Friday, September 30, 2011

Love it or leave it?

A commenter on this post asked, “Why exactly do you send your children to public schools? It seems as though your tone throughout much of what I have read is that of exteme disbelief in the public school system as a whole. If this is the case, then why not homeschool or send your children to private schools?”

That’s a reasonable question, and I’m afraid the answer isn’t very profound. If I were independently wealthy, and my wife would agree to the idea, and my kids were willing to give it a try, I’d be homeschooling (probably along these lines) in a minute. Unfortunately, I can’t get past even the first item on that list. I’m not willing to give up my career, which is not one that I could just step back into after ten or twelve years away. As for private schools, they are often governed by the same educational philosophies that I’ve objected to on this blog. In any event, there are very few private options here, and none of them excite me enough to justify spending three tuitions times thirteen years (much of which would probably end up coming out of our already inadequate college funds). So here we are.

So I’m certainly not claiming any altruistic “stay and fight” motivation for staying in the public schools. That said, would we really be better off if anyone who was unhappy with the public schools simply took their kids out and paid for private schooling? How would the schools ever change or improve under that approach?

More importantly: taking my kids out of the schools wouldn’t fix what I’m concerned about. Even if I were focused only on my own self-interest, and didn’t care at all about any kids other than my own, I’d still have to worry about what goes in our school system, because I live in a world run by the people who go through it. I worry that authoritarian educational approaches naturally lead, for example, to things like this and then to things like this. I don’t want our schools to model authoritarian values, because I don’t want to live in an authoritarian society. That’s true regardless of whether I happen to have any kids in the system.

When I get asked why I don’t just homeschool, I do wonder about one thing. We’re constantly hearing from school “reformers” who want to make school even more coercive, who want to pile on the schoolwork at younger and younger ages, who want to extend the school day and the school year, and who want ever more intervention into kids’ lives. Do they get asked the same question?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

School board chair: Rewards are unnecessary gimmicks

Our school board tonight elected Marla Swesey, the top vote-getter in the recent school board election, as its new chair. In response to my candidate questionnaire, Swesey, who was a teacher here for twenty-six years, had this to say about using rewards in school:
I have never been a believer of stickers or prizes used to reward students for good work or behavior. Students should be motivated to feel the intrinsic worth of doing a good job on their schoolwork or doing a good deed. Students are capable of feeling pride in their accomplishments without prizes. Students are naturally curious and should get excited about learning without all the gimmicks. There are times when classes need to celebrate in some way for accomplishments or great deeds that the class achieves. But these celebrations would not be done on a regular basis.
Yes, she did go on to say that “this is not a decision for the school board to make but it certainly can be a discussion with the Superintendent so that he can pass on the discussion with the school principals, who in turn can discuss the issue with the teachers.” I think even that approach would be a step in the right direction. Not that long ago, it was probably true that the district itself had no policy about rewards, and the practice probably varied a lot from school to school and teacher to teacher. But I wonder if the new chair realizes that that’s no longer the case, and that the district is now requiring schools to use rewards extensively, and whether that would affect her conclusion about whether the board should have some say in the matter.

I won’t get my hopes up that anything will change, but nonetheless it’s nice to hear someone connected with the school system -- the school board chair, no less -- talking sense about the use of rewards in school.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Data vs. judgment

Gary Gutting has some sanity -- “critical thinking,” even! -- about the limitations of standardized test score data. This passage in particular caught my attention:
There is also the question of whether any standardized test is adequate or needed to evaluate certain sorts of student learning. There was a time when we were happy with Miss Goodteacher’s judgment that her class knew how to read. There are doubtless cases where we can’t trust instructors’ judgments. But is there reason, especially in college-level work, to think that this is generally the case?
Sometimes, when I complain about the effect that high-stakes testing is having on K-12 education, I get asked: “But how else can we tell if students are learning, or if teachers and schools are performing well?” I’m never sure what to say first in response to that question. Part of me wants to say, “Yes, it would be great if there were an objective measure of those things, but wishing doesn’t make it so.” Another part wants to say, “But the benefits of using such an imperfect way to assess those things might be far outweighed by the ill effects of using it -- for example, by the increasingly narrow focus of schools on one or two goals -- ‘teaching to the test’ -- at the expense of all others.”

