Thursday, February 28, 2013

What is the point of arguing with government officials?

What is the point of arguing with someone whose job requires him to defend certain practices? My recent Twitter exchanges with the director of our state’s Department of Education, like my Q&A with our local school superintendent last year, tended to go in circles while probably aggravating everyone involved. Why bother?

Two reasons, I guess. First, though I may not persuade these officials, I might succeed in shedding light on their positions, and possibly in revealing flaws in their reasoning. The questions that don’t get answered can shed as much light as the ones that do. I’d like to know whether Jason Glass is making any effort to measure what is being sacrificed to increase reading and math test scores, and how he weighs the benefits of test score gains against those sacrifices. He either has to give an answer that I can hold up to public scrutiny, or remain silent and allow us to assume the worst.

The second reason is that it’s important for government officials to hear what people are concerned—and angry—about. Thanks to the internet and social media, many government officials can now be publicly confronted about their policies and practices in a way that wasn’t possible before. What Glenn Greenwald says about journalists here is also true of government officials:
One of the good things about the change the media has undergone is that it has amplified voices. So if you criticize a member of the journalist class, 15, 20 years ago they could easily ignore you, and the only way to hear about it was basically a letter to the editor—it was purely a one-way conversation. Now, it’s a two-way conversation, so if you’re a journalist, and you write something deceitful or propagandistic or sloppy or wrong, everywhere you turn, you’re going to hear it: in your email, on Twitter, in the comment section of what you write, you’re going to be besieged with criticism, and blogs have really fueled that. Something like that influences people and affects how they work.
Or at least it can. I don’t enjoy these exchanges, but I want to do my small part to make that aspect of the internet a reality.

Credit to Glass and Murley for making themselves available in this way. They could probably still get away with an imperious silence—though not as easily as in the pre-internet age.

What is “test prep”?

After a day’s consideration, I’m inclined to stick with my definition of “test prep”: single-mindedly pursuing higher test scores at the expense of other values that are cumulatively more important.

I don’t yet know Jason Glass’s definition, but in his comment to my last post, he says that “simple fact/recall, memorization of likely test facts, guessing strategies, and test time management strategies” would qualify. Under his definition, apparently, it can’t be “test prep” if the school is using strategies and programs that he considers “evidence-based,” regardless of what other values are sacrificed in the process. (Never mind for the moment whether the “evidence base” consists of anything other than test scores.)

By contrast, I think a school that focused exclusively on tested qualities, to the neglect of untested and untestable qualities, would fairly be called a “test prep academy.” If lunch were cut to almost nothing, recess and “specials” eliminated, the school day extended, and the kids made to sit through nothing but reading programs that Glass considers “evidence-based” all day with little or no down time, all for the sake of raising literacy scores, I would call that test prep, even if those scores accurately reflected real gains in literacy. Apparently he would not.

Of course, we can disagree on the semantics. Maybe what I’m describing would better be called “edu-myopia,” or some such term. In any event, I’m happy to agree that what Glass is describing is a more limited phenomenon than what I am describing, however you might label the two. I wish he would agree that both phenomena should be avoided.

Is there anything we shouldn’t do to raise test scores?

I just engaged in a lengthy (and ongoing) Twitter exchange with the director of our state’s Department of Education, Jason Glass. Earlier this week, the Department held up as exemplary a school district that cut recess time to raise literacy scores. (Teachers and students “weren’t happy with some of the things we had to drop, such as morning recess time because we really don’t need that,” one principal said.) Many people chimed in to point out that there’s no reason to think that cuts in recess help kids learn. What I wanted to know was how the department could be sure that the test score increases represented meaningful education, as opposed to just test prep. If there is a difference between the two, and Glass agreed that there is, then the test scores themselves can’t help you distinguish one from the other. So I asked what Glass’s criteria are.

You can be the judge of whether the discussion is going anywhere. But it seems clear that Glass must have a different definition of test prep than I have. Mine would be: single-mindedly pursuing higher test scores at the expense of other values that are cumulatively more important. One such value is providing a humane school experience. Another is preserving a child’s enjoyment of learning. Another is not teaching authoritarian values. Another is giving enough attention to subjects that aren’t tested or don’t lend themselves to testing.

