.”

It is easy to see how such an approach could be valuable for a child who has a neurological disorder that makes social interaction hard. Using it in entire classrooms of neurotypical children just to get the kids to “behave,” however, raises serious concerns.

First, the use of the program may be a sign that there are some kids on the autism spectrum who need individual attention -- and are legally entitled to it -- but aren’t getting it. Applying this treatment wholesale to an entire classroom is no substitute for individualized treatment.

Second, by teaching kids to comply with the expectations of others, the program encourages an unthinking, conformist approach to good behavior. In that way, unfortunately, it is consistent with the district’s general approach to behavior issues. Rather than try to get the kids thinking and reasoning about how they choose to treat other people or about their own developing moral compasses, our school district repeatedly chooses to emphasize unthinking obedience and compliance with rules. Schools throughout Iowa City, for example, now distribute reward “tickets” for good behavior -- which usually means being quiet and obedient -- leading to prize drawings for well-behaved kids. Such a program encourages kids to be good for selfish purposes, and not to think about the reasons behind the rules and expectations. (My objections to the program are here.) Similarly, our district’s “character education” program defines traits like honesty, courage, respect, and responsibility largely in terms of obedience and compliance with school rules.

Emphasizing unthinking conformity is particularly inappropriate in a guidance curriculum. The last thing a guidance curriculum should do is teach kids to conform to the expectations of their social group. Shouldn’t we want to teach exactly the opposite lesson -- that you should develop your own sense of right and wrong, that you should be true to your values even in the face of peer pressure, that it’s okay to be different from what people expect you to be, that everyone is unique, that it takes all kinds to make a world?

Unfortunately, our district’s use of these programs is part of a larger trend. Under increasing pressure to raise their students’ standardized test scores, schools have resorted to many measures that are arguably bad for the kids, such as assigning greater amounts of homework and at increasingly younger ages, introducing advanced concepts earlier, and cutting back on the time devoted to recess, lunch, and subjects that aren’t tested, like art and music. In their pursuit of additional minutes of “on task” time, schools have also begun to emphasize -- to the point of obsessing over -- rigid rules about “good behavior,” and have become less and less tolerant of kids acting like kids.

The resulting overemphasis on obedience and on unquestioning compliance with rules necessarily undermines any emphasis on inquiry and thought, which are the values all those rules are supposed to serve. If we hope to help kids become intelligent, autonomous adults, we shouldn’t be satisfied with getting them to behave out of a desire to win a prize, or with sharpening their skill at pleasing the people around them. We should help them become their own masters and think for themselves -- even if that means they might occasionally do something unpopular or “surprising.” Teaching the kids to behave doesn’t have to trump core educational values.

Follow up post here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What does it mean to be well educated?

So much of educational debate focuses on how to assess whether our schools, teachers, and kids are meeting certain goals, but the goals themselves seem very narrowly defined. It sometimes seems like we are letting assessment itself drive the goals -- as if we’ve concluded that there’s no point in pursuing any goal if it can’t be measured on a test.

That strikes me as impoverishing our conception of education, so I wanted to open up that topic here. In my last post, I described one quality that I hope education will instill in my kids: healthy skepticism, by which I mean not just being able to evaluate other people’s claims about the world, but being inclined to do so.

What qualities do you think a good education would instill in a person? How do they break down between acquired knowledge, skills, behavioral traits, mindsets, and values?

(The title of this post is borrowed from a book by Alfie Kohn.)

When did the Citizen become the Layperson?

One of the puzzles of education is how to teach kids about the world without teaching them to rely uncritically on other people’s reports of that world. Any system that is too focused on filling the kids’ heads with facts will have trouble instilling one of the most important traits of a well-educated person: healthy skepticism. If you spend most of your time saying, “Here are the facts,” it’s hard to simultaneously teach, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

Someday soon, those kids will be voters. The more inclined they are to answer every assertion with “Prove it,” and the more skilled they are in evaluating competing claims, the more soundly we should all sleep at night. If instilling those habits and skills means that we can’t cover as much subject matter, that’s a tradeoff that seems worth making, at least to a point. To take two recent examples, both the Iraq war and the financial crisis seem to have resulted more from a lack of skepticism than from any insufficient mastery of traditional academic subject matter. A perfect score on your AP American History exam would have done little to inoculate you against claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or connections to the September 11 attacks.

