Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar round-up

Just kidding. But the Answer Sheet has a good post by Kevin Weiner about why last night’s Oscar winner for best documentary, Inside Job, tells us more about the problems of education reform than the much-discussed Waiting for Superman. Weiner notes that Inside Job focused on “(1) the advocacy of deregulation in order to free up innovation, (2) hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans that they are infallible, and (3) increased wealth inequality.”

If Superman had explored these issues instead of bashing unions and promoting charters, moviegoers might have walked away understanding a great deal about why the families it profiled and so many similar families across America face a bleak educational future.

The movie certainly showed scenes of poverty, but its implications and the structural inequalities underlying that poverty were largely ignored. Devastating urban poverty was just there -- as if that were somehow the natural order of things but if we could only ‘fix’ schools it would disappear.

While you’re reading it, keep this chart in mind (from Alex Knapp at Outside the Beltway):

I’ve complained before about our schools’ obsession with behavior management at the expense of thought and inquiry. But I can see why the people in the blue slice above might be more interested in teaching the kids in the yellow slice to behave than in teaching them to question things.

(h/t Balloon Juice)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Update on the Fifteen-Minute Lunch: The Bureaucracy Fights Back

Remember that meeting we had with our school superintendent about the fifteen-minute lunch period in our elementary schools? The one he scheduled after parents complained that fifteen minutes was too short, and after they started a petition that garnered dozens of signatures and supportive comments? Remember how the superintendent started the meeting by talking about how the “twenty-minute lunch period” came about -- as if to pretend that lunches weren’t actually fifteen minutes at all? Remember how no one was fooled by his attempt at spin, and everyone at the meeting immediately pointed out that the lunch period was not only a measly fifteen minutes, but that some of that time was spent waiting in line, cleaning up, and getting in and out of the cafeteria, and that some schools were even having the kids eat lunch while bundled up in winter clothes, so they could get to recess more quickly afterward?

Wait till you hear the rest of the story.

At that meeting, the superintendent said that he would discuss the issue with the school principals – adding that he expected them to resist any effort to extend the lunch period at the expense of instructional time.

Last month, the superintendent told parents that he had scheduled a meeting of school administrators to discuss the issue and that he was hopeful they would be able to address parents’ and students’ concerns.

Last week, the superintendent talked to a reporter from a national news organization who is working on a story about school lunch periods. He told the reporter that the district had just enacted a policy to set the minimum school lunch period at twenty minutes after the last child in line had been served. He also said that the district had banned the practice of having the kids eat lunch in their winter clothes. (Meanwhile, the superintendent admitted to one parent that, because the kids could no longer wear their winter coats and snow pants to lunch, their recess time was being shortened to enable them to get bundled up first.)

But when one parent checked with her school’s principal to see if all the kids were really getting a full twenty minutes to eat, the principal replied that the students were now getting twenty minutes “in the lunchroom.” This didn’t sound exactly like what the superintendent had told the reporter, so that parent asked both the principal and the superintendent for clarification.

The parent soon heard back from the superintendent – the same man, keep in mind, who had tried to tell parents about how the “twenty minute lunch period” came about, and who just last week told a reporter about the district’s new twenty-minutes-from-the-last-child-through-the-line policy. He apologized for the confusion, then said he had been mistaken about the policy that had been adopted at his meeting with school administrators. The actual policy they agreed on, he said, is that the kids should get no less than fifteen minutes to eat their lunches.

See? They fixed the problem. Before, the kids had fifteen minute lunches. Now, because parents complained, the kids will have no less than fifteen minutes for lunch. Who says the school system isn’t responsive to parents’ concerns?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Radical me

At our meeting with the school superintendent about the shortened lunch periods, one parent self-deprecatingly identified herself a “left-winger,” and the superintendent got a laugh by responding, “You’re not going to throw a bomb, are you?” I saw it a harmless joke, but the woman was annoyed by it. The superintendent, after all, was the one ultimately responsible for the fact that the kids were getting only fifteen minutes for lunch, and here she was, just trying to see that her kids get reasonably humane treatment in the place they’re confined to for over six hours a day -- but she’s the one who might be a bomb-thrower.

