Thursday, January 31, 2013

News from the cutting edge, Volume 1

Well, having decided to try my hand at something different to mark the end of the blogathon, I now have newfound respect for Matt Groening and the old Life is Hell cartoons. I do love the two talking heads down in the corner, though—my collaborator’s contribution.

Click the image to enlarge.

(Image © 2013 C. Liebig & I. Samuelson for Public domain baby photo from Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why not orange jumpsuits?

EduShyster is on a roll trying to find any data, anywhere, on college graduation rates of students who attend “no excuses” “college-prep” charter schools. Meanwhile, she came across this article about one such school in New York:
The Excellence Boys Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn was defending itself Tuesday against parent complaints that its new, “Scoreboard Behavioral System” was discriminatory and treating disciplined students like prisoners.

. . .

A father of two sons who attend the Middle Academy, grades 5 through 8, contacted PIX 11 about a memo sent out by the school in early January. The memo explained the Middle Academy would allow students to earn—or lose—achievement points, based on their behavior. Starting each school week with 50 points, any student left with 0 or less points by week’s end would be subject to five days of detention–and designated “Out of the Brotherhood”. This means they would be placed in a separate room for breakfast and lunch—and ordered to wear a light green Polo shirt, instead of the blue Oxford shirt boys in the Middle Academy typically wear as part of their uniform. Other scholars, as the school refers to students, would not be able to interact with the disciplined boys.

“It’s offensive,” said ‘Jason Vincent’ (not his real name), who e-mailed PIX 11 about the practice, “because, first of all, they’re all young, black men, and I don’t feel that I should have to be concerned with a school seeming like a prison. That’s not what I send my children to school for.”
The principal defended the program on the grounds that “We have a college prep school and everything we do here is about getting students ready for college. . . . What we’re doing here is about getting our kids to college.” And when they get there, what will they make of that completely alien environment?

Read the whole article.

In defense of the protest vote

As I wrote yesterday, I’m voting for the RPS (our school district’s revenue-enabling ballot measure). But I don’t get as exasperated with the people opposing it as Jason Lewis does. Government is supposed to be a negotiation, not a take-it-or-leave-it enterprise. Many people reasonably think the district is not responsive enough to the community—as reflected in many of the seventy-nine pages of comments here, for example, or my selection from them here. When the district then wants those same people to step up and approve tax revenues, it’s hard to blame them for concluding that their dollars are the only thing the district listens to—the only effective bargaining chip they have in this particular negotiation.

When an employer and its employees can’t agree on a contract, and the employees go out on strike, you can’t just automatically blame one side or the other. The negotiation failed, and you can’t assess blame without examining how reasonable each side’s positions were. I don’t think all of those commenters in the Synesi report were selfish prima donnas. Many of their criticisms are perfectly reasonable, and it’s the district’s failure to address them that is unreasonable.

In this particular instance, I think that voting for the RPS will do more good than voting against it. But I’m sympathetic to the logic of the protest vote. Sometimes casting a protest vote is the least-likely-to-be-futile way of trying to get elected officials to change the way they interact with the public. It’s a big part of why I voted against our county’s new jail proposal this past November.

There will never be perfect harmony in a community where people’s values differ. But the best way to get the school board and district administrators back in sync with the voters is to have them start working for us, instead of for Governor Branstad and Arne Duncan. If you’re frustrated with the level of tension between community members and the school system, it’s worth thinking about how much the lack of local control is at the root of it. (Related post here.)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jason Lewis to run for school board

We have our first official candidate (to my knowledge) for this September’s school board election. Interesting that he leads off with the Ken Robinson video. Will that viewpoint be reflected in any concrete policy proposals?.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stanley Kubrick on interest vs. fear

Not much time to post today, but I’ve been meaning to post this excerpt from John Baxter’s biography of Stanley Kubrick:
Kubrick’s three years at [Taft High School in the Bronx], from 1943 to 1945, were the unhappiest of his life. IQ tests rated him above average, but formal learning bored him. Alex Singer recalls, “Stanley and I had boundless curiosity, but not about the things they were teaching.” Kubrick agrees. “I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker. I never learned anything at school and I never read a book for pleasure until I was nineteen years old.”

His school days were dominated less by a search for learning than by fear: “Fear of getting failing grades,” he wrote later, “fear of not staying with your class.” He got Fs by betraying his lack of interest in set books like George Eliot’s Silas Marner and failed English totally one year, forcing him to make up the lost grade during the summer. When he graduated, it was with a mediocre 70.1 average, his only high marks those in Physics.

Grades, however, don’t tell the whole story. Kubrick could and would work if his interest was engaged: this was the man who, despite his disdain for George Eliot, created in Barry Lyndon the cinema’s best adaptation of Thackeray. Once he left school and was no longer required to do so, he read voraciously.
I suppose this is anecdotal evidence of the worst kind. Maybe Kubrick was just an oppositional prima donna, or a unique “genius” from whose experience we shouldn’t generalize. But it’s not as if the world is made up of a lot of people who are basically the same and a few who are different. Isn’t everyone different from everyone else? Who are these standardized students who learn equally well whatever is dished up, regardless of whether they are interested? I’d like to meet them!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Let high school students vote in school board elections

Reading Nicholas J’s blog makes me think of how entirely oblivious I was, throughout my own time in school, to the fact that there are different ways to think about educating people—that the school system is the product of a series of choices, and that other choices are possible. I don’t think anyone wanted us to think about that, though it strikes me as something that could only be good for one’s education.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think education would benefit from an infusion of democracy in many different forms. From top to bottom, our educational system seems to be pervaded by a fear and distrust of democracy, and a general sense that people cannot be trusted to make good decisions and must instead be dictated to from above.

One small way to buck that trend: Why not let high school students vote in local school board elections?

This is not a very revolutionary idea. It’s not as if it would change anything overnight. For one thing, state and federal control over education have left school boards with relatively little decision-making power. Students would probably not turn out in large numbers for school board elections—why should they be any different than the rest of us?—and would be unlikely to vote as a bloc. They would be unlikely to tip the scales in any election, and could do so only if the election were close anyway.

But I think it could change the dynamic in ways that would matter. For one thing, candidates naturally seek votes wherever they can find them. Board candidates would have a new set of voters to solicit, and would have to think about those voters’ interests in a different way. There would suddenly be an incentive for school officials to see students as more than just the passive objects of their attention, and to “respect” them in a way they’ve never had to before. Now there would be people inviting the students to think about their own education, and about how it might be improved. Wouldn’t that be desirable under virtually any theory of learning?