I worry that we now think of schoolchildren more as future employees than as future voting citizens. But I also worry that, in many areas, we no longer think of citizens as having a meaningful role to play in making decisions about our society. Many issues are now seen as too challenging or esoteric for ordinary voters to understand. Policy arguments increasingly take the form of “I know more about this than you do. Trust me,” or, “Studies have shown that I’m right.” Rather than try to convince the citizen of the merits of a given argument, the speaker tries to browbeat the layperson into deferring to “experts.” The experts often come from the ranks of people whose interests are at stake (for example, “unnamed administration officials,” or representatives of the financial industry), but that never seems to deter them from insisting on their exclusive authority to opine on the issues at hand.

Recently, the president of our local teachers’ union reviewed “Waiting for Superman,” a movie that is critical of public education and of teachers’ unions, and wrote:

The bottom line is this: If [the filmmaker] is not a professional teacher -- and he isn’t -- then he should not be telling me, or anyone else, what is wrong with public education, or how to “fix” it.
That sentence strikes me as not only self-serving and misguided, but as outright incoherent. Here are the follow-up questions that leap to mind:
Are you suggesting that members of the public have no business deciding what goes on in public schools? If so, in what sense would those schools be “public”? Do you think that non-teachers should not vote in Board of Education elections?

If policy decisions should be left to experts, who decides who the experts are? If the experts disagree among themselves (as they inevitably do), who should decide which ones are right?

Would you apply this principle in other areas as well? Are you opposed to civilian control of military policy? (Who are laypeople to tell those experienced generals what to do?) Should only lawyers vote on tort reform? Should only farmers vote on farm subsidies?

Suppose your experience makes you better than the layperson at predicting the consequences of choosing one policy over another. How can it tell us which consequences we should want? Can experts tell us what our values should be?
There are surely some people who would benefit from living in a world made up of experts and laypeople, rather than one made up of citizens and public servants. But isn’t something important -- something crucial to self-governance -- lost in the change?

I believe in listening closely to people whose experience is likely to have given them some wisdom. And I think that teachers should have more, not less, autonomy in the classroom. But, in a democracy, it is good -- not to mention unavoidable -- that ordinary citizens be the final judges of which goals to pursue and how to pursue them. Instead of trying to shut them down, we should be trying to build them up. We could start by spending less effort training schoolchildren to defer to authority and more effort trying to instill in them the habit of intelligent skepticism.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Healthy eating takes time

As some of you may recall from my very first post on this blog, our elementary school here in Iowa City gives the kids only fifteen minutes in which to eat lunch every day. Recently, the school district made that practice uniform across all elementary schools in the district (some of which had been getting away with a slightly-less-stingy twenty-minute lunch period), apparently for the sake of maximizing instructional time -- yet another sacrifice for the sake of raising standardized test scores.

A group of Iowa City parents led by Katina Lillios is now petitioning the school superintendent to reverse that decision and recognize the value of giving kids the time to eat a healthy lunch. You can read the group’s letter, express support, and find links to other school lunch sites at the group’s website. Wish them luck!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

It doesn’t build character

From Education Week:

Character education has grown in popularity among educators and parents alike, but the largest federal study of schoolwide programs to date has found that, for the most part, they don’t produce any improvements in student behavior or academic performance.
I described our school’s program here.  Maybe they could cut the character education and give the kids back the time they used to have for lunch and recess.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What’s in it for me?

Here’s a good post from Joe Bower about how behavioral reward programs like PBIS stunt kids’ moral development.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Welcome, new readers

The hit counter is getting an unexpected workout today after Alfie Kohn tweeted a link to ABlogAboutSchool. Welcome, visitors; I hope you’ll find something of interest here.

I started this blog because I am concerned about school practices that treat my kids like objects to be manipulated, or data points, or means to someone else’s end, rather than as full-fledged human beings. I’m also concerned that, in their drive to raise short-term test scores, our schools have become more effective at inculcating authoritarian values than at helping kids become thinking, capable citizens of a democracy.