But usually what I end up saying is: “Hire good people, give them enough pay and enough autonomy that they’ll stick around and develop wisdom and judgment, and then let them use their wisdom and judgment.” Many people seem to find that unthinkable, and would much prefer the false security of a number, regardless of what that number represents and how that assessment distorts the educational process. Yet my answer is a pretty close description of how our higher education system works. It’s also a pretty good description of Finland’s vaunted educational system. Is it so outlandish to think it might work in our K-12 schools?

I think people distrust that approach because they don’t have faith that our K-12 teachers would have the good judgment necessary to make it work. But isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy? We rely more on standardized tests, and teachers are forced to teach to those tests, and their teaching itself becomes standardized, and they have less autonomy in the classroom, and their jobs become less satisfying, and good teachers leave the profession, and fewer qualified people become teachers, and so we trust them even less to have good judgment, and so on. Is that a recipe for good education?

It sometimes seems like people are desperate to find some scientific substitute for individual human judgment. But if we can’t count on our educators to have good judgment, how can we count on them to make good use of standardized test data?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Junk food as a reward, continued

In response to my emails about the use of candy and junk food as a reward in our school, the superintendent forwarded to me an email that went out to all district teachers today (I’ve turned the attachments into links):
Dear Teachers,

This e-mail is to remind you of the district’s Wellness Policy, which states that the district supports and promotes proper dietary habits contributing to students’ health status and academic performance. This includes foods in the classroom. The complete policy is on the district web page, under Health Services and Food Services/ Nutrition. Attached to this e-mail are guidelines for you to follow in implementing the policy, as well as a parent handout.

** Please note the following highlights from the policy as you plan your classroom celebrations, request or bring classroom snacks, plan fundraising with student-sponsored clubs, and consider using foods as rewards for students.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Buy now, pay later

One thing that drives me crazy is when people use a narrowly-defined short-term “gain” to justify intervening in kids’ lives, without regard to the long-term consequences. Using elaborate reward systems means fewer referrals to the principal’s office! Piling on homework will raise third-grade standardized test scores! Even if there were evidence to support these assertions, who would define success so narrowly? I’d much rather raise a kid who enjoys reading than one whose third-grade test scores are higher but who thinks of reading as a chore.

I’ve been meaning for some time to link to this article by Marcia Angell in the New York Review of Books. It reviews three books that discuss the increasing diagnosis of mental illness and the corresponding increase in the use of psychiatric drugs. If what the authors say is true, the story is basically one long parade of short-term thinking at the expense of long-term well-being, with a big dose of corporate avarice and bad government policy driving it all:
For obvious reasons, drug companies make very sure that their positive studies are published in medical journals and doctors know about them, while the negative ones often languish unseen within the FDA, which regards them as proprietary and therefore confidential. This practice greatly biases the medical literature, medical education, and treatment decisions.
. . .

Whereas [Irving] Kirsch concludes that antidepressants are probably no more effective than placebos, [Robert] Whitaker concludes that they and most of the other psychoactive drugs are not only ineffective but harmful.
. . .

Moreover, Whitaker contends, the natural history of mental illness has changed. Whereas conditions such as schizophrenia and depression were once mainly self-limited or episodic, with each episode usually lasting no more than six months and interspersed with long periods of normalcy, the conditions are now chronic and lifelong. Whitaker believes that this might be because drugs, even those that relieve symptoms in the short term, cause long-term mental harms that continue after the underlying illness would have naturally resolved.
The review then specifically focuses on the increasing use of psychiatric drugs on children:
What should be of greatest concern for Americans is the astonishing rise in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in children, sometimes as young as two years old.
. . .

The apparent prevalence of “juvenile bipolar disorder” jumped forty-fold between 1993 and 2004, and that of “autism” increased from one in five hundred children to one in ninety over the same decade. Ten percent of ten-year-old boys now take daily stimulants for ADHD—“attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder”—and 500,000 children take antipsychotic drugs.
. . .

One would be hard pressed to find a two-year-old who is not sometimes irritable, a boy in fifth grade who is not sometimes inattentive, or a girl in middle school who is not anxious. (Imagine what taking a drug that causes obesity would do to such a girl.) Whether such children are labeled as having a mental disorder and treated with prescription drugs depends a lot on who they are and the pressures their parents face. As low-income families experience growing economic hardship, many are finding that applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments on the basis of mental disability is the only way to survive.
. . .

