Friday, June 29, 2012

Is our district powerless to lengthen lunch? (Part two)

Yesterday I wrote (again) about our school district’s paltry fifteen-minute elementary school lunch period. When I complained about it, the superintendent repeatedly cited a state regulation requiring 27.5 hours of instructional time per week. Because of that requirement, the superintendent argued, the district cannot possibly devote even ten more minutes to lunch without lengthening the school day.

That sounded funny to me. When I looked at my own kids’ schedules, compliance with that regulation seemed to hinge entirely on whether recess counts as instructional time. If it does, then there’s ample time left over to lengthen lunch. If it doesn’t, then the district is already failing to meet the state’s requirement of 27.5 hours of instructional time per week.

So a few days ago I emailed the state Department of Education and asked how the Department interprets the requirement. The response was that yes, recess counts as instructional time. (See the full exchange below.) The regulation also expressly states that passing time between classes counts as instructional time. Only lunch is expressly excluded from the calculation.

My kids go to school for 31.5 hours each week. The state requires them to get 27.5 hours of instructional time each week. That leaves four whole hours, doesn’t it? If everything but lunch counts as instructional time, couldn’t lunch be as long as forty-eight minutes without violating the state requirement and without lengthening the school day?

Am I missing something? Can someone please explain how the 27.5-hour instructional-time requirement has any bearing whatsoever on whether our district could add ten or fifteen (or even thirty!) minutes to the lunch period?

Part three here. To read my email exchange with the state Department of Education, click on the “Continue Reading” link.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Did the Supreme Court just strike down No Child Left Behind?

One of the less-discussed parts of today’s ruling on Obamacare involved the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicare. Under the Act as written, if a state chose not to participate in the expansion of Medicare, it would forgo not just the money that would fund the expansion, but also the federal funding of its existing Medicare programs. The Court limited that aspect of the Act, prohibiting the federal government from withholding existing funding in retaliation for a state’s refusal to take part in the expansion. According to Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, “Congress cannot simply ‘conscript state [agencies] into the national bureaucratic army.’” Seven of the nine Justices, some writing separately, agreed that the federal government could not condition Medicare funding in this way.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act also conditions continued receipt of pre-existing federal funding on compliance with new “reforms.” There are several distinctions that could justify treating NCLB differently than the Medicare expansion – most importantly, federal education funding makes up a smaller portion of the state’s budget than federal Medicare funding does, and so the threat of withholding it might not rise to the level of being “so coercive as to pass the point at which ‘pressure turns into compulsion.’” But it certainly opens the door to an argument that NCLB is an unconstitutional use of Congress’s spending power.

On the one hand, the threat of losing federal education funding was compelling enough that none of the fifty states chose not to adopt the federal program. To get the federal money, states have undoubtedly pursued policies that they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to pursue – that’s the whole point of making funding conditional. Recently, for example, our state’s Education Director admitted that there was little evidence to support some of the proposals he was making, but that they were nonetheless necessary to get the federal NCLB waiver and the accompanying “relief for schools.”

On the other hand, would it really be so hard for a state to pass up federal education funding and the (often expensive) mandates that go with it? As Roberts writes, “In the typical case we look to the States to defend their prerogatives by adopting ‘the simple expedient of not yielding’ to federal blandishments when they do not want to embrace the federal policies as their own. . . . The States are separate and independent sovereigns. Sometimes they have to act like it.” When it comes to No Child Left Behind, I wish they would act like it.

Is our district powerless to lengthen lunch? (Part one)

As I’ve posted about before, the lunch break in our district’s elementary schools is a measly fifteen minutes long – and sometimes even shorter, if you’re one of the last kids through the line. When I’ve asked our school superintendent about the issue, he has repeatedly deflected responsibility (that is, passed the buck) to the state. In particular, he has repeatedly cited the state’s requirement that there be 27.5 hours of weekly instructional time.

In my recent Q&A with the district’s central administrators, for example, the superintendent said:
there’s no room in our schedule to increase lunch, because the state requires that we have twenty-seven-and-a-half hours of instruction in a rolling five-period – five-day period. So for us to get more time for lunch, we would have to take time away from other unstructured periods of the day, or lengthen the school day.

. . .

we’ve looked at it, and what I can tell you without having it in front of me is that there wasn’t – that we didn’t have time in the schedule to build that in, when you look at the early releases that we have on Thursday for professional development, there isn’t, there isn’t that time available that would allow us to increase lunch ten or fifteen minutes a day, which is what most parents ask, and when I then ask parents, “well, what do you think about lengthening the school day?” that got a universally negative reaction from parents about lengthening the school day in order to provide that time for lunch. And that’s, that’s a tough one, because if they’re not comfortable with lengthening the school day, and there isn’t enough time in the day to carve it out for lunch, we can’t solve the problem.
Full context here.

