Monday, December 31, 2012

Blogathon ground rules

I’m not sure whether I should be looking forward to the blogathon (that’s my grandiose term for my plan to post every day in January) or dreading it. I’m hoping it will force me to write posts that are less like finished products and more like thinking out loud. Also hoping it might inspire (provoke?) some conversation in the comments (hint, hint). Anyway, I’ve come up with some ground rules: it doesn’t count as a post if it’s (1) short enough to be a tweet, (2) a glorified link, without any real content of my own, or (3) just me whining about the blogathon. I’m not saying I won’t write such posts; only that they don’t count as the daily post.

Guest posts count, though (as long as they don’t link to!). Any takers?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The coming January blogathon

I’m feeling that the blog needs a shot of adrenaline, or at least Ritalin, so I’ve decided to commit to posting every day for the month of January. I suppose one post per day is not exactly a blogathon, but even that may exceed my abilities.

Don’t expect lengthy posts, or even fully-thought-out ones. If nothing else, I should at least demonstrate that quantitative goals always come with qualitative costs.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Information on pesticides in use at Hoover School

Hoover Elementary School here in Iowa City has had a longstanding problem with cockroaches, and the school district has recently been trying to address it with a stepped-up regimen of pesticide treatments. Another parent asked the school for information about the pesticides, and I thought it made sense to post that information here, in case others were curious.

School staff identified the pesticides as Talstar (information here and here), Zoecon Gentrol IGR Concentrate (information here and here), and Suspend SC (information here and here).

I know that people can hardly function in modern life without being exposed to all kinds of synthetic chemicals, and that we generally have little choice but to trust the government to ensure that we aren’t harmed by them. I don’t have any reason to think that these pesticides are creating any health risks; nor do I feel capable of evaluating that question. Especially because the spraying is occurring more frequently than would be typical (every couple of weeks, from what I gather), I figure it’s better just to put the information out there. If any of you have any particular knowledge of this field, feel free to chime in in the comments.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Equity: Thinking Beyond Facilities (Guest Post)

Intra-district equity is about to become a hot topic here in Iowa City, as the school board appears on the verge of approving an equity policy aimed at balancing out socioeconomic disparities among district schools’ student populations. I asked Karen W., who frequently comments here, for her thoughts about how curricular choices might also raise equity issues. This is her response.

The upcoming Revenue Purpose Statement election gives the community another opportunity to revisit the issue of what equity requires with regard to facilities. Certainly every child deserves to attend school in a well-maintained facility that is not overcrowded. And it is hard to argue with the notion that each school in the district ought to have similar amenities (air conditioning, technology, library collections, and adequate playground equipment, for example). Whether equity requires new buildings or upgrading current facilities, and whether equity requires adjusting attendance boundaries to balance student demographics, are issues that need to be publicly debated and resolved by school board members.

However those issues are resolved, I hope that the public conversation about equity in the district doesn’t end with facilities because instructional and curricular decisions can also contribute to inequity within a district.

My husband had a conversation with a recently retired teacher (not from around here, by the way) about seeing more and more job applicants unable to sign their own names to job applications. The teacher, defending not teaching cursive, said that cursive is not needed in a world of computers and that teaching cursive “is a good place for parents to step up.”

Maybe being able to sign one’s own name is less of a hallmark of literacy than it used to be, although I wouldn’t personally gamble on that, so let us consider that a district might have a policy of not systematically teaching phonics or grammar, not requiring “rote memorization” of math facts, or de-emphasizing paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms. Having those policies does not make phonics, grammar, memorization of math facts, or paper and pencil proficiency with traditional math algorithms inessential to later success in reading, writing, and mathematics. But it does shift the burden to families to recognize that their children may need help in these areas and to effectively provide that help.

So when decisions like these are made, such as not to teach X or to teach X in this way and not that way, I think equity requires us to consider the consequences for children whose parents are either unaware of the need to “step up” or whose parents are unable to “step up” for any reason.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What does “teach” mean?

I’m always struck by how people use the word “teach” to mean such very different things. Sometimes, as Karen W. points out, people act as if “teach” just means “tell.” As a teacher (of law students), I know there have been lots of times when what I “taught” did not coincide with what my students learned.

But even if you focus on the desired end, “teach” seems to have at least two very different meanings:

1. To help someone learn something that he or she wants to learn.

2. To make someone learn something regardless of whether he or she wants to learn it.

There are better and worse ways of doing the former, but it’s not rocket science. Certain qualities help – being good at whatever it is your student wants to learn to do, being able to put yourself in your student’s shoes, being a good listener, patience – but if someone really wants to learn something, you’re already most of the way there.

The second definition describes a much more difficult enterprise. Yet we’ve come to see education almost exclusively in this sense, at the expense of the much simpler activity described by the first definition. More and more, education is now about deciding what kids must learn and then making them learn it, with no regard for what they might be interested in learning, or whether they retain any interest in learning at all.

So many of the features of our educational system – the endless curricular fads, the packaged programs, the reward charts and stickers and behavior management systems, the obsession with high-stakes standardized testing, the movement toward uniform mandatory curricular standards, the authoritarian discipline, the infantilizing micromanagement, the ed school empirical studies, the teacher training programs, the layer upon layer of administrators, you name it – exist almost entirely to serve this second function. Billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time and energy are spent on it. Yet, as far as I can see, trying to make people learn against their will – whether it be through outright coercion or through tricks or bribes or elaborate performances, etc. – remains a low-percentage enterprise, not to mention one with many unwelcome side-effects. This seems particularly true when the measure is not how students do on the test at the end of the unit, but whether they retain knowledge and understanding and skills into adulthood.

I don’t find a world in which we simply offered people an education, rather than forcing it on them, as unimaginable as most people do. But regardless, do we have to go quite so far in the opposite direction as we’ve gone?

Part two here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Junk food as a reward, run amok

Not long ago I posted about Ronald McDonald’s visit to my kids’ school. Now our district has a new program under which kids who have perfect attendance for a certain amount of time get gift certificates for ice cream at Dairy Queen.

Kids who stay home sick are disqualified from the prize. So the program gives kids who have contagious illnesses an incentive to come to school, and penalizes those who don’t. When one parent complained to a school administrator about the unfairness of penalizing kids for being sick, the administrator replied that kids need to learn that life isn’t always fair.

The program violates the district’s own Wellness Policy, which prohibits the use of junk food as a reward for academic performance or good behavior. (Nutritional information on Dairy Queen products is available here. Even the basic vanilla ice cream cone and the plain vanilla shake violate the nutritional requirements that the Wellness Policy puts on foods that are used as rewards. At least one child got a gift certificate for a hot dog, which also violates the policy.) The program also undermines the district’s own policies requiring sick kids to stay home (see page 7-8 here).

As is so often the case with the district’s use of material rewards, the program sends a negative, materialistic, anti-educational message: that school is so aversive that you need to be bribed to attend, and that ice cream is what every normal person really wants.

But apparently it didn’t occur to any of our district administrators that this program might not be such a great idea. Junk food, policy violations, advertising to kids, behavioral manipulation, contagious illness – what’s not to like?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Buildings, budgets, boundaries: what’s missing?