When Indie asked about my opinion on Sudbury schools, I certainly wasn’t annoyed -- in fact, it prompted me to write a lengthy post. But at the same time, my real first reaction to a question like that one is a kind of frustration. All I want is for the schools to treat the kids humanely. I want them not to treat the kids like conscripted soldiers in a global economic war, or like animals in some behaviorist’s laboratory. I want them to respect the kids as people, to engage their minds and not just elicit unthinking responses, and to coerce them only to the degree that it is demonstrably in their interest. I want them to be conscious of the values that they are conveying by the way they treat the kids. Yet when I make those arguments, the response is often along the lines of: “Have you considered homeschooling?” or “What are your thoughts about Sudbury schools?” -- which are both good questions, but are also a nice way of saying, “You are a fringe radical, and you are crazy to think that a public school will ever reflect those qualities.”

It’s as if I suggested that a progressive income tax is a fair way to raise revenue, and everyone responded, “Have you read Karl Marx?” (Actually, that does seem to describe a lot of today’s political “debate.”)

But apparently if I support teaching methods like this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this -- then I’m squarely in the mainstream.


Sunday, February 13, 2011


In the comments on one of last week’s posts, Indie pointed out that progressivism “has always contained a strand of technocracy,” and that “standardized education in America reflects: a belief that everything can be systematized, data-mined, analyzed, and improved under the eye of a well-trained specialist. In short, it reflects a belief in the primacy of science--and the belief that education is, in fact, a science.” Indie also asked what I think about Sudbury schools. At the risk of writing a pretty long post, I’d like to address both of those subjects here, because I think they are more closely related than they seem.

Indie’s point about progressivism is a great one. “Progressive” means different things to different people, but it does still carry that echo of a zealous faith in science as the solution to social problems. A lot of good came out of the Progressive era, but it had a dark side as well. At their worst, Progressives lived up to the caricature of do-gooding “expert” busybodies who always knew what was best for everyone else and were determined to impose their Utopian program on the benighted people around them. Eugenics, for example, was a progressive cause. (“That famous Western rationalism,” as Marilynne Robinson has written, “old enemy of reasonableness, always so right at the time, always so shocking in retrospect.”)

In that light, it’s easy to see Progressivism as the immediate forerunner of today’s regime of “evidence-based,” “accountability-driven” educational policies that promise to transform America into a nation of multilingual scientists and engineers. (Confession: I chuckled when I wrote that last part.) If that’s progressivism, I’m happy to be a reactionary. If the twentieth century should teach us anything, it’s that we should be suspicious of people with grand hubristic schemes to transform society. Science, in that context, is usually a thin veneer over ideology and blind faith.

So what do I think of Sudbury schools? First, for those who haven’t heard of them: under the Sudbury model, as I understand it, a school is run as a genuinely democratic community. The school community -- composed mostly of the kids themselves -- votes on what rules to have and how to enforce them, and on every aspect of the school experience. The kids even vote on whether to renew the teachers’ contracts at the end of each year. Even the kindergarten-age kids get an equal vote. Unsurprisingly, these schools tend to look very different from conventional schools; for starters, attendance in classes is usually not compulsory -- if they even have classes at all. (A while back I read some accounts written by graduates who had attended the Sudbury Valley School in the seventies; several of the alums reminisced about time spent hanging out in the smoking room.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Is there a test to assess how bored the kids are?

At the PTA meeting at our elementary school tonight, the principal and PTA president told us the “wonderful news” that we should “be excited” about: Our school’s aggregate test scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills this year were very high -- at or above the ninetieth percentile on many measures.

I’m not celebrating. The news reminded me of that old punch line, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” Since raising standardized test scores officially became the sole goal of education, our school has gone a long way toward transforming itself into a combination test-prep center and obedience school. In my opinion, it’s a worse school than it was even five years ago -- worse in terms of providing a humane, intellectually stimulating, emotionally healthy environment for a kid to spend years in. But hey, the standardized test scores are looking good, and that’s all that matters, right?

I’m afraid the kids are learning these lessons even better than they’re learning math and reading skills:
Learning is boring.

Intellectual activity is something you would never choose to do voluntarily.

Adults are there to judge you and boss you around.

Being good means being quiet and obedient.

You will get in trouble if you argue with or question an authority figure.

