Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A parent asks a question (part six)

After five email exchanges (starting here) with our elementary school’s principal and district administrators, I felt no closer to an answer about how much the school had increased its use of disciplinary measures this year. In her last message, the assistant superintendent offered to arrange a meeting to explain the district’s “curriculum” to me, but showed no interest in hearing what parents had to say about what’s actually happening in the school. I wrote back:
Well, I’m getting the strong impression that you’re not interested in hearing what parents have to say about what is actually happening at Hoover. (Please correct me if I’m misreading you.) The possible meeting that you’re describing is sounding awfully one-sided.

In any event, I think it makes sense to get the numerical information before having any kind of meeting. Could you send me the forms that I would need to get information about the increase in incident reports and suspensions at Hoover from last year to this year?

The reply:
Good afternoon, Mr. Liebig. Thank you for writing.

Please find attached the district’s guidelines for submitting a request for public records. If you would like us to provide an estimated cost associated with your information request, you may request this at the same time you write the specific nature of your request to the custodian of our district records, Superintendent Murley.

If you have any questions about this procedure, please let us know.

Thank you again,
Yes, I outright invited her to correct my impression that the district is not interested in what parents have to say. Invitation declined.

To be continued.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A parent asks a question (part five)

When I finally asked our school’s principal whether other parents had also complained about the school’s intensified emphasis on discipline, the reply came from the assistant superintendent, who offered to arrange a meeting with “district leaders who support the methods being used” at the school. Of course, that didn’t answer my question, and I wasn’t sure why I’d want to meet with people who have apparently already made up their minds about the issue. So I wrote back:
Thanks. That was my next question – how much of this new policy is being dictated by the district? There’s no point in me complaining to the principal about things that she is being made to do. Still, it’s not clear to me just who the decisionmaker here is – something I have always found hard to pin down in the school system.

I think a meeting with concerned parents could be a good idea. But I worry that it sounds like you have already decided that you “endorse the methods the methods being used at Hoover,” before you’ve even heard what parents have to say. What are you thinking the purpose of that meeting would be?
The assistant superintendent’s reply:
Good afternoon, Mr. Liebig. Thank you for writing. You are correct in your notation that the social-emotional system used at Hoover and all other elementary schools is a district-endorsed curriculum. I was not suggesting that we must have a meeting you with, but offering the idea if you wanted to learn more about the curriculum.

Again, thank you,
Readers, there is a reason why the background of this blog is a brick wall. Is the district completely impervious to input from the public about how its policies are working? Are the central administrators at all curious about how individual principals are actually implementing their policies, or about how kids and families are experiencing them? Apparently this is the district’s idea of engagement with the public: they’re happy to talk to you, but don’t expect them to talk with you.

To be continued.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

One question too many

Having tried three times (reported here, here, and here) to get a sense of how much our school’s use of disciplinary measures has increased this year, I still felt no closer to an answer. The principal’s last response blamed her predecessor for not “working through” behavioral issues, and then explained why the school can’t just ignore misbehavior – which, of course, I never suggested. I wrote back:
Thanks. I’m not sure it explains much to say that there “should have been” more discipline in previous years. Previous principals apparently used a lighter hand, which seems perfectly defensible.

I would think that whether we “should” have this new policy ought to depend on the actual overall effect it ends up having on the children – not just on their behavior, but on their attitude toward school. If it really is creating a negative culture at the school, and making the kids see the adults who run the school as their adversaries, I would think that that would weigh pretty heavily against the policy.

Again, it’s my impression that it is having that negative effect, but I realize I’m only one person. Have other parents raised similar concerns?
The reply came not from the principal but from the assistant superintendent, Ann Feldmann:
Good afternoon, Mr. Liebig. I write to offer to arrange a meeting with our district leaders who endorse the methods being used at Hoover Elementary and all other elementary schools in our district. If you would like to discuss our system further, I know that there is an interest in hearing your concerns and sharing our perspective.

