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.

I certainly never said that there was a blanket policy of any kind preventing them from speaking. One certainly gets the feeling that they are reluctant to speak publicly about district policies. Another commenter said that administrators had told teachers to “be quiet” about PBIS. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but if it is, I think it’s wrong. And if there’s any chance that’s happening, I think the school board should be concerned. (It should also be concerned, for very practical reasons, if administrators are doing anything that might result in civil rights lawsuits when a teacher gets fired or disciplined.)

Again, I do appreciate that you’ve been responding in the comments. I’d love to post this exchange on my blog, but I leave that totally up to you. I’ll assume that you’d rather just keep it an exchange between us, unless you tell me otherwise.



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Hi Chris:

Of course the public should be as well informed as the Board. However, what I would ask is that teachers and Administrators discuss the problems (whether PBIS or other) first to understand each other’s perspective and to come up with possible solutions. Too often we (the public and myself included) are quick to criticize without seeking the whole picture and without dedicating time to think about and offer solutions. We have a saying at my house, “Don’t come to me with your problems, come to me with how I can help solve your problems.” Sometimes the help is an active thing and other times it’s just listening.

Teachers, Staff and Administrators should never be discouraged to speak up; diversity of opinion and perspective is what allows for creative problem solving. As a Board member, parent and member of the public, I greatly appreciate the expertise our teachers, staff and administrators have. However, by going public with an opinion without first getting or understanding another perspective can often do more harm than good.

I am not aware of any Administrator discouraging teachers from being open with the Board nor the public. I have know of Administrators coaching teachers on how to approach the Board, which I think is fine. There are some Administrators that know Board members better than teachers and can anticipate questions that we’ll ask. Being prepared to answer those questions not only provides the Board with those answers in a timely fashion, it also makes the teachers look good. Teachers are a passionate bunch (for which I am grateful) and are often approaching things from the aspect of how it affects their school and their students. As a Board member, we don’t have that luxury. As a Board we must look at things from a district perspective on how it affects all of the schools and all of the students.

Feel free to post our exchange to your blog. My emails are a matter of public record and I stand by my comments. Please be aware however, I am free to change my opinions if additional perspectives / evidence is brought to light. Although I try to think about the counter arguments, I can’t think of them all.

Warmest Regards,

Tuyet Dorau
Iowa City Community School District

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Hi -- Sorry it took me so long to respond; it’s a busy time. Again, thanks for the response. I have to admit, though, that I’m not entirely reassured by the policy you’re describing. It seems like we agree that administrators should not tell teachers to “be quiet” about an issue. But if a teacher could get in hot water for speaking up without doing just the right amount of “checking in” with administrators and without sufficiently trying to understand administrators’ perspectives, I’m afraid that that would be the practical equivalent of telling teachers to “be quiet.” I mean, what’s the rule, then? Under what circumstances would it be all right for a teacher, for example, to honestly answer a parent’s question about what he or she thinks of a program like PBIS? If teachers have to guess about what their rights to speak are, they will of course err on the side of not taking any chances with their jobs.

It seems like your concern is with the prospect of teachers recklessly denouncing their employers’ policies in a way that would somehow cause problems, but I think the far more realistic danger is that teachers will be inhibited from saying what they really think by their concerns about how administrators will react, and that, in the end, parents will hear only the administrators’ perspective. I have never gotten the sense that school administrators feel compelled to seek out the teachers’ perspectives before voicing their own feelings about school policies. But I have gotten the sense that the teachers are, understandably, reluctant to say anything that would upset their administrators.

It is precisely because teachers will naturally feel inhibited from speaking up that the board and the superintendent should go out of their way to reassure teachers that they won’t be penalized for expressing their opinions on school policy issues that affect the kids. Again, parents and ordinary citizens aren’t under any restrictions about how they speak up, or about whether they’ve sought out administrators’ perspectives first -- why should teachers, who have a better sense than anyone of what goes on in the schools, feel any less free to express their opinions and experiences?

