Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The two least welcome questions

I guess I still have old-fashioned (naive?) ideas about how government in a democracy is supposed to work. One of them is that public debate over policy choices, even if it gets contentious at times, can only lead to better decisions. Another is that public officials, when asked, should explain the reasons for their decisions, so the public can engage in an informed consideration of whether those reasons make sense. The more openly and publicly those reasons are discussed, the more informed the community’s decisions can be.

The school system is certainly confounding my model. Publicly explaining the reasons for their decisions seems to be the very last thing that school officials want to do. As readers of this blog know, I recently had to submit a public records request to demonstrate that our school had exponentially increased its use of disciplinary measures this year, and even then the district took pains to explain away the numbers rather than give reasons for the change. Somehow, in this Age of Educational Accountability, the two least welcome questions are: Who made this decision, and why?

Last week I emailed the district to ask why our school has put so much emphasis this year on scolding the kids to be quiet in the lunchroom, to the point where the principal threatened to require assigned seats at lunch if the kids weren’t completely silent for the last few minutes of the lunch period. I won’t reprint the entire email here (you’ve heard most of it before),
but I concluded with this paragraph:
I am sending this email to both the principal and the central administrators because that is what the central administrators asked me to do in our previous exchange. But the only person who can explain why Hoover is pursuing these policies is the person making the decisions. Other local schools are not pursuing the same policies, so I assume that the person ultimately responsible for them is the principal. Can I please get an explanation of why the school has spent the past year haranguing the kids in the lunchroom for not meeting what are obviously unrealistic expectations, and why it is so important that there be utter silence while the lunchroom is being dismissed?
The superintendent’s response:
Thank you for sending your inquiries to us. Rather than engaging in a back-and-forth via email, I would ask you to contact [the principal and the assistant superintendent] (email or telephone) to set up a time to both visit the lunch and discuss your concerns. I am a firm believer in placing issues in the appropriate context and I believe that a visit to the lunch room would most likely be a good start to this dialog.
My response:
Thanks for getting back to me. I’m not against having a meeting or having lunch at Hoover, but I don’t understand why anyone should have to jump through hoops just to get an on-the-record answer to a question, or for that matter, what would be so bad about a “back-and-forth via email.” Why not just respond to questions with answers, instead of treating them as conflicts that need to be managed?

One of the reasons I ask these questions in emails is that I think it’s important that there be public discussion of public school policies. I’d like to be able to understand who is deciding what and why, and then to hold that reasoning up for public scrutiny. Asking me to have a meeting with school officials is not a substitute for that, unless you want to rely on me to accurately summarize what district staff members say in those meetings.

What is frustrating is that for the past three years, I’ve watched the district make school more and more about behavior and discipline, and about being quiet and obedient, to the point where I can barely recognize Hoover anymore. Yet the district has not only avoided articulating any reason for these changes, it’s avoided even acknowledging that anything has changed.

If something I’ve said about the lunchroom at Hoover is inaccurate, I wish someone would point it out. (No one has.) Otherwise, it remains unclear to me why the district can’t give straightforward answers to straightforward questions. Why is it important to require the kids to be utterly silent (“voice level zero”) at the end of lunch before they can be dismissed? Why is it a good idea to punish them with assigned seats if they don’t comply? Why is so much effort going into telling the kids to be quieter at lunch, when that wasn’t considered necessary in previous years? Is there any reason you can’t just tell me who made these decisions, and why?
This strategy of avoiding public answers genuinely puzzles me. It just makes the district look defensive, as if it lacks confidence in its own practices. I’m only one parent; I know I can’t force my views on a principal or the school superintendent. Why not just explain the reasons for these choices?

But – zOMG! – it might provoke a follow-up question!


FedUpMom said...

Chris -- I posted a response to your post at my blog here:

Defensive, or Arrogant?

LAB said...

You're lucky to get an email response at all, even if it's just to tell you they won't respond via email. When I emailed our public school with questions about policy, I almost always received a phone call in return. No policy--like why kindergarten children were getting an hour or more of homework a night--was ever explained to me with reasoning that wasn't circular.

The one fact (?) I did learn was that each school in our county is its own fiefdom, with the principal calling the shots. If you have a principal, as we did, who will not engage in any kind of conversation about policy, there is nowhere to turn. Ask too many questions and you are labeled a kook or "problem parent," and after that all bets are off.

I hope you get some answers and I look forward to hearing more about this exchange with your school. You are speaking for so many people around the country. Most parents don't ask these questions because they are fearful. Fearful that their children will be targeted if they complain, fearful that their children will never go to college if they don't follow the arcane, oppressive school rules, fearful that they'll stand out and be ostracized if they speak up.

Unknown said...

When it comes to corresponding with the district it seems the more simple and direct the question, the less likely you will get an answer.

Kris said...

What about addressing this type of response you get from questions about policy at the next school board meeting? Would that label you as a "problem parent"?

Chris said...

LAB, Billy, Kris – Thanks for commenting. I suppose you’re right, Kris, that I could bring it up at a board meeting, though the board members are well aware of the school lunch issue generally (from the Synesi report, if nothing else), and tend to be hands-off about anything they see as a “building-level” issue. And really, the board members are even further removed from anyone who can tell me *why* the school is using these practices.

This week, the teachers at the school actually gave the kids a survey about the lunchroom atmosphere, so I’m hoping that’s a positive sign at the “building level.”

LAB – I hear you about circular reasoning. Most of the answers I’ve ever been given are right up there with “Because.”

LOL about “problem parent” – I think I crossed that bridge a long time ago.