Sunday, October 28, 2012

To change education policy, voting is useless

Has any experiment ever failed so miserably as my education questionnaire to state legislative candidates?

I asked every candidate seven short questions about the effect of state education laws on day-to-day life in the public schools. Of two-hundred and twenty-seven candidates, only thirteen were willing to respond. No one on the legislature’s Education Committee responded. One legislator helpfully explained that “our candidates have been encouraged not to respond to these types of surveys.”

Yet (as I wrote back to that particular legislator) if the candidates answer the questions, we learn something, and if they don’t, we learn something else. The experiment helps confirm that the education policies that govern our kids’ schools are almost entirely divorced from any meaningful democratic control.

I can understand if candidates are too busy to answer every email they receive. But search in vain for any other way to determine these candidates’ stances on education. For a real kick, check out the empty platitudes about education on their campaign websites. (Examples – all from Education Committee members – here, here, here, and here.) Even if you wanted to disregard all the other state issues and engage in one-issue voting based solely on education (which almost nobody does), it would be impossible, since the candidates won’t reveal their positions.

The central feature of public education today is high-stakes testing. Yet neither party has any incentive to talk about that issue, because both parties are culpable for imposing the regime of high-stakes testing on our schools. Since all of my questions were ultimately about the effect of high-stakes testing on our kids’ education, it’s unsurprising that they were met with near total silence. Teachers, administrators, and schools, we’re constantly told, must be held accountable. Elected officials, not so much.

Of the few responses I did get, I disagree with about ninety percent of what the candidates had to say. I don’t want to focus my criticism on the people who responded, though; it’s the ones who didn’t respond who most deserve criticism, and there’s no reason to think their answers would be any better, anyway. So readers can judge the responses for themselves. Suffice to say that it’s hard to detect any special expertise inherent in our state-level candidates that would justify imposing policies on local school districts against their will.

When I asked similar questions to our local school board candidates, more than half of the candidates, including all of the eventual winners, responded. Their answers were at least as informed and competent as the few I received from legislative candidates. Because school board elections are necessarily confined to educational issues, they offer a much better opportunity for voters to express their educational values, and it is harder for the candidates to avoid revealing their positions on at least some school issues. Yet on issues at the heart of education – such as whether high-stakes testing should drive the curriculum – the state dictates the policy. Why is it a better idea to vest those policy decisions in state legislators, whose elections are largely focused on other issues, and who won’t even tell us what they think about educational policy issues?

There are lots of good reasons to vote in next week’s election (if you haven’t already). Changing education policy isn’t one of them. Apparently public education is too important to entrust to, you know, the public.

(Cross-posted at Iowa Candidates on Education 2012.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

The test prep I’d like to see

It’s that time of year again: high-stakes testing week in our local schools. In our weekly school newsletter, we received the usual advice about what we should do at home to help our kids score well on the tests. I can’t bear to quote it at length, so you’ll have to click to enlarge:

I especially like the part about how we should “maintain a pleasant home environment” and “avoid unnecessary conflicts.” “Do not add to your child’s stress,” the school thoughtfully advises – because apparently the school wants to impose all the stress itself this week.

What always galls me most about this annual note is that it’s based on the entirely fraudulent premise that maximizing the child’s test scores somehow benefits the child. In fact, if the test were really being used to assess the child’s academic development, you would want the child to perform in a typical, characteristic way, not in a way that is unrepresentative of her usual, everyday abilities. Going out of your way to ensure that the child is unusually well-fed, well-rested, and well-medicated (!), with test-taking strategies freshly rehearsed, could only distort the result in a way that would undermine the purpose of the assessment. It makes no more sense to prep the child to do well on the tests than to prep her to do well in her annual visit to the doctor.

In reality, a high test score doesn’t benefit the child at all; it benefits the school and its staff. They’re the ones whose performance is being measured by these tests, and whose employment could be affected by it. Yet the school leads the kids to believe that the test is somehow a judgment on them, and that a low score would be a personal failure, with unspoken but ominous consequences.

Here’s what I think parents should do to prepare their kids for testing week:

  • Laugh at the notion that their performance on a test in elementary school could have any bearing on their future.

