Monday, September 29, 2014

“Like a meeting, a boring meeting”

Karen W. at Education in Iowa writes about a video intended to help teachers learn to teach “close reading” as part of the Common Core. One of her reactions:
First, if reading logs didn’t already make your child think reading is a tedious chore, close reading just might convince them. My eight year old couldn’t look away from the first video but also commented throughout, “I could not go to that school. It is like a meeting, a boring meeting.”
All I could do as I watched the video was shake my head at what some people think is a good idea to do to children. Hats off to any kids who can sit through years of this stuff without becoming juvenile delinquents.

Meanwhile, a friend happened to remind me of this passage from To Kill a Mockingbird:
The remainder of my school days were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything—at least, what one didn’t know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half-Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
It’s amazing, given all time and energy and money devoted to educational research, how little anyone talks about boredom. It’s as if we’re all supposed to pretend it’s not there, or that it doesn’t matter, or that the concept has no bearing on what kids learn. You’d almost think that the people who are paid to develop the latest educational “improvements” had never been children themselves.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the child as reader

Here’s C.S. Lewis, in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”:
[T]he neat sorting out of books into age groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.
. . .

The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm: we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect. We must not imagine that we are Providence or Destiny. I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education, for all things are possible. But I should lay very long odds against it.
We can be glad, for his sake, that Lewis didn’t live to see reading instruction in the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why not elect the superintendent of schools?

This week, prompted by our city’s charter revision process, the Press-Citizen published two opinion pieces advocating that we shift to a strong-mayor form of city government. Both pieces emphasize that we should vest real decision-making power in elected officials, rather than career bureaucrats. One writer writes: “Policy should be actively made by people who answer directly to voters, not passively rubber-stamped after it’s been staff-crafted the way Iowa City has done it for decades.” Says the other: “Our present city manager form of government puts too much power into the position of the unelected city manager and the staff. The council is usually passive due to its low salary and its relatively small time commitment compared to the staff.”

Hmm, that sounds familiar. How is it that no one ever applies that same logic to the administration of our public schools?

There are good arguments both for and against strong-mayor local government. As a result, different cities make different choices; strong-mayor government is one fairly common choice. Yet I’ve never heard of any school district anywhere in which the superintendent is elected. I assume there are statutes in every state that would forbid it. Why is the idea so unthinkable—and so different from strong-mayor city government—that it should not happen anywhere?

Maybe it reflects the (in my view, misguided) idea that education is a science and so must be insulated from the workings of democracy. Or maybe it reflects the idea that K-12 education is now so tightly micromanaged by state and federal bureaucracies that it needs to be run by professional bureaucrats rather than elected officials. Neither explanation reflects well on the state of public education.

How is it that aspects of democracy that are unremarkable in other contexts seem so alien to the world of K-12 education? What is it about education and democracy that doesn’t mix?

Monday, September 22, 2014

I’m probably wrong

A few weeks ago, I asked the school district for a copy of the legal opinion it received about its proposed (now enacted) policy regulating public comment at school board meetings. I thought I had a right to see the policy under the Iowa Open Records law. I now think that I’m probably (though not certainly) wrong about that.

The Open Records law protects as confidential only those “Records which represent or constitute the work product of an attorney, which are related to litigation or claim made by or against a public body.” Since everyone seems to agree that the legal opinion about the public comment policy was not “related to litigation or claim made by or against” the school district, I argued that the opinion was not confidential under the act. Just looking at the statute itself, I think that argument makes a lot of sense. But it turns out that there is case law saying that the act was not intended to “affect other specific statutory privileges recognized by the legislature, such as the attorney-client privilege.” It’s still something of an open question, because that case did not conclusively resolve the issue, and because it’s not clear that the district’s assertion of the attorney-client privilege has any statutory basis. But it lowers the odds that I’d win if I appealed the issue and increases the amount of work it would be to appeal. Add in the fact that I have only one month left to appeal—and that it’s one of the busiest times of the semester—and that’s enough to make me throw in the towel.

None of that has any bearing, though, on whether the district should have withheld that legal opinion from the public. The client in an attorney-client relationship is always free to waive the privilege. The district’s position is apparently that it will disclose only the bare minimum of what it is legally required to disclose, and that it will keep secret the maximum that it is allowed to keep secret. I don’t understand that approach. My guess is that there is nothing earthshaking in the attorney’s opinion, and that it probably confirms what many other lawyers (including me) have been saying about the First Amendment restrictions on what the school board can do. Why is the district so determined not to let the public hear that advice?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Update on open records request

I recently asked the school district for a copy of the legal opinion it received about its proposed public comment policy, as I wrote about here. The district responded that the document is protected by attorney-client privilege. (For more detail on my request and the district’s response, see below.)

I have to decide whether to pursue the matter further. I could, for example, appeal the district’s decision to the relatively new state Public Information Board. I won’t be able to make that decision until I’ve done some research on the legal issue involved. At some point, I’ll find some time to do that research, but for the next week or two that’s not going to happen.

For now, I’d just point out: Even if the district were to have a legal right to withhold the document, it is certainly not required to withhold it. In any lawyer-client relationship, the client always has the right to waive the attorney-client privilege. Its decision to assert lawyer-client privilege is a choice. In this instance, why does the district want to conceal from the public what its attorney thinks about the school board’s ability to regulate public speech at board meetings? That information could only help the public understand and evaluate the board’s policy and practices. Is there any good reason for withholding that information from the public?

Keep in mind that analogous opinions by the Attorney General at the state level are published and freely available. It would hardly be the end of the world if the public got to hear the legal opinion that was requested by public officials and paid for with public funds.