In an email exchange last year, the superintendent cited that same 27.5-hour requirement. But when I looked at my kids’ schedules, I couldn’t understand how that requirement could affect the length of lunch. If you exclude lunch and recess, my kids weren’t getting anywhere near 27.5 hours of instruction every week. If recess counts as instructional time, though, we were more than satisfying the requirement, with ample time left over to increase the lunch period. When I pressed the superintendent on the issue, I found it hard to get a straight answer about the instructional time requirement. (See below.)

Granted, the superintendent has also talked about the need to maximize instructional time to teach everything that is required by the state. But one issue at a time: does the state’s 27.5-hour instructional-time requirement have any bearing on whether our district can lengthen lunch?

Continued in tomorrow’s post. To read my email exchange with the district about the issue, click on the “Continue Reading” link.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nobody cares how behavior and discipline policies are affecting your child

Over the past three or four years, we have seen big changes in our district’s approach to behavior and discipline in the schools. At our elementary school last year, the incidence of disciplinary measures skyrocketed, even though the principal conceded that the kids were no worse behaved than in previous years. Although the kids get a measly fifteen-minute lunch break, the school has decided to use that time to police and manage the kids’ behavior and “voice levels” much more than in years past – at times even requiring the kids to spend a big chunk of their brief lunch period in total silence. (See posts here, here, here, and here.) The district has also implemented a pervasive behavioral conditioning program (PBIS), under which kids are rewarded, primarily for being quiet and obedient, with tokens, candy, small toys, or tickets into a weekly raffle.

As readers of this blog know, I’m concerned about what these discipline and behavior policies are teaching the kids, and about how they’re affecting the kids’ experience of school. Are the kids learning unquestioning compliance with authority? Are they learning mindless conformity to the “expectations” of those around them? Are they learning not to think for themselves about right and wrong? Are they learning that the reason to be well-behaved is to get material rewards? Are they learning that good behavior is about acquisitiveness and competition with their classmates? Are they internalizing increasingly authoritarian values?  Are they learning that “being good” in school is primarily about being quiet and obedient? Are they experiencing school as the place where their behavior is constantly scrutinized, judged, and micromanaged? Are they learning to scrutinize, judge, and micromanage the behavior of their classmates? Are they learning that there is no sphere of life that the authorities cannot rightfully monitor and manage? Are they learning that it’s okay to punish everyone whenever it’s too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty? Are they learning that it’s their job to monitor and report on the misbehavior of their friends and classmates? Are they learning that education is a chore that no one would engage in without constant coercion and manipulation? Are they learning that school is a big drag?

Nowadays, school policies are often defended as being “evidence-based,” so I wanted to know whether the district is assessing all of the effects of these policies, or just their effects on test scores and the rate of office referrals. In my view, adopting a policy based entirely on the assessment of one or two effects is like prescribing a drug without having any idea what the side effects are. So in my Q&A with the district administrators, I asked about how these policies would be assessed:

Q&A with the Superintendents

Back in April, I had an email exchange with our school superintendent to ask why our elementary school had decided to spend the students’ very short lunch period haranguing them to be quiet – for a while insisting that they remain completely silent for the last five minutes of lunch, at times threatening them with assigned seats if they weren’t quieter, at times blowing a loud whistle to quiet them down – and generally policing their behavior to a degree that far exceeded previous years and seemed entirely unmerited by the what the kids were actually doing. (See posts here, here, here, and here.)

The superintendent would not answer the question via email, and insisted that we meet in person instead. (See posts here and here.) I argued that it was important that the administration answer questions publicly, not just in one-on-one meetings. Finally, we agreed to meet in person but to tape-record the meeting. So on May 14, I met with Superintendent Steve Murley, as well as Assistant Superintendents Becky Furlong and Ann Feldmann, for a kind of Q&A session on issues about discipline, behavior management, and lunch.

I will post separately about some of superintendents’ specific responses to my questions. But I want to post the entire transcript first, so the full context will available to anyone reading the later posts. The only editing I have done is to redact a brief section of the discussion in which the superintendents discussed particular district employees in a way that I am not comfortable posting online.

Of course as I now read over the transcript there are questions, and entire lines of questioning, that I wish I had thought (or remembered) to pursue, but time was short and my brain, as usual, somewhat scattered. Maybe there will someday be a sequel. Although I was unhappy with many of the answers I received, I do want to give the superintendents credit for agreeing to answer questions on the record.

