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.


ML said...

SNAP - ouch! Great to have you back Chris!

Jason T. Lewis said...


I agree that our board needs to talk more about education and not buildings and boundraries. I've been kind of shocked at how little the education that's happening inside the buildings has been discussed by the board.

As the enrollment projections and capacity numbers have shown us recently, there's a lot of reason to be concerned about our infrastructure, but not at the expense of actual education. There has to be a way to have both conversations inform and aid one another. I'm hoping I can help find that crossover frequency.

As for school boards being student councils, I certainly hope not. The student councils in my schools were just popularity contests and as such I never even knew who was on them, let alone got involved. Just the phrase "student council" makes me a little sick to my stomach.

Nancy said...

I always enjoy your reflections. Have you seen "180 Days" on PBS? Would love your comments on that 2 part show. In Canada, we have the testing but most of the other methods of doing things are different. Still, the proximity of those who decide what happens in the classroom compared to those who have to act upon those decisions (or suffer the consequences)is the same!

Chris said...

Jason -- Thanks for commenting. I think it would be great if there were school board members willing to be vocal about these issues. I do wonder if there might be more resistance from within the school system than you would first think. Our district puts a good deal of effort into trying to get parents on board for the test-driven curriculum (example here), and to maintaining a "we have great schools" party line that I think ends up squelching discussion of whether there are real problems with the direction our schools are going. I think it would take some real resolve to make that discussion happen. But the board's allegiance, of course, has to be to the public and to the kids; if board members aren't willing to stand up to the state *and* to the district administration, they might as well pack it in.

Chris said...

Nancy -- Thanks for the comment! I haven't seen 180 Days, but I'll look for it. (I just saved it on my Netflix queue, but it's not available yet.)

Nancy said...

If you have to wait awhile for it, "180 Days" is available on the PBS website. The story and it's implications have stuck with me for days.