Wednesday, June 27, 2012

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.

Chris Liebig: It just seems to me that there have been a lot of changes at Hoover over the last four years, and I don’t mean the building being crowded or whatever, and district-wide too, I guess, in terms of the focus on behavior, and in the lunchroom, and with PBIS, and with the disciplinary increase this year, and I guess my first question is just why? What problem is that solving?

Steve Murley: Well, I’ll pull back, I’ll do kind of a 50,000-foot view, which is, and having spent seventeen years in Wisconsin before I came here, it’s not an anomaly in Iowa City. This is something that you’re seeing across the country. PBIS was an initiative with the State Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin and it’s an initiative with the Department of Education here in Iowa so, it – I don’t think it’s a – it’s not a Hoover issue, it’s not an Iowa City issue, I think it’s an issue you see that’s systemic across the country, and I think that the reason you see it out there, from my exposure in Wisconsin and down here in Iowa, is it is in response to issues that have been brought forward at the state level by concerns about whether behavior is an impediment to learning. That is, are incidents in the classroom arising to a level that is making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn?

CL: Meaning that the behavior is worse than in previous years?

SM: Mm-hmm.

CL: Is there some limit, though, to what you can do as far as behavior goes?

SM: Oh sure, when you look at, between the time that a child is born and the time that a child turns eighteen, they spend probably twelve per cent of their time in public schools; they spend eight-eight per cent of their time somewhere else. And so, when you look at it from that standpoint, and I again, I’ll go from – I have more experience with the implementation piece in Wisconsin than I do here, because they went through the process of selecting it here when I wasn’t here, so it’s difficult for me to speak to that – but I know in Wisconsin, when they looked at PBIS, one of the things that they looked at are issues that do affect us here in Iowa City, and that I think you see in many urbanized centers, which is a significant change in stability and mobility – that is, there are more kids moving in and out of your district and more kids moving from school to school in the district, and part of the underlying theoretical background of PBIS is to provide more uniformity from classroom to classroom in a school, and from school to school within a district, and from district to district within a state, so that there is more commonality than differentiation as kids move from building to building. Right or wrong, that’s the underlying theoretical basis of that.

CL: Well, how are you going to assess whether it is working?

SM: They’re doing the same thing here that they were doing in Wisconsin, which is gathering data. We send lots of data to the state –

CL: What’s the data measuring?

SM: Well, it’s purportedly supposed to measure incidents that arise to a level at which some type of action is taken by the school.

CL: Where’s the measurement of whether that has any effect on learning?

SM: Well, again, at the state level, their intent is to gather those and then to do the correlations with the state-level test data, and –

CL: Test data is going to be all it is?

SM: That’s, that’s what they work with.

CL: Is there going to be any attempt to assess attitudes toward learning as a result of changes like this?

SM: There is in Iowa, though I don’t know that they’re going to do the correlational analysis with it, and that’s – we do the Iowa Youth Survey, and that’s designed to gather information about the climate of the school and how kids feel about the time that they spend in school. I don’t know if they’re making, if they’re doing that correlational inference with, with that data.

CL: Is there any attempt to assess what effect is has on things like curiosity, skepticism, skepticism toward what they’re told, the ability to think for themselves – You’re shaking your head no, just for the record –

SM: No, no.

CL: Doesn’t that concern anybody?

SM: Oh sure, but they don’t do a very good job measuring those things in general, so there’s, there’s –

CL: But it seems like those are what people’s objections are. If you don’t measure the objections, how can you assess the program?

SM: Understood. Again, I look at it – my goal is to tell you what I understand about what they’re doing at it from the state level, and the assessments they have available to them are the Iowa assessments, and –

CL: But –

SM: I guess I would argue that they don’t, they don’t measure skepticism and curiosity and some of those types of things.

CL: I would argue that too.

SM: Yes.

CL: What – I forget what I was going to say. Iowa City wasn’t required to adopt PBIS, though.

SM: No, the State Department of Education requires some things and encourages others. This would be in the encouraged category.

CL: So we don’t have to continue doing it if we don’t want to?

SM: No, we probably don’t.

CL: What’s the process going to be for making that decision? I mean, I know at some point the grant runs out.

SM: Yeah, at some point the grant runs out, and I know that as we went through that process in Wisconsin, when the grant ran out, then they just mandated it, so it became an unfunded mandate of the state. I don’t know what Iowa will do with it when the grant runs out. They’re using the grant right now as an inducement, from an encouragement standpoint, to get districts to choose to opt in to it. They used the same process in Wisconsin – grants to encourage early adopters—and once all the early adopters got in and signed up with the program, then they mandated it for the rest of the districts in the state. I don’t know if they’ll do that here; that was my experience in Wisconsin.