My specific commentary on the exchange begins here. To read the entire transcript, click on the “Continue Reading” link below.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Compulsory education is great for other people

There seem to be more and more proposals to lengthen the school day (or year). Someday I will list all of my objections to that idea. (Briefly: I think the benefits are speculative to the point of illusory and are entirely outweighed by the costs. More is not always better.) For now, I’d like to point out just one bothersome aspect of the discussion – one that is true of the discussion of many so-called school “reform” proposals.

Suppose we could confidently identify some quantifiable benefit from subjecting kids to hundreds more hours of school each year. Suppose we knew, say, that requiring full-day school attendance would eventually increase the math abilities of the average adult by five percent. Should we do it? Suppose it would increase ability by only three percent, and suppose that we’d need to send the kids to school year-round, six days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to achieve that gain. Would it be worth it? Can the burden on kids ever be too great, or the potential gain too minimal, to justify the compulsion?

If so, you wouldn’t know it from today’s educational debates. The discussions focus exclusively on whether any given proposal would “increase achievement.” Whether that alleged gain is big enough to justify the burden on children is simply not a concern. Who cares about burdens on children?

Adults hold the state to a pretty high standard: we expect that the government won’t impose on our freedom without a good reason, and the bigger the imposition, the more compelling the reason should be. With kids, though, any justification at all will do. If it raises test scores, we must do it! Children’s freedoms count for nothing at all. It’s as if the scale has only one side, and is thus tipped by any “achievement gain” whatsoever. How easy it is to require sacrifices from people who have no say in the matter.

Of course, we could also “increase achievement” by requiring adults to undergo continuing education throughout their lives. If anyone ever proposes that, something tells me there will suddenly be two sides to the scale.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Problem solved

A few weeks ago, I posted about a nine-year-old in Scotland who started a blog, called NeverSeconds, on which she posted daily photos of her school lunches, prompting worldwide criticism of the quality and content of the school’s food. I joked that if she had done that in America, one of the first things the school would do is ban cameras from the lunchroom. Turns out Scottish school officials aren’t that different from their American counterparts.

UPDATE: Following “a storm of protest on the internet,” the council has reversed itself, and will allow Martha Payne to continue taking pictures of her school lunches.

If only they could ban the internet itself!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Mad scientists, cont’d

I may have to start a new post label for Clockwork Orange analogies. Here’s the description of a $498,055 grant funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through Clemson University:
Purpose: to work with members of the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team to measure engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers
Forget about reducing class size. This is where our Corporate Reforming Overlords think the future lies.

(C/o Diane Ravitch’s Blog. Earlier Clockwork Orange references here and here.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What “supportive” could mean

A reader sends this link about a school that tried approaching discipline more in terms of helping students with problems than manipulating behavior through rewards and punishments.
A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln – and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country – is automatic suspension. Instead, [principal Jim] Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?”

. . .

“We began focusing our concern on what we know that’s going on that might be causing behavior in a kid,” versus what type of punishment to mete out.

When a kid erupts in class, teachers intervene quickly. “A kid that I have a really great relationship with might blow up,” says [teacher Erik] Gordon. “So, I step out of the classroom with that kid and ask: ‘What’s going on? Because that was really intense.’ I know that something is bumming this kid out, because normally, we really enjoy each other.”

. . .

Instead of talking [in staff meetings] about disciplining problem kids, they focus on why that teen’s having problems, develop a plan to help the teen, and make sure to follow up.

In the last two years, the Lincoln High staff has noticed that the kids’ ability to regulate their own emotions has dramatically improved. “There’s not near the number of huge emotional explosions that there used to be,” says Gordon. “Even the way the kids interact with each other is more subdued.”

They way the kids see it is that the teachers have chilled out.
Some aspects of the article put me off a bit – some of it tends toward the propagandistic (does in-school suspension really take place in a “quiet, comforting room” where you can “talk about anything with the attending teacher”?), and I’m not sure we need concepts like “toxic stress syndrome” and the “trauma-sensitive classroom movement” to discuss basic ways of treating other people with dignity. But the system it describes seems to get a lot of things right. Its focus on engaging the kids as thinking, feeling human beings who might have articulatable reasons for acting the way they do is a vast improvement over an approach that sees kids as nothing more than collections of behaviors that can be modified through the right combination of rewards and punishments. (Notice, for what it’s worth, that Lincoln High says that its approach cut the number of disciplinary measures significantly, as opposed to, say, increasing them thirteen-fold.)