I also ask that you direct your further questions on this topic to Becky Furlong and me, rather than to Ms. Bradford. I will ask Ms. Bradford to acknowledge your emails but to forward them to one of us for a response.

Certainly, if you have other questions pertaining to your child, a correspondence with Ms. Bradford should proceed. However, on this topic (general student discipline methods, practices, inquiries, concerns), I would ask that we have an opportunity to address your thoughts at a systems level.

Thank you for your polite emails (the ones I’ve been fortunate to see). It truly makes a difference when there is civil interaction with each other.

Thank you,
A meeting with “our district leaders who endorse the methods being used”? The writing teacher in me wondered whether there are also district leaders who don’t endorse the policy, and why I couldn’t meet with them, too. But the parent in me wondered: if you were a district administrator, and a parent expressed concern that a school practice was creating a negative, stressful, and distrustful school atmosphere, would you announce in advance that you support the practice, before even meeting with the parent?

Notice that, once again, the question I asked – have other parents complained? – went entirely unanswered.

To be continued.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A parent asks a question (part three)

When I emailed our school’s principal to ask how much disciplinary measures had increased this year, I found her initial responses (here and here) unrevealing. So I emailed again:
Thanks. I wasn’t really asking whether there was an increase in misbehavior – I wasn’t thinking there’d be any reason for that to change significantly from one year to the next. But if the level of misbehavior is basically the same, I don’t understand why there’d be a lot more discipline going on, which seems to be the case.

I understand that you consider a lot of the discipline to be “processing” rather than punishment, but I don’t think the kids are experiencing it that way. I wouldn’t either, if I were them – if, for example, the principal of the school sent a report home about my behavior, which my parents then had to sign and return. I certainly wouldn’t experience suspension as anything but a punishment.

My concern is that the kids are increasingly seeing the adults at the school (especially the non-classroom-teachers) as their adversaries. I don’t want my kids to fear and distrust the adults at their school. Even if everyone’s a little better behaved, it’s not worth it.

It doesn’t seem like you’re taking into account the way the kids are experiencing the increase in discipline, or the negative atmosphere it’s creating at the school. Do you at least agree that there are downsides to this intensified focus on behavior and discipline?
The principal’s reply:
Mr. Liebig -
By no means is my objective to scare or cause mistrust from the students I talk with. As I said, the behaviors (I believe) are the same- some of these behaviors, however, are behaviors that should have been worked through in the past and never were. That puts me in the position of having to work through the appropriate expectations when such behaviors do occur - so that the students, as a whole, are safe and respected by others. As I mentioned before, some of the students I have talked with, in the office or outside their classroom door, have never interacted with the principal before and, yes, If this is their first interaction, I do think that can cause some stress and fear (even if my tone is calm and non-threatening). This does not mean, however, that I should not address these concerns with these students. When I walk the hallways at Hoover or work in classrooms or with small groups of students, I do not have the feeling Hoover has a negative atmosphere - nor do the teachers and many of the parents I do see volunteering at school.
This response, like the previous one, seems to be responding to something I did not say. No one is suggesting that the school should not address misbehavior when it occurs. It doesn’t follow, though, that a draconian law-enforcement approach to discipline is the answer. There is more than one way to address misbehavior. Some ways are needlessly punitive, and some punishments don’t fit the crime. The school has a choice about how to handle discipline, and I’d like to discuss why it’s making the choice that it’s making, whether that choice has been needlessly extreme, and how that choice is affecting the kids and their experience of school. As a first step, I’d like to find out just how different this year’s approach is from last year’s.

Of course the principal herself doesn’t think the atmosphere is negative, just as other principals in our district didn’t see anything wrong with having kids rush through their lunches while bundled up in parkas and snow pants to preserve precious “instructional minutes.” Unsurprisingly, school administrators tend to overestimate people’s satisfaction with their policies. (The Synesi audit, for example, found that only 8% of our administrators think that the district is unresponsive to the needs of the community, while 44% of parents do.)

