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.


FedUpMom said...

Chris, the actual needs of the actual kids get buried under a million competing priorities.

I don't think we need to go as far as your experiment. Let's try this one. Suppose there's ample research, documented in two best-selling books, to prove that homework in elementary school has no benefit, and plenty of anecdotal evidence to prove that homework in elementary school has all kinds of negative consequences for kids and family life. Would elementary schools keep assigning homework? We know the answer.

As for corporal punishment, I had a little conversation with a teacher on stophomework just recently where she was all indignant that I wasn't "teaching my kids how to be responsible" when I refused pointless homework. She said I was pushing all my parenting duties onto her. She asked rhetorically, "do you want me to spank your kids too?" as if that's one of the natural duties of parenthood.

Chris said...

You can say that again, FedUpMom. Your blog and mine are practically a catalog of the harmful things that schools are doing to kids to serve whatever dictates come down from above.

KD said...

I'm a parent of two children in the ICCSD, one attended a SINA elementary, and is now in junior high, the other is still attending school there.

I do think NCLB is flawed. However, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps the answer for some of the SINA schools would be to look for new ways of doing things. Maybe that might mean extending the school year by a few days, or extending the school day.

It has been my experience that some older members of the Board and the previous administration weren't really interested in hearing/resolving concerns from parents at our school. I'm not very hopeful, but perhaps this will cahnge with a new superintendent.

I think it is sad that our district has nothing better to offer than shaving five minutes off the lunch period.

I'm not sure if NCLB will exist indefinitely. I do know that our schools can do better, especially for the kids that come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I doubt the ICCSD would ever give up federal money.

Chris said...

KD -- Thanks for commenting! I'm not crazy about the idea of extending the school day or the school year, for lots of reasons, which I suppose I'll have to post about at some point. But I'm really against it if we're just doing it to comply with some top-down bribe from the federal government, regardless of whether it's something our community thinks is good for the kids. I wish we could have a real discussion about what our community thinks the goals and methods of education should be -- one that isn't conducted in the shadow of NCLB and its various bribes and punishments. (I sometimes feel like bribery is one of the central themes of my kids' education.)

As you probably know from reading this site, I don't see test scores as even coming close to measuring the most important aspects of education. But even if I did, NCLB's assumption that a SINA school is somehow to blame for its students' scores seems crazy to me. SINA schools have a higher percentage of families that are poor or struggling in various ways, and have a higher turnover rate, etc. Are there things those schools could do to raise their students' test scores? Probably. Would those things be in the best interests of the kids? That's a different question, which people don't even seem to be asking.

I have a friend who volunteers in one of the SINA elementary schools. She says it's a great school and that the kids who stay in it (as opposed to the ones who are there for just a year or two before moving to a different school or a different town) are getting a great experience. I'm trying to persuade her to write a post about it here.

"I doubt if the ICCSD would ever give up federal money" -- Given that the district's attitude toward NCLB has so far been "Your wish is my command," it's hard to disagree with that statement.

KD said...

Chris, whether NCLB etc., continues to exist, I think that the schools that have higher rates of poverty(which are sometimes SINA schools), may need to look at different ways of doing things.

It seems to me that our community just assumes that we can't do more for those kids, or any problems are as a result of difficult behaviors in the classroom(which I disagree with).

Some of the kids in the SINA schools don't have parents who have the ability to be supportive of their kids' education in the same way wealthier more educated parents do....and I see those kids as being at a huge disadvantage. That is one way I would see for a certain portion of children, spending more time in the classroom might be more beneficial.

If not spending more time in the classroom, maybe changing the way we teach certain things.

In general I don't think SINA schools are worthy of blame. However, I think the effect of a problematic situation(a poor curriculum, marginal teacher, etc.) is multiplied in a SINA school vs some of the non SINA school.

FedUpMom said...

KD, you bring up some very important points. I feel a blog post coming on!