CL: What kind of effort gets made, or got made, to see if the teachers or the parents or the public really thought this was a good idea or a bad idea?

SM: Before it got implemented? I don’t know.

CL: Yeah, or when it gets renewed.

SM: Yeah, I don’t know.

CL: It seems to me like the teachers are not that crazy about it.

SM: It depends on how it’s implemented. You know, as with any program, one of the things that we are guilty of in education is fidelity of implementation. I’ll be the first one to tell you that many of the programs that we – come on in – Hi, Ann, come on in –

Ann Feldmann: Hi. I’m Ann.

SM: You’ve got to grab another chair. Someone stole one of my chairs. Sorry, I don’t know who took it, I think Petersen took it, he’s [inaudible] –

CL: You must be Becky.

Becky Furlong: I am, Chris, nice to meet you.

SM: Becky and Ann. I told him, we were all over at the elementary track meeting.

BF/AF?: Yeah, we were, and we got to having a little too much fun.

SM: It was good.

BF/AF?: It was very good.

SM: So we were just talking about, not to go back and go through the whole thing over again, but we talked about how we got to where we’re at today, and the state – right now we were talking about the state encouraging districts to go through the process through a grant inducement and then what happens when the grant runs out, and Chris was asking about how districts and/or the state are gathering input about how people feel about PBIS prior to making a decision about what they do next with it. And I shared with him in Wisconsin we used the same process, we used grants, got early adopters in on it. Once the early adopters got in on it and implemented, the grant money ran out, but then the state implemented it statewide; they simply said to the late adopters, “There’s no grant money for you,” and it became an unfunded mandate, and I told him, I don’t know if Iowa will do that. So then, that led to the question of, how will the state gather information about whether teachers like it, parents like it, students like it, etc., and I shared with him, and if you two know more about it, I said that I was unaware of the state actually attempting to gather any of that information.

CL: What about our district, though, I mean, as of right now we don’t have to continue to do PBIS, is there going to be any effort to gather that type of information, before we make a decision?

SM: On PBIS, specifically? We don’t have a plan to do it right now. And we have [inaudible] feedback, and we were just in the whole fidelity of implementation discussion, that as with all programs in public instruction, how well you implement it often determines how satisfied the end users are with the program, and some schools are, are in different stages of that implementation process –

CL: What do you – I’m sorry to interrupt – what do you do to assess how faithful they are being to the program, each individual school?

BF: Well, they have coaches that are trained and their role is to monitor the implementation, and they work with the Grant Wood AEA [Area Education Agency] person who’s been assigned to the PBIS initiative, as far as that. We do gather data to analyze the impact on the effectiveness of it, but as far as I know, we don’t have any questionnaire that asks people if – their perceptions about liking it.

CL: Do they ever step in, though, and say, you’ve got to do more of this, you’ve got to do more of this, you’re not doing enough of it?

BF: I believe so, if they see that there’s a school that does not, is not doing the implementation as it should be, and they have the follow-up with that. I think one of the things that we’re learning, and Chris, I won’t – I’ve only – I’m just finishing my second year here, so I want to qualify that as I say that, but one of the things I think we’re learning is, how can we implement it with fidelity, but also keep some flexibility, because all nineteen of our elementary schools don’t have the same needs, the same issues, the same student demographics, the same student populations. In trying to work through that, I think has been one of our challenges.

CL: Well, how do you assess what reasonable expectations of behavior are, at different grade levels?

BF: Well, I would hope it’s our professional judgment on what it takes to have a safe and orderly environment, and what type of behavior –

CL: But I mean, after the fact, I know, I just came from Hoover of course, and over there, they took a survey, and the students overwhelmingly shared that their lunchroom experience, which is just part of their experience, was a negative one. I would think that that would cause people to take a second look at whether the expectations are realistic. I’m not sure it is.

BF: Well, I would hope it would, too, Chris.

CL: Is that part of what goes on –

BF: But if we have that type of input – I haven’t seen that information you’re talking about, but I haven’t asked –

CL: [inaudible] the survey, but it’s in the Hoover Headlines.

               [Click to enlarge]

BF: Oh, okay.

