Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yesterday Math

One of our area’s few private elementary school options, the Willowwind School, announced this week that it was changing its math curriculum from Everyday Math, which our public schools use, to Singapore Math.

Carly Andrews, the Willowwind Head of School, told me that teachers had “expressed concerns about the limitations of Everyday Math and the effect it was having on student’s math interest and achievement. . . . We wanted an approach that provided more depth and more focused practice, rather than a fast-paced cycle through multiple lessons and infinite problem-solving strategies.”

Over at Kid-Friendly Schools, FedUpMom has posted frequently on the topic of math curricula; she’s a believer in Singapore Math, and a critic of Everyday Math. NorthTOmom has also posted on the topic, and I believe she is partial to Jump Math.

I’m not well enough informed to have a strong opinion about one math curriculum versus another. But I can certainly testify that my kids have found Everyday Math unnecessarily frustrating and unclear at times. It’s not hard to imagine that a different program might be better.

At the same time, I wish people would give more thought to whether it’s a good idea to push math on young kids to the extent that we do. It seems to me that any attempt to make elementary-age kids develop a deep understanding of a subject that they may not be interested in, at a level that is of very limited use to them in their daily lives, and at a pace not of their own choosing, is starting off with two-and-a-half strikes against it, and I wish I had a dollar for every math program that was enthusiastically heralded as an improvement over the one that went before.

Given how little math is retained by our adult population once they’ve been out of school for a few years, it’s hard for me to share the sense that we urgently need to ensure, for example, that every ten-year-old can divide by fractions -- to the point where we make our first-graders sit through an hour of math every day, but give them fifteen minutes or less to eat lunch. I can’t help but wonder whether a lot of math concepts could be learned more easily and with less frustration if we just put them off until the kids were a little older (an idea discussed here), and instead used elementary school just to allow the kids to be exposed to math without the same obsessive focus on achieving certain arbitrary benchmarks by certain ages.

In some places, after all, Every-Other-Day Math seems to work just fine.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

School board appoints Jan Leff

The school board tonight appointed Jan Leff to the open seat on the board. That’s pretty unsurprising; Leff is a former school board president, and was the only applicant for the position who ruled out running for the position in September. Alas, she was also the only applicant to whom I did not send my list of questions for school board candidates (because she did not list an email address on her application, and there wasn’t enough time for snail mail).

The school board election is just around the corner, and, partly because of the unexpected opening, five of the seven seats are up for election. Given that I mailed my questions to the candidates only a few days ago, I don’t blame the candidates who did respond to my letter for wanting more time to think through some of the issues in it. But I do plan to follow up with all the candidates as the campaign unfolds.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Responses from school board applicants, cont’d

I received this response today to my list of questions for school board applicants, from Carlton Meriwether:
Thank you for your email and questions revolving around filling the open school board position. I would like to commend you on focusing on some key issues that go beyond the three B’s [budgets, buildings, and boundaries] as you stated in your email. I have read through the questions and while I fully intend to supply you and your readers with a response I would ask that you give me just a bit more time. I will try to have a response to you and your readers by Tuesday. As stated in my application, whether I am chosen on Tuesday or not, I fully intend on running for a board position in September.
Additional responses are here.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Responses from school board applicants

Yesterday evening I sent a list of questions to the people who have applied for the open seat on our local school board. I’ve so far heard back from two of them. Jeff McGinness emailed right away to say:
Thanks for both emails. While I fully intend to respond to the questions, it may take some time as I want to insure I make thoughtful responses. As I indicated in my application, I strongly believe in seeking advise and conducting research as to issues beyond my immediate knowledge base. While I grasp most of the issues encompassed in the questions, the level of depth and specificity of some require more guidance, especially considering the detailed discussion of these topics on your blog.
Then, late last night, I received this disarmingly candid response from Art Small:

It seems apparent that you, rather than me, should be thinking of getting on the school board. You have obviously given more thought to the issues or problems than I have.