Borlaug Elementary School, Iowa City, built in 2012

One-room schoolhouse, Johnson County, Iowa, date unknown (source)

A couple of years ago, people in our school district were intensely engaged in debating possible boundary changes between attendance areas. Now, we seem to have moved on (after making only very minimal boundary changes) to the topic of improving facilities and possibly building new schools. Having been unable to prioritize its building needs without angering large groups of people, the school board will apparently propose a bond issue that purports to fund everyone’s desires at once.

I didn’t write much here about the issue of boundary changes, and I expect I won’t write much about the facilities issue either. It’s not that I don’t think the issue is important; many of the arguments for facilities improvements are very persuasive. (I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad that our school’s roach infestation might get addressed in the district’s long-term plan.) But so much energy goes into discussing buildings and boundaries, and so little into discussing what goes on inside those buildings.

Will the conversation ever turn to whether we are offering a meaningful, humane education? To whether the district is too myopically focused on standardized testing, and whether it has taken a wrong turn with its increasingly authoritarian emphasis on behavior and discipline, and whether its curriculum is too lock-step and unengaging, and whether its demands on the kids are justified and developmentally appropriate? To the values that the district stands for, and its understanding of how people learn, and its conception of what it means to be well-educated?

Facilities aren’t entirely irrelevant to those questions. But given the choice between continuing our district’s current educational approach in shiny new high-tech buildings and pursuing a meaningful, humane educational experience in run-down World War II Quonset huts, I’d take the Quonset huts in a heartbeat.

The “streetlight effect” and the Great and Powerful Oz

Esther Quintero sums up the misguided use of data that is the central characteristic of so much of today’s educational policymaking:
Remember the parable about the drunk man searching for his wallet under a streetlight? When someone comes to help, they ask “Are you sure you dropped it here?” The drunk says, “I probably dropped it in the street, but the light is bad there, so it’s easier to look over here.” In science, this phenomenon – that is, researchers looking for answers where the data are better, “rather than where the truth is most likely to lie” – has been called the “streetlight effect.”
Quintero questions whether people are “develop[ing] the ideas to fit the data they have, rather than finding the data to test the most important ideas.” She concludes that:
Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data).
I think Quintero’s post is terrific (read the whole thing), but I wish she had gone further. Why are so many people attracted to using data in this utterly unscientific way? Quintero generously assumes that everyone is acting in good faith in trying to bring data to bear on policy, and concludes that many people just aren’t thinking deeply about what data can tell us. I wish she had considered whether some people might be using data for other purposes. Yes, if your purpose is to shed light on policy questions, much of today’s discussion of data is very misguided. But if your purpose is to justify preconceived conclusions, and to deter laypeople from examining them closely, and to squelch discussion, then it’s enough that your data look impressive on the surface and be accompanied by an academic-looking citation. Some people use data as a light; others use it as a club.

Are our educational policymakers stumbling drunkenly in the wrong area, or are they more like the Wizard of Oz, fraudulently extracting allegiance with smoke and mirrors? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Maybe try standing for something?

Project Vote Smart is a non-profit organization that asks candidates and elected officials about their positions on issues and then posts the responses online, to enable people to vote intelligently. When Vote Smart sent its issue questionnaire to Iowa legislative candidates, a Democratic Minority Leader – thus presumably a member of the Iowa House, where Democrats are in the minority – responded, “I will not answer your questions and will be advising Iowa Democrats not to either.” Almost nobody answered the questionnaire.

When I sent a much smaller set of questions about education policy to Iowa legislative candidates, another House Democrat responded, “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys. There are many reasons for this. Candidates often have comments taken out of context or they are used against them in campaign ads. People are often wary of these types of requests because the issues are complex and often take a great deal of time and thought to answer.” Almost nobody answered the questionnaire.

This morning, the Iowa Democrats are . . . still the House minority. On the morning after you lose, wouldn’t you rather not wonder whether it was because you refused to tell anyone your positions on issues they care about, and chose instead to run a vapid, content-free campaign?

UPDATE: I emailed Vote Smart to see which legislator actually said “I will not answer your questions and will be advising Iowa Democrats not to either.” It turns out it was a Democratic state representative named David Schrader, and that the quote is from some years ago, not from this session. Nonetheless, it’s clear from the other quote above (which was made directly to me this year) that the same message went out to this year’s Democratic candidates.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

New “engagement” looking a lot like old imperviousness

Our school district has now “closed” the school lunch discussion thread on its new public engagement website. Before it closed, several people had submitted posts in favor of giving kids more time for lunch, and those posts had received far more “seconds” than any other proposals on the site – one of them receiving 32 votes. My own proposals, “a more humane environment” and “less emphasis on reflexive obedience to get material rewards,” also received a higher-than-average number of seconds – 11 and 12, respectively.

Through some mysterious process – the engagement website is particularly convoluted – the district can put some ideas into the “Great idea!” or “Recommended to Schools” categories. Even though the school lunch thread attracted far more participants than any of the other categories, the district did not designate any of the lunch ideas “great” or “recommended.” The only “great” idea was “More Bike Racks,” and the only “recommended” idea was one promoting National Walk to School Day. Those ideas received 9 and 7 seconds, respectively.

The district did post a non-committal statement thanking people for the lunch suggestions and saying that “The district is assessing this situation and has implemented some changes in buildings to improve the situation.” None of those changes, however, involved lengthening the lunch period. Nor did the district put any of the lunch ideas into the “researching” category.

The district has still not opened any threads on curriculum, or on the proposed bond issue, or on the controversial plan for a new high school.

The public engagement site was hard to take seriously at the outset. It’s not getting any easier.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

To change education policy, voting is useless

Has any experiment ever failed so miserably as my education questionnaire to state legislative candidates?

I asked every candidate seven short questions about the effect of state education laws on day-to-day life in the public schools. Of two-hundred and twenty-seven candidates, only thirteen were willing to respond. No one on the legislature’s Education Committee responded. One legislator helpfully explained that “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys.”

Yet (as I wrote back to that particular legislator) if the candidates answer the questions, we learn something, and if they don’t, we learn something else. The experiment helps confirm that the education policies that govern our kids’ schools are almost entirely divorced from any meaningful democratic control.

I can understand if candidates are too busy to answer every email they receive. But search in vain for any other way to determine these candidates’ stances on education. For a real kick, check out the empty platitudes about education on their campaign websites. (Examples – all from Education Committee members – here, here, here, and here.) Even if you wanted to disregard all the other state issues and engage in one-issue voting based solely on education (which almost nobody does), it would be impossible, since the candidates won’t reveal their positions.

The central feature of public education today is high-stakes testing. Yet neither party has any incentive to talk about that issue, because both parties are culpable for imposing the regime of high-stakes testing on our schools. Since all of my questions were ultimately about the effect of high-stakes testing on our kids’ education, it’s unsurprising that they were met with near total silence. Teachers, administrators, and schools, we’re constantly told, must be held accountable. Elected officials, not so much.