SM: But, you know, I apologize for interrupting, Becky, but one of the things that I – when you look at a response like that, I would say that you have to look at it holistically. I know one of the first things that I heard when I came here, and I heard it from my own family, in addition to hearing it from other parents and kids, was that the lunchroom experience was not positive. And when I asked why, the key ingredient why it’s not positive, is the length of time we have available for lunch. We also have one of the shortest elementary school days in the state of Iowa, and 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, and –

CL: When I looked at those numbers, though, it seemed like my children were nowhere near that state number, even under the current situation, unless recess counts as instructional time –

AF: Mm-hmm.

SM: Some of it does.

CL: Well if recess does count, I think there’s still room.

SM: We, 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.

CL: If that’s true, I understand that’s a state requirement, although you can lobby the state at least.

SM: We can do that.

CL: What about recess, though? Recess has been cut back also.

SM: I have not seen it cut back since I’ve been here.

CL: At Hoover it has definitely been cut back.

BF: This year?

CL: Over the last three years.

BF: In the last three years. Every year a little bit, or just this –

CL: Well, a couple of years ago, there was one obvious cutback when fifth and sixth went from two to one.

BF: And I think that was district-wide.

CL: Why was that done?

BF: I think –

AF: [Handing back Hoover Headlines] Thank you, Chris.

BF: Again, if we had Pam here, I think she could answer this better, but they worked on the recommended number of instructional minutes, and trying to also get the district more uniform, as they worked through that, to get enough time for reading, math, science. I will say, for what it’s worth, I’ve seen this problem in every district I’ve worked with, where we need – there’s a need for a longer instructional day. That’s all I can say.

CL: Why do they think we need a longer instructional day, if we’re not exceeding the state requirements?

BF: I think that the need for a longer instructional day is to have more minutes for instruction, to have – to be able to improve student achievement.

SM: Again, that’s not a –

CL: But recess doesn’t take away from student achievement, does it? I mean, what evidence is there for that?

SM: But, you know, again, and we started off with that where I said, you know, the PBIS issue isn’t an Iowa City issue. The issue of instructional time isn’t an Iowa City issue. It’s not even a state issue; it’s a national issue. We hear it from Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Ed. There’s a –

CL: It’s one thing to say it’s a national issue; it’s another thing to say that we don’t have some leeway to do what we want.

SM: Well, but, again though, when you look at the argument, you look at the discussion in a holistic manner, you’ve got the U.S.D.E. pushing for more instructional minutes, you’ve got Governor Branstad pushing for more instructional minutes, you’ve got the state D.E. that gives us a minimum amount of instructional times that’s required. Now couple that with expectations that they place on us, especially as we move to the Common Core, and they say “these are the things that you will teach,” it’s very difficult to both meet the minimal instructional minutes and get all the Common Core content delivered in the classroom. You can argue –

CL: Isn’t it, though, the role of the district to push back against some of those things if they think they are not good for the children?

SM: Sure, we can push back against that, but at the same time you, you – well, you’re familiar with the law, you’re familiar with how that works – absent a decision that says that you don’t have to do it, you have to do it until such time as you are told not to.

CL: If it’s required, but some of this stuff isn’t required.

SM: Well, Common Core is required.

CL: But the cutbacks in recess – where were those required?

SM: Okay, Common Core is required. Can we agree that the Common Core is required?

CL: Yeah, but does that translate into a certain number of minutes that is required?

SM: Well, it’s translated into a certain number of things that must be taught.

CL: Sure.

SM: Okay. And Iowa Assessments are required.

CL: They’re required to take them.

SM: Okay. Right, we’re required to give them. Students are required to take them, that’s based on the Common Core. Okay? So therefore, if you give – if the end result is that you must do the assessments, and you must teach the curriculum, then, somewhere in there, we are required to find the time to teach that content.

CL: But there’s no set number of minutes that you have to teach that content.

SM: A minimum twenty-seven-and-a-half hours in a five-day period.

CL: But if we’re not exceeding that – if we’re not going below that number, and if recess does count toward that number, how does that translate into cutbacks in recess? I’m still mystified about that.

SM: We don’t have an answer to that. Becky and I weren’t here when that happened. It happened at the elementary level at which Ann didn’t work. We could get that answer for you.

CL: It could change, though.

SM: There are lots of things that could be changed. You just said all these things could be changed at the state level, and you’re right, they could be changed.

CL: Some of this stuff seems like it could be changed at the district level. I’m not going to blame people at the district level for stuff that really is out of their control. What are they doing to teach the kids to think for themselves about right and wrong instead of just to do whatever they are told by authority figures? That’s one of the things that bothers me about PBIS.

BF: Well, I think we have our Steps to Respect curriculum, which is part of the guidance curriculum that’s being implemented throughout the buildings. I really right now can’t tell you where Hoover is in the implementation of that, if they have gone to it or not.