In large part I was stimulated to toss my name in when I read the school board was considering closing the Hills school. I had lived in Hills for three years around the time I first ran for the Iowa Legislature in 1970. Two of my children attended that school for a couple of years and we thought it was a fine neighborhood school. If my young children back then would have had to ride back and forth on a bus every day into Iowa City to attend school, I doubt if my wife and I would have wanted to live in Hills.

Once my children had grown up and got on with their lives I’ve given much less attention to local school matters then I did while they were going through the Iowa City schools. I did think, however, that I could make a useful contribution if chosen. I still want Iowa City school children to receive the best education they can get and I’m willing to put in the time required to try to achive that goal.

I spotted your email late this afternoon and I will be leaving later this evening to start driving from [out of state], back to Iowa City. I’m currently here visiting my daughter and her family. She has three children and I’ve spent the past week enjoying their doings. I was reminded again how much effort parents have to put in to insure their children end up well educated. Also, because I’ve walked the youngest, a 3rd grader, back and forth to school the past week, I been again reminded why I so much like neighborhood schools.

I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can. I can’t spend too much time thinking about my responses because when I finish I’ll have to be off on my long drive back to Iowa City.

1. Lunch period: Fifteen minutes for lunch seems much too short to me. I asked my three grandkids and they agree. They all seem to think their lunch breaks were a bit less than a half hour and that seemed about right. I would add that I think the lunch period should come after any recess break. Let the kids work off their willies before lunch.

2. I think the No Child Left Behind Act has not been good for Iowa City schools.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Questions for school board candidates, cont’d

Our local school board suddenly has a vacant seat to fill. In that situation, the school board makes a temporary appointment, and then the seat comes up for election in September. Eleven people have applied for the appointment. You can read their applications here.

Five of the applicants said they were planning to run for the board in September: Phil Hemingway, Jean Jordison, Wes LaMarche, Jeff McGinness, and Carlton Meriwether. Another five said they were unsure whether they would run: Jeff Alden, Nanci Kohl, Jill Morriss, Art Small, and Circe Stumbo. Only one (former board president Jan Leff) ruled out a run.

So it seemed like a good idea to ask these aspiring board members if they would respond to this blog’s list of questions for school board candidates. I am emailing them all today (with the exception of Jan Leff, who did not provide an email address on her application). Needless to say, I’ll post any responses. The board is scheduled to make the appointment this coming Tuesday.

What’s the plan? (cont’d)

One of the questions I’ve wanted our local school officials to answer is about how they are going to handle intra-district transfers as an increasing number of schools are designated Schools in Need of Assistance (“SINA schools”) under the No Child Left Behind laws. The district is required to allow students in a SINA school to transfer to a non-SINA school. But because the test-score progress targets ratchet up each year -- requiring 100% proficiency by 2014 -- it’s inevitable that the number of SINA schools will continue to grow, while the number of schools the kids can transfer into will continue to shrink. At some point very soon, we’ll end up with a small handful of schools that will be legally required to accept transfers from every remaining school in the district, stretching their capacities well past the breaking point. What’s the district’s plan for handling that problem?

This week, our local paper asked the superintendent a series of questions about the state of our local schools. As usual, none of them touched on the actual content of our kids’ school day, or about how kids learn, or about what it means to be well-educated. (For some of those questions, see this post.) But the paper did ask about the transfer problem:
Q: How is the district going to handle the growing number of transfers from SINA schools?

A: The requirements under Title I are that we set aside 20 percent of our (federal) Title I dollars to serve two needs: tutoring and transportation. A minimum of 5 percent has to go to tutoring and a minimum of 5 percent has to go to transportation. We’ve allocated a full 15 percent to transportation … for students who wish to exit their schools and go to a non-SINA school. That number is predicated on our Title I allocation and the federal government, as they go through their budget reauthorization process, has and will continue to consider reductions in Title I funding, which means as our Title funding is decreased, the 15 percent we allocate to transportation decreases. Then we have to go through a process that is required under Title I … by which we prioritize who is eligible to receive transportation, and it’s based on eligibility for free and reduced lunch. It can be based on your achievement and, as we look at who will be transported, we will have to do it based on those federal guidelines.
Well, that sure clears it up!