  • Explain that the tests matter for the school, not for the student. Express sympathy for the staff members who are subject to this kind of evaluation, but make it clear that it is not the child’s job to fix the problem.

  • Point out that neither children nor parents need to jump reflexively through every hoop that is placed in front of them.

  • Apologize to the child that she has to spend a big chunk of her week on such a misguided enterprise, when she might otherwise have been learning something.

  • Commiserate with the child about being subject to ill-conceived and burdensome policies, especially when she’s given no vote in the policy-making. If the moment seems right, consider reading her the part of the First Amendment that protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

  • Then ignore the tests entirely. Go on about your usual life, with its typical ration of hectic mornings, lost tempers, and late bedtimes. Treat the tests the way they ought to be treated: as a vehicle the school can use to see how your child is doing and what she might need. There’s no reason for the parents to get involved in them; nor are they important enough to merit any more attention.

If you happen to live in a place where the test results really do directly affect the children – because of tracking, say, or competitive admissions programs – I wouldn’t lie to the child about it, but otherwise I’d take pretty much the same approach. I think it’s just as likely to have a good effect as this kind of thing. But then I’d make a big public stink about my school officials’ decision to make anything important hinge on a ten-year-old’s test scores.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Teachers’ union president: Overstuffed school day will short-change kids and cause morale problems

At last week’s school board meeting, Tom Yates, the president of the Iowa City Education Association (that is, our local teacher’s union), spoke up about the demands being made on kids and teachers in our district’s elementary schools:
And somebody finally reduced it for me today and said, “You know, we have stuff in minutes. We have, you know, x number of minutes for this. Well, if you add up all the number of minutes, it doesn’t fit in the day.” [Laughter.] Consequently, and I was inclined to let this go a couple of years ago when I was still in secondary and said, you know, people were saying, “Wow, you know, my kid’s only got fifteen minutes for lunch,” and right now I would say, “Your kid’s got fifteen minutes for lunch? That’s the longest block of anything the kid’s got all day!” . . .

[B]ut really, it’s, it’s going to cause morale problems, and I can’t help but believe that kids, in the total realm of everything that they have to do during the elementary day, are getting short-changed somehow.
I think he could have put the case even more strongly, but I’m glad that the teachers are pushing back against the absurd allocation of time in our elementary school day. Our district seems to be driven by a kind of box-checking mentality – Health? Check. Character education? Check. An hour of math every day? Check. A guidance curriculum? Check. And so on – that is divorced from any sense of limits, priorities, or effects. The district needs to step back and re-evaluate what can realistically be accomplished in the school day, and recognize that it is better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly – especially since some of what they’re doing is of very questionable value, if not outright detrimental (for example, this, this, and this). And this manic accumulation of “material” to be “covered” is coming at the expense of physical activity and social down time (such as lunch and recess) that everyone should be entitled to and that can only help kids learn better. Elementary school shouldn’t be a rat race, for kids or their teachers.

A full transcript of Yates’s comments appears after the jump.

A few local links

Four brief local items worth mentioning:

1. Did our school district give a windfall to developers of real estate in a neighboring district? My questions about it in the Patch are here.

2. The Daily Iowan reports on the continuing grass-roots pressure to lengthen our very short elementary school lunch periods. I’m glad the issue is getting more publicity, though I was a bit disappointed in the article’s uncritical acceptance of the school district’s version of events.

The article, for example, reports that all elementary school students are now “allowed 20 minutes . . . to eat their lunch” and that “[a]fter going through the lunch line and sitting down, students have an average of 15 minutes to eat.” I can’t help but wonder if the reporter made any effort to verify that all kids actually receive a twenty minute lunch period. Moreover, the assertion that the kids get an “average” of fifteen minutes to eat seems patently unverifiable. And how many kids are getting less than fifteen minutes to produce that “average” figure?

One school board member is quoted as saying, “I think it’s a matter of utilities. There isn’t enough room for kids to eat, so they have smaller shifts; there aren’t enough tables to accommodate the students, so they have less time to eat.” Yet our superintendent has repeatedly given a very different explanation, blaming pressure from the state to squeeze as much instructional time from the day as possible (for example, here and here). Which is it?