Enfranchising high school students, even in this limited way, would also present those students with a very different model of governance, one much more consistent with the traditional ideals of a democracy. Currently schools are little totalitarian states, geared toward producing obedient subjects, not active participants in a democracy. Yet these students are on the verge of turning eighteen and becoming fully enfranchised. Wouldn’t it make sense to offer them a little practice first?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cracks in the wall?

From Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech yesterday in California:
The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

We seem to think that education is a thing—like a vaccine—that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.

Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.

My 2013 Budget Summary lays out the case for cutting categorical programs and putting maximum authority and discretion back at the local level—with school boards.
I don’t know how much Brown can back those words up; there’s a limit to how much local control you can allow if you don’t opt out of No Child Left Behind. But it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

I think the bipartisan consensus favoring centrally-driven school “reform” is finally starting to break down. It is increasingly associated with polarizing right-wing governors like Scott Walker and Rick Snyder. Reformer-in-chief Michelle Rhee is increasingly identified as a “right-wing” figure. (Charles Pierce, a blogger revered on the left, takes on Rhee here.) The Democratic Party activists who populate DailyKos see school reform (accurately) as an attack on unionism. I’d love to see the approval ratings of the standardized testing industry. And now the governor of the largest state in the union is declining to follow the crowd.

It’s got a ways to go. (Blogger Atrios recently tweeted “a liberal member of congress spoke to me about michelle rhee as if she was jesus.”) But if large parts of one party’s base start turning against the top-down “reform” project, how long before “local control” becomes the safest, most people-pleasing position?

Previous post on Jerry Brown here.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The voice of the bureaucracy speaks

Here’s an anonymous email that a local school activist (not me) recently received (I’ve edited the profanity only to prevent this blog from getting caught in anyone’s filter):
I’ve had it with this f---ed up district! The administrators are paid to run the district, but the board insists on micromanaging EVERYTHING! People like you and [another local school activist, also not me] act as though you want what’s best for the students, but the way you go about it makes our district look like fools. I read about Hoover roaches in the Quad City Times and the Des Moines Register for christ’s sake! How does that help the district? It makes the whole community look like fools!

The whole system is setup to fail. The district has the best superintendent they’ll ever have, yet power hungry volunteers, called board members, and community activists, better described as conspiracy theorists, make his job a living hell. If everyone would back the f--- up, he could actually accomplish something!! Why pay a guy over $200k per year, then not let him do what he is trained to do?!?! Most of the districts top administrators could double their pay in the private sector, especially the guys on the operations side, and pretty soon they’ll be jumping this sinking ship.

I’m writing to you because you are extremely vocal and I hope you will consider putting your time and effort into fixing this mess rather than contributing to it. Your actions have consequences. Please don’t ever forget that. Please make sure those consequences are intentional.

(I hope that you can get past the fact that I sent this “anonymously” and focus on the message rather than this.)
After I read the part about how our school board micromanages the district, it was a while before I could pick myself up off the floor and finish reading the email.

But imagine, hypothetically, that we did have a more assertive board. The administrators are paid to “run the district” and “accomplish something,” so why would the public and its elected representatives insist on having a say over just what it is they should be accomplishing? Why would the public insist on interfering in the public schools?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Intellectual risk vs. regurgitation

Following up on yesterday’s post, here’s a short excerpt from The Hidden Curriculum—the much more interesting one, from 1971, by Benson Snyder:
I observed the professor in one class beginning the term by explaining that the students were expected to be creative and involved; in short, they were to be engaged. They would have the opportunity to take intellectual risks, to make mistakes. When I talked with the students in the class I discovered that many were quite surprised by his introductory statement; a few were puzzled and suspicious, others enthusiastic.

Five weeks later the first quiz was given. The students found that they were asked to return a large amount of information that they could only have mastered by memorization. There was a considerable discrepancy between the students’ expectations for the course and what they were in fact expected to learn in order to pass the quiz. In spite of the professor’s opening pronouncements, the hidden but required task was not to be imaginative or creative but to play a specific, tightly circumscribed academic game.

The consequences for the students varied: some became cynical and said, “Okay, if that’s the way you play the academic game, if that’s what he really wants, I won’t make the same mistake again. Next time I’ll memorize the key points.” Some students were discouraged and simply withdrew emotionally from the class, though they nominally remained in attendance and received satisfactory grades. But a large group approved the quiz. They had been apprehensive about their capacity to do original work and were relieved to find that rote memory would suffice to get a superior grade. Students of this latter group were, interestingly, the least likely to consult the college psychiatrist.
Assuming Snyder’s basic description here is accurate, what do you make of this passage? On the one hand, it seems possible that the professor wanted to encourage the students to be creative and take intellectual risks in addition to mastering the information, not in lieu of it. On the other hand, that kind of performance is pretty rare, so maybe the grades did all come down to regurgitation in the end. Should the professor just have made himself clearer, or was there (as Snyder seems to imply) a larger problem than that?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The hidden curriculum, then and now

In 1971, Benson Snyder published a book called The Hidden Curriculum. In it, Snyder examined the disparity between the ostensible goals of education and the covert rules and agendas that students discern (or not) as they make their way through the system.
Students receive one set of official, formal messages—the rules, the prescriptions, the goals. In effect, these are what one must do to pass, to succeed, to move ahead from university to the larger society. At the same time the students are monitoring another, more informal, covert set of cues that tell them what really matters—what in fact leads to rewards and success. It is a dissonance which affects those of us who have lived with it for some time.
For example, Synder wrote, we give lip service to the idea that we want students to think creatively and take risks, but the way we use exams and grades often actually encourages rote memorization and risk-avoidance. “Education, instead of developing and expressing thought, has come all too often to conceal and prevent thought.” “Disillusionment, alienation, or gamesmanship has become the context in which increasing numbers of students view their education.”

Snyder’s book was thoughtful, original, and very readable. It was the work of a thinker, driven by a spirit of inquiry and reflection.

Fast-forward to 2004. Another book titled The Hidden Curriculum appears. This one is subtitled “Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations.” The book, by Brenda Smith Myles, Melissa Trautman, and Rhonda Schelvan, is marketed as part of a curricular program called Social Thinking, which is designed to train kids to discern and conform to the social expectations of the people around them. Though it was initially developed for children with autism, the program’s creators have argued for its use with neurotypical children as well. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that my kids’ elementary school was using the Social Thinking program in general education classrooms until some parents (including me) complained.