In Orwellian edu-speak, top-down is bottom-up

President Obama this morning:
We need to reward the reforms that are driven not by Washington, but by principals and teachers and parents. That’s how we’ll make progress in education–not from the top down, but from the bottom up.

. . .

The idea is simple: if states show that they’re serious about reform, we’ll show them the money.

. . .

Our challenge now is to allow all fifty states to benefit from the success of Race to the Top. We need to promote reform that gets results while encouraging communities to figure out what’s best for their kids. That why it’s so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year–so schools have that flexibility. Reform just can’t wait.
Could there be a more incoherent Presidential statement? We want to encourage communities to figure out what’s best for their kids, and if they agree with me that raising standardized test scores at any cost should be the sole goal of education, then I’ll show them the money! See, it’s bottom-up!

When it comes to No Child Left Behind, please: Don’t mend it. End it.

My thoughts on real “bottom-up” educational policy are here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Let’s drive a stake through “stakeholder”

“Stakeholder” has become the fashionable word in education. Everyone from the local school superintendent to the President of the United States talks about the importance of stakeholder participation in educational policy decisions. (Check out this Google Ngram graphing the usage of the word over time.)

If, by “stakeholder,” people meant kids, their parents, and ordinary citizens, I would have no objection to it. But that is decidedly not what they mean. In fact, those groups seem to come way down the list, if at all. For example, some of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top proposals defined “key stakeholders” to include teachers’ unions, charter school organizers, business leaders, and grant-making foundations -- but completely omitted parents from the list.

I don’t doubt that, from a political science or sociology point of view, it makes sense to think of school policy as the result of a negotiation among various self-interested groups. But by using the term “stakeholder” in discussions about public policy, we legitimize the claims of those groups on the attention of policymakers. If President Obama talks about the importance of achieving “buy-in” by “stakeholders,” everyone nods. If he were to talk about the importance of placating his campaign contributors, we might react differently.

Are even teachers “stakeholders”? They certainly have a stake in educational policy decisions, but so do standardized testing companies, building contractors, land developers, and military recruiters. To call them “stakeholders” implies that serving their interests is a legitimate end of educational policy. I’ve made it clear (for example, here and here) that I think we should improve the pay and working conditions of teachers, but that’s only because I see that as an important means of serving the kids’ interests, not because it’s an end in itself. If the teachers’ interests ever genuinely conflict with those of the kids, it’s the interests of the kids -- the real stakeholders -- that should prevail.

“Stakeholder” is just a step away from “shareholder” and “stockholder,” and the connotations largely overlap. Instead of a model in which citizens control their public schools under the quaint system of one-person-one-vote, “stakeholder” connotes a model in which the schools are controlled by their owners, and implies that the owners with a greater financial investment will have more say -- because of their larger “stake” -- than others. This may be an increasingly accurate view of how our government works, but it’s one that we should be fighting, not aiding and abetting.

I vote we lose the euphemistic “stakeholder” and go back to the honest term: “vested interest.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

The latest links

A few interesting links (with tantalizing excerpts!):

E.D. Kain reviews “The Finland Phenomenon,” a new film on Finland’s sane and successful approach to education:
To be honest, I finished the film feeling a bit angry – angry that for all the talk of school-choice in our current education debate, the choices available to me and to my children (not to mention the countless people far less fortunate than myself) are really false choices. No matter whether you attend a public school or a charter, you are really bound to the modern testing regime.
Emily Yoffe’s review of Race to Nowhere in Slate:
At a screening I went to, at a school in Montgomery County, Md.—which has one of the highest ranked school systems in the country—the parents who took to the microphone afterward could barely contain their outrage.
Alfie Kohn on “Ten Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring”:
If we all agree that a given principle is true, then why in the world do our schools still function as if it weren’t?
How to sell recess and gym to school administrators:
Physical education classes may be scarce in some schools, but an activity program combined with school lessons could boost academic performance, a study finds.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

“I don’t want to be a teacher anymore”

A teacher’s lament:

When No Child Left Behind came into effect, it didn’t affect me that much at first. My class averages were always above where they needed to be, and I was still having good results, so I didn’t really worry about it much. Philosophically, I knew I didn’t agree with focusing so much on test scores, but I could still keep my students’ scores where they needed to be by focusing on what my experience as a teacher had taught me was best.