CL: What little I’ve looked at on that, it doesn’t seem that different from the PBIS approach, of just telling them what they’re supposed to think and do.

BF: Okay. I guess my interpretation was a little bit different.

CL: Well, I may need to look more closely at it. Well, how – how does the authority break down between the district and the individual schools as far as how these things are implemented?

SM: Well, we know [inaudible] PBIS, as Becky said, we’re working with the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, and they provide structure to the implementation process, so there’s a framework within which they’re going through the implementation. Obviously there’s an expectation that our staff at the administrative and instructional level are working with the staff from the AEA and again, trying to achieve, to the extent we can, fidelity of implementation that’s uniform across all of our buildings.

CL: But there is some variation, though, in how PBIS is implemented in each building, right?

SM: Mm-hmm, there’s some, I don’t know if I could quantify to what degree of latitude there is in each building, but there is latitude in the program implementation. That’s part of the process, and as Becky said, part of it’s based on the demographics of the students in the building.

CL: What about the changes in the amount of discipline or disciplinary referral and notes home, I mean how much of that is driven by the district as opposed to by individual principals?

SM: I guess it depends on what you’re looking at. If you’re looking at it from a recording standpoint, the state is requiring far more from us in terms of recording incidents that take place –

CL: Well, I’ve heard, for example, that the Hoover principal insists on doing all the discipline herself – I don’t know what that means – but I mean, is there variation in terms of how they operate, in terms of who’s in charge of discipline, how many things get referred to the principal’s office, how many things they decide to send notes home about?

SM: Sure there is, and I’ll give you a for instance: Grant Wood Elementary School has an assistant principal, so I can tell you right there there’s latitude because in that school I’m sure that the assistant principal is doing some of that disciplinary work, and the principal is doing some of that disciplinary work, so –

CL: Well, in terms of the amount of discipline stuff that’s going on, and how, you know, how much things are triggering sort of higher levels of punishment, or reporting even, do you think that Hoover stands out in that way compared to other schools, in terms of the quantity, or do you think all the schools are doing about as much as Hoover is?

SM: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if either of you do. I would presume that would be something that, more likely that Ross, or Joe or Susie would be able to answer –

BF?: Yes, you know, I have – there’s a lot of things, Chris, that makes this not as black and white as one would eventually hope it will be. Individual differences that fidelity within how things are recorded with Power School and what can, you know – and those are things we need to work on, and on the other hand, you know, you struggle with maintaining the balance of having – you’ve got individual personality differences and styles in being administrators that play into that difference, differences in the needs of school, schools – what might be considered a major infraction, and that’s probably too strong of a word, an infraction that would cause concern in one school, in another school just might not hardly be on the radar. And you know in trying to bring those into line, so –

CL: Well, the, you know, the numbers, just the number of things that were recorded were thirteen times what it was the previous year –

BF: I know –

CL: I don’t know, how do you assess whether that’s a change in recording or a change in the strategy a different person –

BF: I did do some checking – and this is from early on, we had a conversation earlier on in the year, remember you and I, we had an exchange, an email exchange or a conversation about that –

CL: Yeah.

BF: And in the checking that I did, I found it was a combination of both.

[At this point, I’m going to edit out a short section of the Q&A in which specific district employees, past and present, were discussed in a way that I’m not comfortable posting online. My view is that a thirteen-fold increase in the number of disciplinary notes sent home, as we saw at Hoover during the first half of last year, represents an increase in the *usage* of disciplinary measures (one which was also reflected in the increase in in- and out-of-school suspensions), not just an improvement in recordkeeping. In other words, I think sending a disciplinary note home to parents is itself a form of discipline, and is experienced by kids as a worse punishment than just being scolded in school. The superintendents, though, apparently see the sending of disciplinary notes home as just evidence of a better attention to paperwork, and not as a different form of discipline. You be the judge.]

. . .

CL: What – does the district make any effort either to assess that or to work with the principal about what’s going on there?

BF: Well –

SM: I was going to say, one of the things, before you answer that, that begs the question that you have a dependent and independent variable which the only thing that’s changed over four years is the discipline program, and I would argue that in the last four years much has changed in public education, whether it’s the negative characterization that many in the general public have ascribed to teachers and the education profession, which, if you read any publication in our field, will tell you about the demoralization of teachers. I can’t imagine that that doesn’t have some play in all of our schools because I’m hearing about that across the country, and I just throw out as a variable. Add to that the population at Hoover, how many children are there, special programs that are there, there are a number of –

CL: Well, you don’t have to convince me that it’s hard to sort out variables about education—

SM: Right—

CL: That’s why I question any of these studies that say that PBIS is actually improving anything, so –

SM: And as we said in the beginning, I wasn’t agreeing with the way that they’re doing those studies –

CL: But between this year and last year even there’s been a noticeable change. And it does seem like there’s a very different approach to discipline going on, and that the kids are recognizing it. Do you keep track of how many kids are being treated for anxiety in any given school?

