Sunday, February 26, 2012

Teacher: “It is as bad as you think and probably worse”

Commenter “Another Chris” posted a comment on the previous post (“Are liberal homeschoolers hypocrites?”) that deserves a post of its own, so I’m reprinting it here in full:
Chris, I have to side with you on this one and I am a public school teacher. From an insiders perspective it is as bad as you think and probably worse in many respects. Teachers have lost all control over what happens in the classroom.

In many places we now have “walkthroughs” which is the latest fad quick-fix and principals and boards love them because they are all about keeping teachers “accountable” and under control.

Administrators and district employees do frequent, short drive-bys in classrooms with checklists of what they “should” be seeing in “effective” classrooms. There is no discussion before or after in most places but rather a notice in your mailbox of how badly you were out of compliance and how short a time you have to remedy this error.

The very idea that a 3 - 5 minute inspection provides even a tiny snapshot of the dynamics of teaching and learning with a group of diverse children is offensive yet this is a major tool in evaluating teachers now in most of the country. Horror stories from teachers abound, from kids hiding under the desks when the “scary people” come through to kids challenging the visitors on their rudeness in interrupting their learning.

Curriculum is carefully controlled from on high and one of the checklists’ major foci is to make sure each teacher is doing the prescribed lesson in the prescribed way at the prescribed time. You will be penalized if off track no matter how well-reasoned your explanation, such as individualizing instruction.

Our president, whom I campaigned and voted for, stated in his big education speech last month that teachers need to “stop teaching to the test!” which was very cognitively dissonant since his own education department’s Race to the Top program has required all participating states to make test scores anywhere from 40 - 60% of a teacher’s evaluation, which elevates a single test score to prime importance. So we’re supposed to ignore the biggest part of the decision on whether we get to remain employed or not and/or even retain our teaching license and risk losing years and years of college education, continuing education, and thousands of dollars invested in both?

Discipline was married to test results by the political and business “experts” and created such monstrosities as PBS. Teachers are held accountable for everything from reducing incidents to attendance as part of our yearly evaluation and pay package. I guess we should awake before dawn and make home visits to make sure kids are awake, fed, dressed, and sent to school?

You already know about the time crunch test prep has created in our day and how recess, arts and crafts, music, and PE have suffered. We are told quite frequently that we are free to leave and find employment elsewhere if we don’t like the current models since they are based upon “research” (which is anything that is published and uncritically accepted as gospel truth).

Hucksters by the dozens are making millions off school boards by selling untried, unproven, and unfounded reforms that sound politically appealing but have no basis in reality. The new Common Core Standards are a good example -- they will be in full force by 2014 and they have already subsumed every educational publisher and training system yet they have no proven record of success.

Because I care so much about children I would urge any parent who can to remove their child from public school. It is a sick, deteriorating system that is only getting worse and the forces arrayed against it, from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan have billions of dollars backing their interference. There will be no good change anytime soon, at least until they succeed in destroying the system completely and losing a generation of children in the process of proving their political theories.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are liberal homeschoolers hypocrites?

I recently went to an interesting talk by Heather Gerken on the various ways that political minorities can influence policy within a federal system like ours. I won’t go into her specific thesis here, but she built on the work of earlier scholars such as Albert O. Hirschman, who recognized that people can influence institutions through both “voice” and “exit.” In other words, you can try to change the system from within by speaking up – though, if you’re in a political minority, you might find yourself outvoted. Or you can influence the system by voting with your feet; if enough people “exit,” the institution might eventually have to change.

I thought about those ideas when I read Dana Goldstein’s article titled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids.” Goldstein argues that liberals are violating their own ideals by withdrawing from the public schools. If they really cared about “society as a whole” and not just themselves, she says, liberals would “flood” the public schools with their kids, “and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”

I suppose I’m someone who has taken the “stay and fight” approach, though more because of circumstance than principle. But I think Goldstein’s argument is myopic. She ignores the potential of “exit” to bring about positive change, and overestimates the potential of “voice.” Unlike Goldstein, I fully expect that for all my attempts at vociferousness, my kids – like those of countless people who have “stayed and fought” – will graduate thirteen years later from an utterly unchanged institution, if not one that has changed for the worse. If you were trying to design an educational system that would minimize parents’ “voice,” it would look a lot like this one.

Goldstein argues that if people who can afford to homeschool sent their kids to public school instead, less advantaged kids would benefit from their presence. I think that’s probably true, at least to some extent. But she doesn’t acknowledge that there are costs to that choice as well – not just to the kids who would have been homeschooled, but to society as a whole. Goldstein seems to think that liberals should send their kids to public schools no matter how illiberal those institutions are, and no matter how successfully they are instilling illiberal values in the kids who attend them. I think today’s schools are profoundly undermining liberal, humane, and democratic values. Why should that ever change if liberal parents continue to patronize them regardless of what they dish out?

