Thursday, September 27, 2012

It’s 2012. Why let the school censor your newspaper?

Glenn Greenwald reports on a group of Kentucky high school students whose school administrators censored their attempts to write about controversial issues, such as gay rights, in their student newspaper. The students responded by starting their own newspaper, independent of the school. “We decided that as journalists our duty was to create a way we could report on those crucial, if controversial, topics,” one of the student organizers explained. The group’s first issue focused on both censorship and gay rights issues. In their next issue, they plan to focus on academic stress, depression, and suicide.

Last week, the students won a 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award. In announcing the award, the director of the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte, said:
Through their determination, these students conclusively proved three things. First, they proved that you can give a student audience uncensored news about topical issues without the sky falling. Second, they proved that censorship always fails, because it’s impossible in the 21st century to keep information under wraps. And third, they proved that students are often more mature and blessed with better judgment than the people in charge of their schools.
Good for them. Maybe if we saw more stories like that, we’d see fewer like this.

I’ve wondered for some time why any student newspapers would continue to put up with interference from their school administrators. All the schools ever supplied was paper, a distribution system, and an advisor. In the age of the internet, who needs paper and a distribution system? Any students with initiative can find some good advice, unaccompanied by censorship, on their own. In case any student journalists are out there reading this: a good place to start is at the Student Press Law Center’s website, which has extensive advice and resources about your First Amendment rights.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Thirteen hours of testing?

Iowa’s Department of Education plans to start requiring districts to shift from using the Iowa Assessments (formerly known as the ITBS tests) to the new so-called “Smarter Balanced Assessments.” Karen W. reports that the new tests might more than double the amount of time the kids spend taking the tests. Read the details here.

The sheer magnitude of testing time has now led the makers of the tests to offer two versions: one long, and one (relatively) short (but still longer than the Iowa Assessments). You can hear the disappointment in the voices of the tests’ defenders. “You asked for authentic assessments,” one said. “Authentic assessments take time.” Of the shorter version, another “assessment expert” said, “Once you start down that path, you may start losing the advantages of a groundbreaking assessment system and it might start resembling the testing systems we have now.” Hmm.

And to the person with a hammer, every problem is a nail. If you’re a true believer in the centrality of standardized testing to education, why stop at thirteen hours? Could you ever have too much? It’s hard to do cost-benefit analysis when all you see is benefits. Have these assessment experts done any, er, assessment of all the effects of our obsession with standardized testing?

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Yesterday, the kids at our elementary school attended an assembly at which Ronald McDonald told them about the importance of giving back to one’s community. Yeah, I know, McDonald’s does a lot of fine charity work. That doesn’t change the fact that Ronald McDonald is a walking advertisement for a fast-food restaurant. (“Ronald McDonald appears as a community service,” the website says, “courtesy of your nearby McDonald’s Restaurant.”) Is the school unable to talk to kids about community service without the aid of a corporate marketing ploy?

For what it’s worth, I know at least one child who described Ronald as “creepy.” I agree.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

High-stakes testing denialism

I’ve been surprised by some of the responses I’ve gotten from legislative candidates (some for attribution, some not) on the question of local control. “‘Lack of local control’ is exaggerated,” one candidate said. “Local school boards have tons of latitude - yet few exercise any.” Another suggested that I speak to my local school officials about my concerns about short lunch periods and cuts in recess time. When I pointed out that my superintendent has repeatedly attributed those policies to pressure from the state to raise standardized test scores and maximize instructional time, this legislator responded, “Other than the Iowa Core which has been in the works for over 5 years we have not made any changes at the state level regarding reading or math minutes during the school day. The feds have not made any changes in their requirements either. . . . I don’t appreciate the local officials blaming the state for their schedule and I don’t think this kind of behavior is helpful.”

I agree that our district should do what’s right and not whatever the state pressures it to do. But for a legislator to deny that the state is pressuring districts to raise test scores at all costs is willful blindness. Memo to legislators: you didn’t just require that schools use testing to “measure student progress,” you enacted high-stakes testing. You enacted a law that imposed overwhelming incentives on local districts to sacrifice all other educational values to the pursuit of higher standardized test scores.

Under our state laws, if a school doesn’t raise its test scores, its administrators and teachers can be fired, and the school can be closed. But if it cuts recess to the bare minimum and gives the kids a measly ten minutes for lunch, or makes learning such a boring, joyless enterprise that the kids can’t wait to stop doing it forever, or teaches the kids that unquestioning obedience to authority is the highest value, or works to inculcate values (the reason to be well-behaved is to get a reward!) that are morally bankrupt, or turns out kids who are better prepared to be subjects of a totalitarian state than citizens of a participatory democracy – nothing bad will happen to it.

That’s the system our state legislators enacted. There’s lots of blame to go around, but no one is more responsible for it than they are. When defenders of that regime talk about how we need standardized testing to “measure progress,” it’s like an arsonist explaining that, well gosh, all buildings need heat and light. And when they act like high-stakes testing has nothing to do with local decisions about how to allocate time in the school day, they’re insulting our intelligence.