BF: No, not that I’m aware of. I don’t know that we always have – we’re privy to that information.

CL: I didn’t know, since they might be taking medication during the school day –

BF: Well, and even so, with FERPA and everything –

CL: Well, I’m sure you couldn’t report individual –

BF: One thing I would say, Chris, reading what [the principal] wrote in the Principal’s – I feel, I don’t feel good that the kids think that lunch is negative, but I feel good from the fact that the principal asked, got these results and is willing to say, “okay let’s try some things differently.”

CL: Though it took a year. People have been pointing it out since September. And it’s just been one thing after another all year long. It seems like a lot of parents are upset about it. I just speak for myself, I guess.

BF: Mm-hmm.

CL: Lunchroom specifically – what are the rules that the, that the principals have to do? Is – all of the schools doing this close policing of the behavior throughout lunch, having someone there constantly walking around and adjusting people and telling them to be quiet? Or is that just a Hoover thing?

SM: I – again, I’ll just, I’ll do a perspective piece. We have very small lunchrooms in this school district. I think that there are very few that are of such size that there is a great deal of freedom of flexibility and movement in the schools. My perception – again, as an outsider walking in and looking at it, very small lunchrooms. Very small amounts of time to move kids in and out, and a lot of kids to rotate through the lunchrooms. There are many schools that are like that. My youngest son’s school is like that – not enough space, too many kids, a lot of rules in the lunchroom, in order to actually process the lunch period. There are many things they could change there to make that better – a longer lunch period, bigger space to have the lunch take place –

AF?: More efficient serving procedures –

SM: Better passing time to allow the kids to get back and forth for coats and snowpants and things like that. So we have a lot of structural issues that, because of the constraints that they place upon lunch in general at the elementary level, mean that there is a far more controlled process in lunch at the elementary level than there is at the junior high and the high school level. And I think that you’ll find that throughout the nineteen schools of the district.

CL: But it’s not all structural, right? I mean, you can take a different approach to how to manage behavior in the lunchroom.

SM: Yeah, but I – again, when you look at the underlying circumstances that cause that to happen, you find those in many of our schools, and in those schools that are most like Hoover in terms of those constraints –

CL: Even one year ago at Hoover it wasn’t the same. And we had more students last year than we have this year.

SM: That could be, but I could tell you that, going from building to building, and spending time at buildings, that I would posit that many of the same structural responses that you see at Hoover are very similar in other schools in the district.

CL: That’s not really an explanation of why they’re doing it, though.

SM: Well, again, my feedback from the staff there would be that the structural constraints have made it for them difficult to process lunch, absent some level of structure to their lunch program.

CL: All the focus on quietness – it’s hard to understand what that has to do with the structure of the building. I mean, the kids in the surrounding classrooms say they can’t even hear the kids in the lunchroom.

SM: You’ll find most lunchrooms in the district have some level of noise control, if you will, volume control.

CL: I mean, is there any concern that all this focus on quietness and obedience and following whatever they’re told is going to teach them some values that we don’t want to teach them?

SM: I would differ with you because I don’t think that we are – I don’t think that – the implication that you’re making is that rote obedience is the intention of the program –

CL: No, the effect.

SM: I also inferred from your comments it was the intention.

CL: No, I actually don’t think it’s the intention. I don’t know what the intention is.

SM: But –

CL: I think it’s teaching that obedience is one of the highest values you can have.

SM: That may be the case, as you see it. I – as I look at what I see them trying to do, when I’m in a lunchroom, they’re trying to ensure that all children have the opportunity to eat, they’re trying to ensure that all children have adequate time and adequate space, they’re trying to ensure that they’re able to move the kids in and out of the lunchroom, in a manner that ensures that both the kids at the beginning of the process and end of the process are accorded the same opportunity to partake of lunch.

CL: I’m still not sure how that connects up to telling them to be quiet all through lunch.

SM: I haven’t been in a lunchroom, Chris, where I’ve seen people run up to kids and tell them to be quiet –

BF: No –

CL: It happens at Hoover.

SM: I haven’t seen that.

