Sunday, August 28, 2011

One-stop shopping for the school board election

I want this post to serve as a collecting spot for information about the candidates in our local September 13 school board election. I will keep adding to it as more information becomes available. I’m sure I’m missing things; please feel free to suggest additional links in the comments or via email. (I hope you’ll also feel free to check out some of the site’s other posts while you’re here.)


For live-blogging of the election results as they come (as well as early reports on turnout), click here.


Eight candidates are competing for four at-large seats on the board. In addition, voters will choose between two candidates, Julie Van Dyke and Karla Cook, to fill the unexpired term of Mike Cooper. As a result, five members of the seven-member board will be chosen in this election. Here's what the ballot will look like. Find your polling place here. (Go to your “school precinct,” not your “regular precinct.”)

The polls will be open from 7 am to 8 pm on Tuesday, September 13. Same-day voter registration is permitted. Absentee ballots must be requested by Friday, September 9, and postmarked by Monday, September 12.

Voters will also decide whether to approve a new bond for Kirkwood Community College.


This blog’s questionnaire to the candidates, with links to their responses
The teachers’ union’s questionnaire and responses
Press-Citizen’s “Questions to Ask School Board Candidates”


I know of four scheduled debates:
Monday, August 29 at 7 pm, Hills Community Center, 100 E. Main Street, Hills;
Thursday, September 1 at 6:30 pm, Iowa City Public Library;
Tuesday, September 6 at 7 pm., City High (focused on curriculum and funding); and
Thursday, September 8 at 7 pm, West High (focused on redistricting).
The September 1 debate is available here as a podcast.

The September 6 debate will be replayed on local cable channel 21 on:
September 7 at noon, 2 pm, 4 pm, and 9 pm;
September 8 at 10 am, noon, 2 pm, 4 pm, and 9 pm;
September 9 at 2 pm;
September 10 at 8 am, 5 pm, and 9 pm; and
September 11 at 8 am, 5 pm, and 9 pm.
The September 8 debate will be replayed on local cable channel 21 on:
September 9 at 10 am, noon, 4 pm, and 9 pm;
September 10 at 10 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm;
September 11 at 10 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm; and
September 12 at 10 pm, 2 pm, and 9 pm.
The September 6 and 8 debates are organized by the District Parent Organization; historically, those debates have had a pretty tightly constrained format. The September 1 debate is sponsored by the Press-Citizen and the Iowa City Education Association; historically, their format has been more of a free-for-all.


This blog’s posts on the election
Commentary by John Deeth here and here
The teachers’ union summary of the candidates’ pros and cons
Press-Citizen: Reasons to learn more about the school board election
Iowa City Patch: Live-blog commentary on September 1 forum
Another local blogger's take on the September 1 forum
Press-Citizen: Vote yes on the bond issue
Press-Citizen endorses Cook, Swesey, McGinness, Hoelscher, and Porter
More commentary by Mariaconz
The Gazette: Why to vote
Mariaconz's election eve thoughts
Iowa City Patch: Live-blog commentary on the September 8 debate
Press-Citizen: Daunting tasks face everyone who wins today
This blog's choice: Why I'm voting for Julie VanDyke


Press-Citizen: Ten candidates seek school board seats
Gazette: Plenty of candidates for school board
Coverage of August 29 debate here
Press-Citizen: Hoelscher to hold forum
Press-Citizen: School board hopefuls sound off at forum
Hoelscher to host listening posts
Federation of Labor endorses Tate, Fields, McGinness, and Porter
Coverage of the September 6 debate is here
Press-Citizen: Teachers' union endorses Cook, Swesey, Fields, Porter, and Hemingway
Coverage of the September 8 debate is here
McGinness to attend coffee event Sunday
John Deeth: McGinness Top School Spender
Daily Iowan: School Board candidates discuss transparency, enrollment


Jeff Alden: Statement, statement, profile
Karla Cook: Statement, statement, profile
Patti Fields: Statement, statement, profile
Phil Hemingway: Statement, statement, profile, profile
Sally Hoelscher: Statement, statement, profile
Jeff McGinness: Statement, statement, profile, profile, interview
Bob Porter: Statement, statement, profile
Marla Swesey: Statement, statement, profile
James Tate: Statement, statement, profile
Julie VanDyke: Statement, statement, profile


Available here.