I do think even relatively humane approaches to discipline like this one (Collaborative Problem Solving is another) would benefit from more explicitly acknowledging an elephant in the room: kids are made to attend school, whether they want to or not, and are given no say in the rules that govern them there. Few us of would not chafe under those conditions. Some degree of resistance might even be a sign of intelligence.

In approaching discipline, I wish schools would try to follow at least these five principles:

1. Treat people the way that you would like to be treated in their place.

2. Do not treat children differently from adults unless you have sufficient justification, and do not be too quick to assume that you have sufficient justification.

3. Be conscious of the fact that kids in school (and out, for that matter) have been deprived of much of the freedom that adults take for granted, and that that might affect how they feel and act.

4. Be conscious of what your actions model about the relationship between authorities and the people they govern.

5. If a child is not meeting your expectations, do not assume that the problem is with the child, rather than with the expectations.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Treating teachers as professionals

Karen W. at Education in Iowa has a great post questioning whether all the talk of treating teachers as professionals is consistent with depriving them (and their students) of so much say over what happens in the classroom. “The heart of a profession,” she points out, “is the special duties that a professional owes to persons with whom we enter professional relationships” – in this case, the children. She then imagines what the teaching profession might look like if it carried with it the kind of professional obligations to children that lawyers have to their clients. Lawyers, for example, must often defer to their clients’ wishes, and cannot permit third parties who pay them to control their exercise of professional judgment. Should analogous principles come into play in the teaching profession? Check it out..

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mind the gap

Yesterday’s post reminded me of a saying I once heard: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” As I understand it, the saying does not mean that people chafe and grow resentful when much is expected of them. Instead, it means that people who expect too much from others, or from life, are likely to end up disappointed and resentful. Applied to life, the saying is a little too dark for me. Applied to compulsory education, though, I think it has a lot of truth to it.

Teachers are only human. When you’re under pressure to get a class to master certain material on a certain schedule, or to live up to certain behavioral rules, it is only natural to feel frustrated and upset when the kids fail to meet the goals. If the kids still fail to meet them despite the teacher’s best efforts, I think most teachers would, at some point, reconsider whether the goals are realistic. But if those goals are imposed from above, and the teacher is stuck with them, it’s unsurprising if the school atmosphere becomes more adversarial.

Compulsory education, by definition, involves some degree of coercion, but some approaches are more coercive than others. There are strong arguments (for example, here) that the best way to promote learning is to accommodate kids’ interests and inclinations as much as possible, and to give them a relatively large degree of autonomy, rather than simply dictate what they must know, when they must know it, and how they must behave. But there’s another argument in favor of the more accommodating approach, separate and apart from its effect on learning outcomes: it is more conducive to a kind and humane school environment.

Our school officials seem to think that we need more emphasis on behavior and discipline because something in the nature of children has changed. I think their focus on behavior is more likely driven by a change in the nature of schooling: that we are increasing the gap between what we want to make kids do and what they are interested in doing. Increasing that gap is naturally going to lead to a more coercive, adversarial dynamic, in which schools are more likely to employ authoritarian practices and model authoritarian values, and in which school staff are more likely to feel frustrated and angry with the children and to treat them accordingly. Not all school staff will fall prey to that dynamic, but the greater the gap, the greater the odds.

Promoting a humane school environment has value in and of itself, separate and apart from its effect on learning, though you would never know it from today’s educational debates.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Behavior über alles

The Associated Press reports:
Public schools in Jackson, Mississippi, will no longer handcuff students to poles or other objects and will train staff at its alternative school on better methods of discipline.

Mississippi’s second-largest school district agreed Friday to the settlement with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had sued over the practice of shackling students to a pole at the district’s Capital City Alternative School.
. . .

The Mississippi lawsuit was filed in June 2011 by Jeanette Murry on behalf of her then-16-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It said staffers routinely restrained students for hours for offenses as minor as dress code violations, forcing them to eat lunch while chained to a stair railing and to shout for help when they needed to go to the bathroom.
What can you say about news like that? Given that Jackson’s population is seventy-nine percent black, it’s impossible not to suspect that race plays a large role in that story. But aren’t some other factors at work, too?

The more schools obsess over enforcing behavioral “expectations,” the more frustrated and angry school staff will naturally become with the kids who don’t comply. It’s only a quick step to justifying harsher and harsher treatment of the kids: if they choose not to follow the rules, they get what they deserve. It is a recipe for creating an adversarial, inhumane school environment. It may find some of its worst expression in Jackson, Mississippi, but it’s happening at some level across the country, including in Iowa City.