Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Big Brother gets bigger

Glenn Greenwald, probably my all-time favorite blogger, writes this week about “how children are being trained to give up all privacy, and to be good, dutiful Surveillance State citizens, through constant, pervasive surveillance in schools,” which are “[t]raining children from an early age to have no expectation of privacy -- to live on the assumption that their every move and even thought (which is what Internet activity is) will be monitored and recorded by authority figures . . .”

Greenwald cites this article:

Whether it is a district surveilling students in their bedrooms via webcam, conducting random drug or locker searches, strip-searching students, lowering the standard for searching students to “reasonable suspicion” from “probable cause,” disciplining students for conduct outside of school hours, searching their cellphones and text messages, or allegedly forcing them to undergo pregnancy testing, student privacy is under increasing threat.

The other day I mentioned a Connecticut school district that wanted to require students to carry an ID card with an RFID chip so that they could track their location. The surveillance capability included locating the student if they were off school premises and in town. . . .

It strikes me that schools are grooming our youth to simply accept being tracked and monitored wherever they go and that anything they do, anywhere, can be used against them in school or elsewhere. Is this really how we want to raise our children? . . .

It’s time for a national dialogue about student privacy, while there are still some remnants of it left.

Isn’t this of a piece with all the emphasis on being quiet obedient hard workers, with the treatment of children as objects to be manipulated, with the conception of children as future employees, with the use of recess as a coercion tool and parents as homework police, with the medication of kids who won’t sit still, with the devaluing of the humanities, with the neglect of qualities like curiosity, skepticism, and the ability to ask a good question -- that is, with all the things that follow from a system rooted in high-stakes standardized testing? If you were trying to make America a more authoritarian, less democratic place, isn’t high-stakes testing exactly the educational approach you would choose?

..How can I comment?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

No Child Unrecruited

Here’s a glimpse into our federal government’s vision of what schools are for: Under the No Child Left Behind Act, secondary schools are required to give military recruiters the names, addresses and phone numbers of all the kids in the school. If a school fails to provide that information in response to the military’s request, it can lose all federal funding until it does.

Schools are supposed to notify parents about that provision and give them an opportunity to opt out. In case you missed that opportunity, you can find opt-out forms and additional information at the website of Leave My Child Alone.

..How can I comment?

Standardized schools

This year at our school, the kids are getting ten fewer minutes of recess each day than they got last year, which, for a lot of the kids, means one fewer recess per day. I’m told that the principal is saying that the change is necessary in order to meet state requirements for the amount of time spent on math and reading every day. I don’t know if that’s the real explanation. But I know that every time the school gets a little less humane in the name of raising standardized test scores, all the school personnel can nod and agree with you about how unfortunate it is, because there’s always someone further up the bureaucratic chain to blame.

If you want to change your school’s curriculum, don’t bother talking to the principal or the school board; instead, talk to Congress or the President of the United States. Curricular decisions may be made at the state and local level, but they’re effectively dictated by federal educational policy.

A lot of people think federal education policy should be different, but fewer people question whether there should be a federal education policy at all. I’d go further and question why there should even be a state education policy, or, for that matter, a city-wide policy. If the people in my elementary school’s district want to follow an educational approach, philosophy, or set of goals that differs from the prevailing one, what is the justification for preventing them?

I can think of a lot of benefits that would flow from deciding educational policy issues at the most local possible level -- many of them related to the greater democratic accountability that would result -- and I’ll explore them in subsequent posts. Here I’ll just note how strange it seems to me that anyone would want to adopt a single, nationwide answer to what our educational goals, philosophy, and approach should be.

Advocates of high-stakes testing like to dress up their arguments in the language of business and finance. “Education is an investment in the future,” “We need to hold schools and teachers accountable by measuring their performance and rewarding success,” et cetera. But pursuing a uniform nationwide policy isn’t what a smart money manager would do, it’s what a compulsive gambler would do. Brimming with manic confidence that our new “system” can’t fail, we bet everything on red.

Putting all of our kids in one basket is a huge gamble, isn’t it? Are we really so sure that the prevailing approach at any given time is the right one? So sure that we won’t allow other approaches even to be tried? Suppose, a generation from now, it turns out that our current obsession with standardized-test-driven curricula was a bad idea -- that it didn’t work, and even made us worse off. Won’t we wish that we had hedged our bets? If education is an investment in the future, wouldn’t it be wise to diversify our portfolio?

