Sunday, October 30, 2011

The quietest kids of all

As readers of this blog know, our elementary school uses an elaborate behavioral rewards program called PBIS. Under the program, teachers reward “well-behaved” students with little string bracelets. The kids can then exchange the bracelets for entries into a prize drawing that occurs at the end of each week. The more bracelets they earn, the better their chance of winning a prize. The school announces the prize winners over the public address system every Friday afternoon.

Last week, though, when the winners were announced, people noticed something strange. One of the winners was a kindergarten-age girl who had registered for school over the summer, but whose parents then decided to keep her in pre-school for an additional year. She doesn’t attend the school. Another winner was a girl who moved to South Dakota several weeks ago.

One can only imagine how two kids who don’t attend the school, but whose names may appear on an outdated school roster, could have won the weekly prize drawing. It certainly makes you wonder whether the school is being honest with the kids about how the winners are chosen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Perpetual, unwinnable wars (junior edition)

Defenders of PBIS, the behavioral rewards program that our elementary school uses, emphasize how “positive” it is; after all, it aims to reduce the use of punishment by making the school rules very clear and then repeatedly rewarding students who comply with them. (Not getting rewards, when others are getting them, apparently doesn’t count as punishment.) The tradeoff for this “positivity,” though, is that the school has become obsessed with behavior, behavior, behavior, reminding the kids at every opportunity -- in assemblies, in “guidance” class, in the hallways and lunchroom, on the playground, on posters and signs throughout the building, and every time rewards are given -- of its behavioral “expectations.” The (unintentional?) message to the kids is that school is first and foremost about behavior, compliance with rules, and obedience to authority.

Most of these kids were not getting punished much, if it all, before PBIS came along. Now the school is not only continuously reminding them of school rules, but also continuously obsessing over and passing judgment on their behavior. That this might not feel like a “positive” change does not seem to have occurred to anyone.

Moreover, PBIS seems to have generated new “expectations” that didn’t exist before. Take the lunchroom. Before PBIS, the kids got the same measly fifteen-minute lunch break, but were at least largely left alone while they ate. There was an adult present, but that person pretty much stayed in the background unless there was a problem -- for example, helping the younger kids open containers or milk cartons.

With PBIS, though, came the Perpetual War on Lunchroom Noise. We have a lunchroom, so we must have lunchroom expectations, and we must make them clear and insist that they be followed. Suddenly it became the lunchroom attendants’ mission to reduce the noise level. This entails frequently yelling at the kids to be quiet, and usually turning down the lights to make the point. If some kids don’t comply, their entire table has to be silent. There are days when the entire lunchroom is required to eat lunch in silence, because some of the kids have been too noisy. Tables at which the kids are too noisy may be dismissed last, thus getting less time at recess; sometimes the lunchroom attendants expressly threaten to hold the whole room in from recess until they are quieter. Plastic cups of different colors are placed on each table; a green cup means the kids can talk, but if they’re too loud, they get the yellow cup, and can only whisper -- forget about talking to your friend across the table. And if they are still too loud, they get the red cup, which means they have to be silent for the rest of lunch.

A couple of weeks ago, the lunchroom attendants began threatening that if the kids weren’t quieter at lunch, they would start to have assigned seats. This threat came after more than two years of constant scolding about the lunchroom noise levels. For all the yelling and darkening and threats and plastic cups and missed recess time and enforced silence, there is no indication that this lunchroom full of young children is any quieter than it ever was. If anything, judging from the elevation of the threats, it may even be noisier.

Some questions: How did the school go about deciding what an age-appropriate “lunchroom expectation” was? Will the failure to reduce lunchroom noise, after over two years of trying, lead them to reconsider that decision? Or just to adopt increasingly heavy-handed interventions? What’s been gained? Even if noise had been reduced, would it have been worth the price? What is the school modeling about how public institutions should interact with the people they govern? Is the lunchroom now a more “positive” place?

UPDATE: Today the lunchroom attendant had a new, police-like whistle, which she blew loudly to get the kids’ attention. “I’ll blow it again if you don’t quiet down,” she said, prompting some kids to put their hands over their ears. Then she blew it again. What a positive development.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Occupy Iowa City on education

Occupy Iowa City encampment, College Green Park

A reader points out that Occupy Iowa City, our local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has posted a statement of principles that includes these paragraphs:
We witness the degradation of public schools which do not provide the skills needed for creative and free thought, or for full participation in economic or political systems.

. . .

