Thursday, April 12, 2012

Is there anything I can do to get on-the-record answers to questions?

Apparently our school district officials might be willing to answer your questions directly as long as you do not hurt their feelings by criticizing their policies and practices, or by – Heaven forbid – publicizing what these public officials say to you. The superintendent’s response to my last email:
Thanks for writing to share you perspective on this issue. If you will indulge me, I feel the need to back up and explain not only this communication, but also other emails that I have previously sent to you.

I believe that true communication always occurs within a context. That context is based on the relationship of those communicating with each other. Although society has evolved to the point that many people are comfortable having "electronic only" relationships, this does not work for me. I am unable to ascertain as much from email dialog as I can from in-person communication. For this reason I have repeatedly entreated you to pick up the phone or schedule an appointment with me and/or other administrators in the District.

Given your propensity to take your question-and-answer email dialog and cut and paste content to your web site, your emails come across as accusatory, interrogatory, and intended to prove your point. I am going to assume that you will take affront to the previous sentence. I am also going to presume that in a face-to-face dialog with you, this conversation would feel very different for both of us. In fact, I would surmise that having this type of face-to-face dialog would influence the interpretation that both I and members of my administrative team may have regarding future email inquiries from you. However, absent the face-to-face dialog that I continue to advocate for, these assumptions can not be fully ascertained.

Given the above, neither I nor my administrative team are trying to make you jump through hoops. I am concerned about your perceptions about Hoover ES and would like to discuss these so that the administrative can better understand how and where to address these issues. We are merely asking you to engage us in a true dialog about these issues in person. If/when you are willing to do so, we will make ourselves available.
My response:
Thanks for the quick reply. I have certainly been critical of some district policies – that’s the whole point of sending these emails. But if the district sees all criticism as “accusatory, interrogatory, and intended to prove a point,” it’s created an awfully convenient recipe for never publicly responding to any challenging questions or criticism.

Rather than fuss over whether the criticism was posed with just the right degree of deference and eggshell-walking, why not just rise above it and provide a public answer? In the amount of time it must have taken for you to write your last email, you could have gone a long way toward explaining why the district has pursued these policies on lunch, behavior, and discipline. Instead, all the energy goes into explaining why you can’t just answer the questions. (I have to admit: I have no idea what you mean by discussing issues “in context,” or why that can’t occur in writing.)

No one likes being on the receiving end of criticism, but it is very hard for the public to evaluate school policies if the district refuses to publicly state reasons for them. I don’t understand how that can possibly be good for the schools, or the children who attend them. It’s hard to see how the district is any better off, for example, for having stonewalled Ed Stone’s questions for years. All it did was drag out the process of getting legitimate concerns addressed, cause transparency to become an issue in the school board elections, and leave the district with a bill for Stone’s attorneys’ fees. Now Iowa City is cited as one of the primary examples of why we need a stronger Open Records law. There must be more productive ways of engaging with criticism.

It’s not as if I’m the only person raising concerns about the atmosphere in elementary school lunchrooms. Lots of people have, in the Synesi audit, the lunch petition, in comments on my blog, and elsewhere. Surely they’re not all so accusatory that they don’t deserve an on-the-record response. (For what it’s worth, your own assistant superintendent thanked me in our last exchange for my “polite emails” and “civil interaction.”)

I should point out: when I ask who made a given decision, it’s not out of a desire to personalize these issues or seek any kind of consequences. It’s because I want to know why the decisions were made, and don’t even know whom to ask. The buck seems to stop nowhere.

In any event, I’m willing to do whatever I need to do to get the district to give a public, on-the-record response to these concerns. I’m worried that the meeting you’re describing wouldn’t lead to that. There’s no point in doing it if it’s just going to be a lot of non-committal talk that I’m not supposed to repeat publicly. Would you be open to recording the meeting?
I’m sure I will break down and arrange a meeting. But I sure would like to know what a guy has to do to get a public school official to give an on-the-record answer to a question about the district’s policies.