Patti Fields
Sally Hoelscher website, Facebook page
Jeff McGinness
Marla Swesey
Julie VanDyke

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The teachers’ union on the school board election

When I sent out my questions for school board candidates, I mentioned how most such questionnaires tend to focus on “budgets, buildings, and boundaries,” with little, if any, attention to the district’s educational philosophies, approaches, and goals. The Iowa City Education Association (i.e., the local teachers’ union) has its own questionnaire -- the responses to it are here, and their summary of the candidates’ pros and cons is here -- which I think demonstrates my point. Eleven questions, and not one that invites any discussion of what the district’s educational mission should be, or even acknowledges that there might be more than one way to think about educating people. (Number 7 arguably qualifies, but is pretty narrowly focused on accommodating socioeconomic diversity.)

Don’t get me wrong: I think the ICEA is asking about important issues, and I’m happy to link to them here. But as a parent, what I most want to know is: Why is the district treating my children this way? Why does it seem to be striving so hard to teach my kids that learning is an unpleasant chore? Why is it so bent on turning my kids into quiet, obedient little worker bees who will score high on standardized tests and fear authority, instead of skeptical, questioning citizens who will speak up and think for themselves? Why does the district have such a blinkered idea of how people learn, and such an impoverished conception of what it means to be well-educated?

As I’ve made clear before, I don’t mean this as a criticism of the teachers. This approach to education is being imposed on the teachers partly by the district and partly by individual principals. We have no way of knowing how the teachers really feel about it, and I think many of them strive to keep as much joy in the learning process as they can, under the circumstances.

Deborah Meier frequently talks about how schools should be striving to create a “feisty, democratically savvy citizenry.” Our district, though, seems to want to stamp out all traces of anything resembling feistiness from the kids. For the kids who are deemed “disruptive,” we’ve adopted million-dollar programs and entire curricula to train them -- and all the kids -- not just to obey the rules, but to internalize and agree with them. For the kids who are too people-pleasing, too quiet and docile, too unquestioningly obedient, too happy to be told what to think, too fearful of authority -- nothing. The district doesn’t see those kids as a problem. In fact, they appear to represent the district’s ideal student.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Candidates’ responses: Karla Cook [Updated 8/29]

Karla Cook just sent me a partial response to my candidate questionnaire, and said that she “will continue to work on your concerns and questions,” which I hope means that more responses will be coming. In the meantime, here are her thoughts on two of the questions:

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.)
As to the lunch time issue, I talked with a parent at Hoover and 2 grandmothers in the district. The parent thought the time was appropriate. However, the grandmothers indicated that they thought the children appeared to be rushed. I would be in favor of allowing the children to finish their lunches whether that was 15-25 minutes. It would be taken out of the lunch recess or whatever activity that was planned for that extra time. I would hope that no school personnel would encourage students to eat too fast or throw away needed food.
3. Do you think that standardized testing plays too large a role in our school system? If so, what should the school board do about it?
When I taught at City High, we were concerned with "teaching to the test" in order to make our schools look good. We determined that it would not encourage students to become life-long learners - just momentary-learners, enough to do O.K. on the test. I know that happens in other states and districts. From the number of schools on the SINA list in Iowa City, I think that is not happening here. I am not in favor of "high stakes" testing in any part. Standardized testing is supposed to be a measure of how much progress a student is making. It is not always a good measure as some students do not test well for what ever reason.
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?
I read some of the blogs and while I agree that students should not be rewarded for what should be normal good behavior, I know that some students have not received the appropriate parenting before attending school. This is still obvious in some students at the high school level. That leaves the schools to deal with teaching the behaviors that are needed in school. It is hard to have a group of students treated differently than the rest. I would imagine that the teachers have decided that all students will be rewarded so that the ones who are in need of the instruction will not stand out.