To be continued.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A parent asks a question (part two)

Yesterday, I posted my email to our elementary school’s principal asking how much of an increase there had been, compared to last year, in the number of disciplinary incident reports and suspensions. She replied that I would have to file a formal public records request to get an answer to that question. (She also cc-ed the superintendent and two assistant superintendents, who were then included in all of the correspondence that ensued.) My email in reply:
Well, I’m a little puzzled by that response. I’m just trying to get a sense of whether there’s been an increase in the disciplining of students this year at Hoover. I haven’t asked a lot of questions – maybe three emails this year? – and in the past I’ve always appreciated your willingness to answer them, even if the answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I’m not sure why your answer this time is so different. I don’t know any more now than I did before I asked the question.

As I’ve said before, I’m concerned about what Hoover is teaching the kids, and about the atmosphere the school is creating, through the way it handles discipline. Those are certainly issues that people can disagree about. But if it’s true that the school is issuing a lot more incident reports and suspensions than it did in the past, that would be an important thing for people to know as they think about whether Hoover should be handling discipline differently.

It’s true that, like most parents, I’m not active in the PTA, but I hope that doesn’t disqualify me from asking questions. I do read the PTA’s website and haven’t seen those questions answered in any of the material posted there.

I certainly didn’t think I was making a public records request. I’ve asked questions before about things happening at Hoover, and no one ever suggested that I had to make a public records request to get an answer. I don’t really understand how you’re deciding which questions you can just answer, and which ones require a public records request. In any event, without digging up the actual numbers, can you tell me whether it’s your impression that there’s been a significant increase in the number of incident reports and suspensions at Hoover this year?
The principal’s response:
In response, I have been advised to ask for public records paperwork to be completed if you would like specifics. As per the general question - no, I do not believe there has been an increase in behaviors at Hoover. The students, overall, are very well-behaved. There is, however, a difference in how those behaviors which are bad choices are being handled this year. This does affect our student discipline numbers - which are accurately being entered this year.
Thanks for your inquiry and if you would like more specifics I would be happy to send the paperwork request to you.
I found that response a little frustrating. I hadn’t asked whether misbehavior had increased; I asked whether incident reports and suspensions had. The principal’s response seems to imply that there’s been an increase – but doesn’t actually say it. And it seems to imply that it wasn’t her decision to insist on a records request (“I have been advised”) – but doesn’t actually say it. And it seems to imply that the previous principal didn’t keep accurate records -- but doesn’t actually say it. So has there been a significant increase, or not?

To be continued.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What’s going on at Hoover School? (continued)

As I wrote here, a lot of the parents at our local elementary school have noticed an increase in the school’s use of disciplinary measures this year. In my view, the school was already overemphasizing behavior, to the point where school seemed to be more about being quiet and obedient than about inquiry or critical thought. But this year, the school seems so focused on behavior and discipline that it’s creating a negative, stressful atmosphere in which the kids increasingly see the adults at the school (especially the non-classroom teachers) as their adversaries.

I’ve written elsewhere about the school’s excessive emphasis on unquestioning compliance with school rules, and also about the atmosphere in the lunchroom, where the lunch attendants are constantly yelling at the children to be quiet during the few minutes they get to socialize over a meal. What’s new this year is the added layer of over-the-top discipline.

It’s hard to get a fix on what’s happening, since of course the school can’t talk about specific disciplinary incidents, but I’m certainly hearing things I haven’t heard in past years. I hear, for example, about the school accusing a third-grader (eight, nine years old?) of sexual harassment, requiring him to attend behavior classes, and threatening to expel him – all by letter to his parents. I hear about kids getting written up not for bullying, but for failing to report other kids for bullying. One parent told me that, after one particularly bad interaction her son had with the school, she has told her sons that if they are sent to the principal’s office, they can refuse to answer any questions until their parent arrives. I hear about whole groups of kids being punished because a few are too loud, and the kids being encouraged to police each other’s behavior if they want to avoid punishment themselves. One of the only two parents on the school’s PBIS Committee recently quit the committee because she felt that the school’s approach to behavior management was making the kids anxious and stressed out, and that the committee wasn’t taking those concerns seriously. I hear about more and more incident reports being sent home to parents, and suspensions, both in-school and out-of-school.