Again, I’m not a homeschooler, and I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks I’m sufficiently liberal. But I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to take their kids out of these schools. There’s no one right answer to how to make this world a more humane place, and the homeschoolers’ answer seems at least as wise as Goldstein’s. If anything, I instinctively distrust the idea that we can create a more liberal and humane society by putting our kids into less liberal and humane environments. By treating kids as instruments for social improvement, that argument mirrors the very same instrumental treatment of children that I object to when it’s practiced by “reformers” who treat kids as soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness. The homeschoolers think that you build a more humane society not by using kids to achieve this or that social end, but by treating kids humanely, one at a time. Can Goldstein be so sure that they are wrong?

More on liberal homeschoolers here. Related post here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Too sane for us?

Busy week, not much time for blogging. In the meantime, check out Diane Ravitch on Finland’s sane, humane educational system, and on the determination of American “reformers” (including both major parties) to learn exactly nothing from it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Angry citizens violate school board’s “expectation” of “respect”

Readers of this blog know that I’m concerned about authoritarian, anti-democratic attitudes that have crept (or stormed) increasingly into our educational policies and practices. One small way that these attitudes have manifested themselves is through the distortion of the word “respect.” The kids are taught that respect means obedience to authority. And now our local school board is brandishing the word in its discussion of whether to allow public comment at school board meetings.

Our district has a few citizens who don’t mince words when they comment at board meetings. Some of them have taken to naming the names of the district employees who they claim are responsible for specific ongoing problems that the district has had. (Believe it or not, I am not one of those people, at least yet.)

The school board’s response, on the whole, has been to act as if an unwashed anarchist had crashed their afternoon tea. According to the North Liberty Leader, the board would consider eliminating the public comment period altogether, if people can’t be more “respectful.” The board chair said:
The Board expects the community comment time to be a productive and respectful way for community members to voice their concerns about current school district issues to assist the board in making decisions that help our district be the best place possible to educate the students of this community.

When community comments address concerns about district departments or issues and are done so in a timely manner, the information given can be very helpful. It is the School Board’s desire to continue to have community comment as part of future agendas as long as the emphasis on ‘productive’ and ‘respectful’ are adhered to by all participants.
Seriously? These elected officials will shut down public comment at board meetings if the public isn’t sufficiently “respectful” and “productive”? Is it really the business of an elected body to protect itself, or the community, from public speech that it finds uncomfortable? What are they so afraid of?

Some board members have suggested that the district might be liable if a speaker at the public meeting defames someone. I’m no expert on that subject, but I’m very, very skeptical that such a claim against the district could succeed, given the First Amendment issues it raises. The government is not ordinarily responsible for the conduct of people who speak in its public forums. (For example, the government is not promoting religion by permitting evangelists to speak in the public square.) Can anyone cite any legal support for the theory that the district would be liable in such a case?

One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is that free and unrestrained debate on political issues will lead to better policymaking. I would like to think that the people in charge of educating my children were aware of that principle. Unfortunately, there are few institutions that need to relearn that principle more than the school system, where parents and the public are constantly admonished to leave the policymaking to the experts and are encouraged to tiptoe around any disagreement, or drop it entirely, for fear of seeming “unsupportive.” Require everyone to be calm and polite, not to get personal, never to express anger, and never to use strong rhetoric or, God forbid, a “bad word”: a great way to protect the status quo, a lousy way to make good policy.

In my view, our educational system’s discomfort with basic democratic values – unrestrained political debate, personal autonomy, pluralism, federalism, negative liberty, civil liberties, and self-governance, to name a few – is at the root of most of its many problems. Democracy can be messy, disconcerting, even chaotic. But maintaining order is not the only value, or the highest one. Our schools’ embrace of control over freedom at every opportunity is not only harming our kids’ education, it’s creating a nation of people who seem more and more comfortable with authoritarian government with each passing year.

School board members: If people want to rant and rave and name some names, suck it up and let them talk. The world won’t end, and might even improve.

Related posts here and here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Skyrocketing rate of discipline at Hoover School

It turns out that parents who thought that our school’s use of disciplinary measures was skyrocketing were not imagining things. After a series of email exchanges with the principal and district administrators (starting here), I submitted this formal request for information. Here’s what the district’s response to it showed:

Last academic year, from the start of school until Winter Break, the school sent 15 written disciplinary reports home to parents. This year, during that same period, the number was 196. Yes, that’s a twelve hundred percent increase.