I suspect his definition would focus more on whether the test score increases reflected a meaningful improvement in the particular quality they purport to measure. That would be a defensible definition, but it doesn’t excuse him from asking what has been sacrificed for the sake of that improvement. How does the DOE measure those sacrifices? I don’t think it does. If it did, how would it determine what sacrifices are “worth it”? Though Glass keeps referring to evidence-based practices, the latter question cannot be answered empirically, because it entails value judgments.

How does the DOE make those judgments? In what meaningful sense are they informed by the values of the families they affect?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Refuseniks, continued

Yesterday I wrote that I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss kids’ own judgments about what activities to pursue. It’s true that no one made me learn the piano, but it’s also true that my mother would have liked me to be altar boy, and that I refused, and that she didn’t compel me to. I have no reason to think anything bad would have befallen me as an altar boy, but given what we now know about the Catholic church’s history of ignoring and covering up sexual abuse of children, I remain glad I didn’t spin that particular wheel. In other words, there were compensations for not having learned the piano.

I suppose it’s even possible that my resistance to submitting myself to the authority of those strange, alien, probably harmless religious men might have been caused by some subconscious sense that there was risk involved. A few years ago, Andrew Sullivan collected readers’ stories about their brushes with child abuse in the church. One wrote about a particular priest, “Father K,”
who was much beloved by students. He was the only priest to ever visit our classroom. We were always thrilled to see him when he would show up unannounced for a visit. He was warm, engaging and energetic–the only priest that parishioners could relate to. We had 50 kids in our class, about half were boys. Fr. K was in charge of the altar boys.

When it was time to sign up for training as servers, something stopped me. I don’t know why I didn’t sign up and I lived in fear that my teacher, a nun, was going to come down on me for failing to volunteer. It turned out that two of my friends didn’t sign up either. Our teacher never said a word, even when we were, conspicuously, the only three boys left in class while the rest attended the occasional altar boy meeting. I envied classmates who left during the school day to attend meetings and serve Mass across the street and yet something had stopped me from volunteering. You know where this is going.

In the late 1990s, it was revealed that Fr K had been molesting altar boys in the 50s and the early 60s. I had a rough home life and would have been a perfect target for abuse. I’ve often wondered over the past ten years if our teacher knew what was going on and that’s why she didn’t give us a hard time. . . .

I still don’t know what stopped me from volunteering to be an altar boy. All I know is that I was one lucky kid.
The whole series is here. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that all coercive parenting or schooling is somehow like exposing kids to sexual abuse, or that inaction doesn’t have its own risks. Just that kids can have hard-to-articulate reasons for their choices that shouldn’t automatically be ignored.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


I confess that I was a little refusenik: I wouldn’t learn an instrument, I wouldn’t play a sport, I wouldn’t join the Boy Scouts, etc. As an adult, sure, I think it would be great to know how to play the piano. But that’s not who I was at that time, and no one forced it on me.

I have no way of knowing whether I’d be better off if my parents (or my school) had been more prescriptive about how I spent my time, but I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss kids’ own judgments about what to pursue. For all our data, growing up remains a mysterious thing. When I was young, I spent a lot of time very much in my own world, a lot of time by myself, and a lot of time doing things of no apparent value. I watched enormous quantities of television. I didn’t participate in any organized after-school activities. I read magazines and comic books but almost no “real” books, except what few were assigned in school. Nobody intervened. My parents had five other kids and bigger things to worry about. Those were the days.

Eventually, though—fifteen? sixteen?—I got tired of TV and suddenly became interested in the outside world. By the end of high school I was an aspiring politician and the go-to volunteer on local Democratic party campaigns—ringing doorbells, staffing phone banks, bonding with the local party regulars, and plotting my own future runs for office. No one could have been more surprised than my parents.

Anecdotal, yes. But does the prevailing way of thinking about kids leave room for that kind of anecdote?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Required classes and 20/20 hindsight

People vary widely on the question of how much we should force educational experiences on kids against their will. It’s ultimately a matter of opinion, of course. But I do think there is sometimes a confirmation bias in the way that people think about the issue.