So last month I sent this email to the principal:
Hi – I’m just writing to ask about discipline at Hoover. It seems to me that there’s been a marked increase in the emphasis on discipline this year, and I’ve never heard so many stories of kids getting suspended or having incident reports sent home, etc. Is this just my imagination? If not, what is the rationale for the increase?

Is it possible for you to tell me how many incident reports and suspensions Hoover has had this year compared to last year? Of the suspensions, how many have been out-of-school as opposed to in-school? Again, it just sounds like it’s happening a lot more, but I don’t really know how to compare to previous years.

Thanks for any information,
The response, which was cc-ed to the superintendent and two assistant superintendents, was this:
Mr. Liebig -
I do post and share information in a public forum during PTA meetings. You are always welcome to attend these on the second Thursday evening of each month. Unfortunately, we are not meeting in December. The next meeting is scheduled for January 12, 2012. I am referring you to the superintendent’s office, as this is a public records request. If you feel this is the route you would like to take, I can get the administrative procedure document from his office to send to you
Thank you
A public records request? Really? So much for transparency.

To be continued.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Can’t do

Today’s Press-Citizen has a front-page article reporting on people’s complaints about the short, unpleasant lunch period at our local elementary schools. I am quoted in the article, but, as a Facebook holdout, I cannot post a comment on it. So I’ll do that here.

First, there is one factual inaccuracy that I must correct or I may never live it down. The article states, “Chris Liebig, a parent of three students at Hoover Elementary, said he packs his children’s lunches every day to ensure that they have the most time to eat it as possible.” In fact, my wife usually packs the lunches, not me.

Second, I wish the newspaper had fact-checked the district’s assertion that all the kids now get a full fifteen minutes to eat after going through the lunch line. I won’t say they haven’t made any efforts, but the fact remains that the kids who go through the lunch line still often end up with less than fifteen minutes to eat. (Not to mention that fifteen minutes is inadequate anyway.)

Third, the district asserts that “to allow more time for lunch, the district would have to lengthen the entire school day. “We need a longer school day,” [the assistant superintendent] said. “We would like that not only for a longer lunch but for the academics and also time for all the other things — art, music, P.E. — all the good things that happen at school.”

I don’t like the idea of lengthening the school day, because I don’t agree that, when it comes to school, more is better. Six and a half hours is enough time for kids to learn what they need to learn to make it to age twelve, and I think kids benefit from getting away from school, especially because our schools are becoming increasingly stressful places.

More importantly, it’s just baloney to suggest that the only way to add five minutes to lunch is to lengthen the school day. Six-year-olds could live with fifty-five minutes of math every day instead of an hour, and that’s just one example. (Much of the “guidance” program is another example.) Before the district panics at the effect on test scores, it should take a look at Finland.

Finally, why should anyone believe that the additional time in a longer school day would be devoted to anything other than what the existing time is devoted to? The reason there’s not enough lunch, art, music, etc., right now isn’t because there’s no time for it; it’s because the district has decided that raising standardized test scores is a higher priority. If you add more time to the day but fail to change that way of thinking, the extra time will ultimately go to more test prep. On the other hand, if you do change that way of thinking, there’s no need for the extra time.

We saw with the Longfellow class sizes what the district can do when it sets its mind to something. On the lunch issue, though, the administrators’ attitude is strictly can’t-do.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Different drummer

I confess that I’m nerdy enough (and old enough) that one of my childhood idols was the once and future California governor, Jerry Brown. His girlfriend was Linda Ronstadt; he flirted with Eastern philosophy; he lived in an unfurnished apartment instead of the governor’s mansion, and dined on the floor; he was the Un-Candidate for President.