In December 2006 a four-year-old child named Rebecca Riley died in a small town near Boston from a combination of Clonidine and Depakote, which she had been prescribed, along with Seroquel, to treat “ADHD” and “bipolar disorder”—diagnoses she received when she was two years old.
. . .

Rebecca’s two older siblings had been given the same diagnoses and were each taking three psychoactive drugs. The parents had obtained SSI benefits for the siblings and for themselves, and were applying for benefits for Rebecca when she died. The family’s total income from SSI was about $30,000 per year.
The whole thing is really a must-read. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mandatory patriotism

I’ve posted before (here, here, and here) about the irony of trying to teach democratic values using authoritarian methods, so this Op-Ed in today’s Times, on “Constitution Day,” caught my eye. It focuses on the federal law requiring schools that receive federal funds to provide educational programming to observe Constitution Day. (As I went to link to it, I realized it was written by an old friend with whom I’ve fallen out of touch.) An excerpt:
Since Constitution Day is not a particularly well-known holiday, its mandatory patriotism may not seem like a big deal. But mandatory patriotism is corrosive even if accomplished bit by bit.

Consider the Pledge of Allegiance, recited by tens of millions of students every school day. Most schools are obligated by state or local laws to start the day with the pledge, but the real target of the pledge laws are the kids. Children have a constitutional right to opt out, but a refusal is so fraught with social risk that it is not a real alternative for most. The reaction to the rare child who refuses proves the point: last year, for instance, a Maryland teacher yelled at a 13-year-old girl who refused to recite the pledge and called a school security officer to escort her from the classroom. . . .

We should recall Justice Robert H. Jackson’s words from almost 70 years ago, in his opinion protecting the right of students to refuse to recite the pledge: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
Read the whole piece. As I noted here, our school’s new principal has decided to personally lead the kids in saying the Pledge every day. Why?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What is PBIS teaching our kids about moral reasoning?

From Engaging Troubling Students: A Constructivist Approach, by Scot Danforth and Terry Jo Smith (emphasis mine):
An important question for educators to ask involves the distinction between “shaping” students’ behaviors and promoting their moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg (1967, 1984), a developmental psychologist, developed a hierarchical schema of moral development through which he believes children evolve. . . .

Thomas (1992) explains that in the first stage of the Preconventional [or Premoral] Level, referred to as the Obedience and Punishment Orientation, a child judges whether an action is good or bad based on whether it results in a punishment. Doing the “right thing” is equated with avoiding punishment. This judgment does not involve the human meaning of the act, just its consequences. The second stage of the Preconventional Level is referred to as the naive instrumental level. This stage involves actions based on what “pays off” for the child, not on a sense of justice or loyalty. . . .

The second level of moral development in Kohlberg’s schema is the Conventional Level and involves conformity to the expectations of the family, group, or nation. The third level is the Postconventional Level, in which moral behavior is first defined in terms of individual rights but advances toward universal principles of justice.

Behavior modification is the systematic enactment of the Premoral Level of development. This is particularly problematic in light of Kohlberg’s beliefs about how moral development is fostered. . . . Kohlberg theorized that the environmental aspects affecting children’s moral development are “(1) the child’s opportunities to learn social roles and (2) the form of justice in the social institutions with which the child is familiar” (Thomas, 1992, p. 503).

The behavior modification systems commonly used in schools, according to Kohlberg’s schemas, do not involve moral reasoning at all. Drummed into students’ heads all day is the morally bankrupt message of “behave and you’ll be rewarded.” If the form of justice in social institutions affects moral development, as Kohlberg has suggested, then classrooms provide promising opportunities to promote moral development. In particular, a classroom culture that is based on the concept of a community has the potential to promote moral development that involves rights and responsibilities, as well as relationships between the individual and the group. We are deeply concerned by the long-term impact of classrooms that operate on premoral principles.
I don’t know if I buy completely into Kohlberg’s theory. But “premoral” sounds like just the right word for PBIS. Why are our schools modeling and encouraging this “morally bankrupt” way of thinking?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Live-blogging the school board election results

Consider this your source for nerdy commentary on the school board election returns as they come in tonight. For precinct-by-precinct results, read the updates that appear below the tables. For information on the candidates, click here.