I would hope that the reinforcement of the behaviors by giving token rewards would taper off as the student population becomes accoustomed to the rules.
Links to other candidates’ responses are here.

Candidates’ responses: Sally Hoelscher

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.)
It is the responsibility of the School Board to make policy decisions, not operational decisions. Therefore, the amount of time designated for lunch is not under the purview of the Board, but rather a decision of the administration of each school. As a parent, you are entitled to (and I believe, correct to) be an advocate for your children on this issue. Building principals and the superintendent are the officials to address these concerns to, as you have done. When my children were in elementary school, I also acted as an advocate for them on lunch issues. I do know that some elementary schools have made some in their lunch procedure for this school year.
2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Candidates’ responses: Jeff McGinness

Jeff McGinness, one of our school board candidates, is the first to reply to my list of questions. Here are his responses (I’ve added a link to the article he mentions):

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.)
Unquestionably, yes. My oldest Gavin, now in second grade at Weber, requests home lunch everyday because he knows his time is limited if he has to stand in line for school lunch. If an 8 year old recognizes the problem such that he changes his own habits I question how the district cannot similarly recognize the issue. I know the administration is finally starting to look at the issue because I had a conversation with Steve Murley in which he mentioned his own kids doing the same thing.

One option being talked about is placing the scheduled recess following lunch, instead of before or at some other time. It has had some success at a few of our schools and gives kids more time. The obvious concern is that kids may then voluntarily shorten their own lunch to go play. Thus, they should look at extending the time by 5 minutes in addition to moving around recess times.
2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?

Questions for school board candidates, continued

The list of candidates for our local September 13 school board elections is now final. There are ten candidates for five seats: incumbent school board chair Patti Fields, Jeff Alden, Phil Hemingway, Sally Hoelscher, Jeff McGinness, Bob Porter, Marla Swesey, James Tate, Karla Cook, and Julie VanDyke. (Some interesting commentary here.) I have just sent all of them my list of questions for school board candidates, prefaced with this introduction:
I find that most school board candidate questionnaires tend to focus on what you might call the “three Bs” -- budgets, buildings, and boundaries. Those are certainly important topics, but one of the reasons I started blogging is that I think we don’t hear enough discussion of what the mission of our schools is, and about how that mission is reflected in our kids’ day-to-day experience of school. The questions below are my attempt to get at some of those issues in a concrete way.
The questions, slightly revised since I first posted them, are:

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 that standardized testing plays too large a role in our school system? If so, what should the school board do about it?

4. Local school boards have been increasingly subject to state and federal mandates. Do school board members have an obligation to think independently about whether those mandates are good for kids? If so, what should a school board member do if he or she concludes that those mandates are not in the best interests of the kids, or are contrary to our community’s values? (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 this post and 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?

My hope is that the candidates’ responses will not only reveal their thoughts on these issues, but will also tell us something about they will respond to public questions when they are in office. I’ll post responses as I receive them. Feel free to suggest additional questions in the comments.

UPDATE: Here are responses from Jeff McGinness, Sally Hoelscher, Karla Cook, Marla Swesey, Julie VanDyke, and Patti Fields.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Imagine two approaches to teaching ethical reasoning to elementary schoolers (or to anyone, for that matter):

In the first, teachers would pose questions to the students about ethical quandaries. The teacher would solicit opinions from the students, and in response, would ask further questions. At first, the hypotheticals might be relatively easy: for example, the students might be asked how they would respond to a friend who pressures them to shoplift. But, as the discussion progressed, the questions could become progressively more challenging: What if a teacher asks you to reveal something that a friend told you in confidence? How much money would you give or lend to a friend who needs it more than you do? Throughout the discussion, the teacher would refrain from dictating any “right answers” to the questions (which are, after all, questions of opinion). Instead, the teacher would use further questions to get the kids thinking about right and wrong and developing their own nascent codes of moral reasoning. The teacher would also point out patterns in the kids’ responses, giving the kids a vocabulary for talking about ethical choices.

