Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Guest post: Is our school board responsible for what goes on in our schools?

[From Chris -- Originally posted at A Blog About School]

Suppose you were elected mayor of your town. But suppose that once you took office, you found that state laws required you to enact policies that you otherwise would not have chosen -- policies that might even be harmful to the people who elected you. What would you do?

Our school board members might recognize that hypothetical. They are elected by the people of our school district. But, once in office, they find themselves cogs in a machine that they did not create. The state of Iowa, under the threat of losing federal funding, has passed laws requiring its school districts to pursue certain policies -- specifically, to pursue a program of raising the kids’ standardized test scores at all costs, regardless of the long-term educational consequences, regardless of whether it kills the kids’ enthusiasm for learning, regardless of whether it impairs the development of critical thinking, regardless of whether it teaches authoritarian values, regardless of whether it results in cuts in the arts and the humanities, regardless of whether it means treating the kids less humanely, and regardless of whether it results in kids’ cramming down their lunches in less than fifteen minutes while bundled up in snow pants and parkas. If the district doesn’t comply with the state’s requirements, the state can revoke its accreditation, merge the district with a neighboring district, or even put the district into receivership, like a bankrupt company.

If you’re a board member, what’s the right thing to do in that situation?

One approach would be to close your eyes to the effect of the state-mandated policies. You have to obey state law anyway, so why bother even asking whether the law harms your constituents? Just do as you’re told, and then try to use whatever freedom you have left over to make things as tolerable for your constituents as you can. In the meantime, you could pray that the law might change before you have to do anything worse. I call this the “board member as state employee” approach.

Another approach would be to think hard about what’s best for the kids, and about whether the state-mandated policies are serving or harming them. If you concluded that a state-mandated policy was actually harming the kids or impairing their education, you could work to find ways to circumvent, avoid, or undermine that policy. You could involve the community in a discussion about the effects of the policy, and about what the community should do in response. You could make a big stink about why the policy is wrong, and you could pass a resolution calling on the state to change the policy, and you could organize opposition to the policy, and you could lobby for change. You could drag your feet in implementing the policy, and make the state force you, kicking and screaming, into executing the policy. You could make it hard for the state to get its way, even if that meant risking penalties. You could proceed on the theory that if everyone fought the policy that vigorously, the state would be more likely to change it. I call this the “board member as elected representative” approach.

It may be that our board members have thought hard about No Child Left Behind and decided that raising standardized test scores at all costs really is good educational policy. I wish I knew. All I ever hear is people passing the buck. Teachers answer to the principal; principals answer to the superintendent; the superintendent answers to the school board; the school board has to comply with state law; the state has to follow federal law or lose the federal money -- so really, if you have a complaint about how your local school is treating your kids, you need to address it to Barack Obama and the five-hundred-and-thirty-five members of Congress.

That’s baloney. Sure, Congress and the President have a lot to answer for when it comes to the current state of our schools. But our elected school board members aren’t just helpless functionaries who have to meekly obey any order that comes down from above. They owe it to us to tell us whether they think No Child Left Behind is bad for our kids, and if so, how they think the district should respond. When are they going to start acting less like state employees and more like elected representatives?


  1. Yup, that sums it up. One big chain of buck-passing with no one willing to stick their necks out a little and try to make a difference.

  2. And can I also add... the parents are ultimately responsible. So, when you continue to send your children after you complain and nothing is done, YOU are part of the problem as well. HOW severe does something have to be before parents will act? I'm just wondering. I don't have an easy answer myself. It just seems that we went from open campus high school to lockdown city within a 20 year time span.

    It seems as though everyone wants freedom for their children, but the test scores are more important than their childhoods.

  3. HappyElfMom, I think unless huge numbers of parents get involved in school issues, vote in school board elections, it is difficult to see real change.

    What is a parent to do if they complain and nothing is done. Certainly you can communicate with school board members etc., but that is no guarantee they will take action.

    Sure the parents are ultimately responsible, but what other options do they have. Not everyone is wlling or able to pursue other options like private school or homeschool.

    I live in the same school district as the blogwriter. Based on my past experience, the majority of the school board won't answer questions or acknowledge problems that exist.

  4. Also, I think it is important to remember that not just parents are voting for school board members. Non-parents, who only hear "high test scores" and don't see what is actually going on inside the system, have no reason to not keep voting in the same board members.

    We just had an election where an incumbent was reelected who was on record as saying "I don't want to hear about the bad things at this school, just tell me the good news." Meanwhile, two other candidates who had very detailed, positive plans on how to fix some of the problems were soundly defeated.

  5. Good point Matthew. A lot of voters who don't have children in school believe those high test scores equal high property values. In a way they are correct, the realtors tout the high test scores to sell houses. The school board is usually non-responsive to any concerns re: the police state nature of our public schools. I'm sure to them the culture equates to safe schools.

  6. I've been meaning to respond to Happy Elf Mom's comment. That's a hard comment to read, because there's clearly some truth to it. I do wonder, often, whether my kids would be better off homeschooled. (The few private options near us don't leap out as very much better than the publics.) There are all kinds of reasons we don't do it -- e.g., I'd have to quit my job, my kids are connected to a lot of their school friends, there's not as much of a homeschooling community as we'd like, my wife would probably not agree to it, etc. But I do wonder whether someday I'll regret the choice to stick it out with these schools.

  7. Matthew and Anonymous -- I have to disagree, at least a little. My sense is that people who don't have kids in the school system are much less likely to vote in school board elections (unless they work in the school system), at least in my town. I think we'd be much better off, on the whole, if it really were school boards, rather than the state and federal governments, making school policy decisions. I'm certainly not saying that everyone would agree with me -- only that parents would likely have more of a say, which I think would lead to relatively more humane schools. I would much more happily put my kids into the hands of Iowa City voters than into the hands of the Congresspeople who passed No Child Left Behind.

    I also want to question the idea that the general public actually supports the test-driven, authoritarian approach to education that we have now -- if only because that idea serves the interests of people who want the system to stay as it is. Is it really true? What's the evidence? No Child Left Behind has so distorted the playing field that I don't think it's fair to use school board elections as a gauge of public opinion on these issues. In my town, we've never had a school board candidate who ran hard against test-driven education -- what would be the point? We have to do it anyway, because the federal government coerces the state government into making us do it. So the debate is over before it even begins. And state and federal elections are no good measure, either, because there are very few people whose vote in a Congressional election hinges on the candidates' positions on educational policy. (Not even mine.) Of all the influences driving the typical Congressperson's votes on education, I suspect the actual opinions of everyday citizens are pretty low on the list.

    You may be right, and things might not be any better if schools were more locally controlled. But I won't concede the point until I see it genuinely tested.