We affirm the necessity of affordable public education for all people, so that they may be fully informed, creative and curious participants in a just society.
I’m very sympathetic to a lot of the concerns that the Occupiers have raised, if not to all of them in every particular. Those statements about education are, of course, unspecific and designed to appeal to a broad range of people. But I don’t think I’m projecting -- especially given their other principles -- when I conclude that the protesters would probably share my concern about public schools that seem designed to produce compliant subjects of a totalitarian state rather than skeptical, questioning citizens capable of participating in a democracy.

I’m also glad to see any acknowledgment that the disturbing economic and political trends in our country -- the increasingly authoritarian view of government, the decline in civil liberties, the two-tiered system of justice, the disproportionate influence of the wealthy, the militarism, the pitting of people against one another to fight over a smaller pie -- might be related to how schools are treating our kids.

I don’t know where this movement will go, but right now, these people are saying some things that need saying.

Related post here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

School district survey due tonight

I just received this message from Julie Van Dyke about our school district’s survey on district operations:
Hi Folks,

The crucial ICCSD survey will close at midnight tonight, Monday, 10/24. Please fwd this request and info to as many ICCSD stakeholders as possible. We can be candid in our comments, as long was we phrase them without indicating who we are, because the surveys go directly to the audit consulting firm - not to the school district. The consulting firm will combine the multiple choice scoring and comments into a report they provide to the district.

Survey at

Friday, October 21, 2011

The beginning of the end for No Child Left Behind?

The Times reports that the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, has approved a bill that “would greatly reduce Washington’s role in overseeing public schools.”
[The bill] would continue to require states to test students in grades 3 through 8 annually in reading and math, but would eliminate most provisions in the law that put the federal Department of Education in the position of supervising the performance of the nation’s 100,000 public schools. The department would continue to closely oversee how states manage their worst-performing schools.
Apparently the bill would release states from the “mandate that schools be deemed failures if all their students were not proficient in reading and math by 2014.” Further, it “would not require states to set any student achievement targets,” and it drops “the requirement that schools evaluate teachers based on student test scores and other methods.”
Civil rights and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the legislation would so thoroughly eviscerate the federal role in school accountability that they could not support it. But powerful groups representing superintendents, principals, teachers and school boards said they were delighted.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized the bill, which is a point in its favor.

It was a bad idea to put the federal government in charge of our schools, and it would be an even worse idea to keep it in charge after the disaster that was No Child Left Behind. Best of luck to Harkin and the other Senators who support this bill.

What is PBIS teaching our kids about moral reasoning? (continued)

Under our district’s behavioral rewards program, PBIS, teachers give out token rewards to kids who they “catch” complying with the school’s “expectations” (that is, obeying school rules). Each time a student gets a reward, he or she is entered into a lottery at the end of the week to win a special prize. At our elementary school, for example, the prize might be toy sunglasses, lip gloss, a notebook, some special pencils, candy, or the like. I have many objections to the program; one is that it teaches that the reason to “be good” is to get a material reward -- the most primitive form of moral reasoning, if you’d call it moral reasoning at all.

Recently, at another elementary school in our district, the weekly prize was a pair of tickets to a University of Iowa football game, a prize that might easily have been worth hundreds of dollars. (The tickets had been donated to the school.) Football is big in Iowa City, to put it mildly -- especially among boys. Some of the kids started competing to get behavior rewards like never before. Then, at the end of the week, one student, a kindergartner, won the football tickets. At least one boy was in tears after learning that his week of good behavior didn’t pay off as he had hoped.

If you see a child as nothing but a collection of behaviors, that story might not bother you at all. The prize had exactly its desired effect, after all, in getting kids to comply with school rules. This is precisely how PBIS is supposed to work. Good behavior is up! Office referrals are down! How could anyone complain?

But if you see kids as having minds, and if you care not only about what they do but about why they do it, and if you think that how they understand their world matters, then you might find that story pretty disturbing. On the one hand, I suppose the kids might have learned a valuable lesson about gambling. What they learned about good behavior and moral reasoning, one can only imagine.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Public forum on school district “operations”

Julie Van Dyke asked me to let everyone know about this:
Iowa City Community School District Seeks Public Input On Operations Audit

The Iowa City Community School District will host a public forum Monday, October 17 at 7:00 p.m. at City High Opstad Auditorium to gather input on what community members see as areas needing improvement in the School District Operations. The District has retained an outside firm to engage in a process audit to help look at how the school district does business. The audit will include interviews of District personnel and community members in individual, small group, and open forum settings. It is vital for community members to provide open and honest feedback in the areas of human resources, technology, business, custodial and food services.
I’m not sure exactly what types of issues fall under the category of “Operations,” which, on its face, would seem to describe everything the school district does. Is it safe to assume that this event is not directed toward such things as curricular concerns or redistricting issues? If anyone has more information, please chime in in the comments.