As youthful enthusiasms go, that one embarrasses me far less than most. (Ditto for Linda Ronstadt, come to think of it.) I even ended up voting for Brown years later, in the 1992 Connecticut Democratic presidential primary, which, surprisingly, he won. And now he’s governor again, and it turns out he’s the voice of reason on educational “reform”:
Deviating sharply from education reform policies championed by President Obama, California Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for limits on standardized testing and reduced roles for federal and state government in local schools. . . .

Besides taking on testing, Brown called for getting the federal and state government out of the details of schooling.

“What most needs to be avoided is concentrating more and more decision-making at the federal or state level,” Brown said. “We should set broad goals and have a good accountability system, leaving the real work to those closest to the students.... We should not impose excessive or detailed mandates.” . . .

The tests take “too damn long,” Brown told the [L.A. Times]. “Second-graders take five days of tests. That’s longer than I spent on the bar exam. I think that’s absurd. You’ve gotta have some room for creativity.”

He was similarly insistent about limiting the role of Washington.

“The federal government should butt out,” Brown said [last year]. “You have more and more people who aren’t teaching, who are managing the flow of the money and all the various rules and mandates.

“They have this idea that schools are like businesses and if you set the right metrics, can you reward and punish and you get the outcome,” Brown said. “I don't feel things quite work that way.”
Maybe this will earn Brown a new generation of young fans?

(Link c/o Mandy. Photos c/o Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How education bureaucrats think of parents

I want to thank Karen W. again for her post summarizing the governor’s education proposals. When I talk up the idea of meaningful local control over education, a lot of people are wary. Many people who are dissatisfied with their local schools think that the state should step in and fix them – until they see what the state wants to do. I hope people who have mixed feelings about local control will read through Karen’s post, or for that matter, will try dipping randomly into any literature generated by our state’s educational bureaucracy.

Karen linked, for example, to the state’s “Parent Information Resource,” so I clicked and took a look around. It wasn’t long before I was reaching for the Dramamine. The site is overflowing with the worst kind of bureaucratic edubabble (click here for a discussion of how to “assist district and building leadership in forming, developing, and facilitating an action team to make decisions and implement family engagement as one strategy to increase student achievement in the district or building”). Blogging about it extensively would be like shooting fish in a barrel, but I had to comment on this link, identifying “messages educators and community members can deliver to families regarding specific actions they can do that can impact their children’s school performance.” The theory is that if enough people deliver these messages “loudly and often” – “verbally and in writing” – then “student achievement may increase.”

Here are some of those “messages”:
Dear Families, this is what you can do at home to help your child do well in school! Teaching your child the names of colors will help him/her do better in school. Talk about colors when you are driving in the car, playing, or looking at pictures—anytime, any place! Our world is full of colors. When you are first teaching your child colors, name the color for him/her, “That car is red.” “The plate is red.” After you have done that several times, and for many days, ask your child to tell you what color the car is. Thanks!

Dear Families, this is what you can do at home to help your child do well in school! Children can learn new words at any time, in any place. Talk with children a lot. For example, when buying milk, “There are many kinds of milk. There is white milk (point to it), chocolate (point), and strawberry (point).”

Describe what you are doing. When cooking say, “I am going to stir flour into the melted butter. Then we will add sugar and chocolate chips.” Children who know and understand lots of words will be great readers!” Thanks!

Dear Families, this is what you can do at home to help your child do well in school! Tell your children often that school and learning is important. “Do your best in school! It is important to learn all that you can so you can get a good job when you grow up.” Thanks!

Dear Families, this is what you can do at home to help your child do well in school! Help your child get to school on time! You don’t want him/her to miss a minute of school!

Dear Families, this is what you can do at home to help your child do well in school! Many teachers have a system they follow for assigning homework. Some use assignment notebooks, folders, or sign-off sheets. Find out what the teachers want. Support the system by making sure you and your child do your part. Thanks!
And so on. The patronizing tone and infantilizing content epitomize the state’s attitude toward parents, and for that matter toward school boards, teachers, and kids. These are the people who should step in and tell us how to run our schools?