In the second approach, the teachers would tell the students rules about what kind of behavior is right and what is wrong. The teachers would spend large amounts of time and effort to make the rules as clear as possible, so everyone will know them. Throughout the day, the teachers would give token rewards to students who they “catch” following the rules: a paper ticket, say, or a string bracelet. Kids would use the rewards to enter into weekly drawings to win prizes -- the more rewards you accumulate, the better your chance to win. Classrooms, too, would compete against each other to get the highest number of rewards. The use of material gain as an incentive for the kids to obey the rules would be defended on the (empirically suspect) grounds that eventually the kids will internalize the “right” attitudes. The implicit message would be that the highest value is to always do as you are told, and that people in positions of authority are automatically the arbiters of ethical right and wrong.

Unfortunately, you don’t need to imagine the second approach; it is the reality in Iowa City public schools (and in many other places as well). I doubt that the people administering PBIS, and all the similar authoritarian behavioral programs (examples here and here), think of themselves as teaching ethical reasoning -- and granted, what they’re doing is barely worthy of that label. But there’s no question that those programs are teaching kids lessons about their ethical obligations -- about what it means to be “good” -- and those lessons are: always do what others expect of you, always obey whatever rules you are given, let the people in authority tell you what to think. When, exactly, did our community choose that approach?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Treating kids like pets, continued

Our school has a new principal this year, and I took the opportunity to ask if she would consider making some changes to the way the school administers the heinous PBIS program, under which quiet and obedient students are given token rewards which they use to compete for weekly prizes. The good news is that she wrote me a substantial, candid reply responding to the concerns I raised; I really appreciated her willingness to give a direct and candid answer, which (ahem) has not always been my experience.

The bad news is that the new principal is a big supporter of PBIS. (I later learned that she was previously a “professional development facilitator” for PBIS.) She defended the use of PBIS because it “establishes a desire by students, who wouldn’t normally think about behaving appropriately in school, to think otherwise.” (On that point, I have never disagreed.) But she also wrote that “The PBiS program is meant to get students ‘thinking’ about appropriate behaviors and ask questions about why these expectations are in place.”

Again, I really do appreciate her response. But on that last point, I have to conclude that she is simply in denial. Few people want to think of themselves as promoting unquestioning obedience to authority, but a close look at PBIS reveals that that is exactly its mission. It is entirely devoted to making the rules very clear and then using tangible rewards to train kids to reflexively obey them, whatever they might be. It is one hundred percent about obedience training, and zero percent about getting kids to think for themselves about what’s right and wrong and about how to behave. Scan their extensive website in vain for any evidence to the contrary.

In my view, that is a horrible, harmful, and dehumanizing thing to teach children, the kind of “education” you’d expect to find in an authoritarian state or dictatorship, not in a participatory democracy. I know that in any school setting there will inevitably be some emphasis on the importance of following instructions. But to make unquestioning obedience the entire focus of a school’s behavioral program, to the complete exclusion of teaching the kids to think for themselves and develop moral reasoning of their own, is to do the kids an egregious wrong. It is anti-educational, anti-intellectual, and fundamentally inhumane. It’s how we treat dogs, not how we treat people.

We just lived through the Twentieth Century; it’s not hard to think of occasions when authorities have told people to do things that they should have refused to do. This is true even of school officials and teachers. The examples aren’t confined to Nazi Germany or totalitarian societies; just look at the American South during the civil rights struggle, or to the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued Catholic schools, or to what you read in the current news, or even to things that have happened here in Iowa City schools. I certainly don’t send my kids to school to learn that they should accept everything the teacher says and do whatever he or she commands, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. But that is exactly what PBIS is designed to teach, and I’m afraid it’s exactly what they are learning. (The unfortunate “character education” program simply drives the message home.)