UPDATE: And a reminder from Julie's earlier comment: There will be a "Town Hall" meeting with representatives of the Governor's office this Sunday at 1 p.m. at West High about the proposed Education Blueprint.

Monday, October 10, 2011

And it’s only the first day of Testing Week

Today the lunchroom guards attendants at our elementary school told the kids (for about the millionth time) that they were being too noisy at lunch. This time, though, they said that if the kids weren’t quieter at lunch tomorrow, there would be assigned seats at lunch for the rest of the year.

I’m sure this had nothing to do with the fact that while some groups were in the lunchroom, other groups were taking the ITBS, our state’s annual week-long high-stakes standardized test.

Completely unrelated cartoon here.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Quote for the week: Iowa Test of Basic Skills edition

“Getting through another year of AYP successfully is like passing a ridiculously large and hard stool. You do it because you have to, there’s a modicum of relief when it’s done, and you pray you haven’t done too much damage when passing it.”

-- Michael Doyle, on the annual gauntlet of standardized testing to meet No Child Left Behind’s “adequate yearly progress” requirements. This week in Iowa City, students will spend hours every day taking standardized tests.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Does the Governor love my child?

“I love my child,” a homeschooling mom once said to me. “Does the teacher love my child?” That’s as good an explanation as I have ever heard for homeschooling. It’s also, I think, a good argument for local control over educational policy. The teachers, in my experience, do at least have relationships with the kids and care about them as individuals. Do the school administrators? The superintendent? The Secretary of Education? The Congressperson?

The best way to put power in the hands of the people most likely to treat kids humanely -- that is, parents and teachers -- is to give local communities real control over their schools.

(I didn’t want to let the blog’s second birthday go by without a post. Looks like I just made it under the wire.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why is school choice so unappealing?

I don’t think all schools should be the same. One of my complaints about No Child Left Behind is that it imposes a single educational philosophy on every public school in America: school is about raising short-term standardized test scores, period. That strikes me as wrong not just because I disagree with that philosophy, but because I value pluralism. Moreover, it seems short-sighted: why put all of our eggs in any one basket? Why turn educational policy into a nationwide winner-take-all battle -- especially if there’s a good chance you might lose that battle?

If it were up to me, I’d allow genuine local control over educational policy. There’s no reason that schools in Iowa City should have to follow the same approach as schools in, say, rural Texas, or even schools in more conservative parts of Iowa. Why not let each community do it in its own way? Wouldn’t more people be satisfied that way?

But this idea raises one of the age-old tensions in law and politics. To get more freedom for myself, I have to grant more freedom to other people. Many people in Iowa City might dislike the choices made by that Texas town, and want to put a stop to them. But you can’t have it both ways. Is it more important to preserve our community’s freedom to run its schools as it chooses, or to stop that Texas town from doing its own thing? Remember, if everything is decided at the federal level, it might end up that the Texans are the ones telling Iowa City what to do, not the other way around. Arguably, that is exactly what has happened, and I’m thinking of one Texan in particular.

So you would think that I’d be drawn to the idea of school choice, and at least in theory, I am. But school choice is complicated by yet another issue: we’re making choices about what to do with a completely disenfranchised set of people -- children -- who have no choice in the matter at all. Suppose our district starts up the Corporal Punishment Magnet School, filled entirely by kids whose parents choose it. No one would be forcing me to choose it, so could I object? I think I could.

So even in theory, it’s hard not to have some ambivalence about school choice. Then you see what passes for school choice in practice, and ambivalence turns to skepticism and suspicion. Though some people are making valiant efforts to create charter schools that follow humane educational principles, they can’t escape the law’s requirement that all schools are ultimately judged solely on their success in raising standardized test scores. The kind of choice I’d like to make is simply not allowed.