CL: Kids can hear the person yelling from other rooms at the kids to be quiet. I mean, that’s part of what this survey result is due to.

SM: I have been in lunchrooms where it’s been very loud, and in those lunchrooms I have seen people working there ask the students to, you know, depending if they’re using the zero-one-two-three, ask the students to quiet down. I’ve seen staff turn the lights off to get kids’ attention.

BF: I’ve seen the stoplight approach. Green, then if it gets, or starts to get a little too noisy, you make the stoplight yellow –

CL: Does the district have any policy about the use of collective punishment in situations like that, or generally – punishing the whole group because some people are being too noisy?

SM: No policy on it, no.

CL: Does the district have a policy about punishing kids who are bystanders for not reporting problems that they see, for example bullying?

SM: No policy on that.

CL: One way or the other?

SM: No.

CL: What’s the district’s general approach when they start hearing parents say that the environment of the school seems negative or adversarial or anxious, stressed out? Do you do anything?

SM: Sure. The first thing we do is we start working with building administration to make sure that we understand why we’re hearing that feedback.

BF: Chris, see, I’m not getting that feedback from Hoover.

CL: Well, I’m hearing it from a lot of people at Hoover. Maybe they don’t speak up.

BF: They haven’t to me.

CL: Well, the kids seem to agree, at least about the lunchroom.

BF: Well, did that say, though, that half of them agreed, and half of them didn’t?

CL: Maybe. Maybe half of them think it’s noisy and uncomfortable because of the reaction it provokes. I don’t really – I mean, I sat in on lunch, I didn’t see crazy noise.

BF: So you’ve been there for lunch, so can you tell us what you saw in the lunchroom?

CL: I just saw kids behaving like ordinary kids, but I saw a lot of micromanagement of what they could do and what they couldn’t do. I was having a conversation with a girl at the table behind me who I happened to know, she’s a kindergartner –

BF: Uh huh.

CL: And she turned around and started talking to me, and the lunch attendant came up and physically turned her around back to her table in the middle of our conversation, because you’re not allowed to turn around and talk to people at a different table for some reason. The idea, and apparently they’re not doing it anymore, that they had to be totally quiet for two minutes, and previously it was five minutes, at the end of the lunch period, for what possible reason? I don’t understand that.

BF: Were you there recently?

CL: It was about three or four weeks ago.

BF: Okay, so, that’s recent to me. So, okay.

CL: Well, I might have covered what I wanted to cover.

SM: Well, I’ll tell you that one of the things that we do want to do is that we want to make sure that we’re listening, and you ask what we do, we do listen and seek input, whether that input comes from students or parents or community members. We then work with our staff – in this case it would be administrative staff, our principal there – and we bring these items to their attention. We usually ask that people with concerns have that direct dialogue with whoever it is, whether it’s with their teacher or with their principal, to address those concerns, and sometimes those are rectified and sometimes they’re not. We also then simultaneously work with the administrator to make sure that we’re able to impart to them the concerns that have been shared with us, and the intent is to determine what opportunities there are for us to improve whatever the issue is that’s been brought forward to us, whether it comes from one parent or many, so that the experience that the children and the parents have in school is a positive one. We want kids to want to come to school. Students who want to be in school learn better than students who don’\t want to be in school, so we want to make sure that the environment is safe, secure, nurturing, for all kids –

CL: But there’s no assessment of whether they want to come to school, really.

SM: No, there’s not.

CL: So it’s hard to see how that’s going to drive any policy decisions.

BF: We have the Iowa Youth Survey –

AF: Yeah, we ask kids how they’re feeling, whether they feel safe, I don’t know exactly, Chris, all the questions, but I can certainly get you the results.

SM: I was extrapolating, we were talking earlier about whether we were teaching kids to think critically, and some of the things that aren’t measured, more abstract thinking, doesn’t come through on the Iowa Assessments or the Youth Survey, so I was extrapolating from that part of the conversation to this one. We do do that through the Iowa Youth Survey, it’s part of our reporting process to the board. We do ask them those in-general questions.

CL: I guess I’m still wondering how you will assess whether these changes in discipline and behavior and all that are solving more problems than they are causing. I’m just not sure how that’s going to get examined.

SM: Those kinds of research are tough to do in schools. And one of the reasons they’re difficult to do is we don’t do controlled experimentation. We don’t do something here and not there, and so it can be very difficult for us to actually assess causation. Sometimes the best we can do is correlation, and in some cases we can’t even do that.