..How can I comment?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ordinary people

Here’s another installment in Peter Gray’s series on whether ADHD should (in the wide majority of cases, at least) be considered a “disorder.” An excerpt:

My goal in that [previous] essay was to explain the extraordinary increase in rate of ADHD diagnosis that has occurred over the last two or three decades. I don’t think that increase is primarily due to a change in brain structures in the general population; I think it is primarily due to a change in social values and especially in the conditions of schooling. Today, as a society, we are far less tolerant of children who don’t adapt well to our system of compulsory education than we were in the past, and so we diagnose them and give them drugs.

For a somewhat (but not fully) analogous case, consider homosexuality. Homosexuality is biologically a condition of the brain; but the decision to label it as a disorder, or not a disorder, is a social judgment. Until 1973, homosexuality was on the American Psychiatric Association’s list of official mental disorders, but in that year it was removed. Suddenly, gay people were no longer “disordered.” That decision clearly reflected a change in social values, a change that made it possible for people with the brain condition of homosexuality to live happier lives than they had been able to before, when they more or less had to stay in the closet and were subject to terrible abuse and even arrest if they did not. With regard to homosexuality we have as a society become more liberal and accepting. With regard to the kind of childhood rambunctiousness and impulsiveness that leads to a diagnosis of ADHD, however, we have as a society become less liberal and accepting.

He concludes that “our focus should be on changing our system of schooling to accommodate children’s diversity rather than on changing children’s brain physiology to accommodate schooling.” Worth reading in full.

..How can I comment?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gifted programs as a zero-sum game

In response to my post about whether education alleviates overall societal poverty or just enriches some kids at the expense of others, one reader (they do exist!) sent me the link to this post about the competition to get into New York City gifted kindergarten programs. An excerpt:

It’s unfair that entrance into kindergarten level programs is being gamed by people with resources, disadvantaging the most disadvantaged kids from the get go. I think it’s egregious. Many people will agree that this isn’t fair.

But the more insidious value, the one that almost no one would identify as problematic, is the idea that all parents should do everything they can to give their child advantages. . . .

Somehow, in the attachment to the idea that we should all help our kids get every advantage, the fact that advantaging your child disadvantages other people’s children gets lost. If it advantages your child, it must be advantaging him over someone else; otherwise it’s not an advantage, you see?

The author concludes with the provocative question: “Is giving your kid every advantage the moral thing to do?”

The question is related to another question that I’m hoping to post on someday soon: Do parents have a moral obligation to send their kids to public school? In the meantime, the post is worth reading in full.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Across America, a million trips to Target

In honor of our first day of school here in Iowa City (August 19!!!), here is my cantankerous-blogger peeve-of-the-week: why are basic school supplies like paper, pens and pencils not provided by our public schools? (More extended post here.)

There are obviously bigger fish to fry, and I wouldn't even bother linking to it here except that I wonder whether in some small way it does raise a question about how our society conceives of education. Staff and administrator salaries, maintenance of the school buildings, training in behavioral management techniques like PBIS -- these things are central to a public education, and funded by taxes. Books, paper, pencils -- not so much.

..How can I comment?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“Reading Logs Killed the Bibliophile”

I have a few posts percolating, but it’s a busy time of year and I don’t know how much time I’ll find for blogging. In the meantime, check out FedUpMom’s compilation of blog posts objecting to the use of “reading logs” – that is, making kids turn in an ongoing list of the books they are “voluntarily” reading. I share many of the sentiments expressed in those posts (I stole the title for this post from one of them) and may post on the topic myself at some point.

Particularly noteworthy is this teacher’s response to FedUpMom’s objection that reading logs make kids dislike reading:

So, when I said that it is NOT my job to instill a love of reading, I meant it. If you look at the California State Standards for English 8, it does not state that I’m to make kids love reading. My job is to teach them how to analyze literature in preparation for their high school and college English and Literature classes. Reading for escapism does NOT enter into that. The outside reading requirement, as defined by the state education board, is to increase fluency and proficiency. The state couldn’t care less if your child actually likes to read. I do my job because it’s what’s expected of me.

As a purely descriptive statement about the environment in which this teacher finds him- or herself, can anyone argue with that?

..How can I comment?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reading list: Not for Profit

This New Yorker review of Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit moves it to the top of ABlogAboutSchool's reading list:

Nussbaum, a philosopher who teaches at the University of Chicago, candidly describes her latest book as a “manifesto, not an empirical study.” She is alarmed by the degree to which the humanities are being pushed aside -- at all levels of schooling and in countries around the world -- in favor of subjects more clearly linked to economic growth. We endorse values like democracy, empathy, tolerance, and free speech, Nussbaum writes, but give little thought to insuring their survival in future generations. By deëmphasizing the liberal arts, we are training students to become “useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations” and no critical-thinking skills, as opposed to active international citizens. Nussbaum makes a persuasive case that, in the age of No Child Left Behind, “the pedagogy of rote learning rules the roost.”

..How can I comment?