Like the 1971 book, the 2004 book sets out to discern the “unstated rules” of school and other social settings. But this book’s goal is not to examine those rules critically. Instead, its purpose is to make those rules explicit so that we can better instruct children to conform to them:
Some of us require more instruction in the hidden curriculum than others. Some seem to learn the hidden curriculum or aspects of it almost automatically. Others learn the hidden curriculum only by direct instruction. And that is where this book comes in.
The book then endeavors to break down social “expectations” in an absurd level of detail. Here are just a few of the book’s “Bathroom Rules”:
Make sure that you flush the toilet after you use it.

Pull up your pants before coming out of the stall.

Do not talk about what you did in the bathroom.

For boys: When using the urinal, instead of pulling your pants down, just unzip them, pull out your penis, urinate and put your penis back in your pants and zip them up.
Much of the book’s advice is hard to argue with, though some of it is oddly specific (“Do not explain to a person with a new puppy that the breed she bought has a terribly aggressive disposition”). Some of it, though, reveals a more particular view of how to live:
Find out what music is cool. Opera or classical music is usually not cool when you are a teenager. Some kids do like opera or classical music, but they don’t talk about it.

Wait, wait, wait.

Breaking the law is never a good idea, no matter what your reason is.

Refrain from making negative comments. Try to be as polite as possible.
The book is a detailed instruction manual for social conformity. It may be that a small percentage of kids can actually benefit from some direct instruction about social conventions. (If you think that this kind of instruction is reserved only for kids with genuine social impairments, though, you should check out our elementary school’s Expectations Stations tour). But what’s striking is the book’s uncritical acceptance of any and all social conventions, and the utter absence of any acknowledgement that “expectations” should be scrutinized and sometimes even defied.

Could two books be further apart in spirit than The Hidden Curriculum of 1971 and The Hidden Curriculum of 2004? And is there any doubt that the spirit of education today—despite all the talk about the importance of critical thinking—is far more consistent with the latter than with the former?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Best of the blogathon

Now I remember why I don’t usually post every day: because it makes it almost impossible to respond to people’s comments in a timely fashion, and to comment on other people’s blogs. Some great stuff has been flying by from my fellow blogathoners and in the comments here, and I can only struggle to churn out the next day’s post. With luck, I might be able to catch up on commenting; until then, my apologies.

Nicholas J’s blog is on fire. The value of his view from the inside is especially apparent in posts like “Would that diversity were so simple,” “The Enduring Impact of Budget Cuts,” and “Who is Really to Blame for Discipline Problems?” Anyone who thinks schools aren’t teaching to the test should read his description of how writing in taught in his AP history course. But just go to the front page and read all the way through.

Karen W. has apparently hired a staff of research assistants (a possible violation of blogathon protocol!) to help write her posts. When I see headlines about how the legislature will make education reform a priority, I usually reach for the bottle, but Karen goes to work. It is always easier to read this kind of news when it comes from someone who shares some basic skepticism about it. And her take on what “parent engagement” should really mean is not to be missed.

NorthTOmom, never one to blog daily, has nevertheless posted a four-parter on “Teachers: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (plus the Sexy!).” Part 3(b), on “the Sexy,” is a great meditation on an aspect of education that few people talk about and that makes people nervous when they do. Also, I should point out that her posts inspired me to post about teachers and gender in the public imagination, which in turn led to a significant increase in traffic to this blog because of all the Google searches for “sexy teacher.” (Now I can disappoint that many more people.)

And when it all gets to be too much, check out Scott’s blog for a musical respite, with original commentary to boot. My favorite, so far, has been the Schubert accompanying this post. But the archives are full of good stuff, too. Scott’s involved in a bigger project of exploring the connection between jazz and American philosophy; you can get a taste here and here. And there’s never any shortage of great music: I’ve been hooked, for various periods, on the Duke Ellington here, the Nina Simone here, and the Van Morrison here, among others. (You can also read Scott’s film writing here.)

What will become of the blogathoners when February arrives?

Defining “critical thinking” down

In my Q&A with our school district’s central administrators, when I questioned whether the kids were learning to think critically, the administrators said that our science and math curricula are particularly strong on teaching critical thinking. One assistant superintendent said:
And math – I was going to say, our science and math curriculum definitely. Fewer, you know – those two are, you know, more problem-based type of curriculum. Almost, our math to the point where we get criticized for it.
Well, my daughter’s junior high math textbook, part of Holt’s Mathematics series, does regularly include questions purporting to develop critical thinking. Here are a few, picked pretty much at random:

I don’t object to these as math questions, but in what sense do they conceivably involve “critical thinking”? Does “critical thinking” now mean “any thinking whatsoever”? Or “anything beyond straightforward computation”? If “critical thinking” is to mean anything at all, shouldn’t it at least involve critiquing something?

The book does sometimes ask questions labeled “What’s the error?” Here’s an example:

This at least involves critiquing someone else’s reasoning. But since the book tells the students in advance that there’s an error, it isn’t much different from simply asking the students to solve the problem themselves.

It takes a big leap of faith to think that any amount of questions like these will help kids develop the skill—and inclination—to question received notions and critique the world around them. Real critical thinking always involves challenging someone’s authority—not an easy skill to teach when you’re otherwise busy sending the constant message of “do as we say and don’t talk back.”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

There’s always time for more obedience training

Our school district says that it can’t spare any “instructional minutes” to find five or ten more minutes to add to the measly fifteen-minute lunch period in elementary school. But there is always more time for the infantilizing PBIS behavior-management assemblies. After the holiday break, our elementary school spent the morning walking the kids through the PBIS “Expectation Stations” yet again—the second time this school year. This included the usual bathroom tour, in which the kids are brought in groups into the bathroom and given a demonstration of how they must flush the toilet and told just how many squirts of soap or paper towels they can use. This time the “playground expectations” included a special emphasis on what the kids are allowed to do with snow (answer: not much). For this, my daughter’s class missed all of its daily hour of math class and part of its language arts class. But what could be more important than training the kids, ad nauseum, to obey school rules?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mediocrity guaranteed

1. Require all schools everywhere to follow the same detailed laws and regulations. Filter all decisions through a large, central bureaucracy. Vest ultimate policy-making power in the hands of people whose elections do not depend to any meaningful degree on their stands (or lack thereof) on education.

2. Allow educational policy to be set locally. Allow wide variations in approach. Vest decision-making power in local boards elected specifically to govern educational issues.

We are living through the first approach. It is inherently risk-averse. What it does best is minimize the worst-case scenario, preventing schools from falling below a certain basement-level standard, as measured by whatever the popular metric is. That comes at the cost, though, of constraining people from doing the sorts of things that might produce unusually good schools: experimenting, drawing on local knowledge and experience, departing from the conventional wisdom, pursuing unique alternative visions. Although our governor claims he wants to create “world class schools,” his wholesale embrace of the first approach pretty much guarantees mediocrity.

