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


Unknown said...

Chris, the teachers at our elementary school were vindictive and hostile if you spoke out so many parents were afraid to speak out. Conversely, the teachers were tenured and had no fear of speaking out against "lazy parents who weren't interested in education."

FedUpMom said...

Caitlyn, the hostility of school teachers is a sight to behold. I wrote a blog post about a reading log which I refused to do, and you'd be amazed at the outraged response I got. Somebody predicted I'd be visiting my daughter in jail when she's 25, because I wouldn't sign her reading log when she was 11!

Sadly, there's a lot of thin-skinned, defensive control freaks out there.

Chris said...

I've got to chime in and say that I just have not had that experience with the teachers here in Iowa City. Anyone who reads this site knows that I think there are a lot of things going wrong with our educational system, but I really believe that teachers aren't the problem. Of course there are hundreds of thousands (millions?) of teachers and there is always going to be variation in a group that large, so probably none of us will always be happy with every teacher. But the systemic problems are elsewhere. And even when someone has a legitimate complaint about something a teacher is doing, it is often because the teachers are under pressures not of their own making. The people who make the policies are really the ones who should have to answer for them.

I think I'd be much happier if teachers themselves were making more of the decisions about how our schools are run than they are now. Anything that puts more policymaking power in the hands of people who actually spend their time with the kids every day -- that is, parents and teachers -- would be an improvement, and would likely result in policies that take the kids' real interests more into account.

FedUpMom said...

Chris, if you think teachers aren't part of the problem, you've had WAY better luck than I have. I hope it continues!

Of course, there are good teachers out there. But there's also plenty of not-so-good teachers. And they're all caught up in a really crazy school culture right now.

Unknown said...

Chris, I agree with FedUpMom. If I was a teacher at a public elementary school with some of the abusive practices (most of which are implemented by teachers), I would stand on my beliefs and find another career.

Chris said...

I will certainly agree that teachers are caught up in the really crazy school culture. I suppose it's true that they could quit -- I'm sure many people have left teaching, or avoided it to begin with, because of what's now happening to our educational system -- but they would just be replaced by others who need the jobs. Which just shows that the real power lies elsewhere.

Maybe this just reflects my natural instincts, but I'm inclined to focus my discontent on the management side -- they're the ones making these policies, after all. Moreover, teachers are some of the people most vocally opposed to No Child Left Behind -- it's actually far easier to find teacher blogs and websites arguing against NCLB than to find parent blogs doing so.

But all I really meant was that I haven't experienced the attitudes that FedUpMom has from any of the teachers I have encountered here. One example: when I told my third-grade daughter's teacher that I wouldn't sign her homework, she didn't give me a hard time about it; she listened and accommodated my daughter.

FedUpMom said...

Plenty of good teachers have already left the public system because of NCLB and related problems.

Actually, I just found out the other day that my daughter's first-grade teacher at her private school is only there because she quit teaching public school. She was teaching kindergarten and the principal told her she would be fired if she didn't achieve inappropriate academic goals. She quit instead.

Chris, is your third-grader your oldest child? Not to be the voice of doom, but it gets worse every year as your child advances through the grades. Watch out for fifth grade, which has been a shipwreck for many, including my older daughter.