I hear two common reactions to the topic, variants of “I was required to take a foreign language, and now I’m glad I can speak Spanish,” and “I wish someone had made me learn to play the piano when I was young.”

In both examples, there is a kind of cherry-picking going on. You wish you could play the piano, so you wish someone had made you learn it. In reality, though, it would have been other people—parents? schools?—choosing what you would have to learn. There’s no reason to think they would have chosen the one thing your later adult self would like to have learned. Maybe it would have been field hockey, or equestrianism, or something you would have loathed. Maybe it would have been ten, twenty, or thirty things. And if you weren’t interested in learning piano at that time, how can you be sure it would have worked out as you now wish? (And what’s stopping you from signing up for lessons now, anyway?)

You’re glad you know Spanish, so you’re glad someone made you learn it. But many people would eventually choose to learn a language even if it were not required; are you sure you’re not one of those people? Moreover, the kind of people who would make you learn a foreign language are likely to make you learn a lot of other things, too, including things you might never have had any interest in; are you taking those costs into account? Can you be sure that the value of speaking Spanish outweighs the value of what you might otherwise have chosen to do with all that time if you had been given more say in the matter—including the value of gaining experience with independence and with making decisions for yourself? And isn’t there at least some reason to think that people who choose what to learn will learn it more effectively? It’s easy to support coerced learning when you compare it with nothing at all, but that’s not the real alternative.

That said, I’m much more comfortable with parents making those decisions for their own children than with the schools making a blanket decision for all kids—especially if that decision is being made by distant politicians and bureaucrats who know nothing about the kids as individual human beings.

Monday, February 18, 2013

How are magnet schools possible?

Some proponents of our school district’s new diversity policy have emphasized the possibility of meeting the policy’s goal—to reduce the concentration in any one school of kids from low-income families—through the creation of magnet schools that would draw families voluntarily from many different parts of town.

I’ve got nothing against the idea of magnet schools; it would be great if the district could make progress toward its diversity goals through voluntary transfers. But I don’t really understand them, either. How exactly would, say, a “science and technology” magnet school differ from our current elementary schools?

Keep in mind that the district has so much instruction stuffed into its current school day, and finds all of it so indispensable, that it has shortened recess and squeezed its lunch periods down to fifteen minutes. And that the superintendent explained to me that the district can’t add even five more minutes to the lunch period because “it’s very difficult to both meet the minimal instructional minutes and get all the [state-mandated] Common Core content delivered in the classroom.” And that the assistant superintendent also explained that “we as public schools are charged with far more than providing core academic instruction. For example, we teach a bullying/harassement curriculum, a health foods curriculum (in several schools with grant money) and financial literacy.” And that the teachers’ union president recently told the school board that the district’s overstuffed elementary school day is short-changing the kids and causing morale problems among the teachers.

What parts of the current school day will suddenly become expendable to create a greater emphasis on science and technology (or whatever the school’s particular theme will be)? Either these magnet schools will be all talk without any real difference, or there is more room for change in the school day than the district admits. Which is it?

(Cross-posted at the Patch).

Better than utter silence

More than anything, what mystifies me about our school board is how unbothered they seem by what high-stakes testing has done to our schools—probably the biggest change in K-12 education in our lifetimes.

What’s stopping them from passing a resolution like this one? Full text here.

Was B.F. Skinner a “teacher” of his rats and pigeons?

Is there any difference between (1) using material rewards and punishments (including grades) to elicit behavioral responses from kids; (2) telling kids what to think about value questions, and then assessing them on how well their answers conform to the “correct” ones; and (3) trying to engage kids’ minds, reason with them, and help them think for themselves about the world around them?

Are the behaviorists right that the answer is “no”? That behavior is all, that “thinking” and “the mind” are useless illusions, and that education should focus only on eliciting desired behaviors?

I propose we use the word “teach” to describe only the third category. I wonder how much of what now goes on in our schools would count as “teaching” under that definition.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Gumby Syllogism

So many education proposals seem to rest on this logic: “It would be great if everyone knew x. Therefore we must make everyone learn x.” If kids were Gumby figurines, whom we could just twist into whatever poses we wanted them to assume, this syllogism might make perfect sense. But kids actually have minds of their own, and individual personalities and predispositions, and emotions, and desires, including the desire for control over their own lives. In other words, they are human beings, and can’t be counted on—any more than adults could be counted on—to go willingly along with someone else’s plan to “improve” them.