That one link could inspire a dozen rants, but I’ll just focus on just one aspect of it here: In the minds of our state educational overlords, what do struggling or disengaged parents need? Messages! Instruction. If those parents would just do as we say, the problem would be solved! It’s hard not to be reminded of the way our schools think about behavior and discipline. Forget about any effort to understand why people are acting as they do, to ask them what their needs are, or to address the root causes of their trouble. Just tell them what to do, “loudly and often.” (PBIS is the embodiment of that approach.) It’s an attitude that quickly segues into “If we make the instructions really clear and they still don’t follow them, then they get what they deserve.” All the worse when it’s aimed at seven- and eight-year-olds.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Guest Post: World-Class Schools?

Karen W., who regularly comments here, has done us the service of wading through the details of Governor Branstad’s education proposal. Here is her summary and some of her thoughts. (One apology about the post title: I packed a lot more irony into that question mark than perhaps any one character ought to bear.)

The Branstad-Reynolds administration recently released a legislative brief describing their education reform recommendations for the 2012 legislative session. The details are now available in the 156 page Senate Study Bill 3009 available here. The recommendations, in a nutshell, are to further centralize control of Iowa public schools in the Iowa Department of Education (DE). (Note that I am summarizing primarily from the legislative brief—I haven’t had time to wade through SSB 3009 yet).

Section I—Great Teachers and Leaders. Proposes to have the DE control a statewide job listing and application system which would include the results of a required personality and disposition assessment of the applicant (even though 80% of districts voluntarily use another listing service). Proposes to require a 3.0 cumulative college GPA and a passing score on unspecified exams (likely Praxis exams) for admission to teacher preparation programs and to obtain a license without any serious public discussion about what prospective elementary teachers learn in the teacher preparation programs (hint: it isn’t the five components of science-based reading instruction—see the NCTQ report here). Proposes to bring educator licensure under the DE and relegate the current Board of Educational Examiners to handling ethics complaints. Proposes to create uniform systems of educator evaluation, lengthen teacher/administration probationary status, end judicial review of dismissals (lawyers make things complicated), and end seniority-based layoffs (introducing the opportunity for arbitrary decisions). Proposes to expand a School Administration Manager program (DE wants principals to be assigned other duties). Proposes that the DE will decide what professional development (PD) should be done each year and DE approval will be required for all PD programs (one-size-fits-all comes for teachers/districts). Proposes to create a task force on teacher leadership and compensation (which presumably will make the same recommendations already rejected at public meetings around the state).

Section II—High Expectations and Fair Measures. Proposes to provide model curricula to aid districts in implementing the Iowa Core standards (remember that the Iowa Core began as voluntary, model standards). Proposes to “expand the Iowa Core into other areas that have been neglected for too long, such as music and other fine arts, foreign languages, entrepreneurial education, physical education, applied arts, and character education” (note that there is no reason to think that school districts have neglected these areas so watch for recommendations for new assessments aligned to these new standards so teachers of these subjects can be drawn into standardized-test driven evaluation and accountability). Proposes more assessments: kindergarten readiness measures, high school end of course exams, PISA, and college and career readiness measures ($6.3 million). Proposes a value-added measure for accountability that will take student demographics into account. Proposes a statewide literacy program to support high-quality reading programs (from the same people who wrote balanced literacy into the Iowa Core) that includes a controversial third-grade retention component.

Section III—Innovation. Proposes an Innovation Acceleration Fund (amounting to $3.94 per student enrolled in public and accredited non-public schools). Proposes a pathway to competency-based education systems. Proposes expanding online learning opportunities. Proposes removing restrictions on charter schools, but just the ones limiting them to school districts so that universities, community colleges and nonprofit organizations could also apply. Proposes that the director of the DE have authority to waive compliance with rules and statutes to provide flexibility for school districts trying to improve learning (note use of the rule of man approach introduces the likelihood of arbitrary decisions—why not use a rule of law approach to create more certain flexibility by repealing rules and recommending the repeal of statutes that are identified as preventing districts from improving instruction?). Proposes a task force on time and schools even though Iowa students have more compulsory hours of instruction than students in Finland (see here and click on table—maybe we should be looking at more effective use of time rather than just adding more of it). Proposes a statewide parent engagement network. The legislative brief refers to the ISPIN program and IPIRC, which offer tips on how parents should take responsibility for homework completion, and what questions we should ask our children about school. SSB 3009 (p. 127) requires the DE to create a Statewide Parent Advocacy Network with parent representatives identified by the District Boards of Directors.