The advantage that middle-class kids get is hard to replicate. It begins with the fact that most middle-class kids have stability in their lives -- they're not being shuffled between relatives, or having to move constantly, etc. Middle-class kids hear their parents use a large vocabulary. They're usually well-nourished and their medical needs are attended to.

Now, KIPP and similar charters have shown that you can boost poor kids' test scores with constant drilling, stern discipline, and many more hours in school. But, in my opinion, these kids are still not getting a good education. They're not learning how to think for themselves. Their initiative, self-confidence, and creativity are not being developed.

Sarah said...

KD and Chris,

It would be very hard for the district to give up federal money. Title I funds pay for many teachers and other resources in this district that especially support students at SINA schools and other schools with higher rates of poverty. If you could find a way to replace those funds, I'm sure most districts would get rid of their federal funding. Unfortunately, all of the penalties of NCLB affect high-poverty Title I schools and then districts make sweeping district-wide changes.

ICCSD is working on doing things differently in the district at SINA schools. Though I wonder how other schools would react if SINA schools were allowed to have smaller class sizes, year-round schooling (not a longer school year, just a balanced calendar), more support staff, and different professional development? All of these things could be beneficial to the SINA schools, but they could increase class sizes at high achieving, high SES schools. Would parents at those schools be ok with this change? Then, maybe we would see less of the all-encompassing district policies, like the 15-minute lunch or extended school day. After the redistricting discussion of last year, I'm not sure that would happen.

Chris said...

KD -- I think a lot of what you're saying is undeniably true. Some thoughts:

I guess I'm just saying that it seems wrong to talk about "schools in need of assistance," when we're really talking about "kids in need of assistance." There are kids like that at every school in Iowa City -- but a larger proportion of them at the SINA schools. It doesn't mean the school is doing anything wrong or anything differently from any other school in town, or that there aren't a lot of students at those schools who are getting as good an education as they could elsewhere.

But sure, there are kids who have more and different needs, and there are more of them at the SINA schools. I agree that a school should have the flexibility to address the particular needs of its students and families. It's a hard question, though, because even within schools there is a lot of variation in those needs. Even if we decide that some kids would benefit from more time in school, should all the kids go to school longer as a result? I'm with FedUpMom that, at least as to a lot of kids, more school would actually be detrimental. So what to do?

At some level I'm open to the idea that more school could benefit some kids. (A good friend, who had a rough home life, tells me that his time at school was the happiest part of his childhood.) But more of *this* schooling, which I think is creating a country that is not only less well-educated but also more steeped in authoritarian values -- that's a different question. I don't want that for any kid.

So again, all I'm saying is, let's have a conversation as a community about what we think is really good for kids, acknowledging that what's best for some isn't necessary what's best for others. I trust this community to answer those questions much, much better than NCLB does.

Chris said...

Sarah -- I'm just one person, but I'm fine with the idea of the district directing more money toward kids who have greater needs. People have already accepted that idea when it comes to kids with disabilities, so I don't see it as such a great leap to extend that principle to kids whose special needs are a result of their socio-economic status or difficult family situations, etc.

I wouldn't necessarily generalize from the redistricting discussion on that idea. Actually changing the district lines of someone's kid's school is a very concrete, tangible change that is bound to provoke strong reactions. Changing the allocation of funds feels different to me -- it wouldn't please everyone, but I think a lot more people might be open to it.

The execution would be complicated, since, again, there are "kids in need of assistance" at all our schools, and I have no idea what the best way of handling it would be. But whatever we do, it should be driven by our community's idea of what's best for the kids, not by some frantic attempt to raise standardized test scores and fend off the (inevitable anyway) consequences of NCLB.

KD said...

Sarah, as I understand it, the balanced calendar was just proposed for a couple of elementaries, while the rest of the schools would remain on a traditional calendar. Don't you think this would present a hardship for families that have kids at two different schools(one in elementary, one in junior high), to be on two different school calendars? I think that it would. I would think that the school board would get opinions from parents at these schools before proceeding with such a plan.

Chris...I agree that SINA is not the best label, and that a variety of kids exist at every school.