I don’t think of this blog as either liberal or conservative, though “anti-authoritarian” and “small-d democratic” would be fair labels. If the site has one overarching theme, it’s that today’s schools would benefit from an infusion of democratic principles and an increase in democratic accountability, and that the absence of those qualities goes a long way toward explaining why schools are increasingly authoritarian and inhumane.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the site. Some representative posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This Rule is My Rule

Over at Kid-Friendly Schools, FedUpMom has a post about the trend toward dressing up disciplinary programs in the language of “choice” -- as if the children are freely choosing to subject themselves to whatever punitive system the schools have dreamed up for them. She cites “Make Your Day,” a kindergarten behavior program with various punitive “steps” for non-compliance, which depicts a child saying, “Choosing step doesn’t mean I’m a bad kid, it just means I need help making better choices.” FedUpMom concludes: “It means that progressive ideas like respecting the child have gotten just far enough that a management system that openly used coercion and punishment would not sell well. But a system that uses coercion and punishment disguised as ‘choice’ can sell very well indeed.”

I have always felt the same way about the use of so-called behavioral contracts. (Example here.) In the old days, the school told you what to do and punished you for not doing it. In today’s enlightened times, the school makes you sign a “contract” “agreeing” on what to do, then punishes you for not doing what you “agreed” to do. How progressive!

As someone who has taught Contracts many times, I can assure you: Nothing could be further from the concept of “contract” than forcing a minor to sign a document and then using her “agreement” as a basis for punishing her.

This attempt to paste a progressive face on the same old punitive coercion seems to be a common feature of current educational techniques. There is apparently no limit to the shamelessness with which schools will pursue the tactic. The “Make Your Day” program’s website, for example, contains the following song to be sung with the children:

The Rule Song
(Sung to This Land is Made for You and Me)

The rule is my rule.
The rule is your rule.
It is the student’s rule.
It is the teacher’s rule.
It is the parent’s rule.
It is the community’s.
This rule was made for you and me!

Yes, that spinning sound you hear is coming from Woody Guthrie’s grave.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What do people expect?

Another parent recently showed me this worksheet (click to enlarge), which our elementary school uses as part of its “guidance” curriculum. It comes from a marketed program called “Social Thinking,” which was developed as a treatment for high-functioning autistic children. The goal of the program is to get kids to be more aware of how other people perceive them. “As part of our humanity,” the program’s website explains, “each of us is on a daily quest to avoid each other’s ‘weird thoughts.’ We constantly consider people around us and adjust our behavior to help people have ‘normal thoughts about us.’” Some of the program’s goals are to help kids “Navigate their behaviors for more rewarding social outcomes,” and “Adapt to the people and situations around them.”

I can see how there is some value in learning to see oneself from another person’s perspective, and I don’t presume to know anything about how to work with kids who have autism. But I’m concerned about the use of a worksheet like this in a classroom of non-autistic kids. The plain message of the worksheet, intended or not, is that you should act the way that others expect you to act, and that you shouldn’t do anything that might surprise someone else. In the hands of a school that is already overemphasizing the importance of obedience and mindless compliance, a worksheet like this seems designed to teach conformity, and to teach that there is something wrong with people who are different or “surprising.”

If we have to have a “guidance” curriculum, shouldn’t it teach the exact opposite lesson -- that you should develop your own sense of right and wrong, that you should be true to your values even in the face of peer pressure, that it’s okay to be different from what people expect you to be, that everyone is unique, that it takes all kinds to make a world? Instead, our school is obsessed with achieving “behavioral compliance,” no matter what the cost.


In other news, it’s ITBS week here in Iowa City . . .

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Blog news

To mark one year in cyberspace, I decided to update the template. The brick wall seemed like too good a metaphor to pass up. Please be tolerant if there are technical problems over the next week or so . . .

Friday, October 8, 2010

Please tell me this is a parody

The New York Times reports on the decline of picture books for young children:

The economic downturn is certainly a major factor, but many in the industry see an additional reason for the slump. Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools. . . .

Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.

Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.

Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books.

“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.

I kept double-checking -- but no, it was the Times, not the Onion.

UPDATE: The mom quoted in the article responds here. It’s not hard to believe that a Times reporter might take someone’s words out of context.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Will homeschoolers save the schools?

It seems like virtually everyone now knows at least one homeschooling family. Most people are still skeptical about the practice, but the mere existence of these families forces people to think, however briefly, about the possibility of doing things differently than they’ve been done in the past.