CL: Well, I agree with what Becky said, that that’s what judgment is for. But this focus on numbers, numbers, numbers seems to be a recipe for ignoring judgment.

SM: And depending on what the numbers are, some of that comes to us as part of our mandated state reporting process.

CL: Well, you have to report numbers –

SM: Mm-hmm.

CL: I still think maybe you should push back on things that look to you like they are not helping the kids.

SM: We do. We just went through a huge process with the Department of Human Services, and our equity director and I actually spent about a year and a half pushing back with some work that they wanted to do because we were very concerned about how the data would actually be used to help children. And so, where we find it appropriate, we do stand up, and we do express our concerns about those things and in this case we tried to set the agreement up in such a manner that it would be used for what we thought would be a beneficial intent and would not be perhaps used in a manner that wasn’t beneficial for our kids.

CL: How much of this disciplinary and PBIS stuff is driven just by concerns about those Iowa Assessment test scores going down, or not being what they should be?

SM: I can’t answer that, because that’s a state-level discussion. I don’t know if that –

CL: Well, what’s the consequence if those numbers aren’t what the state wants them to be?

SM: Well, the consequence for us from a local standpoint is a federal consequence, and that’s going through the School in Need of Assistance Process, and, you know, if we don’t get the waiver from No Child Left Behind, we know our thresholds are going up next year, we have a high degree of likelihood that all the schools in the district, with the exception of our brand new school which has no children, will be Schools in Need of Assistance, if not this year, then probably next year, and, absent a waiver, we’re going to get to a point where the consequences are such that we could be in a position where we have to reconstitute every school in our district.

CL: Do you think that would really happen?

BF: I hope not. From my standpoint. I don’t know, Chris.

SM: So, is that a concern, is that driving what we’re doing? No, I don’t think it’s driving what we’re doing. We have – our issue is two-fold. On the one hand, we have a compliance issue. We have many things with the state with which we must do, and many things with the federal government that we must do. Some of them are tied to rules that they have that are unfunded mandates. Some of them are funded mandates; we’re participating in a program, so we have to satisfy the compliance piece. The other thing, which I think we do very well in Iowa City, is – mandates funded and unfunded aside, what is it we want students to know and be able to do as they graduate from our school district and matriculate through? And we’ve gone through, I think, and done a good job of setting high standards across curricular areas, create many differentiated opportunities for students to learn and succeed, whether it’s in academics or arts or extracurriculars, and that’s separate from the compliance piece, and that saying, what is best for our children? And while we may not be able to come to a concerted definition of what it is or how to measure it, but we are working on those things like critical thinking, and you talked about teaching skepticism –

CL: I don’t see much work going on there.

SM: I would argue that – I don’t know how old your kids are, but –

CL: Elementary school.

SM: I would encourage you to go visit our junior highs and our high schools.

CL: Well, it seems important to do that in elementary also, isn’t it?

SM: It does. Part of critical thinking and skepticism and some of those other things that you spoke of earlier are also part of an age progression, and I know that I can tell you that, spending as much time in the classrooms as I do, I know I see it. I see that in our science curriculum –

BF: And math – I was going to say, our science and math curriculum definitely. Fewer, you know – those two are, you know, more problem-based type of curriculum. Almost, our math to the point where we get criticized for it. From the fact that we don’t see high scores on the rote part of math, like the math facts, you know, that we spend more time in our curriculum with working with students on how do you solve problems. And very good reason for that, Chris – all the research shows that if you have a math curriculum that goes along that line, you have a better chance of having students continue and take the higher level of math courses than if you have the rote one, where it’s focused on, you know, there’s only one right answer, there’s only one right way to solve a problem.

CL: Well, I think there’s a difference, though, between the kind of critical thinking you’re talking about, and the kind of critical thinking that would enable –

BF: Probably.

CL: -- kids to critique the institution that they’re in, for example –

BF: [laughter]

CL: -- or the world they’re in.

BF: Well, we hope [inaudible] that.

CL: I don’t see a whole lot of that.

AF: Well, I see it, Chris, is our fine, our fine arts –

CL: Well, I’ve got to tell you, here is the Hoover art classroom expectations. “Honesty” means “staying on task without being reminded,” “walk to the line.” “Courage” means “put all supplies back in the proper place.” “Respect” means “zero voice level in line.”

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AF: That doesn’t mean they don’t do critical thinking.

CL: Well, but it’s sending some bad messages, I think, about what those words mean. I mean, is that what you think those words mean?


CL: That’s one of the things about PBIS that upsets me. And there’s charts like that all over the building.

AF: I don’t think anyone intends these to be an all-inclusive definition of what it is honesty, and what is caring.

