Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year-end blog roundup

Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar has posted his annual list of Best Blog Posts of the Year (Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves). Batocchio’s list is a nice way of promoting small blogs (I’ve been getting a lot of new visitors today as a result of my own entry) and can lead you to some interesting finds.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Our school’s message to students

I’m afraid our elementary school’s recent message to students on its website is more revealing than inspiring:
Students: We are proud of your accomplishments so far this year! Congratulations on completion of the many assessments that have occurred: DIBELS, DRAs, Iowa Assessments, and the District Writing Assessment. Your behavior and academic achievements are to be commended!
I know a lot of kids at this school. There are so many things to be proud of them for. Being well-behaved test-takers is very, very low on that list.

(Via Doris.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

“Kids as grist for the law enforcement mill”

Charles Pierce at Esquire, reflecting on youth arrest rates, writes that “something is seriously out of whack in the way we’re asking our law enforcement community to interact with our children”:
We have raised, and are now raising, generations of children who are completely ignorant of the rights they have as citizens, and we are doing it through the application of the most coercive powers the state possesses.
Read the whole post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Does Jason Glass know better than you do?

The latest “education reform” talking point is that class size doesn’t matter. It’s been empirically proven!
[Economist Roland] Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.
. . .

Schools that focused on teacher development, data-driven instruction, creating a culture focused on student achievement, and setting high academic expectations consistently fared better.
I remember taking an SAT prep course when I was in high school. We all listened as the instructor worked through exercises designed to get our test scores up. I suspect it was all very data-driven. If that’s your vision of education, it’s probably true that class size is largely irrelevant. And who could want more for their children?

One of the people arguing that class size is unimportant is our State Director of Education, Jason Glass. “Given where class sizes currently are in most schools in the United States, I am willing to trade holding the line or even slightly increasing class size in exchange for improving educator effectiveness.” With that stance, Glass couldn’t get elected to any school board in the state of Iowa. Yet he has more control over our kids’ education than any school board has. What’s wrong with this picture?

Monday, December 19, 2011

A more human scale

Detail of Leviathan, from Giacomo
Rossignolo’s fresco, “The Last Judgment.”

Mark Mitchell writes this about the European economic crisis:
Ultimately, the issue turns on matters of scale. Through this lens, the current crisis (and this is merely part of a broader crisis that extends beyond Europe) appears as a failure to appreciate the fact that optimal human institutions—those that facilitate human flourishing—cannot exceed a certain scale, and when they do, they will inevitably suffer.

Europe’s problems, then, present an opportunity to reconsider ideas that have been ignored for too long. A renewed commitment to the principles of political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism is a radical prescription for a Europe haunted by the specter of unity, but it would provide the opportunity for Europeans to reconsider the meaning of citizenship, culture, and community on a scale that is meaningful, which is to say, suited to human beings.
Couldn’t he just as easily be talking about America’s approach to education? Anyone who’s had any interaction with their local school system knows how un-local it actually is: there’s always someone higher up to blame for whatever is being done. The federal government has effectively dictated a uniform philosophy of education – one that sees its only goal as raising standardized test scores – and the states have filled in the blanks by dictating what local school systems can and cannot do. Even within a school district, it’s never clear exactly where the buck stops – The principal? The superintendent? The school board? In the face of such a huge, increasingly centralized bureaucracy, the natural response is resignation and learned helplessness.

Isn’t that more human scale a part of what you get for your tuition dollars at a private school? Why deny it to public school students?

The concentration of policymaking power in the hands of federal officials (and to a lesser extent state officials) seems to reflect nothing but a prevailing sense that ordinary people cannot be trusted to make good decisions and need to be told what to do, for their own good. This attitude infects the entire educational system – from the way the federal government treats the states, to the way the states treat the local school boards, administrators, and teachers, and most of all to the way everyone treats the kids. It equates power with superior judgment. Why give people autonomy when you know better than they do?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Some company in Maine

In the comments to this post, Emily G. mentioned that she was working on an article about parents’ objections to PBIS in her small town in Maine. That article is now available here.

The parents’ objections to the program are very similar to those raised here:
“It felt to me like they were frequently sort of at risk of getting in trouble for being too loud,” [one parent] said. “Of all the things I would like my kid’s school to emphasize, I would like them to emphasize academic effort ... and being a good friend,” not quiet and obedience.
Parents also complained about lunchroom aides “yelling into microphones for students to be quiet,” and the “a huge disconnect between the culture of the school this year and the culture of the schools last year.” The article also contains the usual euphemisms and excuse-making on PBIS’s behalf – that it’s about feedback to create “social confidence,” and that if there’s any problem, it must be with how the program is being implemented, not with PBIS itself.

Check out the article’s sidebar as well – apparently a school board member criticized teachers for presenting only a one-sided picture of PBIS rather than discussing both the program’s strengths and drawbacks. The board member later apologized for using terms like “dog-and-pony show” and “rah-rah session” to describe the teachers’ presentation, but maintained that the school department had highlighted only “the positive side of an issue rather than making a balanced presentation.”

Sound familiar? The main difference seems to be in how actively the school board members are scrutinizing what’s going on their schools.