Of the few responses I did get, I disagree with about ninety percent of what the candidates had to say. I don’t want to focus my criticism on the people who responded, though; it’s the ones who didn’t respond who most deserve criticism, and there’s no reason to think their answers would be any better, anyway. So readers can judge the responses for themselves. Suffice to say that it’s hard to detect any special expertise inherent in our state-level candidates that would justify imposing policies on local school districts against their will.

When I asked similar questions to our local school board candidates, more than half of the candidates, including all of the eventual winners, responded. Their answers were at least as informed and competent as the few I received from legislative candidates. Because school board elections are necessarily confined to educational issues, they offer a much better opportunity for voters to express their educational values, and it is harder for the candidates to avoid revealing their positions on at least some school issues. Yet on issues at the heart of education – such as whether high-stakes testing should drive the curriculum – the state dictates the policy. Why is it a better idea to vest those policy decisions in state legislators, whose elections are largely focused on other issues, and who won’t even tell us what they think about educational policy issues?

There are lots of good reasons to vote in next week’s election (if you haven’t already). Changing education policy isn’t one of them. Apparently public education is too important to entrust to, you know, the public.

(Cross-posted at Iowa Candidates on Education 2012.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

The test prep I’d like to see

It’s that time of year again: high-stakes testing week in our local schools. In our weekly school newsletter, we received the usual advice about what we should do at home to help our kids score well on the tests. I can’t bear to quote it at length, so you’ll have to click to enlarge:

I especially like the part about how we should “maintain a pleasant home environment” and “avoid unnecessary conflicts.” “Do not add to your child’s stress,” the school thoughtfully advises – because apparently the school wants to impose all the stress itself this week.

What always galls me most about this annual note is that it’s based on the entirely fraudulent premise that maximizing the child’s test scores somehow benefits the child. In fact, if the test were really being used to assess the child’s academic development, you would want the child to perform in a typical, characteristic way, not in a way that is unrepresentative of her usual, everyday abilities. Going out of your way to ensure that the child is unusually well-fed, well-rested, and well-medicated (!), with test-taking strategies freshly rehearsed, could only distort the result in a way that would undermine the purpose of the assessment. It makes no more sense to prep the child to do well on the tests than to prep her to do well in her annual visit to the doctor.

In reality, a high test score doesn’t benefit the child at all; it benefits the school and its staff. They’re the ones whose performance is being measured by these tests, and whose employment could be affected by it. Yet the school leads the kids to believe that the test is somehow a judgment on them, and that a low score would be a personal failure, with unspoken but ominous consequences.

Here’s what I think parents should do to prepare their kids for testing week:

  • Laugh at the notion that their performance on a test in elementary school could have any bearing on their future.

  • Explain that the tests matter for the school, not for the student. Express sympathy for the staff members who are subject to this kind of evaluation, but make it clear that it is not the child’s job to fix the problem.

  • Point out that neither children nor parents need to jump reflexively through every hoop that is placed in front of them.

  • Apologize to the child that she has to spend a big chunk of her week on such a misguided enterprise, when she might otherwise have been learning something.

  • Commiserate with the child about being subject to ill-conceived and burdensome policies, especially when she’s given no vote in the policy-making. If the moment seems right, consider reading her the part of the First Amendment that protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

  • Then ignore the tests entirely. Go on about your usual life, with its typical ration of hectic mornings, lost tempers, and late bedtimes. Treat the tests the way they ought to be treated: as a vehicle the school can use to see how your child is doing and what she might need. There’s no reason for the parents to get involved in them; nor are they important enough to merit any more attention.

If you happen to live in a place where the test results really do directly affect the children – because of tracking, say, or competitive admissions programs – I wouldn’t lie to the child about it, but otherwise I’d take pretty much the same approach. I think it’s just as likely to have a good effect as this kind of thing. But then I’d make a big public stink about my school officials’ decision to make anything important hinge on a ten-year-old’s test scores.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Teachers’ union president: Overstuffed school day will short-change kids and cause morale problems

At last week’s school board meeting, Tom Yates, the president of the Iowa City Education Association (that is, our local teacher’s union), spoke up about the demands being made on kids and teachers in our district’s elementary schools:
And somebody finally reduced it for me today and said, “You know, we have stuff in minutes. We have, you know, x number of minutes for this. Well, if you add up all the number of minutes, it doesn’t fit in the day.” [Laughter.] Consequently, and I was inclined to let this go a couple of years ago when I was still in secondary and said, you know, people were saying, “Wow, you know, my kid’s only got fifteen minutes for lunch,” and right now I would say, “Your kid’s got fifteen minutes for lunch? That’s the longest block of anything the kid’s got all day!” . . .

[B]ut really, it’s, it’s going to cause morale problems, and I can’t help but believe that kids, in the total realm of everything that they have to do during the elementary day, are getting short-changed somehow.
I think he could have put the case even more strongly, but I’m glad that the teachers are pushing back against the absurd allocation of time in our elementary school day. Our district seems to be driven by a kind of box-checking mentality – Health? Check. Character education? Check. An hour of math every day? Check. A guidance curriculum? Check. And so on – that is divorced from any sense of limits, priorities, or effects. The district needs to step back and re-evaluate what can realistically be accomplished in the school day, and recognize that it is better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly – especially since some of what they’re doing is of very questionable value, if not outright detrimental (for example, this, this, and this). And this manic accumulation of “material” to be “covered” is coming at the expense of physical activity and social down time (such as lunch and recess) that everyone should be entitled to and that can only help kids learn better. Elementary school shouldn’t be a rat race, for kids or their teachers.

A full transcript of Yates’s comments appears after the jump.

A few local links

Four brief local items worth mentioning:

1. Did our school district give a windfall to developers of real estate in a neighboring district? My questions about it in the Patch are here.

2. The Daily Iowan reports on the continuing grass-roots pressure to lengthen our very short elementary school lunch periods. I’m glad the issue is getting more publicity, though I was a bit disappointed in the article’s uncritical acceptance of the school district’s version of events.

The article, for example, reports that all elementary school students are now “allowed 20 minutes . . . to eat their lunch” and that “[a]fter going through the lunch line and sitting down, students have an average of 15 minutes to eat.” I can’t help but wonder if the reporter made any effort to verify that all kids actually receive a twenty minute lunch period. Moreover, the assertion that the kids get an “average” of fifteen minutes to eat seems patently unverifiable. And how many kids are getting less than fifteen minutes to produce that “average” figure?

One school board member is quoted as saying, “I think it’s a matter of utilities. There isn’t enough room for kids to eat, so they have smaller shifts; there aren’t enough tables to accommodate the students, so they have less time to eat.” Yet our superintendent has repeatedly given a very different explanation, blaming pressure from the state to squeeze as much instructional time from the day as possible (for example, here and here). Which is it?

On the district’s “public engagement” website, “more time for lunch” continues to trounce all other proposals. How long can the district ignore the problem and still credibly claim to care about public input? The DI article reports that “No discussions have yet occurred at School Board meetings to add any time to lunch, but officials said they continually work to improve the system.” People have been complaining for years. Isn’t it time for the school board to do something?

Incidentally, the last quote in the article, from an unnamed “district parent,” is from my comments on the public engagement site.

3. The proponents of a Montessori charter school in our district are still plugging away at making it happen, and met this week with our state’s Director of Education, Jason Glass and local school officials. You can read about their continuing efforts here.

