Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Junk food as a reward, run amok

Not long ago I posted about Ronald McDonald’s visit to my kids’ school. Now our district has a new program under which kids who have perfect attendance for a certain amount of time get gift certificates for ice cream at Dairy Queen.

Kids who stay home sick are disqualified from the prize. So the program gives kids who have contagious illnesses an incentive to come to school, and penalizes those who don’t. When one parent complained to a school administrator about the unfairness of penalizing kids for being sick, the administrator replied that kids need to learn that life isn’t always fair.

The program violates the district’s own Wellness Policy, which prohibits the use of junk food as a reward for academic performance or good behavior. (Nutritional information on Dairy Queen products is available here. Even the basic vanilla ice cream cone and the plain vanilla shake violate the nutritional requirements that the Wellness Policy puts on foods that are used as rewards. At least one child got a gift certificate for a hot dog, which also violates the policy.) The program also undermines the district’s own policies requiring sick kids to stay home (see page 7-8 here).

As is so often the case with the district’s use of material rewards, the program sends a negative, materialistic, anti-educational message: that school is so aversive that you need to be bribed to attend, and that ice cream is what every normal person really wants.

But apparently it didn’t occur to any of our district administrators that this program might not be such a great idea. Junk food, policy violations, advertising to kids, behavioral manipulation, contagious illness – what’s not to like?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Buildings, budgets, boundaries: what’s missing?

Borlaug Elementary School, Iowa City, built in 2012

One-room schoolhouse, Johnson County, Iowa, date unknown (source)

A couple of years ago, people in our school district were intensely engaged in debating possible boundary changes between attendance areas. Now, we seem to have moved on (after making only very minimal boundary changes) to the topic of improving facilities and possibly building new schools. Having been unable to prioritize its building needs without angering large groups of people, the school board will apparently propose a bond issue that purports to fund everyone’s desires at once.

I didn’t write much here about the issue of boundary changes, and I expect I won’t write much about the facilities issue either. It’s not that I don’t think the issue is important; many of the arguments for facilities improvements are very persuasive. (I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad that our school’s roach infestation might get addressed in the district’s long-term plan.) But so much energy goes into discussing buildings and boundaries, and so little into discussing what goes on inside those buildings.

Will the conversation ever turn to whether we are offering a meaningful, humane education? To whether the district is too myopically focused on standardized testing, and whether it has taken a wrong turn with its increasingly authoritarian emphasis on behavior and discipline, and whether its curriculum is too lock-step and unengaging, and whether its demands on the kids are justified and developmentally appropriate? To the values that the district stands for, and its understanding of how people learn, and its conception of what it means to be well-educated?

Facilities aren’t entirely irrelevant to those questions. But given the choice between continuing our district’s current educational approach in shiny new high-tech buildings and pursuing a meaningful, humane educational experience in run-down World War II Quonset huts, I’d take the Quonset huts in a heartbeat.

The “streetlight effect” and the Great and Powerful Oz

Esther Quintero sums up the misguided use of data that is the central characteristic of so much of today’s educational policymaking:
Remember the parable about the drunk man searching for his wallet under a streetlight? When someone comes to help, they ask “Are you sure you dropped it here?” The drunk says, “I probably dropped it in the street, but the light is bad there, so it’s easier to look over here.” In science, this phenomenon – that is, researchers looking for answers where the data are better, “rather than where the truth is most likely to lie” – has been called the “streetlight effect.”
Quintero questions whether people are “develop[ing] the ideas to fit the data they have, rather than finding the data to test the most important ideas.” She concludes that:
Excessive faith in data crunching as a tool for making decisions has interfered with the important task of asking the fundamental questions in education, such as whether we are looking for answers in the right places, and not just where it is easy (e.g., standardized test data).
I think Quintero’s post is terrific (read the whole thing), but I wish she had gone further. Why are so many people attracted to using data in this utterly unscientific way? Quintero generously assumes that everyone is acting in good faith in trying to bring data to bear on policy, and concludes that many people just aren’t thinking deeply about what data can tell us. I wish she had considered whether some people might be using data for other purposes. Yes, if your purpose is to shed light on policy questions, much of today’s discussion of data is very misguided. But if your purpose is to justify preconceived conclusions, and to deter laypeople from examining them closely, and to squelch discussion, then it’s enough that your data look impressive on the surface and be accompanied by an academic-looking citation. Some people use data as a light; others use it as a club.

Are our educational policymakers stumbling drunkenly in the wrong area, or are they more like the Wizard of Oz, fraudulently extracting allegiance with smoke and mirrors? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Maybe try standing for something?

Project Vote Smart is a non-profit organization that asks candidates and elected officials about their positions on issues and then posts the responses online, to enable people to vote intelligently. When Vote Smart sent its issue questionnaire to Iowa legislative candidates, a Democratic Minority Leader – thus presumably a member of the Iowa House, where Democrats are in the minority – responded, “I will not answer your questions and will be advising Iowa Democrats not to either.” Almost nobody answered the questionnaire.

When I sent a much smaller set of questions about education policy to Iowa legislative candidates, another House Democrat responded, “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.” Almost nobody answered the questionnaire.

This morning, the Iowa Democrats are . . . still the House minority. On the morning after you lose, wouldn’t you rather not wonder whether it was because you refused to tell anyone your positions on issues they care about, and chose instead to run a vapid, content-free campaign?

UPDATE: I emailed Vote Smart to see which legislator actually said “I will not answer your questions and will be advising Iowa Democrats not to either.” It turns out it was a Democratic state representative named David Schrader, and that the quote is from some years ago, not from this session. Nonetheless, it’s clear from the other quote above (which was made directly to me this year) that the same message went out to this year’s Democratic candidates.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

New “engagement” looking a lot like old imperviousness

Our school district has now “closed” the school lunch discussion thread on its new public engagement website. Before it closed, several people had submitted posts in favor of giving kids more time for lunch, and those posts had received far more “seconds” than any other proposals on the site – one of them receiving 32 votes. My own proposals, “a more humane environment” and “less emphasis on reflexive obedience to get material rewards,” also received a higher-than-average number of seconds – 11 and 12, respectively.

Through some mysterious process – the engagement website is particularly convoluted – the district can put some ideas into the “Great idea!” or “Recommended to Schools” categories. Even though the school lunch thread attracted far more participants than any of the other categories, the district did not designate any of the lunch ideas “great” or “recommended.” The only “great” idea was “More Bike Racks,” and the only “recommended” idea was one promoting National Walk to School Day. Those ideas received 9 and 7 seconds, respectively.

The district did post a non-committal statement thanking people for the lunch suggestions and saying that “The district is assessing this situation and has implemented some changes in buildings to improve the situation.” None of those changes, however, involved lengthening the lunch period. Nor did the district put any of the lunch ideas into the “researching” category.

The district has still not opened any threads on curriculum, or on the proposed bond issue, or on the controversial plan for a new high school.

The public engagement site was hard to take seriously at the outset. It’s not getting any easier.