When I wrote, about E.D. Hirsch, that “it’s as if he’s completely excluded psychology from learning theory,” that’s what I was getting at. (Not to mention the other age-old obstacles to implementing grand schemes, such as human error, inefficiency, corruption, and susceptibility to snake-oil salesmen.)

When people start wishing away the fact that kids have minds of their own, or seeing it as an obstacle to education, something has gone very wrong.

Does “teach” conceal more than it reveals?

I’ve argued (here and here) that people often use the verb “to teach” to mean “to impose one’s will on another person.” One problem with the word is that it not only enables people to avoid confronting that fact, but also to avoid discussing the actual mechanics of imposing your will on another person. “We need to teach kids not to do drugs!” Okay, but easier said than done, no?

Here’s a passage from an essay by Diana Senechal:
Beyond giving students a foundation, schools must teach them what commitment means. Without apology, they should teach students to read, write, and practice without any distractions from the Internet, cell phone, or TV, and to make a daily habit of this. It doesn’t matter if they claim to know how to “multi-task”; multi-tasking amounts to compromise, and they need to learn to offer more of themselves. . . . Teachers should not hesitate to correct students, as students need to strive for accuracy when working alone. Students should learn how to put their full mind into their work, sometimes heartily, sometimes grudgingly, but with regularity and determination.
I don’t really understand how Senechal is using the word “teach” in this passage. It seems like a roundabout way of saying: here is a desirable outcome. To assert that schools should “teach” students, “without apology,” to do these things adds nothing that I can comprehend. Later in the same essay, she writes:
Many practices of solitude can be conveyed only through example. Teachers who practice their subjects—who think about them and work on them in their own time—can show students a way of life. They need not “model” for the students in any canned way; their very conduct is a model. When a teacher reads a poem aloud or presents a mathematical proof, her tone conveys whether she has thought about it at length, played with it, argued about it, and more. Students will likewise learn from teachers’ handling of conflicts that arise in class and in school. Problems and dilemmas will arise, and teachers will be put to the test. How does a teacher respond when one student taunts another, when one student seems far more advanced (or less advanced) than the others, or when one of the students objects to the tenor of the discussion or the premises of the lesson? How does a teacher respond to events affecting the whole school—a new principal, a change in the rules, or an emergency? A teacher’s bearing in these situations is complex and influences students enormously.
Is this by the same author? The first passage seemed to endorse unapologetic instruction to indoctrinate children into certain values. The second endorses a much more light-handed (and, I think, sensible) approach to transmitting values. The second paragraph completely avoids using “teach” as a verb, and ends up conveying a much more specific meaning.

Even if I were to believe that we should extensively intervene to shape kids to fit our desires (I don’t), I’d still concede that there’s a world of difference between wanting an outcome and making it happen. Our most common word for what schools do—“teach”—seems to function to conceal that gap.

What does “teach” mean? (continued)

Nicholas J. and Karen W. have been posting about whether there is a better word than “instruction” to describe what schools should do. I like a lot of what they have to say, and their alternatives to “instruction” all seem like improvements, but I can’t say that any of them seem like a perfect fit.

I wrote here about how people use the word “teach” to mean two very different things, and I think there is also a third: to make someone adopt a certain opinion or value. You shouldn’t do drugs. Bullying is bad. You should respect your elders. You should be caring, honest, respectful, responsible, and courageous. Liberty, democracy, justice, due process, and individual rights are important, except when you are a child in school. That sort of thing.

I don’t think schools can or should avoid standing for a set of values, but I do think the transmission of values raises certain issues that the transmission of knowledge or skills doesn’t raise, so it would be helpful to have a particular word for it. “Indoctrination” carries a lot of negative connotations, but maybe that’s a plus, since it might help counteract people’s natural attraction to imposing their values on others. Maybe if we admitted that we’re indoctrinating, we’d have to think a little harder about just what values we want to indoctrinate kids with.