I like the second approach. Since communities differ on what they want from their schools, the second approach would, almost by definition, be likely to satisfy more people. It would free local communities to try a wide variety of policies, so its potential upside would be greater than that of the first approach. And because it would be more democratically accountable to the people it affects, it would have at least some built-in check against sub-basement outcomes. But I don’t deny that there’s a tradeoff—that any policy that permits wider variation opens the door to both better and worse outcomes than you’d get under a system of enforced mediocrity. I think the risk is worth taking, but I can understand how someone could disagree.

The people I don’t get are the ones who accept the premise that education policy should be uniform and centralized, but argue that we should just adopt really great uniform, centralized policies. They never stop hoping for shiny red apples to come out of the sausage grinder. Outstanding schools, however you might define them, aren’t likely to come out of a system that’s practically designed to prevent outliers.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Humans are humans

Between the paleo diets and the spate of articles on child-rearing and education (examples here, here, and here), hunters and gatherers are apparently getting their fifteen minutes of fame. I tend to take these articles with a grain of salt, since I don’t know how idealized their portrayal of hunter-gatherer life is, or how much of it can transfer over to life in our very different society. On the whole, though, I’m glad people are writing them. I think it’s nice to be reminded that there are a lot of ways to live in the world. When the box is so small that our school administrators can’t even imagine giving the kids ten more minutes at lunch every day, anything that helps people think outside it is all to the good..

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Designated Patient

Psychotherapists sometimes talk among themselves about the phenomenon of the “Designated Patient.” Parents will bring a child in for therapy, and before long the therapists realize that the entire family is dysfunctional, and the child’s problems are just a function of the larger family environment. But the other family members can deal with the situation only by conceiving of that particular child as the one with the mental health problem—the Designated Patient. “If that kid gets squared away, the family tells itself, everything will be great,” one therapist writes. “It’s that kid who has the problems, not us.”

It seems to me that education has become the Designated Patient in this country. Poverty, decreasing social mobility, the persistence of racial prejudice, the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands—those aren’t problems we can face. But if we could just get those standardized test scores up . . .

In the classroom, the Designated Patient is the kid who can’t sit still and be compliant. Never mind what the classroom environment is like, or how realistic and age-appropriate the expectations are, or how unengaging the curriculum is, or how little recess or lunch time the kid gets. Something’s wrong with that kid, and the school’s job is to fix him.

At least in psychotherapy, the designation of one person as the “patient” sometimes succeeds in giving the rest of the family a face-saving way of getting the therapy they need. If only the same were true with education.

Related post here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Board approves diversity policy

So the school board voted 4-3 to approve the second reading (of three) of the diversity policy, but only after board members emphasized that any major changes (for example, in attendance areas) would require further board approval. I think that’s a good outcome; my main concern was that the board was delegating too much policymaking power to the superintendent. There’s no harm in having the superintendent propose a plan that would then need board approval. The drafters should have made that clear in the wording of the policy.

On the other hand, that means the policy is effectively just lip service until the board approves an actual plan. The board’s not bound by the policy in any meaningful sense; future boards, or even this board, can choose to follow it or to ignore, amend, or repeal it. It’s easy to imagine “listening posts” ten years from now in which speakers say, “It’s been ten years since the board adopted its diversity policy, and we still haven’t seen any changes.”

I do think the policy’s supporters missed (another) opportunity to present a vision of how the district could implement the policy. Board members who supported the plan went out of their way to say that they did not intend to use large-scale busing of kids to meet the diversity goals. Some made statements (reported here and here) that seemed to imply that any changes in boundaries would be grandfathered—though it’s not clear how that’s consistent with the explicit deadlines contained in the policy. In any event, by only telling us what they wouldn’t do, and not what they would do, proponents of the policy unnecessarily allowed its opponents to define it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Devil’s in the details

I don’t know whether I support a diversity plan, because I haven’t seen one.

Where’s the beef?

I started to write a post titled “Unanswered questions about the proposed diversity policy,” but the policy is so unclear, it’s hard even to formulate the questions. I understand the problem the proposal is designed to address; I don’t need much convincing to believe that concentrating large proportions of low-income families into a few elementary schools has a negative effect on the educational experience in those schools. What I don’t understand is what the proposed policy actually does.

On the one hand, the policy requires the superintendent to achieve specific diversity goals (bringing the percentages of kids from low-income households to within a certain narrow range in each school) by specific dates. It doesn’t explicitly rule out any particular means of doing so (except creating new non-contiguous attendance areas), though it does contain some language suggesting that “non-voluntary movement” should not be the first resort. On its face, it requires the superintendent to meet those goals no matter what it takes to do so.

(Caveat: Much of the policy is so vaguely worded that you can’t tell who is supposed to do what. The writing teacher in me can’t resist noting: I counted at least twenty-two passive voice constructions in twenty-five sentences.)

On the other hand, the most readily imaginable strategies for meeting those goals—such as setting up magnet schools or redrawing district boundaries—would require school board approval. So what’s the point of requiring the superintendent to reach the goals? If the district doesn’t meet the goals, the board can have only itself to blame, not the superintendent.

What, then, would the policy accomplish? It can’t bind future boards, or even this board. If a board someday has the votes to violate the policy, it necessarily has the votes to repeal or amend the policy. Isn’t it just lip service until the board chooses to back it up with real action? In that case, why not skip the policy and propose the real action?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to debate a real plan, rather than allowing everyone’s imaginations to run wild about a vague policy that barely enables anyone to do anything without further board approval?

Monday, January 14, 2013


Now people are upset that a private citizen, Ed Stone, had extensive input into the wording of our school district’s diversity policy. “When did we start letting constituents write district policy?” one parent group asked. “One person (whose expertise is not equity or diversity) should not have been the sole author of language for such an impactful policy,” another commenter argued.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with the role Stone has played. Elected officials can rely as much or as little as they like on whatever informal advisors they choose. There’s no reason to think Stone bribed anyone, or that he has anything to gain personally from the policy. (He’s an ophthalmology professor.) He’s an activist, and you have to assume that the board members who consulted him agree with him.

More importantly, who cares who wrote the policy? The identity of the drafter can’t possibly tell us anything about the merits of the policy that isn’t apparent from the policy itself.

