Sunday, July 29, 2012

No criticism allowed?

Our school district is starting a new website to encourage public comment on school issues. This sounded like a great idea until I read further:
[The community relations director] said the [web design company] monitors and moderates the website to make sure offensive content isn't posted.

"If someone has an idea, you can like it, but you can't put an idea down, so hopefully it will have the ability to keep things positive and productive just because of how it's designed," she said.

Only a very short-sighted institution thinks that suppressing criticism leads to better policy decisions. Fortunately, even short-sighted institutions, if they're public, are subject to the First Amendment. It would be unconstitutional to censor comments based on the viewpoint of the commenter. I wonder if the district's moderation guidelines have taken basic First Amendment principles into account. I'll see what I can find out.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is resistance futile?

At this school in Connecticut, parents have been complaining for years about the principal, who various parents describe as being a “control freak,” using unduly harsh discipline, berating and belittling parents, and humiliating and intimidating children. Finally, this summer, ninety parents signed a public petition of no confidence in the principal. According to the petition, “a culture of intimidation and a fear of retribution reign” at the school.

Parents actually banding together to complain publicly about a principal: this was an impertinent disruption to an otherwise peacefully self-perpetuating school system. “Sadly, this is the forum that they use,” said the principal. “It divides the community.” School board members were quick to react against the idea that the board should ever actually intervene in what goes on in the schools – er, I mean, in building-level issues. (This argument is often couched in terms of the board sticking to “policy” and staying out of “personnel matters.” It never seems to occur to school board members that they could enact policies against objectionable practices.) The school board chairman said, “The Board of Education only has responsibility for managing one person – that’s the superintendent – and we trust her to manage all district personnel effectively” – even though people have been complaining for over a decade. When two board members suggested that the principal be put on administrative leave, they were quickly accused of politicizing the issue.

So we get the same old recipe. Thanks to federal and state mandates, local school boards have very little power over educational policy to begin with. What power they have, they’re reluctant to use, for fear of encroaching on the role of unelected administrators. Policies and practices of individual principals, in particular – the people who actually run our schools on a day-to-day basis – are almost entirely insulated from any public influence. How that can lead to anything even remotely resembling democratic accountability for our “public” schools is a mystery.  If we were trying to design schools that were more impervious to the concerns of the people they’re supposed to serve, it’s hard to imagine what we would do differently.

Still, it’s nice to see more parents realizing that outspoken public protest, not deferential isolated meetings with school adminstrators, is the best hope for meaningful change. My guess is that this petition is much more likely to have an effect than the “letter-writing campaign” waged by parents at the school ten years ago.

The school, by the way, happens to be my own elementary alma mater. I posted a comment.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another sign that our culture has lost its marbles

“Especially these days, they contend, when children spend more time in front of screens and less time in unsupervised play, kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.” -- from The New York Times Magazine (emphasis added).

I am more thankful every day that I grew up when I did and had the parents that I had (as opposed to, say, this person).

Some sanity here from Alfie Kohn, who argues that “‘Play’ is being sneakily redefined.”

(Links c/o Alfie Kohn and northTOspy)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Are for-profit online schools gaming Google (and me)?

This is something of a long story, and a pretty trivial one, but it gets curiouser and curiouser, so I think it’s worth telling.

Last year, I got an email from a Justin Birch, asking if he could write a guest post for this blog. He identified himself as a writer for, and proposed to write on a topic that seemed to fit the blog. I had never had anyone ask to write a guest post before, and I told him I was open to the idea, but that I would have to see the post before I decided whether to accept it.

I should have paid more attention to his connection to That site prominently advertises for-profit online schools such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. In 2010, federal investigators revealed that for-profit schools, including Phoenix and Kaplan, had engaged in “deceptive or questionable” practices to recruit students. As the Times reported, “recruiters would lure students — often members of minorities, veterans, the homeless and low-income people — with promises of quick degrees and post-graduation jobs but often leave them poorly prepared and burdened with staggering federal loans.” Some of the schools were accused of misleading applicants, or of encouraging applicants to commit fraud on their federal loan applications. (Video here.) The picture that emerged, in the words of InsideHigherEd, was of “an industry aggressively and universally going after ‘leads’ and ‘starts’ with the institutional objective of securing federal financial aid dollars.” Picture a school run by the characters of Glengarry Glen Ross.