4. The Patch reports that the district is considering borrowing to address building maintenance and capacity issues, and that the plan would update older buildings, “including elementaries Longfellow, Horace Mann and Coralville Central, so they are American with Disabilities Act compliant and have air conditioning.” Will Hoover be included in that list, or does the district have other plans for it? I raised the question in the comments and got some informative responses.

Monday, October 8, 2012

What does this blog want?

Well, the blog is three years old today. A blog’s philosophy tends to come out in little pieces over time, so I thought I might use the occasion to try to put into words what this blog is ultimately about.

I’ve posted about a lot of topics here -- authoritarian education, behavioral rewards, standardized testing, school lunch periods, and many more -- but if you asked me to identify the central fact about K-12 education, I’d say this: Kids don’t get to vote. And when you don’t get to vote, you get screwed.

I’m not saying that six-year-olds should get to vote; kids are disenfranchised as much by their circumstances as by any law. But disenfranchised they are. And the history of enfranchised groups acting “in the best interests” of disenfranchised groups is a particularly sorry one. Think of the history of African-Americans, of women, of mental patients, or of prisoners. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that people cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of disenfranchised groups.

Our country’s treatment of children is a part of that history. I don’t mean that they are as bad off as slaves or prisoners, but they are similar in that they are seen as less than fully human, as more different from “us” than they actually are. At its worst, this means they get used for other people’s ends. I’m always struck by how openly politicians now express an instrumental view of children. They don’t even bother talking about what’s good for kids as individuals; the entire debate is about how we can best use kids as soldiers in the battle for global economic supremacy. (Granted, they may not see this as instrumental: What’s good for business is necessarily good for kids, right?)

Kids are at the mercy not only of those who would exploit them, but of those with the best of intentions. There has never been any shortage of clipboard-carrying “experts” eager to improve other people by coercing them into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do. The main protection adults have from being treated that way – from being seen that way – is their political enfranchisement. Kids don’t have that protection.

If someone were to give me a token prize in a transparent attempt to manipulate my behavior, I would feel patronized and used. If I were ordered by the government to use my free time to take classes that didn’t interest me, I would experience that as an unjust intrusion on my liberty. If I were made to sit silently in an uncomfortable chair at someone else’s whim, required to ask permission even to use the bathroom, given only ten or fifteen minutes to eat my lunch, and made to feel shameful or defective if I couldn’t comply with these “expectations” – all while being given no say over my treatment – I would quickly either become a revolutionary or settle into a clinical depression.

Yet we not only do those things to children, we think nothing of doing them. The idea that their freedom from coercion and manipulation might have value, like ours does – the idea that it should have any weight at all in our policy decisions – seldom even occurs to people. It’s as if children existed precisely for us to manipulate them. The guiding spirit of our treatment of children seems to be: “Look, there’s a child! Let’s do something to it! For its own good!

So what does this blog want? I want people to be more conscious of the moral hazard posed by their power over this disenfranchised group. I want them to be less quick to find reasons to treat kids differently than they want to be treated themselves. I want them to be more aware of the possibility that we might be acting out our fears and neuroses on our kids. I want people to take kids’ freedom, autonomy, and dignity as seriously as they take their own. I want people to recognize that the central ideals of our society – democracy, civil liberties, constraints on authority, the importance of the individual – do not suddenly become irrelevant and frivolous at the schoolhouse door.

One reason I want to see more humane, less authoritarian schools is because I want to see a more humane, less authoritarian world. I worry that our schools are reflecting and modeling some of the worst impulses of our society, which seems increasingly ready to curtail individual liberties in the name of “security,” increasingly prone to using human beings as a means to an end, as in our brutal foreign wars, and increasingly draconian in its approach to crime and punishment, as it imprisons a huge chunk of its own population. I worry that our schools are teaching our kids to accept and conform to that world. This blog wants to ask whether that has to be so.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Johnson County candidates: are you out there?

I just emailed all of our state’s legislative candidates again, in hopes of getting a few more responses to my questions about state education policy and its effect on day-to-day life in our public schools. So far, from two-hundred and twenty-seven candidates, I’ve received only ten on-the-record responses. I’m particularly disappointed in the candidates from my own county – several of whom are running unopposed, for crying out loud.

Dave Jacoby, Bobby Kaufmann, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, Dick Schwab, Steve Sherman, and Sally Stutsman: Why won’t you let us know where you stand on these issues?

UPDATE: Dave Jacoby responded this morning.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Principal to parents: We will produce effective test takers, not critical thinkers

I get a little tired of everyone in the school system blaming someone else for its problems. But sometimes they are right. Take, for example, this New York principal, who, in a letter to parents, tells it like it is:
One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

. . .

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.
Read the whole thing. (C/o Diane Ravitch.)

I respect principals and teachers who do what they can to push back against the harmful practices that are – he’s right – being forced on them from above. One thing they can do is speak up. It’s nice to see someone doing it.

Again, there is lots of blame to go around, but there is no one more directly responsible for the effects of high-stakes testing than our state legislators. Will our legislative candidates confront the effect of state policy on the day-to-day reality of our schools? So far, not many of them have been willing to answer my questions about the issue. Here’s my post in the Patch about it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

But I swear I won’t join Facebook

For some time I’ve wished there was a convenient way to share interesting links here without writing entire posts about them. I’ve decided to give Twitter a try. You can follow me on Twitter (@Chris_Liebig), or just keep an eye on the Twitter box that I’ve added to the sidebar. I’m still working out some of the kinks – bear with me . . ..

Don’t punish kids by depriving them of recess

In the comments here, commenter “icl” just raised an issue that I’ve been meaning to post about for a while: punishing kids by depriving them of recess.

Our district’s Wellness Policy, enacted by our elected Board of Education, provides:
Staff will not use physical activity (e.g., running laps, pushups) or withhold opportunities for physical activity (e.g., recess, physical education) as punishment. Withholding recess will not be considered unless in extreme circumstances where all other methods have been exhausted or for continued unacceptable behavior exhibited during recess.
(Emphasis mine.)

From what I hear, recess is frequently – even routinely – withheld for misbehavior at our elementary school, at least in some classrooms. Apparently, the most common reason is to make the kids do uncompleted homework or in-class work. The teachers might not call it “punishment,” but it’s hard to see how failing to finish one’s work could qualify as the kind of “extreme circumstance” required by the Wellness Policy before recess can be withheld. Recess is also withheld for other forms of misbehavior in class.

It makes no sense to punish kids who can’t sit still by depriving them of their chance to run around. If our district wants to decrease the number of behavior problems, it should give the kids more recess, not less. (See this article, for example. And compare Finland’s practice – fifteen minutes of recess for every forty-five minutes of class – here.)

Readers, what has your experience been? Is our district’s Wellness Policy nothing but lip service?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

It’s 2012. Why let the school censor your newspaper?

Glenn Greenwald reports on a group of Kentucky high school students whose school administrators censored their attempts to write about controversial issues, such as gay rights, in their student newspaper. The students responded by starting their own newspaper, independent of the school. “We decided that as journalists our duty was to create a way we could report on those crucial, if controversial, topics,” one of the student organizers explained. The group’s first issue focused on both censorship and gay rights issues. In their next issue, they plan to focus on academic stress, depression, and suicide.