Meanwhile, though, consider some of the choices that are allowed. When our current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was the head of the Chicago school system, he “oversaw the controversial move to bring full-fledged military academies to the Windy City.” Andy Kroll reports:
Today, Chicago has six military high schools run by a branch of the armed services. Six smaller military academies share buildings with existing high schools. Nearly three dozen JROTC programs exist in regular high schools, where students attend a daily JROTC class and wear uniforms to school one day a week. And at the middle school level, there is a JROTC program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Chicago may have the nation’s biggest JROTC program, but it is no longer an anomaly. Due to increases in federal funding for JROTC programs, the military’s presence in public schools is greater than ever before. More than a dozen academies partly funded by the Department of Defense have sprouted up from Philadelphia to Oakland, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2009 passed last year will increase the number of JROTC units nationwide from 3,400 to 3,700 by 2020, at a cost of $170 million. (Peacework magazine obtained a list of schools that have requested JROTC programs.) The Marines are in discussions to open new JROTC academies in Atlanta, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, helping to expand a program that critics contend has blurred the line between education and recruitment. . . .

Now that Duncan is the nation’s top education official, anti-recruitment activists worry that he will use his position to promote the expansion of JROTC and military academies as solutions for cash-strapped or underperforming school districts. . . . “These are positive learning environments,” Duncan said in 2007. “I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”
Meanwhile, former Defense Secretary William Cohen is reported to have called JROTC “one of the best recruiting services that we could have.”

Can a pluralist object?

Cartoon of the day

. . . is here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guest post: Authoritarian Education Styles and American Competitiveness

Justin Birch has been reading this blog and asked if he could write the following guest post, which seemed right up this blog’s alley. He tells me that he wanted to be a high school teacher, and then a college professor, before encountering the difficulties of graduate school and professional academia. Now, as a writer and editor, he works to promote the quality and availability of undergraduate education in America.

[UPDATE: In July 2012, asked me to remove the link to from this post, on the grounds that “We believe this link may have been compensated by a marketer and no longer want them pointing to the site.” See this post.]

UPDATE 9/26/12:  I'm going to go ahead and remove the link to, even though the site never adequately answered my questions about why the link should be removed.  Again, see this post.]

Americans are known for their competitive spirit. Whether the conversation is politics or sports, arguments can quickly grow heated. What happens when we turn that competitive nature to our education system?

It has long been a topic of conversation that changes need to be made in the education system in order for our students to compete on the international stage. Much attention recently has been devoted to the promise of charter schools or online colleges to outperform public institutions. However, it’s helpful to know what’s being compared. The perception reflected by rhetoric about other countries’ education systems is that they churn out perfect little soldiers, able to recite documents and perform complex mathematical functions by rote, but incapable of creativity and free thinking. Although this perception is quite inaccurate, it continues to be propagated by news media and creeps into the consciousness of our educational leaders, influencing their decisions on how best to compete with other countries.

The prime example of the influence of this thinking in action is the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that schools must perform according to certain national standards in order to receive funding. Should student scores not reach a minimum acceptable mark, the school is designated “failing” and faces sanction. Progress is only measured in one way, however: standardized testing. The most common criticism of standardized testing is that the only thing it can effectively measure is students’ ability to take standardized tests.

What skills are required to take a standardized test? The ability to follow instructions, memorize isolated facts, and then regurgitate information on demand. By the same token, what does standardized testing fail to measure? Creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, innovation — all the values that have traditionally been measures of American success.

Professor Yong Zhao of Michigan State University has studied the problem of standardized testing and expressed concern that by forcing our kids to conform to measurable standards through testing of only readily quantifiable subjects (math, science, and reading) Americans are tossing away the very talents that have always given the United States a competitive edge in the world.

The other problem that surfaces when so much emphasis is placed on the results of testing and numbers is that someone will always find a way to game the system. In 2011, a scandal rocked the Atlanta public school system when it was discovered teachers and principals had actually been altering tests taken by students to make it appear test scores were better than they actually were. Who does this benefit?

What kind of future America are we creating with our heavy emphasis on standardized testing? Do we really want a workforce only excellent at obeying instructions and short-term memorization? Do we want cheating and lying to be the only effective way to get ahead? Or do we want creative workers adept and deeper learning who can think around corners and come up with innovative solutions to problems?

To make matters worse, not only are we putting all our eggs in the basket of quantifiable education results, we aren’t even doing it well. The reality is that when it comes to quantifiable test scores we are consistently outperformed by countries like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. However, once again we aren’t truly comparing apples to apples. Students in other countries may begin formal education at different ages, and other factors may lead to the differences in test scores.

In our efforts to create a more authoritarian framework in our schools and thanks to our competitive nature we find ourselves whipping our students to produce better numbers and teaching to the tests, or altering the numbers when they don’t suit us. Students and teachers are sacrificing their innate drive to learning in order to score higher in arbitrary measures of success. If we wish to truly remain competitive in the global market, we must harness the creativity and talents that embody American spirit and teach to those, even if they aren’t so easily quantified.