I briefly wondered about Birch’s connection to online schools, but I didn’t discern any ulterior motive in his guest post. I figured he was just wanted to be able to say he had some online publications. His proposed post didn’t promote online schools, though it did mention them in passing, with a link to I wasn’t surprised that he threw in a link to his employer, and didn’t give it a second thought. I agreed with the thrust of the post, which is what I most cared about. So I went ahead and posted it.

Weeks went by and the post eventually slipped down off the front page. Meanwhile, though, I began to get emails from other people – “freelance writers” – wanting to write guest posts. Some of them mentioned that all they wanted in exchange was a link to their website. Some of the writers cited websites such as,, and, again, One person wrote, “I am a freelancer and so for your posting of this original article I would be able to pay you.” There was obviously something fishy going on, so I declined these offers, when I responded at all.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Preparing our kids for the workplace

We’ve reached the point at which ad campaigns can depict workers courageously demanding not better health care benefits or decent wages or collective bargaining rights but . . . to be given a few minutes for lunch.

Is this what Iowa City schools are teaching our kids to expect?

C/o digby. Related Times article here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Coercion is always the cure, never the problem

When I asked our superintendent what problem was being solved by our district’s intensified focus on behavior and discipline, he said:
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 [our district’s behavioral rewards program] 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.
Full context here.

The superintendent thus takes his place in the centuries-long line of people complaining about how kids today are so much more ill-behaved than the generation before them. If we were to believe every generation that made that complaint, we would conclude that by now all children must be serial killers.

What has changed recently: the nature of children, or the nature of our educational policies? If the kids aren’t meeting the school’s expectations, is it possible there’s something wrong with the expectations, and not with the kids? Is it possible that No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on raising standardized test scores is forcing our schools to make unrealistic demands on children? Is it possible that kids are acting out because of the way the schools are treating them?

Don’t expect school officials to consider those possibilities. Yeah, sure, under No Child Left Behind, school is increasingly about preparing for and taking standardized tests, and school personnel are more and more stressed out and fearful for their jobs, and the kids’ behavior is scrutinized and managed like never before, and recess has been cut to a minimum (when it’s not withheld entirely as a punishment), and lunch is down to fifteen minutes or less. But if the kids are acting out, it must be because children are different now, or because their “stability and mobility” has changed, or because their families aren’t teaching them the proper respect.

I’d be acting out, too, if I had to sit through school today.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

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

I wrote in my last post about how, contrary to our superintendent’s argument, the state regulations about instructional time do not prevent our district from doubling (or even tripling!) the measly fifteen minutes it gives elementary schoolers to eat lunch. So who’s responsible for the fifteen-minute lunch – the state, or our district?

I don’t doubt that the district has chosen to shorten lunch to fifteen minutes to maximize instructional time, and that it’s at least partly in response to the number of subjects that the state requires the district to teach. And I know that the district can potentially face penalties, eventually, if it fails to raise standardized test scores. But it is one thing to say that the state requires you not to devote more than fifteen minutes to lunch, and quite another to say that you’ve chosen to minimize lunch to spend the maximum time possible on the teaching of state-required subjects.

From my Q&A with the district’s central administrators:
CL: It’s one thing to say [that cutbacks in recess are] a national issue; it’s another thing to say that we don’t have some leeway to do what we want.

Superintendent Steve Murley: 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.
Readers: Are you convinced that our district is helpless to devote even ten more minutes per day to giving the kids a decent lunch break?

Does anyone believe that ten fewer instructional minutes a day would prevent the district from teaching the required subjects? Or that children learn better when time for recess and lunch is minimized? Sure, the state should share the blame here. Yet our district – not the state – has decided that the best way to get our kids to learn the state-required subjects is to cut lunch and recess to the bare minimum. To pretend that it had no choice in the matter is disingenuous, and serves only to disempower our community from thoughtfully considering its options.