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to my letter, though I should point out that the superintendent to whom I sent the letter has since left the job and been replaced by a new superintendent.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!