On the district’s “public engagement” website, “more time for lunch” continues to trounce all other proposals. How long can the district ignore the problem and still credibly claim to care about public input? The DI article reports that “No discussions have yet occurred at School Board meetings to add any time to lunch, but officials said they continually work to improve the system.” People have been complaining for years. Isn’t it time for the school board to do something?

Incidentally, the last quote in the article, from an unnamed “district parent,” is from my comments on the public engagement site.

3. The proponents of a Montessori charter school in our district are still plugging away at making it happen, and met this week with our state’s Director of Education, Jason Glass and local school officials. You can read about their continuing efforts here.

4. The Patch reports that the district is considering borrowing to address building maintenance and capacity issues, and that the plan would update older buildings, “including elementaries Longfellow, Horace Mann and Coralville Central, so they are American with Disabilities Act compliant and have air conditioning.” Will Hoover be included in that list, or does the district have other plans for it? I raised the question in the comments and got some informative responses.

Monday, October 8, 2012

What does this blog want?

Well, the blog is three years old today. A blog’s philosophy tends to come out in little pieces over time, so I thought I might use the occasion to try to put into words what this blog is ultimately about.

I’ve posted about a lot of topics here -- authoritarian education, behavioral rewards, standardized testing, school lunch periods, and many more -- but if you asked me to identify the central fact about K-12 education, I’d say this: Kids don’t get to vote. And when you don’t get to vote, you get screwed.

I’m not saying that six-year-olds should get to vote; kids are disenfranchised as much by their circumstances as by any law. But disenfranchised they are. And the history of enfranchised groups acting “in the best interests” of disenfranchised groups is a particularly sorry one. Think of the history of African-Americans, of women, of mental patients, or of prisoners. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that people cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of disenfranchised groups.

Our country’s treatment of children is a part of that history. I don’t mean that they are as bad off as slaves or prisoners, but they are similar in that they are seen as less than fully human, as more different from “us” than they actually are. At its worst, this means they get used for other people’s ends. I’m always struck by how openly politicians now express an instrumental view of children. They don’t even bother talking about what’s good for kids as individuals; the entire debate is about how we can best use kids as soldiers in the battle for global economic supremacy. (Granted, they may not see this as instrumental: What’s good for business is necessarily good for kids, right?)

Kids are at the mercy not only of those who would exploit them, but of those with the best of intentions. There has never been any shortage of clipboard-carrying “experts” eager to improve other people by coercing them into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do. The main protection adults have from being treated that way – from being seen that way – is their political enfranchisement. Kids don’t have that protection.

If someone were to give me a token prize in a transparent attempt to manipulate my behavior, I would feel patronized and used. If I were ordered by the government to use my free time to take classes that didn’t interest me, I would experience that as an unjust intrusion on my liberty. If I were made to sit silently in an uncomfortable chair at someone else’s whim, required to ask permission even to use the bathroom, given only ten or fifteen minutes to eat my lunch, and made to feel shameful or defective if I couldn’t comply with these “expectations” – all while being given no say over my treatment – I would quickly either become a revolutionary or settle into a clinical depression.

Yet we not only do those things to children, we think nothing of doing them. The idea that their freedom from coercion and manipulation might have value, like ours does – the idea that it should have any weight at all in our policy decisions – seldom even occurs to people. It’s as if children existed precisely for us to manipulate them. The guiding spirit of our treatment of children seems to be: “Look, there’s a child! Let’s do something to it! For its own good!

So what does this blog want? I want people to be more conscious of the moral hazard posed by their power over this disenfranchised group. I want them to be less quick to find reasons to treat kids differently than they want to be treated themselves. I want them to be more aware of the possibility that we might be acting out our fears and neuroses on our kids. I want people to take kids’ freedom, autonomy, and dignity as seriously as they take their own. I want people to recognize that the central ideals of our society – democracy, civil liberties, constraints on authority, the importance of the individual – do not suddenly become irrelevant and frivolous at the schoolhouse door.

One reason I want to see more humane, less authoritarian schools is because I want to see a more humane, less authoritarian world. I worry that our schools are reflecting and modeling some of the worst impulses of our society, which seems increasingly ready to curtail individual liberties in the name of “security,” increasingly prone to using human beings as a means to an end, as in our brutal foreign wars, and increasingly draconian in its approach to crime and punishment, as it imprisons a huge chunk of its own population. I worry that our schools are teaching our kids to accept and conform to that world. This blog wants to ask whether that has to be so.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Johnson County candidates: are you out there?