Meanwhile, in response to the charges of improper influence, Stone “noted that the principals of the west-side secondary schools sent letters to parents that he felt were meant to stir up opposition to the diversity policy. ‘I would be much more concerned about that unfair political advocacy,’ he said.” Ugh. Wouldn’t the time spent accusing people of “unfair advocacy” be better spent articulating arguments for and against the policy on its merits?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Merits, not motives

As I wrote yesterday, some people have reacted to our school district’s proposed diversity policy by questioning the motives—or, ominously, the “ulterior motives”—of the people who disagree with them.

I won’t say motives never matter; if you’re relying on someone’s expertise, for example, it helps to know whether a conflict of interest might bring that expert’s credibility into question. But compulsively focusing on a speaker’s motive very quickly turns into an ad hominem distraction from the actual substance of his or her argument.

So, just a reminder: The soundness of a policy argument does not depend at all on the motives of the person making it. An argument stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of whether it comes from the mouth of a hero or a villain. A bad motive doesn’t discredit a good policy, and a good motive won’t save a bad one.

People seem to find it very tempting, when they get worked up about political issues, to talk about motives or personalities or credentials or scandals or behind-the-scenes maneuvering—just about anything other than actually engage the substance of an argument. If that were less true, maybe fewer people would get freaked out by the disagreement and conflict that are an unavoidable part of the democratic process.

(Cartoon © 2013 I. Samuelson for A Blog About School.)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mother may I

Maria Houser Conzemius reports that today’s school board “listening post” on the proposed diversity policy
reminded me of the game “Mother May I.” The board tried to exercise far too much control over who talked and what they said. They insisted on alternating “pro” and “con” speakers on the diversity policy. They demanded respect, though I found nothing wrong with one speaker say that he didn’t trust the board to do what the board says it will do.
Can alternating between pro and con speakers—thus making someone’s permission to speak at a public meeting contingent on the viewpoint they’re planning to express—possibly be consistent with the First Amendment? Does it depend on whether the pro and con sides were roughly numerically equal? Is there any evidence they were? What about speakers who were neither pro nor con?

The school board’s discomfort with free expression never fails to surprise me. For crying out loud, just suck it up and let people talk. Related post here.

It’s all political. What’s wrong with that?

Apparently there is another sub-controversy swirling around our school board’s consideration of a proposed diversity policy: whether the proposal is “political.” “Charges of politicking are going both directions,” one article reported. “Many people see an ulterior motive at play, one that is more political in nature.”

When people complained that the school board was moving too fast on the policy, the board chair said
that although she wants an expedited process, it’s not a political issue for her, and she’s disappointed it may be for some people.

“Because when you’re talking about students’ education, it should not be political,” said [board chair Marla] Swesey, a retired teacher. “It should be what is right for student achievement and what’s not.”
Some parents “view the diversity policy as a political document as much as an educational plan,” one administrator said; another said “he did not see politics at play.” A parent who supports the policy said that
it was wrong to suggest it’s a political tool.

“That’s offensive to me,” she said. “I think that there are a lot of people in this district who aren’t thinking globally. They’re only thinking about their selfish interests.”
It’s perfectly reasonable for people to disagree and to criticize opposing viewpoints. But to suggest that some views on a policy issue are “political,” while others are not, is just a semantic attempt to glorify one’s own viewpoint at the expense of others’, and a nonsensical one to boot. “Political” is not a pejorative term. Politics is the only (non-violent) means we have to work out clashes between different sets of values and interests. It inevitably involves disagreement and conflict, and that’s good. To say that education should not “be political” is to come awfully close to saying that it should not be democratically controlled—a sentiment that seems to be more widespread every day, and that is reflected in the board’s apparent willingness to delegate policy questions to an unelected administrator. I’d much rather have school policy decided by politics than by any alternative I can think of.

Diversity policy evades the hard questions

I’m outsourcing this one to the Patch.

Related post here.

What happened to that discussion about stickers, prizes, and gimmicks?

Following up on yesterday’s post: Here is a comment from earlier this week, by VickiS:
The point here is that, ultimately, you want your child to choose to behave properly because it’s the right thing to do. You help them learn over time that doing the right thing has inherent rewards. Doing the right thing makes you feel good about yourself. You have friends. You earn the respect and trust of others, etc. Doing something simply to earn a privilege (the cell phone contract) or a reward (PBIS) or to avoid punishment (from an authoritarian parent)cheapens the acts and doesn’t seem to promote true moral development.
Is this really so controversial an opinion that it should not even be discussed? Only to the school district.

When our school board chair ran for the board, she told this blog:
I have never been a believer of stickers or prizes used to reward students for good work or behavior. Students should be motivated to feel the intrinsic worth of doing a good job on their schoolwork or doing a good deed. Students are capable of feeling pride in their accomplishments without prizes. Students are naturally curious and should get excited about learning without all the gimmicks. There are times when classes need to celebrate in some way for accomplishments or great deeds that the class achieves. But these celebrations would not be done on a regular basis. Once again, this is not a decision for the school board to make but it certainly can be a discussion with the Superintendent so that he can pass on the discussion with the school principals, who in turn can discuss the issue with the teachers.
Why a district-wide behavior management program isn’t “a decision for the school board” is a mystery, but if those discussions with the Superintendent, principals, and teachers ever occurred, you sure wouldn’t know it. A year and a half later, PBIS continues in full force.

Related post here.

Friday, January 11, 2013


I hope to write a post about our school district’s proposed diversity policy soon. In the meantime, one quick thought. Over the past few years, our district seems to have been roiled by one controversy after another, as redistricting plans have been proposed, rejected, modified, redrawn, and postponed, and different constituencies have lobbied for conflicting spending priorities, and now as the district considers a proposal to minimize socioeconomic disparities between school populations.

All that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with conflict and controversy. Yet I can’t help but think: if the district gave all elementary schoolers a thirty-minute lunch period, starting today, absolutely nobody would complain. There would be no angry phone calls. Nobody would start a petition to cut lunch back to fifteen minutes.

If the district suddenly stopped requiring all the schools to implement PBIS—its behavioral reward program that uses prizes to get kids to be quiet and obedient—nobody would complain. There would be no controversy. Many parents would be happier; others would accept the change passively, just as they accepted the institution of PBIS three years ago. Even parents who like the program would be unlikely to make a stink. No petitions, no angry email chains, no packed school board meetings.

If the district cut the amount of standardized testing in half (or more!), no parents would protest. None.

But those ideas are the ones that are ignored, considered unrealistic, outside the mainstream? Please explain!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

No candor allowed

Rumor has it that the word has come down from our school district’s central administration that principals should not talk to parents (or anyone) about the proposed diversity policy being considered by the school board—even in response to questions—or that if they do, they should stay on the script provided by the district.