Monday, September 12, 2011


During the first week of school, as part of our district’s “guidance curriculum,” the fifth- and sixth-grade classes started a unit on study skills. To introduce the unit, the teacher put a page up on the overhead projector with the heading, in large letters:

The page then contained a list of statements, including:
Your performance in school determines the quality of your future life: size of income -- person you marry -- station in life -- satisfaction from spare time activities -- etc.

Up to one third of your life is spent in school.

Your main job at this time is studying, being a student.

You are “paid” with knowledge and grades for going to school.

Getting high grades is only one of many rewards of a good student. Even more important is the satisfaction that comes from a job well done -- the best job you are capable of doing! PRIDE!

Studying will be a burden unless YOU do something to make it enjoyable.

The skills you learn and the habits you adopt will remain with you throughout your life.

You become an expert only after continual practice.

Unless you work with each skill repeatedly, the skill will be lost!

Reward yourself if you do a good job.

Where to begin? How about with the outright falsity of what they’re teaching these kids? Your performance in school -- in fifth grade, no less! -- determines the quality of your future life? The person you marry? The satisfaction you get from spare time activities? These are the kind of pseudo-scientific factoids that our kids should learn to be skeptical of. Instead, they’re encouraged to swallow them whole: YES, IT’S A FACT! Please, show me the empirical research supporting these assertions.

I’m sure one could find studies showing correlations between, say, high school or college grades and income. Correlation, of course, doesn’t prove causation, because another cause -- socioeconomic status? -- might be driving both variables. But even if you could prove that getting good grades in college has, for many people, some independent effect on income, it would still be false to say that your performance in fifth grade, or any grade, “determines” the quality of your future life.

As one girl said to her friend, “You should have brought up Einstein.” Or, I thought, George W. Bush.

Second, “station in life”?! Does the district really mean to teach that everyone has a “station in life” that is fixed by the time they finish school? And to pass that “fact” along without any reflection on whether it is just or unjust?

Third, what a vision of school! Did anyone stop to consider that portraying school as a thirteen-year sentence in a labor camp, preceded by a stern lecture, might not be the best motivational strategy? (The word “job” appears six times.) What does it say about the district’s faith in the quality of its classroom experiences that it chooses to use fear as the main motivator for going to school? What does it say about the district’s understanding of motivation? What does it say about the district’s own attitude toward the learning process?

As another parent said after reading the list, “It’s as if they’ve never been intellectually interested in anything in their lives.”

Finally, what about the kids who are struggling? What will this do to their motivation? If they’re trying hard and still not “performing well,” what message -- other than frustration and despair -- will they take away from this presentation, as they anticipate their lowly, inevitable, and apparently deserved “station in life”?

Click the image to see the whole sheet.


Candidates’ responses: Patti Fields

Patti Fields, who had contacted me a week or two ago to say that she was working on my candidate questionnaire and hoped to finish her answers in time to reply before the election, just sent me a response to most of them:

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.)
I am going to answer this question in two different roles.

As a board member, this is not an appropriate issue for the board to review. It is a programming, staffing and building-level decision. There is an appropriate process for this issue to come the board through the Board Complaint process. This process is available to anyone with a concern that they do not feel has been handled appropriately in the district.

As a parent, of course I want my child to have enough time to eat lunch for healthy eating habits and choices. The difference is between respecting the appropriate roles of a board member and a parent.
2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?

Why I’m voting for Julie VanDyke

The geeky political junkie in me has enjoyed covering the school board election on this blog. But to the parent and voter in me, it’s felt more like a duty than a pleasure. I think what our schools need more than anything is an infusion of local democracy. School board elections are our best shot at translating our community values into educational policy, so I wanted to make as much of that opportunity as I could. Yet as I attended the forums and read the candidates’ statements and profiles in the paper, it was hard for my eyes not to glaze over. There was some good discussion of budget and oversight issues, and some real disagreement there. But on most everything else, there were platitudes and bland agreement. (The most common answer, by far, at the candidates’ forums was “I agree with the other candidates.”) And there was the usual conspicuous absence of any discussion about how our kids are actually being educated: about the choices a district faces in how to help kids learn and grow.