To what extent do we have “public” schools in Iowa anymore, in the sense that the public (local community to be served by the school district) has any meaningful participation in decision-making about the educational program offered by the district? The Iowa Core mandates what, when, and how students should learn. The Iowa Core favors use of technology, constructivism over instruction, balanced literacy over direct, explicit, systematic, and complete instruction in phonics, and has rejected traditional math and science. Is there any compelling reason these decisions (or any of the ones raised by the Branstad-Reynolds proposal) should be made at the state level rather than the local level?

Any thoughts on the Branstad-Reynolds education reform proposal are welcome. What action would you like to see the legislature take on education this session?

Friday, January 13, 2012

If only these boys could be more like girls

A friend recently told me about her son, who graduated from our local high school a year or two ago. He had struggled throughout his school experience. He didn’t apply to college, but his mother hopes that he might eventually enroll in a vocational or technical program and learn a trade that he might enjoy. His school experience was so negative, though, that he’s reluctant to sign up for any more of it.

A few days later, another friend told me how concerned she was about her grandson, a high schooler here. He, too, had always struggled with school, even though he was a smart kid. He had had enough behavioral problems that he had been medicated for a large part of his childhood. His family finally decided that the medication was making him miserable – it was “killing him,” his grandmother said – and insisted that he be taken off it. Now he was trying to adjust to high school. He had found a subject that he liked – Chemistry – and she hoped that he might finally get some enjoyment from school. When she talked about the behavior problems he had experienced, we joked that there was a scientific name for it: it’s called “being a boy.”

I think of what it must be like to be a boy at my kids’ school. Of the sixteen classroom teachers at the school, one is male. The remaining fifteen are women, as are the principal, the office staff, the guidance counselor, the nurse, the gym teacher, the music teacher, the art teachers, the lunchroom staff, and the recess attendants. One of the special ed classrooms has a male teacher, and there is a male custodian that the kids seem to like.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you need to be male to teach boys, or that men are better teachers than women. Many of the school’s teachers are great at what they do, and the kids – both boys and girls – respond well to them. But kids are very aware of gender, and the virtual absence of men at the school must have an effect on them. It doesn’t help that the school’s administration has decided to ratchet up its emphasis on behavior and discipline. To any boy who has trouble meeting “expectations,” school must seem like the place where you go to have women lecture and scold you about your behavior and tell you to sit still and be quiet. What does that do to a kid’s self-concept? What does it do to his attitude toward women?

(And what does this atmosphere do to the girls’ conceptions of gender? The qualities most rewarded by the school – docility, obedience, quietness – are the very qualities that have served girls in particular so poorly. The “problem kids” are punished for not learning those qualities, and the “well-behaved” kids are punished by learning them.)

Shouldn’t the school at least reflect on this gender disparity, even if it can’t change it? If the school’s “expectations” are hurting, rather than helping, a significant number of kids, shouldn’t they be reexamined? Is it possible that the absence of male staff has an effect on how the school conceives of what is age-appropriate behavior? Does a group of women reach the same conclusions about what’s “appropriate” behavior as a group of men would?