We must be protected from hearing the actual thoughts and opinions that our school employees have about a proposed policy change—for our own good!

If the rumor is true, I’m hoping that the district at least had the sense to confine that directive to remarks made on school grounds or using school channels of communication. Public employees, of course, have a constitutional right to express their opinions about issues of public concern. Somehow, though, if I were a school principal—even more so if I were a teacher—I’d feel very reluctant to speak out about this policy, and would fear employment repercussions for doing so. Closely policing staff members for “against the rules” speech will inevitably chill protected speech, too.

It’s not just the speaker who suffers in that circumstance: the public suffers because of the information that is withheld from it. What is the harm that the district is trying to prevent that justifies chilling the flow of information to the public about a proposed policy?

Related post here.

What a crazy radical

Here’s Noam Chomsky on two concepts of education:

The kind of education he’s advocating for here has been essentially outlawed in the United States, at least in public schools. Even if everyone in your school district shared these values, there isn’t a state in the union that would permit you to put them into practice, because they do not acknowledge raising standardized test scores as the ultimate goal of education, and do not concede the importance of instructing all kids on a standardized body of knowledge (i.e., a Common Core).

Because some people (for example, me) prefer reading text to watching video, I’ll put the transcript below the fold.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fiction about school

I find that the more I read about education, the more I need a good book. For me, one of the pleasures of reading good writing of any kind, and especially fiction, is that it’s a respite from the falseness and emptiness of so much of what we hear and read, from politicians and bureaucrats and advertisers and public relations departments and much of the media, and so on. (A teacher of mine called fiction “the last textured place.”) A few pages of Virginia Woolf can go a long way to cleansing the system of phrases like “increasing achievement” or “student success” or “parent-teacher bidirectional communications.”

It seems to me that good fiction tends to treat the enterprise of school with much greater skepticism than we generally hear elsewhere. Maybe that’s inevitable, given the one-dimensionally sunny way in which education is usually discussed; just about any complication of the usual portrayal would require some darkening. The other day I mentioned The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon”—both pretty dark. George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” also comes to mind. Then there’s Donald Barthelme’s great short story “The School.”

Readers: any recommendations?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Help wanted

As I wrote yesterday, my kids’ elementary and junior high schools are both hiring new principals next year. There are a lot of qualities I’d like to see in a principal. They have little to do with whether he or she can maximize test scores and control behavior, and a lot to do with respecting kids and cultivating a humane educational environment. We had a temporary interim principal at our elementary school for the last couple of months who was particularly well-liked by the kids, and seemed to have a great rapport with them. I don’t know much else about him, but that seemed like an awfully good sign. I was sorry to see him go.

Unfortunately, there’s another quality that I’m beginning to think is crucial: seniority. A principal with some seniority can push back against some of the nonsense that comes down from above, and can serve as a real advocate for the school’s families. But seniority is just what you’re unlikely to get when you hire a new principal. When the new hire starts at our elementary school next year, he or she will be the sixth different principal (counting interims) at the school in seven years, which itself might explain a lot.

The cogs seem less engaged lately

Gallup reports that kids grow less engaged in school as the years go on:
Nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students.

And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged.
The executive director of Gallup Education, Brandon Busteed, who is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Business Summit on Education Reform in Des Moines today, had this reaction:
Imagine what our economy would look like today if nearly eight in 10 of our high school graduates were engaged — just as they were in elementary school.
Could it be that looking at kids primarily in terms of economic stimulus is part of the problem?

Government by groupthink

The more I read Roger Schank, the more I agree with him:
I believe that every single subject taught in high school is a mistake.
. . .
Here are most of the subjects you take in high school, listed one by one, with an explanation about why there is no point in taking them.
You can click through to read his reviews of high school Chemistry, History, Biology, Economics, Physics, and French. Here he is on English:
There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.
He concludes:
So here’s my advice: Learn what matters to you. If you want to graduate from high school, go ahead and memorize a lot of nonsense but don’t expect it to matter a bit when high school is over.
Even if you disagree with him, isn’t it true that inertia—“we’ve always done it that way”—explains about ninety-nine percent of the high school curriculum? That inertia is increasingly worse as a result of the devotion to standardization and uniformity: we have to teach Algebra because it’s on the SAT, and we have to teach Chemistry because it’s in the Common Core, and every state has to follow the same standards, so the only way you can meaningfully change the curriculum at your local school is if you get the entire country to change its curriculum, too.

Why not let a school district pursue Schank’s program if it wants to? Is he so obviously wrong that not a single community in America should be permitted to adopt any of his proposed policies? When did we trade in “laboratories of democracy” for “government by groupthink”?

(Thanks to Sheila Stewart for the link.)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Teachers and gender in the popular imagination

In her post yesterday about teachers and sexiness, NorthTOmom suggests that readers “Google ‘sexy teacher’ and see what comes up.” This got me thinking about my post about the “cool teacher.” So I did an experiment: first I did a Google image search for “sexy teacher.” (Suggestion: Do not do this at work.) The results were overwhelmingly female. Here was the top result:

Then I did a search for “cool teacher.” The results were much more male, and here was the top result:

Maybe that’s nothing more than a reflection of the gendered connotations our society gives to the words “cool” and “sexy.” But I also stumbled across this video of the “Top Ten Movie Teachers.” In reality, about three-quarters of public school teachers are female. Quite the opposite for teachers in popular movies, apparently:

What is going on in that warped collective mind of ours? And how does it affect the school experience?

The unelected administrator hired by an unelected administrator appointed by a deferential school board elected by a tiny fraction of the public

Principals are not very high in the school system hierarchy, but I think they can make a big difference in the day-to-day experience of a school. The hiring of principals is entirely within the control of the local school district, so it would seem to present a good (and rare) opportunity for the district to assert its sense of the community’s educational values. As I understand it, our school board members don’t get involved in filling particular vacancies—that’s for the superintendent—but they could try to set the overall tone for what characteristics the superintendent should be looking for. I don’t get the sense they do, though. Instead—as with so many school policy issues—there seems to be a refusal to acknowledge that there are even any value choices to be made.

This year, our district is hiring new principals at my kids’ elementary school and at our junior high. When I emailed the district to ask whether parents would have any opportunities for input into the selection, the Human Relations Director explained that “The district will be inviting one to two parents to sit on the interview team during the selection process for each administrative opening.” When I asked how those parents would be chosen, he replied, “We are going to work with each school’s PTO.” I then asked who does the actual choosing—the PTO or the district—and his response was that
While the district does reserve the right to make the final decision regarding the selection of individuals for the interview teams, the selection process for parent/community participants will be a collaborative effort between the school PTO and the administration. We will be sending more specific guidelines to the PTOs when we are closer to the interview period.
He agreed to send me those guidelines when they become available.