I know that there are all kinds of arguments about homeschooling, pro and con, and that it’s impossible to see homeschooling as the solution to the challenge of educating a nation full of kids, since it’s just not an option for that many people. But I do wonder if the mere presence of homeschoolers will ultimately make people look differently at certain features of our educational system that we might otherwise just take for granted.

Do homeschooled kids end up exactly the same as schooled kids? Probably not; otherwise there would be no point in doing it. They may be worse off in some respects, and better off in others. Presumably they’re different, but the more we see of them, the less it seems like there is anything disastrous in the difference. Are the outcomes perfect? No. Are the outcomes of conventional schools perfect? Hell, no.

It’s hard to generalize about homeschooling because there are so many different approaches to it. But the more traditional “school-like” homeschoolers have more in common with the lefty/libertarian “unschoolers” than you might think at first glance. They all value the opportunity to treat the child as an individual, rather than as a face in the crowd; to take each child’s particular needs into account; to allow the child to progress at a rate that is appropriate for him or her, and not one that is dictated for everyone; to immerse the child in a wider world that is not artificially limited to other children of his or her own age group; to better model values that will enable the child to lead a fulfilling life; and to reach their educational goals more efficiently, with less of the child’s time wasted. In those respects, even a relatively authoritarian homeschooling environment is more humane and child-centered than an authoritarian conventional school.

When people look across the street and see that their neighbor’s kids are somehow becoming functioning adults with only a fraction of the coercion and dehumanization that their own kids are experiencing in conventional schools, won’t they start to wonder what the added value of all that coercion and dehumanization is? Even if people remain skeptical of homeschooling itself, they may begin to look for ways to incorporate some of the positive aspects of homeschooling into their kids’ existing schools. In that way, homeschoolers may be doing conventional schools a favor in the same way that third parties have historically done the major parties a favor: the practice itself may remain marginal, but the existing institutions may be forced to address some of the underlying concerns that motivate it. One can hope, anyway.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why can’t it be better now?

After news of yet another suicide by a gay teenager who had been tormented at school, Dan Savage has started a YouTube channel called “It Gets Better,” in which gay and lesbian adults talk about how life really does get better after high school. From the New York Times:

Q: Why did you decide to create a YouTube channel to talk to gay teenagers?

A: There was another suicide of a teenager, a kid who was being harassed for being gay. I put up a link to the story, and someone said in a comment that they wished they could have talked to the kid for five minutes to tell him it gets better. That’s always been my reaction too. I realized that with things like YouTube and social media, we can talk directly to these kids. We can make an end run around the schools that don’t protect them, from parents who want to keep gay kids isolated and churches that tell them that they are sinful or disordered. . . .

Q: The video advice you offer kids is to just hang in there. Why aren’t you telling them that you can help them now?

A: We can’t help them. That’s what makes gay adults despair and feel so helpless when we hear these stories. We can’t barge into these schools. I get to go to colleges and speak, but high schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. I’ve read these stories for years. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.

The channel is now filled with videos telling kids to have faith: high school will end, and things will get better. (Savage’s own video is here.)

The project is admirable and moving, but there is also a layer of sadness over it. The best that it can promise these kids is that if they can just survive for four more years, their pain will subside and they’ll find some happiness. Until then, though, there is no prospect of relief.

Intolerance and cruelty are almost universally seen as immutable features of childhood -- something to be endured, but not avoided. Is it true? How is it that, as almost everyone acknowledges, this cruelty largely dissipates the minute the kids set foot on a college campus? Is it because an extra year has utterly transformed their characters? Or is it because they suddenly find themselves in a very different kind of institution?

The cruelty of kids is a form of dehumanization: the victim is treated as an object to be used, rather than as a full-fledged human being. You don’t have to look far, in K-12 schooling, for models of that kind of behavior. Much of the national debate about education is framed in exactly those terms: kids are a means to the goal of improving the gross national product and boosting our competitiveness in the global marketplace. Our job is not to engage them as partners in their own development, but to manipulate, trick, coerce, and punish them into doing what we think is best for us -- er, I mean, for them. We give them little or no say in how they are treated, and discourage them from thinking critically about the institution they are confined to. We give them no outlet for their grievances against those institutions. We reduce their civil liberties to a minimum. We insist that they be quiet and obedient. In short, we push them around a lot -- though we tell ourselves it’s for their own good -- and we can do it because they're powerless to stop us.

Is that the recipe for getting kids to treat each other with respect and dignity?