I have also gotten the strong sense that some administrators do everything they can to dissuade parents from sharing their concerns about school policy with other parents or expressing them more publicly. One example of my own: We had a PTA meeting last year at which our principal discussed the school’s introduction of PBIS. When some parents (including me) raised concerns about the program, the principal strongly urged us not to express our concerns more publicly -- by starting a petition, for example -- because the teachers “would not feel supported” if we did. (Later, when the PTA posted the principal’s promotional materials for PBIS, I asked if they would post a link to my letter explaining my objections to PBIS, but the PTA declined to.) The principal’s comment seemed inappropriate at the time, and would be even more inappropriate if it turns out that the teachers don’t like PBIS either. Just as principals are in a position of power over the teachers who work for them, they are also in a position of power over the kids and families, so it strikes me as particularly inappropriate for them to discourage parents from expressing disagreement with school policies -- especially by suggesting that that disagreement won’t be well received by the people who care for our kids every day.

I guess what I don’t understand is the idea that dissent or disagreement is somehow potentially disruptive or dangerous, and so needs to be discouraged or carefully managed. I think the absence of dissent is far more likely to cause harm and result in bad policy than its presence is. Would it really be so terrible if a teacher openly disagreed with a policy without first going through the proper channels and discussing the issue with administrators? What’s the big deal? If the administrator or policymaker has a valid response, he or she can articulate it, and then maybe the teacher can change his or her mind, or anyway everyone can decide for themselves what to think. Why should those discussions go on behind closed doors? Presumably school administrators are adults who are capable of hearing criticism without overreacting or taking personal offense. As things stand now, many teachers and parents will naturally feel much freer to express agreement with district policies than to express disagreement. I don’t see how that serves the parents, the public, or the kids.

I’m all in favor of hearing lots of people’s perspectives on any given policy issue, but sometimes the only way to start that exchange of perspectives is for someone to say something, whether that person is a teacher, a parent, an administrator, or just an ordinary citizen. I think the district should be encouraging people, including teachers, to speak up, even if they don’t do it in just the right, pre-approved manner. To me, the benefits of encouraging free and open debate of school policy issues far outweigh the largely hypothetical costs.

Sorry to ramble on. Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to listen and respond, even if we don’t ultimately agree one-hundred percent. I also appreciate your willingness to have me post this exchange on the blog, which I will do.



StepfordTO said...

Hi Chris--I think the board member inadvertently sums up the problem when she writes:

"However, by going public with an opinion without first getting or understanding another perspective can often do more harm than good."

You call this "checking in," and that's exactly what it is. It's actually quite patronizing to assume that either a teacher or a member of the public must necessarily have a poor understanding of an issue before they've solicited the opinion of someone "higher up." This whole "chain of command" process does indeed produce the "chill" and group-speak that you mention. I would argue that on the larger political scene it leads to silence and concealment about extremely important issues, and eventually gives rise to a phenomenon like Wikileaks. It seems to me that what you're seeking here is quite simple: genuine dialogue and transparency when it comes to issues of policy; no one who believes in democracy and free speech should be opposed to that.

KD said...

Bravo to Tuyet Dorau for responding to some of the issues you have brought up. I think your blog piece raises some interesting points.

To an outsider the ICCSD seems like a fine district. I think some of the current/former board members don't wish to respond to any information to the contrary, when questions or problems come to their attention.

I think the Board "culture" has always been one where there has not been much dissent or discussion. In my opinion the local media has been soft on the ICCSD, and doesn't try to dig very deep for information.

In talking with others I think some feel it is disloyal to the idea of public education to discuss or criticize how things are done.

I'm not sure how I feel about PBIS yet...I'm thinking it isn't quite as innocent as I once believed. What I wonder about though, is why doesn't the district make more of an effort to provide information about the program to parents. We received very little information about it at our school. My own opinion is, if the community isn't provided with information.....then they can't ask this an oversight by the district, or are things done this way purposely?

