Monday, September 12, 2011

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.


Teacher said...

Chris, Thanks for your observations regarding Ms. Van Dyke; I voted early and Julie Van Dyke was my choice for the 2 year term.

Is she feisty and occasionally abrasive? Probably yes, but we need someone who will do more than smile politely and try to make everyone feel good.

Chris said...

Teacher -- Thanks for commenting!

Julie VanDyke said...

Thanks "Teacher"!