Sunday, March 31, 2013

Are school boards just glorified student councils?

Schools everywhere have student councils; here in Iowa City, we even have them at the elementary level. In theory, participation in a student council teaches students about democracy and self-governance. What it teaches in practice, though, is another matter. I think it’s fair to say that most schools allow student councils to decide only those issues that the school authorities do not care enough about to decide themselves—and even then schools often make heavy-handed “suggestions” about what the student councils should do. Putting a facade of self-governance on institutions that are fundamentally autocratic is a funny way of teaching about democracy.

It’s hard for me to watch our local school board in action without seeing a resemblance. Our board talks endlessly about how many schools to have, how many kids fit in each one, where to draw the boundaries, which mix of kids to put within each boundary, and how much it all costs, but when it comes to what goes on in those classrooms educationally—the most central educational issue—where’s the debate?

It’s not as if there’s nothing to talk about. For example, there are plenty of people, including me, who think that high-stakes testing is having devastating effects on education—everywhere, including in Iowa City. It’s arguably the single biggest educational issue of this generation. But if our school board members have any opinion whatsoever about it, you’d never know it from what they do.

True, the issues that most directly affect our kids’ educational experience are often exactly the ones that the state doesn’t let school boards decide—even though state officials are far less democratically accountable on educational issues than local school boards are. High-stakes testing, and many of its associated ills, are state-mandated policy everywhere in Iowa, period. We’ll make those decisions, the state says, but we’re happy to let you school board members do the work of setting budgets and drawing school boundaries. We’ll even let you hold a bake sale or a car wash!

A school board can respond like a well-behaved student council and confine itself to the less central issues, or it can think critically about what’s happening in its own schools. If state policy is harming our kids’ education, our school board should be pushing back against it, vocally criticizing it, and doing everything it can to mitigate its effects. To treat the whole topic as moot because it’s a state issue is to abdicate that responsibility. Board members should act like elected representatives, not like dutiful state employees.

On the other hand, if they intend to passively administer whatever dictates the state hands down, maybe it’s time to make their state employee status official. Doing the state’s grunt work should at least get you minimum wage.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

New principal at Hoover Elementary

Our district has announced yet another new principal for my kids’ elementary school. Next year’s sixth graders will have had six different principals (counting interims) since they started kindergarten. You can read about the new principal here.

The qualities I’d like to see in a principal are almost impossible to assess through a Google search, so I’ll just hope for the best. I do think it’s interesting that he taught art for fifteen years, and that he is currently principal at a school that has a Montessori classroom. On the other hand, I was disappointed to see that many of his school newsletter articles focused on standardized testing. One example:
Is your child where they need to be academically for this time of year? This question is on our teacher’s minds continually, it should also be on yours. We have just completed our first quarter and our first parent-teacher conferences. Your next question should be: what would it take for my child to exceed the standards? Our current Standards will be fully replaced next year with the new Arizona Common Core Standards. These new standards are comparatively more rigorous. A child who achieves “Exceeds” on our current AIMS assessment will be lucky to score “Meets” on the new assessments that will be aligned with the AZ Common Core.

AIMS tests will be replaced in the 2014-2015 school year with the new PARCC assessments. Students who are currently reading at their own grade level by today’s standards will be expected to read at least 1.5 to 2 grade levels ahead of where they are now. Based on these new expectations, a 3rd grader who would finish the school year at grade level would need to be reading at an early 4th grade level at the end of the school year.

Our teachers have been working and preparing for these new rigorous standards for two years. Are you prepared to support your child and help them move towards these new standards?
With the ever increasing academic expectations of the new Arizona Common Core standards, 3rd Grade Move on When Reading, and soon to change AIMS assessment, your child’s future depends on our cooperative efforts.

We have created a process at Pomeroy over the last few years where our teachers and support staff continually review and monitor your child’s progress in reading and math and when needed, we provide as much extra support as possible.