Last week, the students won a 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award. In announcing the award, the director of the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte, said:
Through their determination, these students conclusively proved three things. First, they proved that you can give a student audience uncensored news about topical issues without the sky falling. Second, they proved that censorship always fails, because it’s impossible in the 21st century to keep information under wraps. And third, they proved that students are often more mature and blessed with better judgment than the people in charge of their schools.
Good for them. Maybe if we saw more stories like that, we’d see fewer like this.

I’ve wondered for some time why any student newspapers would continue to put up with interference from their school administrators. All the schools ever supplied was paper, a distribution system, and an advisor. In the age of the internet, who needs paper and a distribution system? Any students with initiative can find some good advice, unaccompanied by censorship, on their own. In case any student journalists are out there reading this: a good place to start is at the Student Press Law Center’s website, which has extensive advice and resources about your First Amendment rights.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Thirteen hours of testing?

Iowa’s Department of Education plans to start requiring districts to shift from using the Iowa Assessments (formerly known as the ITBS tests) to the new so-called “Smarter Balanced Assessments.” Karen W. reports that the new tests might more than double the amount of time the kids spend taking the tests. Read the details here.

The sheer magnitude of testing time has now led the makers of the tests to offer two versions: one long, and one (relatively) short (but still longer than the Iowa Assessments). You can hear the disappointment in the voices of the tests’ defenders. “You asked for authentic assessments,” one said. “Authentic assessments take time.” Of the shorter version, another “assessment expert” said, “Once you start down that path, you may start losing the advantages of a groundbreaking assessment system and it might start resembling the testing systems we have now.” Hmm.

And to the person with a hammer, every problem is a nail. If you’re a true believer in the centrality of standardized testing to education, why stop at thirteen hours? Could you ever have too much? It’s hard to do cost-benefit analysis when all you see is benefits. Have these assessment experts done any, er, assessment of all the effects of our obsession with standardized testing?

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Yesterday, the kids at our elementary school attended an assembly at which Ronald McDonald told them about the importance of giving back to one’s community. Yeah, I know, McDonald’s does a lot of fine charity work. That doesn’t change the fact that Ronald McDonald is a walking advertisement for a fast-food restaurant. (“Ronald McDonald appears as a community service,” the website says, “courtesy of your nearby McDonald’s Restaurant.”) Is the school unable to talk to kids about community service without the aid of a corporate marketing ploy?

For what it’s worth, I know at least one child who described Ronald as “creepy.” I agree.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

High-stakes testing denialism

I’ve been surprised by some of the responses I’ve gotten from legislative candidates (some for attribution, some not) on the question of local control. “‘Lack of local control’ is exaggerated,” one candidate said. “Local school boards have tons of latitude - yet few exercise any.” Another suggested that I speak to my local school officials about my concerns about short lunch periods and cuts in recess time. When I pointed out that my superintendent has repeatedly attributed those policies to pressure from the state to raise standardized test scores and maximize instructional time, this legislator responded, “Other than the Iowa Core which has been in the works for over 5 years we have not made any changes at the state level regarding reading or math minutes during the school day. The feds have not made any changes in their requirements either. . . . I don’t appreciate the local officials blaming the state for their schedule and I don’t think this kind of behavior is helpful.”

I agree that our district should do what’s right and not whatever the state pressures it to do. But for a legislator to deny that the state is pressuring districts to raise test scores at all costs is willful blindness. Memo to legislators: you didn’t just require that schools use testing to “measure student progress,” you enacted high-stakes testing. You enacted a law that imposed overwhelming incentives on local districts to sacrifice all other educational values to the pursuit of higher standardized test scores.

Under our state laws, if a school doesn’t raise its test scores, its administrators and teachers can be fired, and the school can be closed. But if it cuts recess to the bare minimum and gives the kids a measly ten minutes for lunch, or makes learning such a boring, joyless enterprise that the kids can’t wait to stop doing it forever, or teaches the kids that unquestioning obedience to authority is the highest value, or works to inculcate values (the reason to be well-behaved is to get a reward!) that are morally bankrupt, or turns out kids who are better prepared to be subjects of a totalitarian state than citizens of a participatory democracy – nothing bad will happen to it.

That’s the system our state legislators enacted. There’s lots of blame to go around, but no one is more responsible for it than they are. When defenders of that regime talk about how we need standardized testing to “measure progress,” it’s like an arsonist explaining that, well gosh, all buildings need heat and light. And when they act like high-stakes testing has nothing to do with local decisions about how to allocate time in the school day, they’re insulting our intelligence.

So much endless talk about accountability; so much lecturing the kids about responsibility; yet so much buck-passing by the people who actually make the decisions.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Public engagement by people who fear public engagement

Our district has created a new website, Engage Iowa City Schools, to “start an online conversation” about “your thoughts and ideas to enhance our educational system.” If there was ever a website designed by school administrators, this is it. All of the district’s worst tendencies – the infantilization, the hovering micromanagement, the obsession with control, the discomfort with dissent – are built right into the site.

Rather than just allow people to start threads and debate topics of their choice, the district has chosen four topics, and participants have to either suggest an “idea,” or respond to someone else’s “idea,” about one of those four topics. (One of the topics is “What Are the School District’s Biggest Strengths?”) If you respond to an idea, you are prompted with the phrase “I would improve this idea by . . .” The site repeatedly admonishes users that the site “relies on positive interactions,” that they should “be respectful” and say nothing “derogatory,” and that there “is no need to sharply criticize another member’s ideas.” “If you need to ask yourself twice if it’s appropriate, it’s probably not appropriate.”

In fact, even to sign up for the site – a public forum established by a government entity – you must agree not to say anything that is “inappropriate” or “otherwise objectionable.” The company that administers the site makes it clear that it reserves the right to censor any material that it, “in its sole discretion, deems objectionable,” and to deny access to anyone who violates its guidelines. As the district’s community relations director put it, “If someone has an idea, you can like it, but you can’t put an idea down, so hopefully it will have the ability to keep things positive and productive just because of how it’s designed.” (See this post.)

Even the district’s embrace of behavioral conditioning and material rewards is reflected in the site. By creating an account and posting ideas or comments, you earn points that you can then redeem – I’m not making this up – in the “Rewards Store,” for items that range from tickets to a high school play (200 points) to lunch with the superintendent (750 points). I currently have fifty-two points, but when I find a way to post my “idea” that the district should stop using material rewards for behavior management, I’ll get ten more.

Is there any other public institution that works so hard to control and manage the way people talk about it? One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is that free and vigorous debate will lead to better policymaking. Why is our district so afraid of it?