Chris said...

UPDATE: The superintendent wrote me back this morning:

“Thank you for elaborating on your perspective. The thoughts and confusion you share are just one more reason to speak in person.

“I am sure that I would be justified in stating that with the significant time invested in all the emails you have written you could have had multiple in-person meetings, but that would probably sound mean-spirited.

“Rather than going back and forth in that vein I would suggest that we meet and both of us can record the meeting.”

I responded:

“Thanks. Nothing you are saying sounds mean-spirited to me. (I am pretty thick-skinned.) It’s not my goal to personalize any of these issues. I like the district staff people that I’ve met (including you); I just wish the district would change some of the things it is doing, or at least give reasons for them.

“I don’t see private meetings as a substitute for public discussion, which is why they don’t strike me as time-savers. Also, I do most of my emailing and blogging after my kids go to bed, while meetings are bound to take time away from my work or my family. But if a meeting will result in some kind of on-the-record response from the district, then I’m interested. I’ll give you a call next week.”

FedUpMom said...

Chris, that looks like progress.

I am SO tired of school teachers and administrators complaining that parents aren't polite enough. I know of no other sphere of life where this goes on.

SCF said...

I wonder if sending a list of the questions you intend to ask at the "face to face" meeting would be helpful; that way, the superintendent won't have to interrupt the meeting by having to ask staff to retrieve policy statements.
I wonder if he has read your blog, since he has the impression you will cut and paste emails out of context- something I've never seen on this blog.
Boy, think of the resources consumed his time, your time, gas, parking...just to get a policy- which must be documented and for public use already.
On the bright side, the right authority can nip a problem in the bud. Just one of many instances I know of, last year a substitute teacher in my then fifth grader's class was terrible, he stepped over the line and cussed at the students. One of the students reported it to the principal, who removed him from class on the spot.

Seth Warren said...

This superintendent is the only one taking things personally. Furthermore, it seems to me that he (she?) is going to evade any questions or criticisms you may have until the last dog dies. I seriously doubt that an in-person meeting will be satisfactory on your part, but by pressing the issue the superintendent is attempting to get you on their "home turf," which I'm sure they perceive will place them at the advantage. It's an attempt at mental intimidation, nothing more. I have to commend you for being more polite in your emails than I ever could have mustered. At this point, I'd have pointed out that I refused to be physiologically manipulated by this stuffed suit and that anyone in the sphere of education who couldn't glean context from the written word has no business in being there.

Chris said...

Thanks, Seth. I don’t have anything personal against this superintendent, and I even hold out hope that he might eventually improve things (a little?). I think that he is just acting out the role that has fallen to him, and I’m doing the same. I think it’s too bad that school officials see their role in that way, and it reveals a real gulf between school officials and ordinary citizens about what it means for a school system to be “public.”

Chris said...

Thanks, FedUpMom and SCF. Intentional or not, there does seem to be a tendency to treat anyone who persists in trying to get a question answered as “difficult,” which then justifies the use of even more caution in responding to that person. Not a recipe for great policymaking.

But yes, there are finally some signs that the school system might be taking a closer look at what’s going on in the lunchroom. We’ll see what happens.

JP said...

Chris -

I've spent the better part of this year coming to grips that I don't want to be a teacher anymore. I LOVED my job when I first started teaching. I was alienated by other teachers because I was "on fire" and outshined with all the cutesy over the top activities and had a downright pageantry in my room and in the hallways each month as my thematic units dictated. I'm now in my 14th year of teaching and am just . . .disheartened. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself because this is the first year I've had close to 30 kids instead of close to 20 like I'm used to. I was so much more effective (this year it just felt like crowd control with a smattering of lessons), but it seems what used to make sense and was just a given is now so nebulous and vague and needs to be taken on a "per student basis". More on this in a minute.

After reading this post, a few things occurred to me, albeit from a teacher perspective.