Last year, during that time, there were no in-school suspensions (technically called “in-school restrictions”). This year, there were 17.

Last year, during that time, there were no out-of-school suspensions. This year, there were three. There were no expulsions in either year.

The superintendent’s office included a letter arguing that no one should use these data for comparison purposes because of the many variables that affect how disciplinary incidents are recorded. I don’t find the argument very convincing, and I’m especially put off by its attempt (foreshadowed by the principal’s emails) to scapegoat the previous principal. Both the superintendent’s letter and the principal’s emails were quick to imply that the previous principal was doing something wrong, but they couldn’t quite get their story straight about what she was doing wrong. On the one hand, the superintendent’s office, like one of the principal’s emails, implies that the previous principal did not keep accurate records of disciplinary incidents. The superintendent’s letter says that last year’s numbers seem “unlikely,” and so it is “likely that the parent contacts were made but not recorded.” At the same time, though, the principal’s emails repeatedly emphasize that there is “a difference in how those behaviors which are bad choices are being handled this year” and that there were “behaviors that should have been worked through in the past and never were.” (And again, many parents have commented on the increase.) So was there a big increase, or not?

It’s true that the numbers for the second half of last year are higher (though still far lower than this year’s): 1 out-of-school suspension, 1 in-school suspension, and 50 disciplinary reports sent home to parents. But it also seems reasonable that the numbers would naturally be higher in the second semester, since you would expect that there would be some warnings given early in the year before the reports kicked in. One can only imagine what the numbers for the second half of this year will be. In any event, you can read the superintendent’s letter, below, and see if you agree that the reported numbers shed no light on whether discipline has steeply increased from last year to this year.

Here’s what I think the most plausible hypothesis is: Last year, we had a principal who used a lighter hand with discipline. Maybe when kids were sent to the principal’s office, she had a serious talk with them, and then sent them on their way. Maybe she put a high value on remaining approachable. Maybe she contacted parents only for serious problems, and then often by phone or in person instead of through an impersonal letter. Maybe she would have balked at the idea of accusing a third-grader of sexual harassment. I certainly had my disagreements with the previous principal, but that approach to discipline seems perfectly reasonable for elementary-school-age children.

This year – although the new principal herself acknowledges that misbehavior has not increased, and that the kids are, “overall, very well-behaved” – somebody decided to step up the use of discipline by several orders of magnitude. Why? We can only guess. The principal seems to believe that this heavy-handed law-enforcement approach to behavior is just what kids need. Another theory is that the district is worried about the racial disparities in its discipline numbers, and has decided to address the issue, not by treating minority kids better, but by treating all the kids harshly. In any case, nobody involved seems interested in how the kids are experiencing this disciplinary crackdown, or how their attitude toward school is affected by this constant emphasis on behavior and discipline, or what values they learn by being subjected to this increasingly authoritarian approach, or whether this policy is creating a negative, adversarial environment in the school.

If the district really believes that this kind of steep increase in discipline and punishment is good for the kids, why doesn’t it just say so? Why does it try to evade the question of whether there’s really been an increase? Why doesn’t it directly address people’s objections to the policy, and defend it publicly? Why didn’t it announce the increase in advance, and try to persuade the community that it was a good idea before imposing it? If it’s such a great idea, what are they worried about?

I should point out that the district did not charge me for compiling the information, as it initially said that it would. Its letter makes a point, though, of saying that the district is under no obligation to compile any more numbers for me. To read the full response, click on the “Read More” link.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A request for information about discipline at Hoover School

As I described here, I’m concerned that our local elementary school has ratcheted up its focus on behavior and discipline this year, to the point where it’s creating a negative atmosphere at the school and needlessly stressing out the kids. When I asked the principal just how much the discipline numbers have gone up from last year, she told me that I would need to make a public records request to get that information. In the ensuing series of email exchanges I had with the principal and district administrators, it became obvious that the district was not interested in hearing what parents might have to say about how the disciplinary system is affecting the kids. So I figured it was time to go ahead and get the numerical information – even though, as the assistant superintendent had reminded me, I would have to pay the cost of gathering the data.

So, in place of the relatively simple question I had asked the principal, I drafted a more detailed information request. I asked about four types of discipline: behavior reports sent home to parents, in-school suspensions (technically called “in-school restrictions”), out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions. For each type of discipline, I asked for this year’s numbers up until Winter Break, and last year’s for that same period, as well as last year’s year-end total. I also asked for copies of the paperwork that accompanies a behavior report.

To be continued.

To read the full request, click on the “Read More” link.