I suppose any parent participation is better than none, but that process hardly seems like a recipe for ensuring that the choice of principals reflects community values.

Since neither you nor I will probably wind up on the selection committee, let’s put our two cents in here. More posts soon.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Uncommonly good

I don’t spend as much time browsing in bookstores as I used to, but I do look forward to the terrific used book sale held by the Shelter House here every year, with seemingly endless quantities of books. As the shelves get depleted, volunteers bring out more books to fill the spaces. The fiction is broken up by genre, and the non-fiction by topic. I love the book sale, but buying books, even when they’re cheap, is always such a gamble: just knowing the genre or topic is such a poor indicator of whether a book is worth reading. Every year, I think to myself: If only they divided them up by “Really Well-Written Books” and “All Others.” I’d be interested in just about anything in the first category, regardless of what it was about.

When I read about how the Common Core standards are leading textbook publishers (and therefore schools) to enforce specific ratios of non-fiction to fiction and poetry (to the disadvantage of the latter two, apparently), I have pretty much the same reaction. Not only does mandating a ratio seems patently silly, but that particular taxonomy doesn’t at all reflect what people who love to read actually value about reading. Something tells me I’d hate to see how the assigned readings in school break down between Really Well-Written Books and All Others.

School employees’ speech should be encouraged more, policed less

Our school district is debating the adoption of a “diversity policy” that would require socioeconomic disparities between school populations in the district to be brought within a relatively narrow range. I hope to post about it soon. In the meantime, I wanted to chime in on the latest sub-controversy: supporters of the diversity policy are up in arms over the fact that a principal at one school sent parents an email, on his school email account, conveying his opinion about the proposed policy, and that administrators at another school sent a letter, on district letterhead, urging parents to express their views on the policy to the school board. (I haven’t seen the email and letter in question, but am assuming, for sake of argument, that those characterizations are true.)

One supporter of the diversity policy, Ed Stone, questioned whether such communications were “appropriate, ethical and legal,” and called on the school board to ask the superintendent to
send a letter to all district principals telling them that it is inappropriate to use district email accounts, district letterheads, and district mailing lists to express any political opinions and that this prohibition includes communications designed to “alert” families to topics currently under consideration by the board and/or suggestions that the recipients contact the board to voice their opinions.
I think those concerns are overblown. Sure, school staff should not spend district money to lobby the public about their own views on policy issues. But I don’t think alerting parents about pending issues and asking them to voice their views crosses that line. And, yes, it would be better if people didn’t use district email accounts to lobby the public, either—but an email costs the district nothing, and anyway the recipients aren’t magically deprived of their power to think for themselves.

Shouldn’t I be concerned about administrators using the school’s “confidential address lists” to promote their views? Maybe I should be, but I’m not. How far would that principle extend? On a daily basis, school principals have in-person access to parents in a way that others don’t have, but does that mean we should muzzle them from expressing their opinions about policy issues when they’re talking to parents on school grounds? Policing employees’ speech in that way, even in the name of fairness, can only end up chilling free expression and making people less informed. When I talk with the staff at my kids’ school, I want to hear what they really think; I’m afraid complaints like Stone’s will make that less likely.

I certainly don’t think district staff feel too free to express their opinions about district policies and practices. (My experience with the district’s behavioral reward program, PBIS, convinced me of the exact opposite.) We should be begging these people—and not just the administrators, but the teachers—to express their opinions about what the district is doing. Again, nobody’s forcing anyone to agree.

If some employees felt free to speak while others feared repercussions, that would be a big problem, and that may actually be true in our district. But the solution isn’t to more closely police how school staff are expressing themselves; it’s to invite everyone—administrators, teachers, and everybody else—to talk freely about their opinions.

Stone says the board should
invite all members of the community to get their information about board activities first hand, or from the newspaper, or from some private citizen who is using his or her own resources to convey his or her own opinion (the cornerstone of our democracy).
I don’t see how inviting people to get their information only in certain approved-of ways is the “cornerstone of democracy.” I wish people would resist the impulse to police and regulate the flow of information and opinion, even when they may technically have valid grounds to do so. Even if it’s a bad idea for employees to use a school email account to express themselves, engaging the substance of what they’re arguing is much more valuable than obsessing over whether they violated a district rule.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

“Contracts” with kids aren’t contracts

The latest thing to go viral is an eighteen-point “contract” that a mother insisted her 13-year-old son sign before she would let him have a cell phone. I don’t really have a problem with a parent who insists on certain rules before getting her kid a phone, since she’s under no obligation to get him a phone at all (though I do agree with most of what this parent has to say). But, as someone who taught Contracts to first-year law students for years, I’m awfully tired of people dressing up adult authority over children in the language of “contract,” especially because, in many instances—for example, with the bogus behavioral “contracts” foisted upon kids in many schools—the child is given no meaningful choice in the matter. (See this post.)

These parents and teachers might be less quick to boast about their contracts if they knew more about the actual law of contracts. The general rule in America is that contracts with minors are voidable at the option of the minor. That means the child can enforce the adult’s contractual obligations, but the adult cannot enforce the contract against the child. If an adult, for example, sells a car to a minor, and fails to turn over the car, the minor can sue to enforce the contract. But if the adult performs her side, the minor can still change his mind and back out. If the minor, for example, fails to make the payments on the car, the adult cannot hold him to the contract, so long as the minor returns the car—or what’s left of it. “A minor who has smashed an automobile or a house trailer need only return the wreck” to be excused from his own obligations under the contract, according to one authoritative treatise. “Even if a minor has squandered or destroyed what has been received, the loss is regarded as ‘the result of the very improvidence and indiscretion of infancy which the law has always in mind.’” There are a few exceptions to the rule, and individual states vary, but the general rule is still true in the wide majority of states.

In other words, one of the dumber things you can do, legally, is make a contract with a child. If this particular parent really thinks of her arrangement as a legal contract, she will be disappointed to learn that it is all downside, no upside for her. But of course everyone knows it’s not really a contract. If anything, it’s the opposite: if the kid reneges, the mother will take away the phone, but if the mother reneges, the kid has no recourse. It’s just the same old exercise of one-sided parental authority, no more or less legitimate than it ever was, aggrandizing label notwithstanding.

