Thursday, July 21, 2011

Theirs is not to question why

Apparently the people who want to “reform” education have realized that they need to reform education schools, too, to make sure that all those aspiring teachers won’t start asking hard questions about the assumptions of the day and the interests that are served by them. The Times reports today on efforts to remove all intellectual content from the process of becoming a teacher -- er, I mean, to shift education schools to a “nearly single-minded focus on practical teaching techniques.”

The Times, for example, describes “Teacher U,” an education graduate school started by three “charter school chains,” including KIPP. No lofty debates about the goals, purposes, or social functions of education for these future teachers; this program is “tightly focused ‘on stuff that will help you be a better teacher on Monday.’” Unsurprisingly, being “a better teacher” is defined entirely in terms of raising standardized test scores, and nothing else.
There was no mention of John Dewey, Howard Gardner or Paulo Freire, the canon of intellectuals that tend to take up an outsize portion of the theory taught at traditional education graduate schools. But that seemed fine with the students, who chatted avidly about their own experiences.
It’s funny, just yesterday I was complaining to my wife that our kids’ teachers have spent too much time reading Paulo Freire, are too intellectual, and have put too much energy into thinking about what it means to be well educated. Oh wait, no -- actually I wasn’t saying that at all. What I was saying, like a broken record, is that our schools don’t seem to reflect any concern with getting the kids to think critically about the world around them, and seem designed simply to produce obedient little worker bees who will score high on standardized tests and fear all authority.
The goal, [said the president of a new education school], is to reach beyond the charter school world, and for half of its students to be traditional public school teachers. “The techniques and strategies that you are learning here are applicable to all settings and to all types of kids,” he said. “However,” he allowed, “if you believe that children shouldn’t have homework, or you believe that testing is evil, this probably isn’t the best program for you.”
God knows education schools have their problems. But any place worthy of calling itself a “school of education” should encourage its students to think about and debate the value of homework and the role of standardized testing in our schools, rather than start with an ideological premise and discourage non-believers in that premise from enrolling. Good teaching and good public policy don’t come from enforcing an unquestioned party line. But what better way to prevent the kids from learning to think critically than by making sure that their teachers don’t learn it either?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is this how public education in Iowa City will wither and die?

I recently heard the following argument, which I’m paraphrasing here as best as I can (with perhaps a little embellishment):

Iowa City has two large high schools. People naturally compare them. Historically, both have been considered “good schools.” There are some disparities between what the two schools offer; people can argue about how bad those disparities are, but they’re there. One of the disparities is in the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-rate lunches, a rough measure of how many kids are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The disparity is currently not very large, but it is there. The school board has toyed with boundary plans to try to keep that disparity from growing, but it has also vacillated and backtracked, and the longer it delays, the more there is a real possibility that the disparity will grow.

Given that there are two high schools populated by two different parts of town, there is the possibility that politics will aggravate the existing disparities between them. Whichever side of town has fewer motivated voters, or less political influence, might be likely to bear the brunt of hard fiscal decisions more than the other. People focusing only on their own narrow, short-term interests might be likely to vote for school board candidates who will benefit the schools on their side of town at the expense of those on the other side.

This thinking, however, is not in the best interests of people on either side of town. Here’s why. If the schools on one side of town become sufficiently worse off than those on the other side, a domino effect will ensue. People who live on the “wrong” side of town -- or at least the better-off ones -- will start withdrawing from the public system and sending their kids to private schools. The high school on that side of town will then have fewer students, and will thus receive less money, employ fewer teachers, and provide fewer offerings, causing more families to abandon it, and so on.

The effect will be to reduce the number of people with an incentive to support the public schools politically -- which will affect the schools on both sides of town. When it comes time to approve a bond issue or a school tax increase, there will be fewer people motivated to support it. As the schools struggle more for resources, more families will abandon them for the privates, accelerating the trend. Eventually, the schools on both sides of town will decline, and what was once an innocuous division between one side of town and the other will become an invidious division between the rich families in the private schools and the middle-class and poor families in the struggling publics.

The upshot: People who care about the future of Iowa City’s public schools -- regardless of which side of town they live on -- should do two things. First, they should forswear the “our side vs. their side” mentality. Second, they should make it a priority -- for the sake of all parts of the district -- to minimize the disparities between the schools on each side of town. Otherwise, the system is destined to cycle downward into decline.

Reactions? What’s wrong with that logic?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Asbestos removal at Hoover School [Updated]

Another parent at our elementary school sent the following email to the school board and the superintendent tonight:

Dear Board Members,

I am writing to enquire about the recent asbestos abatement at Hoover Elementary. It is my understanding that in the classroom(s) where the abatement work has been done that there has been residual dust left on items on which students would have close contact: ie, carpet, textbooks, desks, chairs. Is this normal procedure when removing asbestos? It is alarming when there is a warning sign stating that you cannot enter the classroom without respirators and protective clothing, yet the afore mentioned items were not covered.

Thank you for getting back to me.

When I hear more, I’ll post it.

UPDATE: Here is the response of Paul Schultz, forwarded by Superintendent Steve Murley:


There was no asbestos abatement performed in the room.
Any dust that may have been not cleaned up is not asbestos containing. It is normal construction dust from work done in the room. The signage was in place in case the non-friable glue, which the chalkboards were originally mounted with, contained asbestos. The chalkboards were removed to access the glue for testing. The glue was tested, and did not contain asbestos. If it had been found to contain asbestos, the glue would have been abated per AHERA regulations, keeping it in a non-friable manner during abatement. The glue was never in a condition to create dust, including during the removal process, even though it did not contain asbestos.

Please let me know if you have further questions.

Paul Schultz

Director of Physical Plant

UPDATE II: Another parent passed along this helpful link about the federal government’s requirements about asbestos management.