. . .

Then the past few years a few of the buildings in our district didn’t meet their AYP (adequate yearly progress.) The district began to look for ways to help these building to succeed. The focus on test scores escalated to a crazy level. The teachers in one of the elementary buildings in my district were told they could no longer teach anything besides reading, math, and science because those were the subjects that were tested. Our building wasn’t ever told that specifically, but it was understood that we were to focus on practices that would improve our students’ test-taking skills.

The district decided to implement required core instructional materials that were mandated to everyone. Suddenly, the creativity of the job was being removed. They wanted everybody to teach the same materials, the same way. I’ve never been one to buck the system, so I began to wrack my brain for how to use these new materials and still keep the lessons interesting for my students.

. . .

Never once in the past 34 years of teaching did I ever want to quit. I even told my husband that if we won the lottery, I’d keep teaching. My students would just have all their own computers, art supplies galore, and any book we wanted to read as a class.

So now I’m into my 35th year of teaching. Last July my district had offered a $20,000 bonus to any teacher who could retire, in order to save money. It struck me as odd that they’d want to get rid of experienced teachers. I didn’t take it because I felt I’m not ready to retire. It’s been such a big part of me forever, and I’m not ready to give it up yet. Besides I’m only 55, and even though I’ve been teaching so long, I’m just barely old enough to retire.

But then one Thursday, on the eighth day of my 35th year of teaching, I suddenly thought for the very first time ever, “I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.”

Read her full list of reasons here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Absurdist art imitates life

“Proficient,” a play written by a local playwright, Jessica Foster, was recently performed by the University of Iowa Theater Arts department. Foster explained the origin of the play:

Last spring, I found out that three of my favorite teachers were retiring. When I wrote them to express my gratitude and congratulations one responded telling me that the decision was not of her own volition, but strongly encouraged by the administration. Knowing what a naturally talented teacher she was and also having been greatly influenced by her, I felt the effects of No Child Left Behind on a more personal level and I knew it was about time I spoke for my family and friends who sacrifice so much in what seems to be a broken system.

Foster classifies the play as “absurd theater.” Our local alternative paper summarized the plot:

Proficient concerns three main characters: Ms. Delaney, a teacher; Craig, an educational salesman; and Rodney, who works with Craig. There’s also a chorus of children -- the number can be determined by the director. The salesmen want Ms. Delaney to buy their product, which promises significant financial rewards for the school. Ms. Delaney accepts, only to learn that the program actually programs students, making them into test-taking robots.

“I had a [mother] of one of the children in our play ask the child if school is more like the beginning or end of the play,” Foster said. “And she was surprised when the child told her, ‘The end.’”

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Whatever you say, Sir

This story has recently been making the rounds in academia. Long story short: A student in the veterinary school at the University of California at Davis had to miss several quizzes after giving birth to her baby. In response, the department chair asked the class presidents to email all of their classmates and have them vote on how the student should be graded in light of her absence. Options included “automatic A final grade,” and “automatic C final grade,” among others. A blogger got wind of the email and publicized it, and eventually the department chair resigned from his position as chair.

There is no shortage of comments one could make on the story. But one detail that caught my attention was that the class presidents -- the elected leaders of a class of graduate students at a professional school -- were willing to do the chair’s bidding by emailing his unfair and bizarre question to the entire class, apparently without any objection whatsoever.