Friday, January 4, 2013

O Captain, My Captain

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

Everyone has a story about the cool teacher: the refreshingly unconventional one, the memorably irreverent one, the one who broke the rules, the iconoclast.

It recently occurred to me that, way more often than not, the teacher in those stories is male. I don’t think I’m imagining that, though you might convince me otherwise. Two counterexamples that come to mind are both from literature: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon.” But the portrayal of the female teachers in those works is considerably darker than that of the typical “cool teacher”; in the former she’s revealed to be a fascist, and in the latter she’s insane.

Hypothesis: women do not have the same societal permission to be unconventional and irreverent in the workplace, and have to worry much more about being called unprofessional. I’ve heard women in academia, for example, say that they have to worry more about projecting an air of authority in the classroom, or about being “tough” enough that they don’t lose the students’ respect. I think it is much easier, for example, for a male professor to allow students to call him by his first name than it is for a female professor.

Is there truth to that hypothesis? If so, what effect does it have on K-12 schools, which are staffed predominantly by women?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Facts on the ground

One of my daughters had a teacher who would put one student’s name in an envelope each day. That student was the “Mystery Person.” At the end of the day, the teacher would open the envelope, and if the Mystery Person had been well behaved, he or she would get some special reward—a sticker or certificate or something. If not, the Mystery Person would get nothing, and the teacher would put the name back without revealing who it was. Sometimes, during the day, if the class was becoming unruly, she would say, ominously, “The Mystery Person is being watched.”

I happened to like a lot of things about that teacher, and I know she was not the only one to employ the Mystery Person technique. But I found the Mystery Person thing more than a little creepy, especially in light of all the other ways in which the school seems to be acclimating kids to life in an authoritarian culture. (I happened to think of it again after reading the news a few days ago.)

I don’t mean this blog to be of only local interest. I’m sure I would have much more comfortable relationships with our local school personnel if I just stuck to blogging about education issues in a more general way. But so many discussions of education—the policy proposals, the statistical analyses, the economic arguments, all the talk about “school reform” and “accountability” and “increasing achievement”—strike me as hopelessly removed from what actually happens between actual human beings in actual schools. It’s as if we’ve all tacitly agreed to avert our eyes from what’s right in front of us. If I didn’t occasionally describe the lunchroom whistles and the Dairy Queen attendance prizes and the silent single-file hallway lines and the Orwellian “Mystery People,” there would be little point in writing the blog.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A bloggaissance?

I’m not sure I fully thought through the idea of inviting other people to join the Blogathon; I can barely keep up with their posts, let alone mine. Karen W. is sprinting through the blogathon. Nicholas J. got a two-day head start. NorthTOmom (a/k/a @stepfordTO) has a cliffhanger going. And Scott at Billy and Dad’s Music Emporium, having been plied with crêpes Suzette, is serving up the musical accompaniment (with great commentary, too). Not everyone’s all hung up on the post-every-day thing, but just wait until they see how addictive it is . . .

In a nutshell

Continuing this morning’s topic: The mindset of the district’s engagement website is nicely encapsulated by its current “Featured Topic,” a poll about the Revenue Purpose Statement that we’ll be voting on in February:
Is the information on our website helpful in understanding why the District is asking for the Revenue Purpose Statement to be reauthorized on February 5th?

__ Yes, the revenue purpose statement information provided by the school district is helpful.

__ I would like additional or clarifying information regarding the revenue purpose statement.
It’s okay to offer a choice starting with “Yes.” But “No” sounds so, well, negative. It might even be seen as critical – or disrespectful – or [gasp] inappropriate!

Broken engagement

I got a kick out of our district’s new e-newsletter, The District Dialogue. Despite the title, there is no way to comment on the articles. Maybe, as another parent said to me, “they are confusing the word dialogue with the similar word monologue.”

The newsletter directs people to the district’s engagement website to “join the conversation.” It’s a great site to go to if you want your dialogue to be channeled, micromanaged, and straitjacketed. (See posts here and here.) It’s the kind of “dialogue” you’d expect from people who really like multiple-choice tests. Unsurprisingly, the “conversation” at the site has dwindled to nearly nothing, only a few months after the site began.

Of course, the internet and social media provide endless opportunities for people to connect with each other and discuss issues in whatever way they like, sans the self-serving paternalism. Why go to the baby pool when the ocean is right there?

Karen W. has a great post up about what meaningful engagement does and doesn’t look like. Call me a Luddite, but I’d be happy just to have a bulletin board. I’ve often wondered what would happen if I were simply to post a sign on the wall at our elementary school. Nothing big – maybe just a sheet of paper protesting the short lunch periods, posted where parents dropping off their kids would see it. Do you think the school would let it stay up? If not, what would their rationale for removing it be?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

It’s not too late!

There’s still time to sign on to the Blogathon Challenge (now officially capitalized!) of writing at least one blog post every day in January! Karen W. at Education in Iowa is willing to take a shot at it, and Nicholas J. at Straight from the Desk has decided to shoot for at least three posts a week. I’m also in negotiations with my friend’s excellent music blog (“maybe every other day?”). Anyone else? You’ve still got seven hours (Central Time) to write that first post . . .

The undiagnosed generation

It’s so common now to hear people of a certain age (roughly mine) half-joking about the diagnosis they would have gotten if they had been children today. It’s usually ADHD or Asperger’s, which I suppose makes sense, given that those diagnoses (as labels) didn’t exist when we were kids, and have more recently been diagnosed with increasing frequency. I say people are “half-joking” because it’s never quite clear whether they’re just engaging in comic hyperbole, or whether they’re actually indignant that they would qualify for a diagnosis, or indignant about not having gotten one. Many of these people are successful in their jobs and happy in their personal lives. Most of them, in my experience, are men.

The joke is clearly true, at least as to many people (though not necessarily those who are joking about it). Many of us would have been diagnosed and treated for mental disorders if we had grown up today. There are, of course, many people who have been diagnosed as adults, and I assume that many of them are glad to finally have received treatment. Yet there must also be many, many adults who would have been diagnosed and treated as children under today’s standards, but, having been born too soon, have gone through life without a diagnosis – and have managed, for better or worse.

I don’t doubt that some kids are better off with treatment, but when I see the numbers – one out of eight boys has ADHD? – it’s hard for me not to think that we must be overdiagnosing kids. (See this post.) In any event, what a peculiar phenomenon: a big chunk of society, having grown up largely without diagnoses, watching as the rest of society is diagnosed and treated at much higher rates. What should we make of it? Does the undiagnosed generation see itself as worse off for having been born too soon? Or would they be reluctant to trade places with the today’s kids?