Chris said...

northTOmom -- In yesterday's post, I described two ways a board member can approach his or her role in the age of No Child Left Behind -- "board member as state employee" and "board member as elected representative." I think the dynamic you're describing can be examined in that same light: somehow we've taken the speech norms that prevail in the typical corporate workplace and imposed them on what is supposed to be a democratically accountable public institution. That strikes me as a pretty serious wrong turn.

Chris said...

KD -- I totally agree. I think there are a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures on parents to "be supportive" -- that is, to refrain from criticism -- of their kids' schools, and I think school administrators sometimes use that as a conscious strategy to discourage parents from discussing their concerns with others.

I also agree that the district provided very little information about PBIS as they adopted and implemented it. To the extent they did provide any information, it was entirely one-sided. They certainly weren't about to direct anyone's attention to criticisms and counterarguments against the program, because that would imply that the decision to adopt it hadn't already been made, and that the community might actually have a say in it.

If there is a better illustration of a program adopted and implemented from the top down, I don't know what it is. Several times I have heard school personnel say things like "PBIS is here to stay," as if the community had no say whatsoever in the matter. At the PTA meeting that I described in this post, I asked our principal whether it would make any difference if all the parents were against PBIS -- and she said no, it wouldn't. It doesn't get much more top-down than that. I'll be interested to hear your ongoing thinking about PBIS.

(By the way, I think I'm going to have to get my "recent comments" widget tuned up -- don't know why your comment took so long to appear there.)

Shirl said...

I am currently an assistant teacher, parent and student, and am researching PBIS. I appreciate much of what has been said in this posting as it "gets at" some of my concerns about the "culture" of communication in schools and how that relates to PBIS. In brief, I too have concerns about PBIS, from a social engineering standpoint. On the surface, research-based, empirical evidence aside (not to ignore these but they are tangent to my point, I believe), PBIS seems to be a positive and effective approach to addressing some of the behavioral issues in schools. Yet that is exactly my concern: it's overemphasis on the positive. This relates directly to what has been said in this blog about not "criticizing" schools. Only support and positive comments are truly welcomed, or, at best, one has to "couch" what is in fact a criticism in a "positive" light that isn't really positive at all. It's a bit of a farce and actually insulting to everyone involved--the assumption that we cannot handle criticism. It is my impression that the U.S. has never been very good at allowing, accepting and even embracing rigorous (and rancorous) debate, such as what one might witness during political discussions in other countries (e.g., England, The Netherlands, etc.). Now it feels not only like it has become worse, but the climate in schools seems to mirrors the worst of this climate in the U.S.: don't criticize anything (Obama, healthcare policy, obesity, PBIS, etc.) because it is "politically incorrect" or "not supportive." All this positivity could diminish our ability to deal with adversity (e.g., disagreement, disappointment, etc.) and is in many ways directly opposed to the notion that risk-taking is a positive thing for kids. Honest debate, while not always nice and pretty, is quite risky, yet evokes in my experience a much higher level of individual growth for all involved, even though that growth is rarely immediately visible...

Chris said...

Shirl -- Thanks for commenting! That's an interesting perspective on PBIS. I dislike PBIS for a lot of reasons (explained at more length here), but one of them is that it models a dishonest way of interacting with people. PBIS isn't about genuine praise at all; it's about feigning praise to manipulate the kids into compliance. I think we should question whether all this emphasis on compliance is necessary. But I agree with you that candor is far preferable to insincere praise.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late on reading this, but, as a teacher, want to say: many of us strongly dislike PBIS for the many reasons you raise here. Also, from personal experience, I have dealt with a principal who has told me directly that she would be punitive about me expressing my concerns about PBIS and other issues. It's a sad spot to be in.

Chris said...

Thanks, Anonymous. It just infuriates me to hear reports like that. What right do administrators have to conceal that information from parents and the public? How is it conceivably in the interest of good policymaking, or in the interest of the kids?