Thursday, August 30, 2012

The innovative new evidence-based idea also known as recess

The Daily Iowan reports that some Iowa City teachers are now giving their students one-minute “brain breaks” to “temporarily step away from class work and engage in short exercises so they will, hopefully, return to schoolwork with greater energy and focus.”
The breaks focus on physical activity and can include anything from making “lazy eights” with fingers, dancing, and even the timeless challenge of patting the head and rubbing the stomach at the same time.

Steve Murley, the superintendent of the Iowa City School District, believes that the use of brain breaks will continue to expand and build.

“Our goal is to get kids up and active while learning,” he said. “It’s no longer the belief that when kids have extra energy to let them burn it off, but a research-based program that shows how physical education can help them learn because it’s stimulating blood flow to the brain.”
Wait – isn’t this the same district that just a couple of years ago cut recess time so it could increase instructional minutes?
“Brain breaks are just part of the package, but if schools paid attention and revamped their thinking, they’d get exercise and play back into their kids’ lives,” [Harvard professor John] Ratey wrote in an email. “The first thing that happens is an almost immediate drop in discipline problems, a decrease in bullying, then an increase in attendance and an improvement on test scores and grades. All in all, it’s the best thing that can be done to improve our children’s lives.”
But wait – after cutting recess time, didn’t our district also pour money and resources into behavior management, discipline, and anti-bullying programs?

I sometimes wonder whether they’d give the kids any recess at all if it didn’t raise test scores. (According to the article, our physical education coordinator’s “long-term goal is for the use of breaks to be expanded throughout Iowa City schools and implemented before the Iowa Assessment standardized tests.”) But if research about test scores is what it takes to impress our school administrators, why don’t they listen to people like Ratey and expand recess instead of cutting it? And just think how high test scores might go if we strung together twenty-five or thirty of those brain breaks and called it “lunch”!

Related post here.

Questions for legislative candidates, continued

I’ve been struggling to winnow down the number of questions I want to submit to candidates for our state legislature. To maximize the possibility of getting responses, I set myself a limit of five, but in the end I had to allow myself two more. I tried to focus on questions that I thought other groups (for example, teachers’ unions) were unlikely to ask. I cut several questions – for example about whether our schools are inculcating authoritarian values and whether we should give teachers and students more autonomy – because I thought they were unlikely to elicit meaningful responses (which, I realize, might be true of all questions). The final seven aren’t perfect, but time’s a-wastin’, and I hope that the answers to these seven might at least give you a pretty good idea of where someone’s coming from.

I had initially planned on sending them only to candidates whose districts overlap with our school district, but now I’m feeling ambitious and thinking I might send them to all legislative candidates in Iowa. (Hat tip to John Deeth for directing me to the master list of candidate email addresses.) I haven’t yet figured out exactly how I’ll post responses, but I’ll find a way and link to the responses from this post.

Apologies to those who made good suggestions that I ultimately did not include. (Candidates, check them out!) Here’s what I settled on:

1. Opting out of testing. Many parents are concerned that important educational values are being sacrificed because of the use of high-stakes standardized testing to evaluate kids, schools, and educators. Would you support legislation to permit parents to opt their children out of such testing without repercussions?

2. Cuts in lunch and recess. In our district, the time devoted to recess has been reduced, and the elementary school students get only fifteen minutes or less to eat lunch. District officials attribute those changes directly to state pressure to teach more material and maximize “instructional minutes.” (See posts here and here.) What, if anything, should the state do to remedy the situation?

3. Local control. Because of state and federal regulation, individual communities now have relatively little control over the educational policies that govern their schools, and many parents feel that they have little to no say over what goes on in their kids’ schools. Do you think that local school districts should have more control over educational policy? If so, in what specific ways?

4. More school? Should state law require all kids to spend more time in school – either by lengthening the school day, extending the school year, or both? (See this post.)

5. PBIS. The state Department of Education wants to require all school districts to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a program that uses material rewards to train kids to reflexively obey school rules. (See posts here and here.) Do you support requiring all school districts to use PBIS?

6. Class size. Do you agree with our state Director of Education that we should tolerate larger class sizes in exchange for programs designed to “improve educator effectiveness”?

7. No Child Left Behind. Have No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top done more harm than good, or vice versa? Should Iowa opt out of No Child Left Behind, even if it means forgoing federal funds?

UPDATE: For the candidates’ responses, click here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Educating = infantilizing?

