Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guest post: George W. Bush, School Superintendent

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

When I recently wrote about how our school makes the kids wait outside in the cold every morning, standing in line, until schools starts, northTOmom commented, “I suppose when I complain about our schools in Toronto,” she wrote, “I should be grateful for these small blessings: longish lunches/recesses and fewer arbitrary draconian rules than in the schools of Iowa City! (I thought it was a progressive city!)”

I’m never sure exactly what “progressive” means, especially in the context of education. (One of No Child Left Behind’s key sponsors, after all, was Edward Kennedy.) But, for what it’s worth, Johnson County is one of the bluest counties in America. Barack Obama won seventy-five percent of Iowa City’s popular vote. Iowa City has a reputation as an artsy, intellectual, socially liberal college town; the Advocate even named it America’s third most gay-friendly city. So why do so many features of our public schools seem like they could have been designed by the most authoritarian, anti-intellectual, corporate-captive elements of America’s political spectrum? (Examples here, here, here, and here.)

One could speculate: Maybe it’s because what we think of as progressive educational ideas are just not that widely shared, even among people who consider themselves liberal. Maybe academics, having gotten where they are on the strength of their standardized-test-taking skills, are happy to support test-driven educational policies. Maybe it’s because Iowa City, source of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and home to ACT and Pearson, is the standardized testing capital of the world.

But those speculations, even if there’s some truth to them, are beside the point. The fact is: What goes on in Iowa City public schools has virtually nothing to do with what the citizens of the Iowa City district want or believe. Turnout in school board elections ranges between three and six percent. Once elected, the school board serves largely to implement policies that the federal and state governments have imposed on it. The school board hires a superintendent to carry out the day-to-day administration of the schools, and he then gives a good deal of discretion to individual principals. By the time the superintendent and principals are making decisions about what actually goes on in the schools, there is very little reason for them to worry about what Iowa Citians think. They are far more likely to concern themselves with the incentives and penalties built into the federal No Child Left Behind Act; if they don’t raise those test scores, they could lose their jobs. So test-prep it is, with all the accompanying emphasis on creating quiet, obedient followers-of-instructions who will be great low-level employees some day. And progressive education -- with its concern for critical thinking, for the humanities, for the autonomy and basic dignity of the kids -- be damned.

In other words, there’s a reason our school district’s policies seem like they could have been designed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney: because they were. Set aside, for the moment, your own political leanings. Is it really a good idea to impose a nationwide approach to education on every community, regardless of whether that approach conflicts with a community’s own values? If that’s “conservative,” then the meaning of that word sure has changed.

Related post here.


  1. I had no idea that the Iowa test was still around. I have bad memories associated with it because when I did not do well on it in 4th grade, my mother yelled at me for a half hour over my failure to make an effort or care about my future. Eighteen years later, I'm a college graduate and gainfully employed, so somehow I overcame my mediocre score.

    Do School Board candidates ever actually run a campaign promising real change? The ones in our area mostly just focus on money and budgets and occasionally will offer up a plan to have more kids taking foreign language in middle school or something like that. I've never heard any of them offer any drastic change.

  2. Do you think some of this is because Iowa City is a college town?
    I lived in Ames for a while (as a student with a baby). A lot of the residents are students without children, or with very, young children. Why should they care about school board?

  3. Genevieve -- I'm sure that explains a lot about why turnout is low in school board elections. But it's also true that school board candidates all sound the same, and there's seldom anyone really campaigning on real change. And that's partly because, after NCLB, the school board doesn't have the power to change the things that most need changing.

    Megan -- that's a funny/sad story about getting yelled at for not doing well on the Iowa test. As if doing well on the test (as opposed to doing well in learning the underlying material) is somehow good for the child at all.

    Our school district doesn't hesitate to urge the kids to be at their best during testing week -- that is, make sure you get a good sleep and a good breakfast -- even though that has nothing to do with whether the kids have learned anything. They're practically admitting that they care more about whether the kids score high (which helps the school, not the kids) than about whether they learn. If they really cared about whether the kids were learning (as opposed to just scoring well), they'd be more concerned about making sure the kids are well-rested and well-fed during non-testing weeks, when the learning is actually supposed to be happening. Instead, they're so determined to pile on instructional minutes to push scores up that they've shrunk the lunch period to a measly fifteen minutes.