Sometimes children need more review and practice then we have time for during the school day. This is where you play a key role. We have events during the school year when we try to give parent’s materials and training on activities you can do at home to help your child succeed academically. Gobble up Reading, Mornings with Mom, Dads on Deck and many others were devised to make learning fun and educational. I encourage you to do your best to attend all these events. . . . Help us make your child as successful as we know they can be.
More here. Notice that there’s no discussion of whether the new standards make more sense, or are more age-appropriate, than the ones that were so important the previous year. Whatever the standards are now is what we must care about. We have always been at war with Eurasia!

This stuff is par for the course now, and may well have been demanded of him by his central administrators, so I wouldn’t assume that it sheds much light on him as a principal. It’s standard procedure simply to assert that meeting arbitrary test score benchmarks is what school is all about, and to presume without discussion that all parents will naturally be on board. Needless to say, I’m not on board. I hope that if our new principal makes statements like these, parents will push back against them. He’s not responsible for the policy of high-stakes testing, but if he’s going to be the public face of that policy and advocate for it, he needs to hear how people feel about it.

The internet is too much with me

Thanks, everyone, for the comments you’ve posted over the past few weeks. I’ve been AWOL, both from posting and from commenting, for no reason other than that I need to get away from the internet for a while. I’ll be back as time allows, but I doubt I can match this blog’s January-February pace any time soon..

Friday, March 8, 2013

What are we teaching about liberty and justice? (continued)

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m concerned about authoritarian approaches to K-12 education because I’m concerned about the increasing acceptance of authoritarian values in America generally. The choices that our schools are making often seem like miniature, entry-level versions of the choices that confront our country in areas such as foreign policy, state security, and criminal justice.

Earlier this week, in a post about the now-common practice of requiring kids to get their parents’ signatures on their homework, I argued that it violates basic principles of justice and due process for a school to punish a student for the conduct of his or her parents. Also this week, the issue of the limits of the President’s authority to target and kill American citizens finally received widespread attention in the media. In a short-lived filibuster against the nominee for CIA director, one senator alluded to the drone-inflicted death of a sixteen-year-old American citizen whose father was an alleged terrorist and asked, “If you happen to be the son of a bad person, is that enough to kill you?” The next day, the Senate confirmed the CIA nominee.

In less than fifteen years, we’ve gone from a country in which torture was uniformly reviled to one in which it is commonly defended. In less than five years, we’ve gone from a country in which one party was largely united against the use of torture and indefinite warrantless detention, even during wartime, to one in which there is wide bipartisan acceptance of the idea that the President can kill American citizens without any judicial process or oversight, potentially even on American soil.

I don’t know which is the egg and which is the chicken, but if we were trying to create schools that would make students inured to the erosion of civil liberties and the expansion of unchecked state authority, it’s hard to know what we would do differently.

Related posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and throughout the site.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Don’t sign the homework (part 2)

There is an awful lot of talk lately about “helicopter parents,” who, we’re told, hover over their children and micromanage their childhoods. Teachers, understandably, find such parents particularly bothersome. Yet I’m struck by how closely schools now hover over kids and micromanage them—and even want me to help with the hovering, way more than I want to.

For example, all three of my daughters now have teachers who require them to obtain a parent’s signature on their homework, planners, tests, and/or reading logs. My wife sits at the kitchen table in the morning as the kids bring their papers for her to sign, like secretaries presenting paperwork to the boss.

My wife is willing to sign them, but I’m not. Here are my objections:

First, the parent signature requirement robs the students of autonomy over their own school work. I want my kids’ school work to be their business. I want them to get experience with being independent and taking care of their own affairs. I think that kind of autonomy is a key ingredient in building a sense of agency and competence. I wrote more fully about that reason in part 1 of this post.

Second, it’s demeaning to make kids prove to you every day that they’ve done their homework. It sends the message that you don’t trust them to be independent, and don’t think they’re capable of handling their school work on their own. It presumes them to be slackers until they prove themselves otherwise, over and over again. It encourages them to see themselves as doing the work to satisfy others, rather than to make it their own. The many kids who would do the homework on time without this intervention are robbed of the opportunity to prove that and to take pride in it. As I wrote in part 1, I think I would have become a juvenile delinquent if my parents had insisted on policing my school work the way parents are expected to today.