Here’s my Idea: Let’s see ten or twenty more blogs by parents like this one, or by students like this one, or by concerned citizens like this one. Let them link to each other and disagree with each other and argue with each other and maybe even get angry (oh no!) sometimes. Let them treat each other like adults and not get too caught up in whether everyone is showing sufficient respect. Then see what ideas survive the debate and end up persuading people. I’d submit that idea to our district’s website, if only it would let me.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Candidates’ responses (or lack thereof)

Last week, I emailed all 227 candidates for our state legislature a set of seven questions about education policy. I have now set up a separate site to post the responses. So far, the response rate is about three percent – quite a contrast to the sixty percent response rate I got when I sent a similar list of questions to our local school board candidates last year. (There is still a lot of time for candidates to respond, though, and a handful of candidates emailed me that they would respond when they could.)

One legislator declined to answer and wrote that “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys. There are many reasons for this. Candidates often have comments taken out of context or they are used against them in campaign ads. People are often wary of these types of requests because the issues are complex and often take a great deal of time and thought to answer.”

One of the questions is about local control. Maybe I should have rephrased it: “Who should set educational policy: school board members who are elected to focus exclusively on school issues, or state legislators, whose elections seldom turn on school policy and who won’t publicly answer questions about their positions on school issues?”

In the responses that I did receive, there is certainly a lot that I disagree with. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to appreciate someone who’s willing to answer questions, whatever the answers might be.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The aristocrats

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them therefore liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please, they are same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”

“[G]ood thing I’m not elected!”

Jason Glass, Director of the Iowa Department of Education

I don’t mean to single out Jason Glass here; I think he speaks for all top-down education “reformers.” These aristocrats have realized that their reforms don’t fly in local school board elections, so they’ve pushed to have more and more educational policy decisions made at the state and federal levels, where elections are much less likely to hinge on school issues.

Jefferson also said: “We may say with truth and meaning that governments are more or less republican, as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient.” (Emphasis mine.)

So much uniquely American wisdom – Jefferson, Emerson, and Dewey leap to mind – has been rejected by our educational system. And replaced by what?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How about a “community trigger”?

The latest idea being pushed by education “reformers” is the “parent trigger.” Under this proposal, if the majority of parents at a school sign a trigger petition, the parents can then take control and “transform” the school.

The proposal is not only unwise, but fraudulent. None of the parent trigger proposals would enable the parents to withdraw from No Child Left Behind’s mandatory philosophy that raising standardized test scores is the sole goal of education. Proponents of the trigger assert that it “allows parents to pick from a host of empirically tested school reform strategies,” which is a nice way of saying that their choices are limited to only those options that the “reformers” have approved of in advance – for example, starting a charter school, getting a voucher for a private school, or closing the school entirely. If you want a school that doesn’t share the reformers’ values, sorry, no empowerment for you. (See this post.)

Moreover, why should parents have sole control over any public school? Isn’t the whole idea behind public schooling that education benefits the entire community, and thus the community should establish and fund schools? On what basis could non-parents be excluded from any say over the public schools? (Read, for example, Suzanne Lamb’s defense of why she, as a homeschooling parent, still cares about what happens at her local public schools.) But the public nature of public schools has never been favored by the reform crowd, who are privatizers at heart.

Why not have a “community trigger”? If the citizens of a school district want to pursue their own educational policies, we could let them. You wouldn’t even need a petition, you could just empower the school boards that already exist. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t even need a gimmicky name like “community trigger”; you could just use words we already have, like federalism, pluralism, and democracy.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The innovative new evidence-based idea also known as recess

The Daily Iowan reports that some Iowa City teachers are now giving their students one-minute “brain breaks” to “temporarily step away from class work and engage in short exercises so they will, hopefully, return to schoolwork with greater energy and focus.”
The breaks focus on physical activity and can include anything from making “lazy eights” with fingers, dancing, and even the timeless challenge of patting the head and rubbing the stomach at the same time.

Steve Murley, the superintendent of the Iowa City School District, believes that the use of brain breaks will continue to expand and build.

“Our goal is to get kids up and active while learning,” he said. “It’s no longer the belief that when kids have extra energy to let them burn it off, but a research-based program that shows how physical education can help them learn because it’s stimulating blood flow to the brain.”
Wait – isn’t this the same district that just a couple of years ago cut recess time so it could increase instructional minutes?
“Brain breaks are just part of the package, but if schools paid attention and revamped their thinking, they’d get exercise and play back into their kids’ lives,” [Harvard professor John] Ratey wrote in an email. “The first thing that happens is an almost immediate drop in discipline problems, a decrease in bullying, then an increase in attendance and an improvement on test scores and grades. All in all, it’s the best thing that can be done to improve our children’s lives.”
But wait – after cutting recess time, didn’t our district also pour money and resources into behavior management, discipline, and anti-bullying programs?

I sometimes wonder whether they’d give the kids any recess at all if it didn’t raise test scores. (According to the article, our physical education coordinator’s “long-term goal is for the use of breaks to be expanded throughout Iowa City schools and implemented before the Iowa Assessment standardized tests.”) But if research about test scores is what it takes to impress our school administrators, why don’t they listen to people like Ratey and expand recess instead of cutting it? And just think how high test scores might go if we strung together twenty-five or thirty of those brain breaks and called it “lunch”!

Related post here.

Questions for legislative candidates, continued

I’ve been struggling to winnow down the number of questions I want to submit to candidates for our state legislature. To maximize the possibility of getting responses, I set myself a limit of five, but in the end I had to allow myself two more. I tried to focus on questions that I thought other groups (for example, teachers’ unions) were unlikely to ask. I cut several questions – for example about whether our schools are inculcating authoritarian values and whether we should give teachers and students more autonomy – because I thought they were unlikely to elicit meaningful responses (which, I realize, might be true of all questions). The final seven aren’t perfect, but time’s a-wastin’, and I hope that the answers to these seven might at least give you a pretty good idea of where someone’s coming from.

I had initially planned on sending them only to candidates whose districts overlap with our school district, but now I’m feeling ambitious and thinking I might send them to all legislative candidates in Iowa. (Hat tip to John Deeth for directing me to the master list of candidate email addresses.) I haven’t yet figured out exactly how I’ll post responses, but I’ll find a way and link to the responses from this post.

Apologies to those who made good suggestions that I ultimately did not include. (Candidates, check them out!) Here’s what I settled on:

1. Opting out of testing. Many parents are concerned that important educational values are being sacrificed because of the use of high-stakes standardized testing to evaluate kids, schools, and educators. Would you support legislation to permit parents to opt their children out of such testing without repercussions?

2. Cuts in lunch and recess. In our district, the time devoted to recess has been reduced, and the elementary school students get only fifteen minutes or less to eat lunch. District officials attribute those changes directly to state pressure to teach more material and maximize “instructional minutes.” (See posts here and here.) What, if anything, should the state do to remedy the situation?

3. Local control. Because of state and federal regulation, individual communities now have relatively little control over the educational policies that govern their schools, and many parents feel that they have little to no say over what goes on in their kids’ schools. Do you think that local school districts should have more control over educational policy? If so, in what specific ways?

4. More school? Should state law require all kids to spend more time in school – either by lengthening the school day, extending the school year, or both? (See this post.)

5. PBIS. The state Department of Education wants to require all school districts to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a program that uses material rewards to train kids to reflexively obey school rules. (See posts here and here.) Do you support requiring all school districts to use PBIS?

6. Class size. Do you agree with our state Director of Education that we should tolerate larger class sizes in exchange for programs designed to “improve educator effectiveness”?