So much endless talk about accountability; so much lecturing the kids about responsibility; yet so much buck-passing by the people who actually make the decisions.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Public engagement by people who fear public engagement

Our district has created a new website, Engage Iowa City Schools, to “start an online conversation” about “your thoughts and ideas to enhance our educational system.” If there was ever a website designed by school administrators, this is it. All of the district’s worst tendencies – the infantilization, the hovering micromanagement, the obsession with control, the discomfort with dissent – are built right into the site.

Rather than just allow people to start threads and debate topics of their choice, the district has chosen four topics, and participants have to either suggest an “idea,” or respond to someone else’s “idea,” about one of those four topics. (One of the topics is “What Are the School District’s Biggest Strengths?”) If you respond to an idea, you are prompted with the phrase “I would improve this idea by . . .” The site repeatedly admonishes users that the site “relies on positive interactions,” that they should “be respectful” and say nothing “derogatory,” and that there “is no need to sharply criticize another member’s ideas.” “If you need to ask yourself twice if it’s appropriate, it’s probably not appropriate.”

In fact, even to sign up for the site – a public forum established by a government entity – you must agree not to say anything that is “inappropriate” or “otherwise objectionable.” The company that administers the site makes it clear that it reserves the right to censor any material that it, “in its sole discretion, deems objectionable,” and to deny access to anyone who violates its guidelines. As the district’s community relations director put it, “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.” (See this post.)

Even the district’s embrace of behavioral conditioning and material rewards is reflected in the site. By creating an account and posting ideas or comments, you earn points that you can then redeem – I’m not making this up – in the “Rewards Store,” for items that range from tickets to a high school play (200 points) to lunch with the superintendent (750 points). I currently have fifty-two points, but when I find a way to post my “idea” that the district should stop using material rewards for behavior management, I’ll get ten more.

Is there any other public institution that works so hard to control and manage the way people talk about it? One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is that free and vigorous debate will lead to better policymaking. Why is our district so afraid of it?

Here’s my Idea: Let’s see ten or twenty more blogs by parents like this one, or by students like this one, or by concerned citizens like this one. Let them link to each other and disagree with each other and argue with each other and maybe even get angry (oh no!) sometimes. Let them treat each other like adults and not get too caught up in whether everyone is showing sufficient respect. Then see what ideas survive the debate and end up persuading people. I’d submit that idea to our district’s website, if only it would let me.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Candidates’ responses (or lack thereof)

Last week, I emailed all 227 candidates for our state legislature a set of seven questions about education policy. I have now set up a separate site to post the responses. So far, the response rate is about three percent – quite a contrast to the sixty percent response rate I got when I sent a similar list of questions to our local school board candidates last year. (There is still a lot of time for candidates to respond, though, and a handful of candidates emailed me that they would respond when they could.)

One legislator declined to answer and wrote that “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys. There are many reasons for this. Candidates often have comments taken out of context or they are used against them in campaign ads. People are often wary of these types of requests because the issues are complex and often take a great deal of time and thought to answer.”

One of the questions is about local control. Maybe I should have rephrased it: “Who should set educational policy: school board members who are elected to focus exclusively on school issues, or state legislators, whose elections seldom turn on school policy and who won’t publicly answer questions about their positions on school issues?”

In the responses that I did receive, there is certainly a lot that I disagree with. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to appreciate someone who’s willing to answer questions, whatever the answers might be.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The aristocrats

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them therefore liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please, they are same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”

“[G]ood thing I’m not elected!”

Jason Glass, Director of the Iowa Department of Education

I don’t mean to single out Jason Glass here; I think he speaks for all top-down education “reformers.” These aristocrats have realized that their reforms don’t fly in local school board elections, so they’ve pushed to have more and more educational policy decisions made at the state and federal levels, where elections are much less likely to hinge on school issues.

Jefferson also said: “We may say with truth and meaning that governments are more or less republican, as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient.” (Emphasis mine.)

So much uniquely American wisdom – Jefferson, Emerson, and Dewey leap to mind – has been rejected by our educational system. And replaced by what?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How about a “community trigger”?

The latest idea being pushed by education “reformers” is the “parent trigger.” Under this proposal, if the majority of parents at a school sign a trigger petition, the parents can then take control and “transform” the school.

The proposal is not only unwise, but fraudulent. None of the parent trigger proposals would enable the parents to withdraw from No Child Left Behind’s mandatory philosophy that raising standardized test scores is the sole goal of education. Proponents of the trigger assert that it “allows parents to pick from a host of empirically tested school reform strategies,” which is a nice way of saying that their choices are limited to only those options that the “reformers” have approved of in advance – for example, starting a charter school, getting a voucher for a private school, or closing the school entirely. If you want a school that doesn’t share the reformers’ values, sorry, no empowerment for you. (See this post.)

Moreover, why should parents have sole control over any public school? Isn’t the whole idea behind public schooling that education benefits the entire community, and thus the community should establish and fund schools? On what basis could non-parents be excluded from any say over the public schools? (Read, for example, Suzanne Lamb’s defense of why she, as a homeschooling parent, still cares about what happens at her local public schools.) But the public nature of public schools has never been favored by the reform crowd, who are privatizers at heart.

Why not have a “community trigger”? If the citizens of a school district want to pursue their own educational policies, we could let them. You wouldn’t even need a petition, you could just empower the school boards that already exist. Come to think of it, you wouldn’t even need a gimmicky name like “community trigger”; you could just use words we already have, like federalism, pluralism, and democracy.