1. You won't get an on the record answer, nor will you get a person's name as the "architect" or "author" of a policy - no one wants to be liable, so every policy has multiple authors. A committee or team came up with said policy for protection. I'm sure you've already surmised this, but it'd be nice to hear someone admit it.

2. Speaking of author or architect, I'm so sick of all these asinine power words these administrators use nowadays - "let's capture that", "let's table that/calendar that" "powerful tool", "define the bridge". Good Lord, no wonder both parents and the teacher are annoyed that nothing ever gets done in "meetings" - nothing is even discussed! It's always "captured and "tabled" for a later discussion.

3. Multiple team members on a home turf is designed to intimidate a "pushy" or persistent parent. They rely on their flowery language and non-answers to cause a parent to eventually give up. This serves 2 puruposes: 1) the parent gives up and they can say "well, the parent never followed through or was just upset and needed to vent" and 2) if you do persist, you are considered pushy, rude, hostile and you get to be treated accordingly (with increasingly cryptic and vague non-answers in written or in-person communication). Either scenario, the district wins.

To be continued on next post.

JP said...

Part 2

Back to being nebulous and vague. I'm talking about student behavior and parent behavior. We definitely have a few bad apples spoiling it for the bunch at my school. We have 5 students that attack teachers on a regular basis and we've had to fight to get the student suspended. They've since labelled the student SPED so it is that much harder to get the student suspended (if we suspend a SPED student, what kind of monsters are we?!).

I know of teachers now that are getting notes from parents that "you are not smiling enough", "the homework is too hard", "I have told my son/daughter they don't have to listen to you if you use a sad voice with them", "how dare you ask my child if she ate breakfast before the state test" and on and on. I'm one of the "liked" teachers because I like my kids and the parents know it. But that has a downside - I get all the needy, neurotic parents that want to be in the classroom all the time and want the kids to be at Disneyland Elementary instead of getting down to brass tacks and kicking that magic e and bossy r's butt and coming out prepared for the next grade.

My point is over the past 10 years there are no longer any fast and hard rules that are adhered to anymore in a school setting. Districts are terrified of getting sued and parents know it - they are more litigious than ever. The more admin is questioned, the more they deflect and want to "examin your reasons", "analyze your reasoning", "question your commitment" and anything else they can do to spin a parent off of their initial concern. The result is districts adopting one size fits all policies and enforcing none of them. Policies are on record and they are hoping like crazy that parents and students will comply because if it's questioned that means said policy can then be challenged and the parent can sue. When a policy is questioned (at least at our district), the principal's automatic response is "I'll leave this with the teacher's discretion on how to interpret this policy, with your input".

This is why I'm disheartened and thinking of a career change. No longer can I refer the student that shoved the little boy's head in the toilet bowl and kicked him in the privates to the "office" anymore - I have to notify the offending student's parent and "encourage a discussion about supportive proactive support for the misguided student" and "let me know how the conversation goes". As for the little one who got a swirly and is now probably sterile . . .nothing. He got an ice pack and had to let his hair dry.

I'm just as upset at my district being vague and nebulous and not providing any direction or answers, and I'm a teacher. I don't know if it's like this everywhere (I'm in the southwest), but the way it's going, it'll be anarchy in about 10 years.

Thank you for your blog and for letting me put in my (digressing) 2 cents.

Chris said...

JP -- thanks for commenting! Your observations about how school bureaucracies function sound depressingly familiar. Of course, one of the reasons I keep pushing for public answers to these questions is that I don't see how any answers could be consistent with a humane and child-centered approach to education. If they were, it's hard to see why the superintendent wouldn't be happy to provide them.

Your take on behavior issues is an interesting one to hear. I can't help wondering whether changes that have occurred "over the past 10 years" might be attributable largely to the effects of No Child Left Behind, rather than to any changes in the nature of children or even in administrators' fear of litigation (which I tend to think is exaggerated and functions mainly as an excuse for inaction). NCLB is making schools, teachers, parents, and kids into adversaries rather than allies, and I wouldn't be surprised if it had effects on how those groups relate to one another.