Teaching values also raises pedagogical issues that teaching skills doesn’t raise. Telling other people what to think is likely to trigger a different reaction than telling them how to do something. Coercive indoctrination is likely to provoke resistance and rebellion, and to model qualities that might be very different from the qualities you’re trying to instill. When it comes to transmitting values, I think the most defensible approach is modeling, combined with thoughtful, non-coercive discussion—always leaving kids the freedom to disagree. Dictating the mandatory values and then expecting the kids to parrot back “correct” answers is the worst and most counter-productive approach. From what I hear about our district’s “guidance curriculum,” it sounds like the latter approach has won the day, and I worry about what it’s really teaching.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Who’s the Utopian?

We had an interesting discussion of E.D. Hirsch going in this comment thread, which I hope will continue (in the usual slow, on-again-off-again way of this blog). I can understand why people want to defend Hirsch, not just because he seems to genuinely want to improve life for the most economically disadvantaged students, but also because I think he’s probably right about a number of things, such as the importance of early vocabulary development. What I don’t share is his (and so many people’s) confidence that the good of imposing a worthy idea on all public schools and all children will necessarily outweigh the bad. Trying to force or coerce people to adopt a particular educational program against their will inevitably requires treating children, families, and communities like objects rather than like people—depriving them of any meaningful say over what goes on their schools. It also means treating teachers like workers on an assembly-line. Education, for many “reformers,” is mainly about telling other people what to do.

Here’s one thing our schools appear to be teaching very effectively: It’s always okay—in fact, necessary and commendable, something to be proud of—to impose your will on other people, as long as you think it’s for their own good. And it produces only the intended consequences!

I certainly have my own ideas about how schools should be run, but if I ever suggest that they should be imposed by law on every kid in every public school in America, or even Iowa, I should have my head examined.

Is blogging rational?

Blogging once (or more) per day in January was a worthwhile experiment, but I don’t plan to make a habit of it. On the one hand, I finally finished some posts that had been half-written for years. On the other hand, my to-be-written list has, if anything, grown longer. I wanted to loosen up the style a bit, which proved to be harder than I anticipated. I do think quality suffered for the sake of quantity.

One drawback was that it was hard to keep up with my fellow blogathon travelers, Karen W., Nicholas J., NorthTOmom, and Scott, and with the commenters here, all of whom were posting great stuff. A tag-team blogathon would have made much more sense.

Maybe this is February talking, but I think the only rational take-away from immersion in this activity is a kind of hopelessness. You can throw yourself against an immoveable object only so many times. The values and assumptions reflected in most discussions of education today are more and more alien to mine. I don’t have any illusions that my kids will graduate from anything other than a virtually unchanged school system, or worse.

So why bother? I suppose the blogosphere in sum has made a difference, and that even small-circulation blogs do their part in generating and spreading ideas. One vote isn’t going to change the world any more than one blog is, but lots of people vote anyway. Why? It can’t be because they expect to cast the deciding vote; the elections with the highest turnout are those in which one vote is least likely to make a difference. I don’t think it’s out of duty or out of rational self-interest, though you could certainly justify it on both grounds. I think it’s more about whatever gratification comes from self-expression and, to some extent, from venting. The same seems true of blogging, but with an added element of conversation, and of pure compulsion. I’m not sure I could stop if I tried.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

No toddler left untested

Universally available, non-compulsory preschool, subsidized based on means-testing, is worth doing purely because it would help low- and middle-income families deal with the difficulty of raising a family while both parents hold down jobs. It would also be a great form of economic stimulus, since both the recipients and the providers of the service are likely to be low- and middle-income people. Even if it had no lasting educational benefits, it would be a good idea.

It also has a lot of potential to give low-income kids a chance to become well-educated adults on a more equal basis with kids who come from money. That’s all to the good.