Boys need role models – not just to show them what good behavior is, but to show them how good behavior can be consistent with masculinity. Who wouldn’t trade a thousand lectures on bullying for one instance of a respected male teacher treating a socially marginal kid as one of the guys, or de-escalating a conflict without losing face, or challenging a racial or homophobic slur? Not every male teacher could do that effectively; but even the best female teacher cannot model compassionate, kind, intelligent masculinity.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for a boy to be kind, or book-smart, or respectful of women, or tolerant toward people who are different, and still be accepted by his male peers. Boys need some examples to see how it can be done. Instead, at our school, they get lectures and behavior prizes and law-enforcement-style disciplinary practices. None of it addresses their need. If they have to choose between being good and being boys, I know what they’ll choose – even if it means deciding that they’re not cut out for school.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

District addresses overcrowding issue

In response to parents’ concerns about large class sizes, our school district has decided to dip into its cash reserves to hire ten new teachers, effective (almost) immediately. They will be hired as long-term substitutes; presumably the district will reevaluate the school-by-school numbers next year. Details here and here.

Three of the new teachers (one of whom will be part-time) will teach at Longfellow Elementary, where the parents’ petition originated, and where some classrooms had as many as 34 students. When I find out just how much smaller the affected classes there have become, I’ll report it in a comment to this post.

It would have been nice if the district had addressed the problem before it occurred, instead of waiting until enough parents made a stink about it; switching teachers in the middle of January has to be a little disruptive. But still, it’s great that the district made a real effort to respond to the parents’ concerns. Now when will they address lunch?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What is going on at Hoover School?

I recently received this email from the parent of another child at our elementary school:
Hi, Chris.

I wonder if you’ve heard anything about kids at Hoover being suspended. I’ve just talked to a third parent who has mentioned it as something they've endured OR something they have been threatened with (via a letter, of course). In all three cases, the interaction with the administration at Hoover was dismal.

OK, here’s what I want to know: If PBIS is about POSITIVE behavior support, why are eight and nine year old kids getting SUSPENDED at Hoover? Isn’t suspension a punitive reaction? I keep hearing that it is a district policy but on what grounds are kids this age being suspended from school, losing that precious instructional time? In the cases I’ve heard of, the kids involved have been rough (hitting on the playground) or disruptive (walking around the classroom) but I cannot FATHOM how out-of-school suspension is the answer. Do you think we’re not hearing about it because those of us who are outraged at this idea have kids who don’t get in that kind of trouble?? I’m tempted to go straight to [Superintendent] Murley and ask about this.

Have you heard anything?
The school definitely seems to have intensified its (already over-the-top) focus on behavior this year, as I’ve described, for example, here and here. I have also heard more reports of disciplinary incidents and notes being sent home to parents. My sense is that the kids have experienced these changes as anything but “positive.” I think this parent’s question is a good one.

Update here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Parents think our school district is unresponsive; administrators disagree

As part of its audit of our school district’s operations, the auditing firm surveyed parents, community members, school teachers, staff, and administrators on several issues. It’s interesting to note the disparity between parents and administrators in some of the responses.

For example, half of the administrators agreed with the statement “School lunches are nutritional,” while only 37.5% disagreed. Among parents, though, only 21% agreed, while 54% disagreed.

Almost one-fifth of the parents disagreed with the statement “Overall school climate is positive and productive,” while 0% of the administrators disagreed.

As for “District is responsive to the needs of the community,” 44% of parents disagreed, as compared to only 8% of administrators. Only 30% of parents agreed, compared to 64% of administrators.

The teachers as a group generally fell between the parents and the administrators – but closer to the parents.

When will Iowa City give its schoolchildren a decent lunch?

The school district has now released the outside audit it recently commissioned of district operations. The report contains all of the comments that people from the community submitted. What I found most striking was the number of comments, mostly negative, about the district’s school lunches. Many commented that the kids aren’t given enough time to eat. Many others complained about the food quality or the lunchroom atmosphere. Here are just a few of the comments:
I wish the kids had a little more time to EAT their lunch. I don’t like that kids get only one recess per day in the upper grades.

Lunches at the elementary level are HORRIBLE all the way around: * Children are not allowed enough time to eat. * The para-educators in charge of lunch run it like it’s a prison. * The “fixed somewhere else” and “warmed-up at the school” lunches are not appealing * The lunches all seem to be some variation of bread and cheese. Get rid of the behavior management system with tickets - or at least only put it in at schools with behavioral issues. It alienates good students and they think it is stupid.