7. No Child Left Behind. Have No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top done more harm than good, or vice versa? Should Iowa opt out of No Child Left Behind, even if it means forgoing federal funds?

UPDATE: For the candidates’ responses, click here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Educating = infantilizing?

It’s bad enough when our elementary school spends the first days of the school year extensively lecturing the kids about behavioral expectations, including the now-standard restroom tour, in which groups of kids are taken to the bathroom and instructed on how they must flush the toilet and use no more than two squirts of soap and one paper towel. (These practices appear to have continued essentially unchanged from last year, as part of our school’s implementation of PBIS.) It turns out, though, that even our junior high school does this – the seventh-graders are taken out of science class and led in groups into one of the bathrooms, where a teacher explains that they must flush the toilet after using it, and then has one student wash his or her hands while the entire group sings “Happy Birthday,” to demonstrate how long you should spend washing your hands.

When did educating become synonymous with demeaning and infantilizing?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Defining bullying up

As I’ve written before, I’m ambivalent about the recent trend toward “bullying prevention education.” I’m all in favor of getting kids to put themselves in other kids’ shoes and to think about right and wrong ways of treating other people. I also think it’s great to make sure that kids know what they can do if they are being mistreated or if they see someone else being mistreated. But I can’t help but sense a kind of mission creep. The term “bullying” is increasingly applied to a larger and larger sphere of conduct, and is used to justify a particularly authoritarian and punitive approach to behavior management. Instead of talking about how to help kids develop their own consciences, we end up talking about whether certain acts count as “bullying,” and if so, what we should do to the bullies.

Our elementary school recently surveyed the kids about bullying as part of its “Steps to Respect” program. The survey asked the kids to “Check the kinds of bullying you’ve seen or had happen to you at school,” and then offered the following choices:
Called names
Rumors spread
Left out on purpose
Hit, pushed, or kicked
Belongings damaged or taken
I can imagine bullying occurring through any of those means, but won’t that list catch many things that none of us would consider bullying? Friends can tease each other, and may even sometimes call each other names. When does talking about one’s classmates become “spreading rumors”? Where is the line between “leaving someone out on purpose” and simply wanting to choose which kids to play with during what little free time the school offers? I wouldn’t want to have my belongings taken, but is all theft a form of bullying? Pushing and even hitting aren’t that uncommon in certain types of play – our most popular sports are “contact sports” – but not every foul is an act of bullying.

What is gained by simplifying the issue in this way? If the kids take the survey literally, they will come away with a distorted and trivialized sense of what “bullying” means. (If you’re anything less than an angel, you’re a bully.) If the kids understand that only some things in those categories really qualify as bullying (as I suspect they do), then they are already more sophisticated than these teaching materials give them credit for. The survey seems designed to inflate the rate of reported bullying, and thus to justify yet more behavioral interventions and harsher discipline.

More thoughts on bullying here, here, and here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

First day of school open thread

I haven’t had much time to blog lately; my apologies for being so slow to respond to people’s comments (including some that I still mean to respond to!). I have a lot of posts I’m eager to write, but in the meantime, here a few shorter items of interest.

  • School started today – August 16! – in Iowa City. Luckily for the kids, the temperatures were mercifully mild. Our kids’ school, like many older schools, has no air conditioning. At this week’s school board meeting, one parent suggested that the central administrators (who work in an air-conditioned building) should try spending an hour at our school in late August. More coverage of that meeting here.

  • That same parent also complained about the district’s chronic inability to keep an accurate count of how many students are in each school. The school board is now considering hiring an outside consultant to determine school capacity and enrollment numbers. Nick Johnson, in response, wonders what we’re paying our central administrators to do.

  • The district’s Director of Special Services, Rozy Warder, who was hired for that position only a year ago, unexpectedly resigned last week, just as the school year was about to begin. This is likely to affect any family with a child in special education. I have no idea why she resigned – partly because I’ve seen absolutely no mention of it in the local media.

  • My kids’ school, Hoover Elementary, is now a School in Need of Assistance (SINA) under No Child Left Behind. This is no big surprise; under NCLB’s patently unrealistic requirements, every school will eventually be a SINA school. But it will have effects, and I’m not exactly sure what they are. (Can Hoover families now transfer out on demand? Can the families who transferred from SINA schools to Hoover in past years continue to attend Hoover, now that it is also a SINA school?) The article makes it depressingly clear why school is now all about test prep, period.

  • Grade-mixing is now a thing of the past at our elementary school. In previous years, the school grouped third-graders with fourth-graders, and fifth-graders with sixth-graders. (They stopped mixing first-graders with second-graders a year or two ago.) Now the grades are all in separate classrooms. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad change. The grade-mixing always struck me as an empty gesture toward progressive educational ideals; in reality I think it mostly served to enable the school to increase class size. (For example, if there were forty third-graders and forty fourth-graders, you’d need four classrooms if the grades were separate, but could get away with three if you combined the grades.) But if it’s a good decision, it seems like one made for a bad reason: to accommodate the increasingly regimented curriculum now demanded under the Common Core standards. An email from the school explained:
    These new materials are aligned with the statewide adoption of Common Core State Standards; these standards are written for single grades. In schools that previously taught students in multiage groups, it requires a shift to single grades so that the standards are taught by grade level. The standards expect students to be engaged with grade level texts therefore teaching the Common Core State Standards are most effectively accomplished in a single-grade setting.
    The principal later explained that single-grade classrooms are necessary to “provide the correct amount of instructional minutes in every subject area” and to “plan a schedule that allows students and teachers to plan these minutes effectively.” Does anyone really believe that there is a “correct amount of instructional minutes,” or that there is a simplistic direct relationship between “instructional minutes” and meaningful learning? That kind of myopic thinking is why our district has cut lunch and recess to such minimal levels. Yet somehow kids elsewhere manage to learn quite well in total disregard of the “correct amount of instructional minutes.”

    Strangely, the decision to end grade-mixing was made just two days ago, after the kids had all already received letters from their new teachers. The school thus had to send out an email saying, in effect, “If you received a letter from Teacher A, you will now have Teacher B,” etc. The email concluded, “it is better we make this change now than in 3 weeks.” True enough -- but two weeks ago might have better still! How long has the district known about the new standards?

  • Some good links mailed in by readers: Some second thoughts about first-day-of-school traditions, Greg Forster makes a plea to bring “non-scientific sources of wisdom” to bear on educational policy debates, and a post on how every value – even kids’ physical health – is now discussed in terms of its effect on test scores.

  • Nicholas J. left a comment here a few weeks ago, which led me to discover his blog. He’s an Iowa high school sophomore who blogs about educational issues; I can’t wait to read more of his posts. More blogs like this, please!

Feel free to comment on any of the above or to chime in with something new. .

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Trees vs. Astroturf

One of our local high schools, City High, revealed this week that it plans to cut down over fifty trees, many of them decades-old shade trees. The school is installing artificial turf on one of its practice fields, and, although the offending trees are not themselves on the practice field, they “are either berry producing or drop significant amounts of material which would shorten the life of the artificial surface.” Thus “it has been determined” that the trees “must be removed.”