You should believe everything you are told.

Kids aren’t really full-fledged people. (Maybe some other groups aren’t full-fledged people either.)

The reason to be well-behaved is to get rewards.

It is more effective to bribe people than to reason with them.

Your own interests, desires, and inner life are unimportant; what’s important is what others expect from you.
I’m not surprised that no one ever tests the schools’ effectiveness at inculcating those beliefs. Never ask a question that you don’t want to know the answer to.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

George W. Bush, School Superintendent

In the comments on my last post, northTOmom expressed surprise that our school makes the kids wait in line outdoors until school starts in the morning. “I suppose when I complain about our schools in Toronto,” she wrote, “I should be grateful for these small blessings: longish lunches/recesses and fewer arbitrary draconian rules than in the schools of Iowa City! (I thought it was a progressive city!)”

I’m never sure exactly what “progressive” means, especially in the context of education. (One of No Child Left Behind’s key sponsors, after all, was Edward Kennedy.) But, for what it’s worth, Johnson County is one of the bluest counties in America. Barack Obama won seventy-five percent of Iowa City’s popular vote. Iowa City has a reputation as an artsy, intellectual, socially liberal college town; the Advocate even named it America’s third most gay-friendly city. So why do so many features of our public schools seem like they could have been designed by the most authoritarian, anti-intellectual, corporate-captive elements of America’s political spectrum? (Examples here, here, here, and here.)

One could speculate: Maybe it’s because what we think of as progressive educational ideas are just not that widely shared, even among people who consider themselves liberal. Maybe academics, having gotten where they are on the strength of their standardized-test-taking skills, are happy to support test-driven educational policies. Maybe it’s because Iowa City, source of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and home to ACT and Pearson, is the standardized testing capital of the world.

But those speculations, even if there’s some truth to them, are beside the point. The fact is: What goes on in Iowa City public schools has virtually nothing to do with what the citizens of the Iowa City district want or believe. Turnout in school board elections ranges between three and six percent. Once elected, the school board serves largely to implement policies that the federal and state governments have imposed on it. The school board hires a superintendent to carry out the day-to-day administration of the schools, and he then gives a good deal of discretion to individual principals. By the time the superintendent and principals are making decisions about what actually goes on in the schools, there is very little reason for them to worry about what Iowa Citians think. They are far more likely to concern themselves with the incentives and penalties built into the federal No Child Left Behind Act; if they don’t raise those test scores, they could lose their jobs. So test-prep it is, with all the accompanying emphasis on creating quiet, obedient followers-of-instructions who will be great low-level employees some day. And progressive education -- with its concern for critical thinking, for the humanities, for the autonomy and basic dignity of the kids -- be damned.

In other words, there’s a reason our school district’s policies seem like they could have been designed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney: because they were. Set aside, for the moment, your own political leanings. Is it really a good idea to impose a nationwide approach to education on every community, regardless of whether that approach conflicts with a community’s own values? If that’s “conservative,” then the meaning of that word sure has changed.

Related post here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Open the door, and let ’em in

I dropped my six-year-old daughter off at school on Tuesday morning. It was eighteen degrees and windy. School wouldn’t start for another ten minutes. So she walked up to the school and got into the line for her class, and then waited there, outside, standing in line, for ten minutes, until the bell rang and the teacher let them in.

Is this standard procedure everywhere now? No getting to school more than ten minutes early; no playing on the playground before school; no going into the school before the bell rings; everybody waits in a line? Even in good weather, I don’t see why the kids can’t go into school and wait in their classrooms, at least for those last ten minutes. When I was in elementary school (yeah, I know, forty years ago), we played outside or waited in our classrooms, whichever we liked. We certainly didn’t stand there waiting in single file for the bell to ring.

It’s just a small thing, I guess, but these unnecessary rules and constraints, these little indignities, these little deprivations of autonomy, add up. Maybe I’m in the grip of nostalgia, but it just seems so much more demeaning to be a kid now than it was forty years ago.

Local readers: do any of you know why the schools do it this way? More distant readers: Is this how it works where you are?

Race to create inarticulate, uncritical worker bees incapable of democratic self-government

I don’t always agree with Stanley Fish, but these are my sentiments exactly.