It’s bad enough when our elementary school spends the first days of the school year extensively lecturing the kids about behavioral expectations, including the now-standard restroom tour, in which groups of kids are taken to the bathroom and instructed on how they must flush the toilet and use no more than two squirts of soap and one paper towel. (These practices appear to have continued essentially unchanged from last year, as part of our school’s implementation of PBIS.) It turns out, though, that even our junior high school does this – the seventh-graders are taken out of science class and led in groups into one of the bathrooms, where a teacher explains that they must flush the toilet after using it, and then has one student wash his or her hands while the entire group sings “Happy Birthday,” to demonstrate how long you should spend washing your hands.

When did educating become synonymous with demeaning and infantilizing?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Defining bullying up

As I’ve written before, I’m ambivalent about the recent trend toward “bullying prevention education.” I’m all in favor of getting kids to put themselves in other kids’ shoes and to think about right and wrong ways of treating other people. I also think it’s great to make sure that kids know what they can do if they are being mistreated or if they see someone else being mistreated. But I can’t help but sense a kind of mission creep. The term “bullying” is increasingly applied to a larger and larger sphere of conduct, and is used to justify a particularly authoritarian and punitive approach to behavior management. Instead of talking about how to help kids develop their own consciences, we end up talking about whether certain acts count as “bullying,” and if so, what we should do to the bullies.

Our elementary school recently surveyed the kids about bullying as part of its “Steps to Respect” program. The survey asked the kids to “Check the kinds of bullying you’ve seen or had happen to you at school,” and then offered the following choices:
Called names
Rumors spread
Left out on purpose
Hit, pushed, or kicked
Belongings damaged or taken
I can imagine bullying occurring through any of those means, but won’t that list catch many things that none of us would consider bullying? Friends can tease each other, and may even sometimes call each other names. When does talking about one’s classmates become “spreading rumors”? Where is the line between “leaving someone out on purpose” and simply wanting to choose which kids to play with during what little free time the school offers? I wouldn’t want to have my belongings taken, but is all theft a form of bullying? Pushing and even hitting aren’t that uncommon in certain types of play – our most popular sports are “contact sports” – but not every foul is an act of bullying.

What is gained by simplifying the issue in this way? If the kids take the survey literally, they will come away with a distorted and trivialized sense of what “bullying” means. (If you’re anything less than an angel, you’re a bully.) If the kids understand that only some things in those categories really qualify as bullying (as I suspect they do), then they are already more sophisticated than these teaching materials give them credit for. The survey seems designed to inflate the rate of reported bullying, and thus to justify yet more behavioral interventions and harsher discipline.

More thoughts on bullying here, here, and here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

First day of school open thread

I haven’t had much time to blog lately; my apologies for being so slow to respond to people’s comments (including some that I still mean to respond to!). I have a lot of posts I’m eager to write, but in the meantime, here a few shorter items of interest.

  • School started today – August 16! – in Iowa City. Luckily for the kids, the temperatures were mercifully mild. Our kids’ school, like many older schools, has no air conditioning. At this week’s school board meeting, one parent suggested that the central administrators (who work in an air-conditioned building) should try spending an hour at our school in late August. More coverage of that meeting here.

  • That same parent also complained about the district’s chronic inability to keep an accurate count of how many students are in each school. The school board is now considering hiring an outside consultant to determine school capacity and enrollment numbers. Nick Johnson, in response, wonders what we’re paying our central administrators to do.

  • The district’s Director of Special Services, Rozy Warder, who was hired for that position only a year ago, unexpectedly resigned last week, just as the school year was about to begin. This is likely to affect any family with a child in special education. I have no idea why she resigned – partly because I’ve seen absolutely no mention of it in the local media.

  • My kids’ school, Hoover Elementary, is now a School in Need of Assistance (SINA) under No Child Left Behind. This is no big surprise; under NCLB’s patently unrealistic requirements, every school will eventually be a SINA school. But it will have effects, and I’m not exactly sure what they are. (Can Hoover families now transfer out on demand? Can the families who transferred from SINA schools to Hoover in past years continue to attend Hoover, now that it is also a SINA school?) The article makes it depressingly clear why school is now all about test prep, period.