Cutting down dozens of living trees to protect “the life” of an artificial turf field strikes me as crazy. They’ve apparently marked every tree anywhere near the field, making no attempt to single out trees that are likely to be particularly harmful. (Despite the reference to berries, many of the trees are beautiful maples.) The trees also border several private residential properties (not my own, though I live nearby), so the clear-cutting approach doesn’t qualify as good community relations, either. The school’s “hope” is to replace the trees with “some sort of planting . . . that would reestablish the living barrier that our neighbors have enjoyed in the past.” Since minimizing expense is apparently all that matters, here’s my guess:

Those who want to object should email Assistant Principal Terry Coleman (, Principal John Bacon (, Superintendent Steve Murley (, and the school board (

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Questions for legislative candidates?

As much as I think local school officials bear more responsibility for their choices than they would like to accept (see this series of posts), there’s no denying that state and federal lawmakers are at the root of a lot of the problems in our schools that have been the focus of this site. Legislators decide a lot of issues, of course, so educational policy plays less of a role in voters’ decisions (which is one more reason to give more control to local school boards, in my view). Nonetheless, this is the moment to come up with questions to ask our legislative candidates about school policy. As I did last year with school board candidates, I’d like to come up with a relatively concise list of questions that I can send to all legislative candidates, state and federal, seeking to represent the Iowa City area.

Suggestions? I’d especially like to formulate questions that are hard to squirm out of with noncommittal platitudes, though that’s a tall order.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Language arts bleg

Our district is using a new set of language arts materials this year, called Journeys, published by Houghton-Mifflin, in Kindergarten through sixth grade. Apparently the idea is that these materials are tailor-made for teaching the Common Core curriculum. I had been hearing third- and fourth-hand rumors that the district was no longer going to allow teachers to use outside materials – that is, real novels or non-fiction books – as part of language arts. Both the district’s Director of Curriculum and our school principal have assured me that that is not true, and that there will be no more restriction on outside materials now than there was under the old materials.

My knowledge of how the new materials differ from the old ones is very limited. Thus, a bleg: Does anyone out there have any info or insights? Is there any reason to be concerned?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

No criticism allowed?

Our school district is starting a new website to encourage public comment on school issues. This sounded like a great idea until I read further:
[The community relations director] said the [web design company] monitors and moderates the website to make sure offensive content isn't posted.

"If someone has an idea, you can like it, but you can't put an idea down, so hopefully it will have the ability to keep things positive and productive just because of how it's designed," she said.

Only a very short-sighted institution thinks that suppressing criticism leads to better policy decisions. Fortunately, even short-sighted institutions, if they're public, are subject to the First Amendment. It would be unconstitutional to censor comments based on the viewpoint of the commenter. I wonder if the district's moderation guidelines have taken basic First Amendment principles into account. I'll see what I can find out.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is resistance futile?

At this school in Connecticut, parents have been complaining for years about the principal, who various parents describe as being a “control freak,” using unduly harsh discipline, berating and belittling parents, and humiliating and intimidating children. Finally, this summer, ninety parents signed a public petition of no confidence in the principal. According to the petition, “a culture of intimidation and a fear of retribution reign” at the school.

Parents actually banding together to complain publicly about a principal: this was an impertinent disruption to an otherwise peacefully self-perpetuating school system. “Sadly, this is the forum that they use,” said the principal. “It divides the community.” School board members were quick to react against the idea that the board should ever actually intervene in what goes on in the schools – er, I mean, in building-level issues. (This argument is often couched in terms of the board sticking to “policy” and staying out of “personnel matters.” It never seems to occur to school board members that they could enact policies against objectionable practices.) The school board chairman said, “The Board of Education only has responsibility for managing one person – that’s the superintendent – and we trust her to manage all district personnel effectively” – even though people have been complaining for over a decade. When two board members suggested that the principal be put on administrative leave, they were quickly accused of politicizing the issue.

So we get the same old recipe. Thanks to federal and state mandates, local school boards have very little power over educational policy to begin with. What power they have, they’re reluctant to use, for fear of encroaching on the role of unelected administrators. Policies and practices of individual principals, in particular – the people who actually run our schools on a day-to-day basis – are almost entirely insulated from any public influence. How that can lead to anything even remotely resembling democratic accountability for our “public” schools is a mystery.  If we were trying to design schools that were more impervious to the concerns of the people they’re supposed to serve, it’s hard to imagine what we would do differently.

Still, it’s nice to see more parents realizing that outspoken public protest, not deferential isolated meetings with school adminstrators, is the best hope for meaningful change. My guess is that this petition is much more likely to have an effect than the “letter-writing campaign” waged by parents at the school ten years ago.

The school, by the way, happens to be my own elementary alma mater. I posted a comment.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another sign that our culture has lost its marbles

“Especially these days, they contend, when children spend more time in front of screens and less time in unsupervised play, kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.” -- from The New York Times Magazine (emphasis added).

I am more thankful every day that I grew up when I did and had the parents that I had (as opposed to, say, this person).

Some sanity here from Alfie Kohn, who argues that “‘Play’ is being sneakily redefined.”

(Links c/o Alfie Kohn and northTOspy)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Are for-profit online schools gaming Google (and me)?

This is something of a long story, and a pretty trivial one, but it gets curiouser and curiouser, so I think it’s worth telling.

Last year, I got an email from a Justin Birch, asking if he could write a guest post for this blog. He identified himself as a writer for, and proposed to write on a topic that seemed to fit the blog. I had never had anyone ask to write a guest post before, and I told him I was open to the idea, but that I would have to see the post before I decided whether to accept it.

I should have paid more attention to his connection to That site prominently advertises for-profit online schools such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. In 2010, federal investigators revealed that for-profit schools, including Phoenix and Kaplan, had engaged in “deceptive or questionable” practices to recruit students. As the Times reported, “recruiters would lure students — often members of minorities, veterans, the homeless and low-income people — with promises of quick degrees and post-graduation jobs but often leave them poorly prepared and burdened with staggering federal loans.” Some of the schools were accused of misleading applicants, or of encouraging applicants to commit fraud on their federal loan applications. (Video here.) The picture that emerged, in the words of InsideHigherEd, was of “an industry aggressively and universally going after ‘leads’ and ‘starts’ with the institutional objective of securing federal financial aid dollars.” Picture a school run by the characters of Glengarry Glen Ross.

I briefly wondered about Birch’s connection to online schools, but I didn’t discern any ulterior motive in his guest post. I figured he was just wanted to be able to say he had some online publications. His proposed post didn’t promote online schools, though it did mention them in passing, with a link to I wasn’t surprised that he threw in a link to his employer, and didn’t give it a second thought. I agreed with the thrust of the post, which is what I most cared about. So I went ahead and posted it.

Weeks went by and the post eventually slipped down off the front page. Meanwhile, though, I began to get emails from other people – “freelance writers” – wanting to write guest posts. Some of them mentioned that all they wanted in exchange was a link to their website. Some of the writers cited websites such as,, and, again, One person wrote, “I am a freelancer and so for your posting of this original article I would be able to pay you.” There was obviously something fishy going on, so I declined these offers, when I responded at all.