I just emailed all of our state’s legislative candidates again, in hopes of getting a few more responses to my questions about state education policy and its effect on day-to-day life in our public schools. So far, from two-hundred and twenty-seven candidates, I’ve received only ten on-the-record responses. I’m particularly disappointed in the candidates from my own county – several of whom are running unopposed, for crying out loud.

Dave Jacoby, Bobby Kaufmann, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, Dick Schwab, Steve Sherman, and Sally Stutsman: Why won’t you let us know where you stand on these issues?

UPDATE: Dave Jacoby responded this morning.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Principal to parents: We will produce effective test takers, not critical thinkers

I get a little tired of everyone in the school system blaming someone else for its problems. But sometimes they are right. Take, for example, this New York principal, who, in a letter to parents, tells it like it is:
One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.

Unfortunately, if educators want to survive in the new, Albany-created bureaucratic mess that is standardized assessments to measure teacher performance, paramount to anything else, we must focus on getting kids ready for the state assessments. This is what happens when non-educators like our governor and state legislators, textbook publishing companies (who create the assessments for our state and reap millions of our tax dollars by doing so), our NYS Board of Regents, and a state teachers’ union president get involved in creating what they perceive as desirable educational outcomes and decide how to achieve and measure them. Where were the opinions of teachers, principals, and superintendents? None were asked to participate in the establishment of our new state assessment parameters. Today, statisticians are making educational decisions in New York State that will impact your children for years to come.

. . .

Of additional concern to me is the relationship between children and their teacher as we move into an era where teacher job status is based upon student assessment scores. Guess what, some children will become more desirable than others to have in class! And, conversely, others will be less desirable. There, I wrote it! That concept is blasphemy in our school where teachers live to prepare children to be productive learners and members of society. Teachers state-wide are worried that their relationship with students might change when they are evaluated based upon their students’ test scores. Teachers want to educate students, not test prep them for job security.
Read the whole thing. (C/o Diane Ravitch.)

I respect principals and teachers who do what they can to push back against the harmful practices that are – he’s right – being forced on them from above. One thing they can do is speak up. It’s nice to see someone doing it.

Again, there is lots of blame to go around, but there is no one more directly responsible for the effects of high-stakes testing than our state legislators. Will our legislative candidates confront the effect of state policy on the day-to-day reality of our schools? So far, not many of them have been willing to answer my questions about the issue. Here’s my post in the Patch about it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

But I swear I won’t join Facebook

For some time I’ve wished there was a convenient way to share interesting links here without writing entire posts about them. I’ve decided to give Twitter a try. You can follow me on Twitter (@Chris_Liebig), or just keep an eye on the Twitter box that I’ve added to the sidebar. I’m still working out some of the kinks – bear with me . . ..

Don’t punish kids by depriving them of recess

In the comments here, commenter “icl” just raised an issue that I’ve been meaning to post about for a while: punishing kids by depriving them of recess.

Our district’s Wellness Policy, enacted by our elected Board of Education, provides:
Staff will not use physical activity (e.g., running laps, pushups) or withhold opportunities for physical activity (e.g., recess, physical education) as punishment. Withholding recess will not be considered unless in extreme circumstances where all other methods have been exhausted or for continued unacceptable behavior exhibited during recess.
(Emphasis mine.)

From what I hear, recess is frequently – even routinely – withheld for misbehavior at our elementary school, at least in some classrooms. Apparently, the most common reason is to make the kids do uncompleted homework or in-class work. The teachers might not call it “punishment,” but it’s hard to see how failing to finish one’s work could qualify as the kind of “extreme circumstance” required by the Wellness Policy before recess can be withheld. Recess is also withheld for other forms of misbehavior in class.

It makes no sense to punish kids who can’t sit still by depriving them of their chance to run around. If our district wants to decrease the number of behavior problems, it should give the kids more recess, not less. (See this article, for example. And compare Finland’s practice – fifteen minutes of recess for every forty-five minutes of class – here.)

Readers, what has your experience been? Is our district’s Wellness Policy nothing but lip service?