Maine readers: A more complete statement of my objections to PBIS appears here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Some thoughts on “bullying”

Glenn Greenwald has a post up about the use of the word “terrorism.” An excerpt:
This topic is so vital because this meaningless, definition-free word — Terrorism — drives so many of our political debates and policies. Virtually every debate in which I ever participate quickly and prominently includes defenders of government policy invoking the word as some sort of debate-ending, magical elixir: of course President Obama has to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process: they’re Terrorists; of course we have to stay in Afghanistan: we have to stop The Terrorists; President Obama is not only right to kill people (including civilians) using drones, but is justified in boasting and even joking about it, because they’re Terrorists; of course some people should be held in prison without charges: they’re Terrorists, etc. etc. It’s a word that simultaneously means nothing and justifies everything.
I wonder if a similar phenomenon is starting to occur with the word “bullying.” Of course, no one likes a bully, and we’d all like to see less bullying in schools. But when I hear people talk about a “War on Bullying,” and about “crackdowns” and “zero tolerance,” and when I hear the word applied to an increasing range of conduct (see Iowa City’s definition here), I get an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. I can’t help wondering whether the word “bullying” is being used as a rhetorical tool to generate support for – or quell opposition to – the schools’ use of increasingly authoritarian practices to “manage behavior.” Is policing more conduct and punishing more kids the best way to teach kids to treat each other well?

I don’t think we should take the War on Drugs, for example, as our model for how to address a social problem. Bullying, like drug abuse, is a real problem, but it doesn’t automatically follow that a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is the solution.

This is particularly true in the context of bullying, because the more schools use coercion to address bullying, the more they are modeling coercive behavior. The school, after all, is telling the kids how to act, giving them no say in what it demands of them, then policing their behavior and punishing them if they don’t comply – sometimes even casting them out of the community (via suspension or expulsion). Schools can’t avoid doing some of that. But consider how often “bullying” resembles those same actions. Is it possible that some of the bullies are acting out what they see around them? How confident can we be that, if the school intensifies its focus on punitive enforcement, the kids will start to treat each other better instead of worse? And shouldn’t we be concerned about the other values that end up getting taught – even to the “well-behaved” kids – the more the school starts resembling a police state?

Greenwald and others have also written about the double standard that often applies when the words “terrorism” and “torture” are used to refer only to what other people do, and not to what we do. Similarly, it’s hard to come up with a fair definition of “bullying” that wouldn’t apply to some of what schools do to kids in the name of compulsory learning. When one kid coerces and intimidates another, it’s “bullying.” When the school coerces and intimidates the kids, it’s apparently something else – maybe “enhanced education techniques”?

The first step to addressing bullying should be to model humane treatment of other people. Schools, given the power they have over the children who attend them, are in a particularly good position to model humane treatment of those who are weaker and more vulnerable. Wouldn’t that necessarily involve giving them some say over their own treatment? Wouldn’t it involve treating them more gently, and with more understanding, dignity, and compassion, than one could get away with? What else is bullying but a disregard, through superior force, of those principles?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions you’re not supposed to ask

The Answer Sheet reports on a school board member who decided to take his state’s high-stakes standardized tests and make his scores public, because of his growing doubts about the tests’ value:
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

. . .

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”
Yet the unquestionable “need” to raise those test scores now drives everything that happens in our schools. How much drudgery and obedience training have been imposed on kids for the sake of it? The article continues:
My school board member-friend concluded his email with this: “I can’t escape the conclusion that those of us who are expected to follow through on decisions that have been made for us are doing something ethically questionable.”
I can’t escape that conclusion either. Read the whole post. My related thoughts here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

How many classroom teachers would this pay for?

There is a now just a year-and-a-half left in the federal grant that funds our district’s pervasive behavioral rewards program, PBIS. Apparently it’s unthinkable to stop the program now – regardless of whether it’s harming our kids’ educations – because then we might have to give some money back. But isn’t it time for the school board to start thinking about whether it will continue this program – with district money – once the federal funding runs out?

Of course, I think the program has been an unmitigated disaster, and outright harmful to the kids. But even those who feel less strongly will have to ask: does the district really want to pour resources into a program like PBIS when it could devote those same resources to other goals – such as reducing class sizes?

Treating kids like pets, continued

I.P. Pavlov in his laboratory

Commenter Hienuri’s mention of Stalinist Russia reminded me of this passage from A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes’s history of the Russian Revolution:
In October 1919, according to legend, Lenin paid a secret visit to the laboratory of the great physiologist I.P. Pavlov to find out if his work on the conditional reflexes of the brain might help the Bolsheviks control human behaviour. “I want the masses of Russia to follow a Communistic pattern of thinking and reacting,” Lenin explained. “There was too much individualism in the Russia of the past. Communism does not tolerate individualistic tendencies. They are harmful. They interfere with our plans. We must abolish individualism.” Pavlov was astounded. It seemed that Lenin wanted him to do for humans what he had already done for dogs. “Do you mean that you would like to standardize the population of Russia? Make them all behave in the same way?” he asked. “Exactly,” replied Lenin. “Man can be corrected. Man can be made what we want him to be.”

Whether it happened or not, the story illustrates a general truth: the ultimate aim of the Communist system was the transformation of human nature. It was an aim shared by the other so-called totalitarian regimes of the inter-war period.
Obviously Iowa City is not Soviet Russia. But when you hear someone theorizing about the potential of operant conditioning to make everyone behave in a standardized way, it’s hard not to think of PBIS. And when you look at PBIS’s promotional materials, it’s hard not to recognize some of that transformational utopianism that seems to go hand in hand with a totalitarian mindset. The common link is a view of people as objects to be manipulated, rather than thinking autonomous beings to be engaged.