It would go too far to compare the candidate forums to Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But to me, the biggest issue in education, by far, is the way that No Child Left Behind is dumbing down and impoverishing our kids’ education -- not just by putting negative labels on schools and teachers, but by changing the content of what goes on in the classroom, and the way kids experience and think about learning. That issue strikes me as far more important than, say, where to put the boundary between City and West. Yet most of the candidates made little or no mention of NCLB in their personal statements or at the candidate forums.

Yes, I know -- school board members don’t have the power to repeal NCLB. But I think that’s a lame rejoinder. They can minimize the harm only if they’re conscious of how bad it is. Moreover, precisely because they don’t have the power to change NCLB, and precisely because they’re tasked with carrying out its damaging mandates, they should be raising hell about it at every opportunity. Where is the outrage?

At one of the forums, the candidates were asked about the use of standardized test scores by our schools. Incredibly, only one candidate mentioned NCLB in her answer: Julie VanDyke. Until she did, I had begun to feel like the candidates and I were looking at two different school systems on two different planets.

I had that same response to VanDyke’s responses to my candidate questionnaire. I don’t mean to disparage the other candidate’s responses; I admire the other four candidates who responded, especially given how unresponsive some of our current board members have been to people’s questions. And several other candidates did recognize that NCLB has had harmful effects. But only when I read VanDyke’s response did I feel that I was in the presence of a person who is seeing the same world I’m seeing:
NCLB has lead to a nationwide culture of shame, blame, negativity, hopelessness, and punishment in K-12 education. . . .

Teaching to the test, almost a requirement at this point, has further decimated time and funding spent on all areas with the exception of reading and math. Art, physical education, science, history and the humanities in general have been reduced or cut entirely. The most gifted students have lost access to resources and teaching staff they need to excel, while the below average children have the life and joy stripped out of their school day replaced by preparation for standardized tests. . . .

The culture of failure labeling and impossible goals that has grown out of NCLB has negatively impacted the morale of the entire public education system: from administrators-to teachers-to students-to parents-to communities.
It’s about time! This was the only statement I heard from any candidate that came close to recognizing the full disaster that is No Child Left Behind.

In general, I thought VanDyke’s other answers also exhibited a humane and thoughtful understanding of education. I also remain struck by the fact that in Iowa City, home of one of America’s great research universities, the candidates for school board are unwilling to say (in response to my question 6) that indoctrination has no place in education, period. VanDyke’s answer came closest to my feelings on that issue as well.

Yes, as many people have pointed out, VanDyke is not Ms. Diplomacy. She can be combative and “uncivil.” I don’t deny that, and I hope that she can find a way to focus her strong feelings clearly on issues and not on people. But I hope she never becomes so civil that she’s unwilling to denounce in the strongest terms possible the things that need denouncing, like No Child Left Behind. I’d rather have a board member who errs on the side of strong feeling than one who is so polite and civil that you’d barely know anything is wrong. This is especially true given the temptation that board members face to be hands-off and let the district run itself. VanDyke certainly sounds like someone who can resist that temptation.

I plan on casting four votes in the election for the four-year seats, too -- probably for Hoelscher, McGinness, Swesey, and either Hemingway, Porter, or Tate. (Although I wasn’t crazy about Hoelscher’s responses to my questions, she grew on me at the candidate forums. And she did answer the questions, after all, which counts for something.) I’m sure that if any of my candidates are elected, I’ll probably be giving them a hard time in this space before long. So let me give them all their due right now: being a board member, or even running for the board, is a huge and largely thankless sacrifice. As someone who can barely find time to write a blog post every week or two, I don’t know how they do it. We should all be grateful that anyone would take it on.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Candidates’ responses: Julie VanDyke

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.)
Given the attention span of most small children I know, 15 minutes for lunch is unacceptably short. Given the attention span of ADD/ADHD, 15 minutes for lunch is inhumane and counterproductive. The ICCSD’s Wellness policy includes the following:

“The school district provides a comprehensive and integral learning environment for developing and practicing lifelong wellness behaviors. The entire school environment, not just the classroom, shall be aligned with healthy school district goals to influence a student’s understanding, beliefs and habits as they relate to healthy nutrition and regular physical activity.”

“The school district supports and promotes proper dietary habits contributing to students’ health status and academic performance.”