But please: let’s not create another layer of test-driven obedience schools. Unfortunately, that’s what we have every reason to expect from the people who brought us No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. The people running education policy today are among the very last people I would entrust a three-year-old to. I wish I thought otherwise.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Take it to the Seattle school board

Teachers in Seattle’s Garfield High School have unanimously decided to refuse to administer their district’s required standardized test (the “MAP”), saying it “corrupts teaching and learning.” If there was ever a standardized test that deserved to be boycotted, it’s this one. Teachers say that it is not aligned with the district’s curriculum, sometimes testing topics that the students wouldn’t study until later grades, and that students don’t take it seriously because they know their scores don’t affect their grades or graduation status. Other concerns include:
(1) that the test was sold to the district while the sitting superintendent of schools, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, was on the board of the company that sold the test, which she did not divulge at the time, and (2) that the gains students are expected to make on the tests—at least at the high school level—are actually within the margin of error of the test grading, which makes the MAP appear pretty much statistically useless.
The superintendent has threatened disciplinary action against the teachers, and today is a “National Day of Action” to support the teachers. Supporters of the boycott are urging people to write to the superintendent or sign a petition addressed to him. (I signed the petition.)

I don’t understand why more people aren’t focusing their attention on Seattle’s elected school board, rather than its employee, the superintendent. The superintendent is just carrying out a requirement of the board, and his threat to discipline the teachers is based entirely upon a district policy enacted by the board. The board is in a much better position to solve this problem than the superintendent: Simply stop requiring the tests, and enact a policy protecting the teachers from being disciplined for the boycott. Maybe the board members won’t do that, but at least they can be held accountable at the polls. I would love to see a school board election focused on the issue of standardized testing.

In any event, I now have one of my questions for this year’s school board candidates: If our teachers decided as a group that certain standardized tests were harmful and refused to administer them, would you support a policy protecting them from disciplinary action for doing so?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bumper sticker for a new century: “Well-behaved girls please their teachers”

This study has been getting a lot of attention this week. Here’s Christina Hoff Sommers in the Times:
Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys.

The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.

The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.

No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.
The commentary that I’ve read has focused entirely on how this means that boys are now academically disadvantaged compared to girls. I don’t doubt that the phenomenon the study describes is bad for boys, but I think it’s every bit as bad for girls, and maybe worse. The “classroom behavior” “skills” that the study identifies—“attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization,” all based on teacher reports—sound a lot like how a school would describe kids who do as they’re told, always pay attention, are never difficult, comply with all “expectations,” and don’t draw attention to themselves in way that makes trouble. (Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but think that “learning independence” means something closer to “don’t bother the teacher” than to “think independently.”)

If school rewards girls because they are more docile and compliant with the expectations of authority figures, that’s hardly good news for girls. For one thing, those are exactly the traits we shouldn’t want to develop in the people who will one day be deciding our elections. And even if we just look narrowly at the kids’ future employment: are those really the traits that will enable those girls to someday succeed on an equal basis with those “poorly behaved” boys? Or would being assertive and strong-willed potentially come in handy? (What happened to that old bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women never make history”?)

That this study is somehow good news for girls is a conclusion you could reach only if you think of education entirely in terms of maximizing grades, or entirely in terms of producing the ideal Walmart cashier.

Sommers concludes that “fairness today requires us to address the serious educational deficits of boys and young men.” Ugh, I can’t help but fear where that’s going: the solution is to make sure that schools train boys to be much more docile and compliant. Instead, how about we re-examine our “expectations” and our educational goals, and start encouraging traits that will enable all kids to become assertive and independent-minded members of a democratic society?

Related post here.

Monday, February 4, 2013

RPS predictions?

I’m no Nate Silver—in fact, I’m probably closer to a Pauline Kael—but I thought I’d go out on a limb and make a prediction about tomorrow’s tomorrow’s RPS vote here, if only for entertainment’s sake. (For more information about the issue, see this post.) In other words, this is a completely frivolous post.

I don’t have much to go on, but I think most signs point to a “Yes” win. First, the pro-RPS side seems more organized and vocal. I haven’t kept a tally, but it’s been my impression that supporters’ letters to the editor have far outnumbered opponents’. The pro-RPS side also seems to be better funded—I’ve gotten at least one pro-RPS mailing, and this afternoon I even got a robo-call. (Is that a plus?) [Update: They’re even running radio ads!] Who knows, maybe that’s just because Vote Yes people are more profligate with their money; I’m glad a not a fundraiser for the Vote No side. In any event, the Vote Yes side has seemed more visible and active.

Second, for reasons I discussed here, I think the Iowa City area is likely to be predisposed toward arguments in favor of social spending.