  • Grade-mixing is now a thing of the past at our elementary school. In previous years, the school grouped third-graders with fourth-graders, and fifth-graders with sixth-graders. (They stopped mixing first-graders with second-graders a year or two ago.) Now the grades are all in separate classrooms. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad change. The grade-mixing always struck me as an empty gesture toward progressive educational ideals; in reality I think it mostly served to enable the school to increase class size. (For example, if there were forty third-graders and forty fourth-graders, you’d need four classrooms if the grades were separate, but could get away with three if you combined the grades.) But if it’s a good decision, it seems like one made for a bad reason: to accommodate the increasingly regimented curriculum now demanded under the Common Core standards. An email from the school explained:
    These new materials are aligned with the statewide adoption of Common Core State Standards; these standards are written for single grades. In schools that previously taught students in multiage groups, it requires a shift to single grades so that the standards are taught by grade level. The standards expect students to be engaged with grade level texts therefore teaching the Common Core State Standards are most effectively accomplished in a single-grade setting.
    The principal later explained that single-grade classrooms are necessary to “provide the correct amount of instructional minutes in every subject area” and to “plan a schedule that allows students and teachers to plan these minutes effectively.” Does anyone really believe that there is a “correct amount of instructional minutes,” or that there is a simplistic direct relationship between “instructional minutes” and meaningful learning? That kind of myopic thinking is why our district has cut lunch and recess to such minimal levels. Yet somehow kids elsewhere manage to learn quite well in total disregard of the “correct amount of instructional minutes.”

    Strangely, the decision to end grade-mixing was made just two days ago, after the kids had all already received letters from their new teachers. The school thus had to send out an email saying, in effect, “If you received a letter from Teacher A, you will now have Teacher B,” etc. The email concluded, “it is better we make this change now than in 3 weeks.” True enough -- but two weeks ago might have better still! How long has the district known about the new standards?

  • Some good links mailed in by readers: Some second thoughts about first-day-of-school traditions, Greg Forster makes a plea to bring “non-scientific sources of wisdom” to bear on educational policy debates, and a post on how every value – even kids’ physical health – is now discussed in terms of its effect on test scores.

  • Nicholas J. left a comment here a few weeks ago, which led me to discover his blog. He’s an Iowa high school sophomore who blogs about educational issues; I can’t wait to read more of his posts. More blogs like this, please!

Feel free to comment on any of the above or to chime in with something new. .

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Trees vs. Astroturf

One of our local high schools, City High, revealed this week that it plans to cut down over fifty trees, many of them decades-old shade trees. The school is installing artificial turf on one of its practice fields, and, although the offending trees are not themselves on the practice field, they “are either berry producing or drop significant amounts of material which would shorten the life of the artificial surface.” Thus “it has been determined” that the trees “must be removed.”

Cutting down dozens of living trees to protect “the life” of an artificial turf field strikes me as crazy. They’ve apparently marked every tree anywhere near the field, making no attempt to single out trees that are likely to be particularly harmful. (Despite the reference to berries, many of the trees are beautiful maples.) The trees also border several private residential properties (not my own, though I live nearby), so the clear-cutting approach doesn’t qualify as good community relations, either. The school’s “hope” is to replace the trees with “some sort of planting . . . that would reestablish the living barrier that our neighbors have enjoyed in the past.” Since minimizing expense is apparently all that matters, here’s my guess:

Those who want to object should email Assistant Principal Terry Coleman (, Principal John Bacon (, Superintendent Steve Murley (, and the school board (

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Questions for legislative candidates?

As much as I think local school officials bear more responsibility for their choices than they would like to accept (see this series of posts), there’s no denying that state and federal lawmakers are at the root of a lot of the problems in our schools that have been the focus of this site. Legislators decide a lot of issues, of course, so educational policy plays less of a role in voters’ decisions (which is one more reason to give more control to local school boards, in my view). Nonetheless, this is the moment to come up with questions to ask our legislative candidates about school policy. As I did last year with school board candidates, I’d like to come up with a relatively concise list of questions that I can send to all legislative candidates, state and federal, seeking to represent the Iowa City area.

Suggestions? I’d especially like to formulate questions that are hard to squirm out of with noncommittal platitudes, though that’s a tall order.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Language arts bleg

Our district is using a new set of language arts materials this year, called Journeys, published by Houghton-Mifflin, in Kindergarten through sixth grade. Apparently the idea is that these materials are tailor-made for teaching the Common Core curriculum. I had been hearing third- and fourth-hand rumors that the district was no longer going to allow teachers to use outside materials – that is, real novels or non-fiction books – as part of language arts. Both the district’s Director of Curriculum and our school principal have assured me that that is not true, and that there will be no more restriction on outside materials now than there was under the old materials.

My knowledge of how the new materials differ from the old ones is very limited. Thus, a bleg: Does anyone out there have any info or insights? Is there any reason to be concerned?