Neither of these assertions is evidenced in by the district’s 15 minute lunch. Everything I read on healthy eating indicates that food should be eaten slowly and chewed one bite at a time, not inhaled and rushed down with milk. I assume that the shorter lunch periods are a direct result of NCLB’s pressure to spend every possible moment in class towards more progress on standardized testing. I don’t think the board can mandate a longer lunch but I think elementary students need a minimum of 20 minutes to be able to eat enough food in the healthiest manner. I would do everything I could to help the Superintendent and district administration re-evaluate the lunch period towards extending it to 20-25 minutes. I would have gladly signed the petition to do so. This isn’t going to make me popular but then, honesty is more important to me than popularity…I would like to see High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) containing foods and condiments removed from the breakfasts and lunches provided by the school district. Frequently eating foods containing transfats, lots of added sugar, high saturated fat, HFCS, pesticide residue, MSG and artificial dyes is not healthy. I believe they are at the root of the obesity crisis and the skyrocketing number of ADD/ADHD cases (maybe even the increase in autism spectrum incidence) in this country. One of the main problems with HCFS is that it interferes with leptin and insulin which subsequently impairs the body’s ability to properly regulate and store energy. Please see this link for the most recent research from Princeton These studies are also helpful: and . I hope to see more research published on HFCS’s affect on behavior in the future. Since fructose and HFCS have not been integrated into food processing/manufacture in the European Union, as opposed to the United States, it would be interesting to compare the two in regards to increases in prevalence of obesity, ADD/ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Junk food as a reward

I just sent this email to our school superintendent:
Hi -- I’ve noticed with increasing frequency that our elementary school is using junk food -- candy, bubble gum, licorice, etc. -- as a reward for “good behavior.” I dislike the district’s pervasive use of rewards to get kids to obey school rules, but using junk food for that purpose is particularly objectionable, especially in a society where childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic. It also seems to violate the district’s wellness policy. Would you be willing to make it clear that ICCSD schools should not use junk food as a reward?

Thank you for your consideration.
I'll post any reply that I receive.

UPDATE 1: Here is the superintendent's reply:
Thank you for bringing this to my attention. While in my previous district I worked to end the sale of all pop during the school day and eliminate the use of candy and other related food as rewards in classrooms. We develop a very comprehensive Food and Beverage Guideline. I cannot locate a copy of that this morning, however, I will do so and bring that to Susie Poulton, Director of Health and Student Services.

I know that you have been very active in working to improve the nutrition focus in our District. I recently worked with Assistant Superintendent Becky Furlong to review with our principals the current lunch practices. Some of the changes made last year seem to be working at some schools. Others are not working as well. Becky is working with the Elementary Principals to gather a comprehensive records of the current lunch room practices so that the schools can learn from each other and work to provide the best environment for the children. One promising practice that has been reported is the movement of recess prior to lunch. I know from the reports at my house that at both the elementary and junior high school levels that students still have concerns about the length of the lunch period. While we have not identified a solution that meets all expectations, we are working to that end.

If you have further input on either of these issues, I would welcome additional correspondence or a call.
Readers, is that a “No”?

UPDATE 2: My reply:
Thanks for the quick reply. What I'm after is an authoritative statement from the district prohibiting the use of junk food as a reward in school. I don't think that would require the passage of a new policy; just an application of the existing wellness policy. I can certainly understand wanting to hear from Susie Poulton on the issue first, but am I right to assume that you make the ultimate call on how to interpret that policy? If so, how long do you anticipate it will take to make that decision? The practice of using junk food as a reward seems so plainly indefensible that it would surprise me if there had to be a lengthy consideration of the issue. Would we be talking about a few days?
His very quick reply:
Good Afternoon Chris,

The short answer is yes, I make that decision and yes, that should not require a lengthy re-write of policy.

I want to make sure that appropriate members of the administrative are part of the decision and on board with enforcement to insure that it is not a proclamation in name only.
My reply:
Sounds reasonable. Any time frame?
His reply:
I have to meet with Susie on another issue on Monday morning. If we have enough time we will add this to the agenda. If not, I am sure we can make some determination before the end of the week.
To which I responded, "Terrific -- thank you." Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The incredible shrinking lunch period

I currently have a guest post over at The Lunch Tray on the so-far discouraging story of our local effort to get the schools to allow more than a measly fifteen minutes for lunch.

