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. .


FedUpMom said...

Yikes! Our kids have more than 2 weeks of vacation left. Aug 16 seems like a ridiculous start date, especially with no air conditioners.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- Yeah, it's very different from what I remember, but I think it's intended to accommodate the people who work on the university schedule, which, in turn, is designed to get an entire semester in before Christmas. I start teaching this coming Tuesday, so I'd need to arrange child care for a couple of weeks if the schools started after Labor Day. And, on the flip side, this year school was out as of May 31.

Still;, the lack of air conditioning is often a problem -- we've even had days where school has been dismissed early because of heat. It's true that there aren't that many weeks when it would be needed, but I can't help but think that it if were the central administrators who had to put up with the heat for those few weeks, AC would have been installed years ago.

Incidentally, there is apparently pressure at the state level for the governor to prohibit the early start -- because it interferes with attendance at the State Fair!

David said...

Chris, I love your blog. It resonates with my own experience in a Southern California school. But here's what I don't get. As you point out so nicely, NCLB, test prep, and test-score driven education is a big joke. So why do parents continue to accept it? Are you folks in Iowa screaming bloody murder about it? Are you boycotting the tests? I'm trying this in my little district, and I have met a lot of resistance from other parents, who think that if we don't use test scores as the measure of learning, we have no way to know how well we're doing. This stuns me. Is the same true in Iowa?

It's time for all of us to rise up and just say no -- to become really, really difficult for the Administrations.

IC Local said...

erAs someone who grew up in the ICCSD, I can tell you that the school year starts earlier every year. In the 70's and 80's when I was in school, the school year always started the last week of school, or the end of the third week, University folks were able to deal with that start date just fine. Normally I don't agree with our state Governor on issues, but I am with him on this one. Normally it's too hot in August for school,(the majority of our schools especially on the east side are NOT fully air conditioned. The state law also says they are not to start that early, but all the districts file for an exemption. What is the point of the law then? What is wrong with encouraging people to go to the State Fair? A lot of kids in rural communities particpate in 4-H and end up missing school due to the early start date of many districts. Also, going to the fair is a great educational experience for kids. They have many exhibits on all kinds of educational topics.
The district could have a later start date if they made winter break shorter, and didn't have the day before Thanksgiving off. (which we never had off when I was in school). Solon has schedule like this and it works out just fine.

Chris said...

David -- Thanks for commenting! I wish I knew the answer. I will say that even I am reluctant to pull my kids out of the tests, as much as I would like to. For one thing, we have no opt-out provision in Iowa law (something I hope to ask our legislative candidates about), so I wouldn't put it past the schools to penalize the students who don't take the tests (by, for example, saying that the kids who don't take the tests won't be eligible for placement in special programs or more advanced courses, etc.). Second, I'm just a little uncomfortable essentially using my kids as instruments of political protest. If one of my kids herself decided she wanted to boycott the tests, I'd be much readier to take that on.

But yes, why aren't people screaming bloody murder, and pushing back against all this crap, and electing slates of school board members that will do the same? I wish I knew. Maybe they just don't agree. Maybe they think resistance is futile. Maybe they have busy lives and too many other things to worry about. Maybe they're deftly manipulated by experienced bureaucrats. Maybe the policymaking is now so centralized that there's no real way to express these opinions through the democratic system. Maybe a lot of the people who agree have simply pulled their kids out of the system rather than fight it. Maybe it's all those things and more.

I'd love to hear more about the reaction you're getting to the idea of boycotting the tests.

Chris said...

IC Local -- Thanks for commenting! Personally I've gotten used to the early start and would find it hard to deal with anything much later, because of my need for child care coverage when the University academic year starts back up. I also like having the kids out of school in early June when the weather is so beautiful. But I can certainly see why people might disagree and want our district to choose a later start date or a reconfigured calendar.

Where is disagree, though, is that I don't see any justification for the state to step in and tell the individual school districts how to set their calendars. If the people of Iowa City want to do it this way, why shouldn't they be able to? I also don't see generating revenue for the tourism industry or the state fair as legitimate justifications for the state to trump a local decision on education.

For what it's worth, next year the University's schedule ratchets ahead -- the first day of classes is August 26 -- which I assume means that the ICCSD calendar will ratchet ahead as well, and that school will start on August 22.

Anonymous said...

Cheryl Kiburz left the director of special education for a much lower paying position i her old district of College Community; Rozy left after on one year for greener pastures in Dubuque....what is up? I suspect that Steve, Ann, and Becky, are asking the special education director to do things to reduce the special education deficit that are illegal and hurtful to students with disabilities.
Your thoughts?

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting. I know so little about our district's special ed practices. It seems to me that it would be very tempting for a district that's pressed for cash to take the "Bad Insurance Company" approach to special ed -- basically denying as many claims as possible and then backing down for whoever makes a stink.

I worry that local special ed issues are particularly unlikely to get talked about publicly, because parents with kids in special ed might be understandably worried that speaking up could make it harder for them to get the support from the district that they need.

I think there is a very interesting blog to be created specifically on ICCSD special ed issues, and that it could be a great service to parents and kids. Any takers out there?