Third, it elevates rule-compliance over substance. Do the homework correctly, turn it in on time—and you’ll still lose points if you haven’t gotten your parent to sign it. There are kids at our junior high who routinely get Fs on that aspect of their homework, and it affects their course grades—never mind how well they know the material. Is the grade supposed to measure what they know and can do, or how obedient they are?

Fourth, it’s presumptuous. It would be one thing if a teacher asked parents if they were interested in signing their kids’ homework all the time. I would still decline the invitation, but at least my kids wouldn’t get a misimpression of how to ask politely for someone’s assistance. Instead, the typical approach is simply to tell the kids they must get the signatures, or to tell the parents they must provide them. (For example, “You will sign the log sheet to show the reading has been completed.”) Isn’t it rude to assume that someone will not only agree with your intervention, but actively participate in it, and that you don’t even need to ask nicely?

Fifth, the practice sends bad—and factually inaccurate—messages about authority. It’s hard to think of a more basic principle of justice than the principle that the government cannot punish you for someone else’s acts. If anyone wants to explain to me how it would be constitutional for a public school to penalize a child for a parent’s refusal to sign homework, I’d like to hear it. Yet, when my wife has been away and I’ve told my kids that I won’t sign the homework, they have always been anxious about getting punished. One thing the school has taught them well: No one should ever disobey the authority figure.

I’ve written notes to each teacher explaining that I won’t sign the homework when my wife is away; fortunately, they’ve been understanding about it. But, needless to say, not every parent who doesn’t get around to signing the homework writes a note explaining why. Lots of kids are getting the impression that the teacher has authority not only over them but over their parents as well, and can punish them for their parents’ conduct if they choose. I sometimes remind my kids that the schools are there to serve the public, not the other way around. I’m afraid they don’t learn that very well in school.

Why has the practice of requiring parent signatures become so common? What does it say about what schools now value? Stay tuned for part 3.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Freedom of association for me but not for you

Our governor has endorsed a bill that would increase the power of schools to intervene in bullying, even if it occurs off school grounds or on social media. According to the governor’s office, the bill would define bullying to include instances, for example, in which “a group of girls shun another girl”—even, apparently, if it occurs outside of school.

Last year I wrote about how our elementary school surveyed the kids about whether they had seen or experienced bullying. Its list of what would count as bullying included the item, “left out on purpose.” The list made no attempt to distinguish between a kid who maliciously talks his or her friends into shunning another person and a kid who just wants to be able to choose whom to play with in what little free time the school day offers. Instead, the survey left the kids with the impression that they’re “bullies”—and thus can be disciplined—whenever they choose not to play with someone “on purpose.”

Don’t these examples go too far? As adults, there are many acts that we see as morally commendable—caring for elderly parents, giving to charity, reporting crimes and emergencies—but which we nonetheless choose not to legally require, and instead leave to each person’s conscience. When it comes to “leaving people out on purpose” from social interactions, we not only don’t penalize that conduct, but we have an amendment to our constitution (the First) protecting it. Just as there are certain people I enjoy associating with, there are others I prefer to avoid. I suspect everyone on the staff of our elementary school is guilty of this particular form of “bullying.” If you hold a party at your house, is there anything wrong with purposely not inviting certain people? Even outright intentional shunning, at least in the religious context, has been held to be protected by the First Amendment.

I don’t mean to minimize the very real pain of kids (or adults) who have trouble finding friends or are socially ostracized, or to say that the school should do nothing to help them. But coercion by the authorities is not the solution to every problem. As I’ve written before, I’d like to see a guidance program that got the kids imagining themselves in other people’s shoes and thinking for themselves about right and wrong, rather than one that just dictates what is or isn’t good behavior and then enforces it with rules. It’s possible to encourage kids to be kind and inclusive and still preserve some realm of personal freedom from adult scrutiny and state intervention. How can we hold our kids to standards from which we exempt ourselves?

Related post here.