Quote for the day

“The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.”

--Stanley Milgram (and he should know)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Finnish “paradox”

Over at Parenting is Political, NorthTOmom has a great post about the “paradox” of the Finnish educational system. An excerpt:

The Finnish education system is a paradox to American education “reformers” in the same way the French diet is a paradox to mainstream medical scientists. In Finnish education less is more. Kids start formal education late by North American standards (at age 7), and their school hours are shorter. Finnish teachers assign very little homework and carry out minimal standardized testing (performing sample testing only); teachers are less bound by rigid national curriculum standards, and are largely unburdened by hysteria over “accountability.” In Finnish classrooms there is little technology—fewer smart boards, more blackboards. There are no gifted classes, the idea being that the more able students will benefit from interacting with, and helping, the less able students in the classroom. Yet despite all this, Finnish students’ scores on international tests are among the highest in the world.

Read the full post here. Also posted here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The business of America

Martha Nussbaum:

Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought. . . .

And yet, all over the world, the humanities, the arts, and even history are being cut away to make room for profit-making skills.

The White House last week:

Today, President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. . . . In his remarks to day, the President emphasized the importance of providing American students with a solid foundation in these subjects in order to compete in the global economy:

“As I discussed this morning with my Export Council, our prosperity in a 21st century global marketplace depends on our ability to compete with nations around the world.”

News reports also noted:

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also released recommendations Thursday: Over the next decade the federal government should help recruit and train 100,000 STEM teachers, support the creation of 1,000 new STEM-focused schools, and reward the top 5 percent of STEM teachers.

I think the survival of democratic values in our country is more important, not to mention more genuinely at risk, than our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Why is there no blue-ribbon panel trying to ensure that our schools serve that goal? On the other hand, I shudder to imagine the top-down “pro-democracy” curriculum -- with its own standardized tests, no doubt -- that such a panel would probably propose. (On that, more here.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

“Schools would be great if it weren’t for the kids”

The latest from Alfie Kohn here. Excerpt:

we have reason to worry when schooling is discussed primarily in the context of “global competitiveness” rather than in terms of what children need or what contributes to a democratic culture -- and, indeed, when the children themselves are seen mostly as future workers who will someday do their part to increase the profitability of their employers. . . .

People who blame students for not being “motivated” tend to think educational success means little more than higher scores on bad tests and they’re apt to see education itself as a means to making sure our corporations will beat their corporations. The sort of schooling that results is the type almost guaranteed to . . . kill students’ motivation.

(c/o Kid-Friendly Schools)

Is it time to give up on progressive education?

That’s the question being asked over at the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools. (I chime in in the comments.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Helicopter parents and hothouse flowers

Are “edubloggers” too harsh on their own kids’ teachers? In response to that question (posed here), Doug Johnson argues that by intervening in our kids’ problems at school, we might be

depriving them of some necessary experiences in which they could develop the whole-life dispositions of patience, adjustment, subversion, recognition that the world is sometimes unjust, and discrimination of the important and unimportant. Children raised as “hot house flowers” by parents who step in at the first sign of problem may well fall apart when encountering the first college professor or supervisor who is challenging to work for. Self-reliance is a lovely attribute too often acquired through ugly experiences that are hard for a parent to watch.

I do think that edubloggers are wrong to focus their discontent on teachers. In my opinion, teachers aren’t the problem. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but I have found them to be well-intentioned and trying their best to treat the kids well. When I don’t like what’s happening in the classroom, it’s almost always because of what the teachers are pressured to do because of decisions made at higher levels, usually in response to No Child Left Behind and related policies.

I agree to some extent with Johnson’s points. But I also question some of his premises. I think it’s easy to overestimate the prevalence of “helicopter parents” because they are more noticeable, especially if you’re a teacher. As a parent, I know far more parents who would never consider intervening in their kids’ classroom situation than parents who would. A lot of people who talk about the need to “pick your battles” seem to end up picking none. I guess I’m afraid that, rather than helping the child learn to cope with imperfect situations, that parental strategy often ends up encouraging the child to deny that there are problems at all, to blame him- or herself, or to become passively resigned to the futility of trying to change anything.