CL: Well, they’re teaching something.

AF: Certainly.

SM: And we can certainly take that back to our coaches and to Grant Wood AEA and we can talk to them about their implementation process and if this is in a line with what we’re doing in other schools and what they’re doing in other districts. The words should have meaning; that meaning should be directly transferrable class-to-class, building-to-building, so if there’s something that’s out of the norm, then that’s something that we should challenge.

CL: Well, I might have to go pick up my kids.

SM: Yes, you might.

CL: Well, thanks for talking to me.

BF: I appreciate it, too. I have a better understanding than I did before. I mean, I always think it’s great to be able to sit across the table and have a conversation, Chris.

CL: All right.

AF: Thank you, Chris.


Duane Swacker said...

I literally had to quit reading this “conversation” three or four times so as to not overload my brain with administrative eduspeak during the summer. I get enough of it during the year. Wow! That should be required reading for all administrator aspirants as a way of showing how not to address the concerns of a parent. I have been a part of meetings with multiple administrators and have heard much of the same bovine excrement (pardon my French).

A quick question, How did you get access to the superintendent of what appears to be a quite large school district? Usually those folks are highly insulated from having contact with parents and even low-life, oops I mean level staff like us teachers. Usually, it’s a brief, Hello how are you? Kiss my rear, shine my shoes and I’ll have a subordinate get back to you (which never happens to the person’s satisfaction) type conversation. Really, How did you get that amount of time with not one but three (they band together, a show of force usually because one can’t handle the job) of the top staff in a large district? Are you renowned enough in your town that they felt obligated? My hat’s off to you for getting the meeting! (Even if nothing became of it which is usually what their purpose was/is.)

An interesting piece of “data driven” information would be to survey (of course done in a “blind” fashion so that privacy concerns are met, a Survey Monkey type thing) all of the administrators in the district as to age, sex, number of years teaching in the classroom, degrees held and when earned in relation to their education experience, number of administrative positions held and current position, how many years full time work experience outside the education realm and number and type of supervisory positions held outside the education realm. Here are my guesstimates of overall averages: Age-35, more males than females, 4 years teaching experience, all with Masters about 10% with doctorate with the majority of the masters degrees earned in the first five years of their career and the doctorates within the first ten years. Current position would be varied. Average two year full time non educational employment and less than that in a supervisory capacity.

Chris said...

Duane -- I don't know if we count as a "large" school district -- I think I've read that we have about 12,000 K-12 students total. To some extent the meeting was prompted by my persistent questions to the superintendent, which I did discuss here on the blog. But I know that the superintendent has met individually with other parents who have concerns. I really do need to give them credit for their accessibility, even if I wasn't satisfied with their answers and still disagree with some of their policies and practices.

Yes, the eduspeak can be anesthetizing. One thing that bothered me was how often the superintendent, instead of expressing actual agreement with district policies or disagreement with my criticisms of them, explained that what's happening in our district is part of a nationwide trend -- as if that relieves us all from thinking about whether those practices are actually good or bad for kids.

Duane Swacker said...

I agree that your administrators seem a lot more open for at least listening to the district patrons. I consider a 12,000 student district to be a fairly large district. My current district (a rural, considered to be "poverty" district in MO) is only about 3,000 and so the administrators have to be a lot more open to staff and patrons.

An anecdote as to why education administrators seem to hardly ever challenge those state and federal mandates: When I first started my masters in Ed Admin (I was certified but I let it lapse as I knew I couldn't be an administrator in helping to implement the NCLB mandate and I really enjoy working with the students) I was talking with one of the administrator interns who was finishing up her administrator certification. I asked her, What are you going to do when they ask you to implement policies that you don't agree with? Her response: I'll implement them as I'll want to keep my job. Well, she is now the superintendent of one of the larger districts in the St. Louis area. See one of my prior responses about "fear" as a motivating factor in a lot of what happens in public education.

Thanks for the blog, you've got lots of good stuff and I haven't even read that much!!!

icl said...

I read this post in order to find out if taking away recess and collective punishment are allowed in the district. I see that SM answered that there is a not policy regarding collective punishment. I read the Wellness Policy for the district and it states that recess should not be used as form of punishment except as a last resort type of thing. I was just wondering if the removal of recess as a punishment tool has happened to your kids at Hoover? I am hearing of this happening throughout the district. Could you post a blog about this topic? Ask if this is happening to other kids in the district besides my child?

Chris said...

Great question, icl, and a long overdue topic for a post on this blog. Stay tuned . . .