Third, the last time an issue like this was on the ballot, it won by about a two-to-one margin—even a little higher if you just look at our school district, without the rest of the county that was also voting then.

Fourth, the RPS enables funding for infrastructure projects in all parts of town. People on both the east and west sides and in the North Corridor all have infrastructure hopes, all of which have a better chance of getting funded, and sooner, if the RPS passes.

Fifth, I think we’re unlikely to see much of a backlash against the district’s proposed diversity policy. Some areas may even be more likely to support the RPS because of the diversity policy. And the areas that seem most likely to oppose the diversity policy are also those who are most likely to want a new high school. There’s good reason to think that if the RPS fails, the school board will reallocate the money that’s been set aside for the new high school to other building needs. So many of the people who oppose the diversity policy have good reason to want the RPS to pass.

Sixth, turnout so far is low. The rate of early voting is a little more than half what it was the last time we voted on this kind of issue. I think a low turnout favors the more organized side, which appears to be the pro-RPS side.

The “No” votes will come from the more fiscally conservative voters who would rather have the tax relief, as well as from voters who are disgruntled enough with the district to cast a protest vote and those who simply want a clearer sense in advance of how the money is likely to be spent. I just don’t think there are enough of those voters to stop the measure from passing.

Fully prepared to eat crow, I predict the measure will pass with 70% of the vote. Feel free to chime in with your own prediction in the comments (or on Twitter).

Sunday, February 3, 2013

School board finds a backbone when it wants to

Our school district’s proposed diversity policy would require the district to balance out the disparities in the number of low-income families at each school, using a child’s receipt of “free and reduced lunches” as a proxy for low income. Last week, though, the state of Iowa informed the district that the policy’s use of free-and-reduced-lunch data would be illegal. “Please revise the Diversity Plan to remove all reference to the free or reduced eligibility status,” the state’s letter concluded.

A majority of the board, however, has apparently decided to go ahead with the policy anyway.

I’m not in favor of the proposed diversity policy, for the reasons I stated here. But I can’t help but be encouraged by any sign of rebelliousness by the board against state intervention in its policies. You go, school board! Now, when the district claims that state mandates leave it no choice but to squeeze lunch and recess to the bare minimum, and to inflict behaviorist obedience training on all the kids, and to subordinate all educational values to the task of raising standardized test scores, I’ll know what precedent to cite.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Taxation is not embarrassing or shameful

One thing that bums me out about the way our school district has portrayed the RPS ballot issue is its fear of the word “tax.” As I wrote here, the RPS is effectively a tax—that is, voters are choosing whether sales tax money should go for school infrastructure needs or, instead, back to the taxpayer in the form of property tax relief. The district has been at pains to obscure that fact, emphasizing that the measure “will NOT raise your property taxes,” and trying instead to cast the issue as one of local control. At the initial district presentation about the RPS that I attended, it took me about a half an hour even to understand the issue, because the district was dancing around the central fact of how the RPS relates to tax revenue.

What does it say when people who want to enable social spending—on education, of all things, in one of the bluest counties in America—are afraid of candidly making the argument in its favor?

The consolation is that people seem to be seeing through the spin. Activists on both sides have discussed the issue in terms of social spending and fiscal restraint. Many of the pro-RPS articles (including mine) have argued that voters shouldn’t let their dissatisfaction with district policies undermine their willingness to enable more funding for public education. Meanwhile, the opposition to the RPS has taken on the look of the usual “Vote No” campaigns run by Taxpayers’ Associations everywhere, with an emphasis on “living within a budget.” (The group’s leader, for example, is affiliated with a “free market, limited government think tank” with the web address “”) The anti-RPS group’s somewhat comical name, “People For All,” might more accurately have been “People Against All.”

Neither side is objectively wrong; they’re just expressing different values. My question is why the district would want to shy away from that view of the conflict in a place like Johnson County. By all appearances, the more the conflict has been put in those terms, the better the pro-RPS side appears to be doing. In Johnson County, the smart money is on the social-spending liberals, not the small-government conservatives. Yet some government officials still see any support for taxes, no matter the justification or audience, as a kind of political third rail that must be avoided with sheepishness and subterfuge. That’s no way to fund a school system.