The Lunch Tray, by the way, is a great source of information on the topic of improving school lunches, both system-wide and one family at a time. It’s written by a concerned parent, Bettina Elias Siegel, and features an occasional terrific rant of the type that is right up this blog’s alley (for example, here, here, and here). It’s worth checking out.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Scenes from the first week of school

I’ve written many posts here complaining about our district’s extensive use of rewards to manipulate the kids’ behavior, and about its overemphasis on obedience at the expense of critical thinking. I’m afraid, though, that those posts sometimes get a little too abstract; it’s hard to fully convey my objections without providing a more concrete sense of what is happening in our elementary school. So here is a description of a few of the things that happened during the first week of school.


On the first day at our elementary school, all the kids had to attend a school-wide assembly, at which the new principal made several announcements.

First, she said that every morning on the public address system, she would be leading the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hoover School Pledge, after which there would be a “patriotic song.”

Second, she told the kids that there would be changes in the behavioral rewards program (PBIS) that the school has been using for two years. Instead of receiving red tickets for good behavior, the kids would now receive colorful rope bracelets that they could wear on their arms. The red tickets used to end up in people’s pockets or desks, she explained; now people will be able to see just by looking at a child that he or she has been congratulated. She explained that the kids could choose whether to keep the bracelets or turn them in for entries into the weekly prize lottery. Unlike in previous years, when the prize was usually a special lunch with the principal, the prizes would now be material goods -- little toys, for example.

Third, she explained that there would be a new system for addressing behavior in the lunchroom. Each sixteen-person lunch table would have a plastic cup placed on it. If the kids at that table were well-behaved, the cup would be green, and the kids could talk in normal conversational voices (“voice level 2”) for the duration of the fifteen-minute lunch period. If the kids were too noisy, though, they would get a yellow cup, and would be allowed only to whisper. If they continued to be too noisy, they would get a red cup, and all the kids at the table would have to eat their lunches in silence.


The next day, each classroom of kids was taken on a lengthy tour of the “Expectation Stations,” to be told the “expectations” (translation: rules) for each area of the building. In the hallways, for example, they were to be completely silent, and to walk only on the right side, and only in single file -- no stepping out of line. Even when they’re outside the building on their way to the temporary building, they should be totally quiet and follow the hallway rules. The teacher told them that in the junior high, the students walk chaotically and noisily through the halls, and that they wouldn’t like that at all.

The groups of kids -- even the sixth graders, who are eleven years old and in their seventh year of elementary school -- were then taken into the girls’ bathroom, where the guidance teacher told them not to hang on the stall doors, not to write on the walls, to use no more than two pushes on the towel dispenser, and only one or two squirts of soap (unless it’s really low; then you can use a third). “If you sprinkle when you tinkle,” the teacher told them, “be neat and wipe the seat.” “If it doesn’t look nice, flush twice.” The kids were taken on similar tours of the lunchroom expectations (those cups again), and the playground expectations.

“They treat us like babies,” one child said afterward.

Candidates’ responses: Marla Swesey

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.)
School lunch time has been an issue for a long time in the ICCSD and I suspect other districts, too. Although, it isn’t a school board decision to be made- it still deserves discussion as it is something that can be approached by the Superintendent when he talks to the principals about scheduling. At the beginning of the school year, the principals have to decide on the scheduling for all the specials, including the lunch/recess times for all classes. It is a tough job. Most schools have 15 min. for eating and then 15 min. for noon recess. The rationale behind the recess after the lunch time is to provide whatever extra time is necessary for kids to finish their lunches before they go out for recess. If a slow eater takes longer to eat, the extra eating time is taken off of their recess time. In all the years that I taught, I didn’t see too many students giving up their recess time to finish eating. Many times, I saw students rushing to eat so they would get more recess time. Some schools or classes in schools, have recess before lunch so that there is no extra time for the students to eat if they are only given 15 minutes. It would be nice to have 20 minutes of eating time and 15 minutes of recess but principals would have to do some creative scheduling to make that happen. Is it possible? Perhaps one of the meetings scheduled for the Superintendent and the principals could be used to talk about some of the creative ways that more time for school lunch could be accomplished.
2. On balance, has the No Child Left Behind Act been good for Iowa City’s public school children?