Am I crazy to wonder whether our educational system is turning out too many students who can’t stand up to authority figures on issues of right and wrong? I wonder if those class presidents sat through thirteen years of programs like this, this, and this.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Questions for school board candidates, part 1

We’ve got a school board election coming up this September. Our local papers’ “voter guides” are fine as far as they go, but they never seem to ask the questions I’d most like to see answered, and often leave me without any real sense of how the candidates conceive of education. So this year I thought I’d begin making a list of questions to present to the candidates. Here are the first ones that come to mind:

1. Should the school board ensure that elementary school students get more than fifteen minutes for lunch? If so, what should the minimum lunch period be? (See the petition about this issue here.)

2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?

3. Do you think our schools should put less emphasis on standardized testing? If so, what should the school board do to achieve that goal?

4. What should the school board do when state or federal laws or regulations require the district to do something that is not in the best interests of the kids? (See this post.)

5. Do you support the current pervasive use of token rewards to get students to comply with school rules? If not, what role should the school board take in reining that practice in?

6. How should the schools approach the teaching of moral or ethical values? (See the debate in this post.)

7. What should the district’s plan be as the number of SINA schools grows and the number of schools into which those students can transfer shrinks?

Feel free to submit your own in the comments. Updated version, with links to responses from 2011 candidates, here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Democratic citizens, yes -- but right-thinking, obedient ones!

Via the school district’s new blog, I’ve learned that the district is considering the following additions to its “Ends Policy,” which states the district’s educational goals:

The District will ensure that students become responsible, independent, lifelong learners capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society as well as in the dynamic global community.

Character Development
Students will demonstrate knowledge and understanding of community accepted intrapersonal, interpersonal and civic values consistent with the ICCSD Equity Statement. Students will demonstrate acceptance and internalization of those values through their behavior during the school day.

This statement struck me as internally inconsistent, so I submitted the following comment:

I’m a little puzzled by this statement. Isn’t there an inherent tension between (1) wanting students to be independent thinkers who can participate in a democracy, and (2) insisting that they “accept and internalize” a particular set of values? The former sounds like education to me; the latter sounds like indoctrination.

I’m in complete agreement with the ICCSD Equity Statement. But I don’t think you promote those values by setting out to make kids agree with them -- which, if anything, is likely to engender resentment and resistance. The goal of education should be to promote inquiry, not to dictate beliefs and values.

I’d love it if our schools did encourage the kids to be independent thinkers who could someday participate intelligently in our democracy. My experience, though, has been that the schools put much more energy into ensuring that the kids are quiet and obedient than into fostering people who are able and inclined to participate in a democracy. You can’t put that much emphasis on behavioral compliance without undermining the values of inquiry and independent thought.

Ultimately, democracy is about questioning the rules of the world you find yourself in. But our schools seem to be working awfully hard at achieving unquestioning compliance with rules, and I’m afraid that attitude is reflected in the idea that we should set out to get the kids to “accept and internalize” community-accepted values.

The district’s use of PBIS -- which aims to achieve behavioral compliance not through engaging the students in thinking about what’s right and wrong, but by developing conditioned responses to token rewards -- and its character education program -- which focuses largely on obedience -- are two examples that leap to mind.

My main post on PBIS is here, and on “Character Counts” here. More on this topic generally here, here, and throughout the site.

UPDATE: I just submitted this follow-up comment:

As an alternative, how about something like this:

“The district aspires to prepare its students to be independent and capable participants in a democratic society. It is not the district’s goal to indoctrinate the students into any one set of beliefs or opinions. Instead, the district seeks to foster an environment in which students are encouraged to question received ideas, to think deeply about value questions, and make their own informed judgments, as they will be called upon to do when they become voters.”

I’d even be fine with adding a line like, “Nothing in this statement means that the district shouldn’t adopt and enforce rules about student conduct.” Of course schools will have rules; what concerns me is the effort to get compliance at the expense of core educational values, like the importance of thoughtful reflection and inquiry.

My comments are currently “awaiting moderation.” visible on the site.