A while back, our district invited suggestions as to whom a new elementary school should be named after. At the time, I joked that I would suggest test-prep magnate Stanley Kaplan. But I’m beginning to think this would be the most fitting choice:


Friday, August 12, 2011

I command you to take a course on freedom

Erik Voeten reports on a study allegedly showing that “exposing students to an enhanced civics curriculum increases the students’ knowledge of the constitution and civil liberties but it does not increase their support for civil liberties.” From the study’s abstract:
More than 1000 students in 59 high school classrooms were randomly assigned to an enhanced civics curriculum designed to promote awareness and understanding of constitutional rights and civil liberties. The results show that students in the enhanced curriculum classes displayed significantly more knowledge in this domain than students in conventional civics classes. However, we find no corresponding change in the treatment group’s support for civil liberties, a finding that calls into question the hypothesis that knowledge and attitudes are causally connected.
As much as I’d like more people to take civil liberties seriously, I’m uncomfortable with using instruction to try to indoctrinate kids into certain political beliefs. The goal of the school should be to encourage intelligent, informed discussion of different value choices, not to dictate which values are right and which are wrong.

That said, this particular attempt at indoctrination must be the lamest ever recorded. Confine the kids to an institution dominated by authoritarian practices, deprive them of virtually any civil liberties of their own, and then require them to take special civics classes. Darn, why doesn’t it work?

The sorry state of schoolchildren’s civil liberties is partially surveyed here. If we wanted to accustom kids to a world without civil liberties, we couldn’t be trying any harder than we are, with or without an “enhanced civics curriculum.”

Can I suggest another study? Forget the civics course, and try giving the kids the right to some privacy, some freedom, and some due process in school. Then see if the civil liberties thing catches on. Doesn’t every parent know that modeling is a better bet than lecturing?

Related posts here, here, here, here, and throughout the site.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

“Wishing doesn’t make it so”

Freddie deBoer has some good, if painful, advice for school “reform” enthusiasts:
Educational policy is the graveyard of superb ideas.

. . .

Every year, a new, supposedly revolutionary text emerges that challenges our core understandings of pedagogy, which asks us for an entire new educational philosophy, which is sure to spark massive change in our schools....

. . .

We have to consider the possibility that improving educational outcomes will always be expensive, frustrating, and slow, and the gains tenuous. We have to consider that this might be reality.

. . .

Among the most frustrating elements of debating education reformers is that many tend to speak as though they are the first to ever “put their foot down.” When you study the history of education reform, you will find that one thing that has never been lacking is earnest, well-meaning white people talking loudly about how something must be done. I assure you: if the presence of impassioned, minimally-involved liberal strivers in the education debate guaranteed progress, we’d have achieved far more than we have. I expect and welcome discussion of education reform from passionate popular/generalist sources. That’s democracy. But I do wish people would understand that it is no coincidence that teachers and administrators at public schools tend to have a much more limited and skeptical view of reform. They live where education happens.

. . .

Educating is hard. Doing responsible social science is hard. This debate is desperately in need of modesty. Adjusting your expectations downward is not nihilism, and it’s not despair. It is reacting to decade upon decade of discouraging data.
I like deBoer’s call for modesty. I admit, though, that I’d be less bothered by the grand schemes of education reformers if they involved treating kids with more respect and giving them more independence and autonomy, if they were less burdensome and coercive, and if they were less likely to model authoritarian values.

The unspoken premise of most educational debate is that the ends justify the means. If it will “improve outcomes” -- that is, raise test scores -- then we should do it, period. It’s an ethically questionable premise at any time -- God help us if research ever shows that corporal punishment raises test scores -- but it’s a particularly questionable one when we know so little about the real long-term effects of any educational proposal. Especially in that context, doesn’t it make sense to let our treatment of children be driven by our values, rather than by pie-in-the-sky hopes that treating kids harshly will “improve outcomes”?

Read deBoer’s whole post.