It’s also worth asking what coping strategies, other than passive acceptance, are available to a student who has a justifiable complaint about how he or she is being treated at school. It’s certainly worth encouraging the student to raise his or her concerns with the teacher. But then what? Schools are notoriously not democracies. I wonder what lesson gets learned from such an encounter. Is it really about the value of self-reliance? Or is it that resistance is futile?

If today’s kids are insufficiently assertive, it’s probably not because of all those parents intervening constantly in their lives and classrooms. It’s probably because passive acceptance in the face of authority is the lesson schools teach day after day after day.

Johnson gives several examples of “constructive” ways to intervene in a problem situation -- “partnering with the teacher” in parent-teacher conferences, asking for more information about a homework project, making sure the child has satisfying extracurricular activities, or even choosing an alternative school or homeschooling. There is a conspicuous absence from his list: Isn’t there sometimes value in confronting the institution and arguing that it should change? As a parent, isn’t it important to at least sometimes model that behavior? For all the talk about helicopter parenting, the idea of actually complaining about what goes on in the school to a teacher or principal -- public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love -- seems to strike an awful lot of people as an unpardonable breach of etiquette and decorum. Who is the hothouse flower in that situation?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elephant in the room, continued

In response to this post (and in the last days before I enabled comments), a reader wrote:

While you did not write much about the NYTimes article on school refusal issues, you seem to disagree with the article. I would like to know why. I found the article well written from a pediatrician’s perspective. School attendance can be a major factor in a child’s academic success, and it can affect their social lives as well. All of us just need a day off sometimes for whatever reason; but when a child is having recurring illnesses that are affecting their ability to attend school on a regular basis, multiple people (parents, teachers, and doctors) should be concerned. I liked Dr. Klass’ emphasis on these groups working together to find out why a child does not want to be in school. Is it really a medical issue, or is there something in the school environment that needs to change? Doctors can address these issues and help the parent bring them up at school or support the school in addressing them as well. I don’t think he was saying there was something wrong with the children. He wrote about potential medical problems or problems at the school. I think we need more of what Dr. Klass is proposing, collaboration between doctors, teachers and parents. Oftentimes, the school gets mad at the parent for not getting their child to school without supporting the parent in figuring out why, and doctors often ignore the fact that their young patients are seeing them quite a bit for minor or non-existent illnesses. Everyone is there to support the child. That support is more successful when everyone communicates with each other and works together.

Thanks for continuing to write about the insane world of education.

Yeah, it was a smart-alecky post, granted. I deserve to be called on it, if only as a reminder that I shouldn’t act as if I’m writing only to people who already agree with me.

The reason I felt provoked by that seemingly innocuous article was that, like so much other commentary about kids who have trouble “adjusting,” it never seemed to consider the possibility that it might be the school, and not the kid, that has the adjustment problem -- that “school refusal” might be a perfectly normal and even healthy reaction to the conditions of today’s schools. (Echoes of Peter Gray.) Yes, the author acknowledges that sometimes the school environment needs to change, but she refers to things like “a bully, a bathroom with no doors on the stalls.” How about an environment where learning is seen as “work” that no one would freely choose to do, or where kids have little or no autonomy over what they learn about or how they spend their time, or where “being good” is defined primarily in terms of being quiet and obedient, or where recess is cut back to a minimum and used as a punishment tool, or where education is conceived entirely in terms of one’s ability to score well on standardized tests in math and reading? Given the environment of our schools, I wonder as much about the kids who aren’t “school refusers” as the ones who are.

Am I exaggerating? My kids tell me they like going to school (though they sometimes have their complaints about it, and they never seem sorry to see summer vacation arrive). I know that some good things go on there, and I like the teachers and often think they are doing their best under difficult conditions. Yet there have been times when I have observed my kids in school and seen looks of boredom on their faces that I never thought possible. It seems to me that their happiness in school depends an awful lot on their ability not to think -- not to imagine how things might be different, not to wonder whether there might be more valuable and fulfilling ways to spend their time, not to notice the everyday petty unfairnesses of institutional life, and not to credit their own perceptions and experience. The child who thinks “I’m just not good at paying attention” might actually be happier than the one who thinks “I’m confined to a boring institution.” But is that the kind of happiness I want for my child? And do those have to be the choices?

I don’t want my kids to be malcontents, but I don’t want them to be Stepford children, either. Why is it only the malcontents who are sent to the school psychologist?

I get a stomachache just thinking about it. I may have to go see the nurse.