Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Guest post: Scenes from a meeting with the superintendent

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

The thing that most surprised me at last night’s meeting with the superintendent about the fifteen-minute lunch period: There are apparently no state or federal requirements on how elementary schools must allocate the time in the school day. How many minutes to give to math, reading, art, music, gym, lunch, recess: it’s entirely up to us as a community.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

So why has lunch been squeezed down to fifteen minutes or less? According to the superintendent, it’s because school administrators know that they’ll be subject to penalties, under No Child Left Behind, if they fail to raise standardized test scores. Those penalties can even lead to administrators and teachers getting fired. In response, the administrators have concluded that they have to add instructional time to the day, and there are only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess. The superintendent did not endorse this system, but was just describing the objective reality. So much for what our community would choose for our children. More on that issue in an upcoming post.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

The superintendent started the meeting by talking about how the “twenty-minute lunch period” came about, and conceded that some schools may be counting time getting to and from lunch as part of the “twenty minutes.” This attempt at spin went over like a lead balloon. No one in the room acknowledged his characterization at all, and discussion quickly moved on to the actual fifteen-minute lunch period and how the fifteen minutes even included time waiting in line and cleaning up.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

A paraphrase that I think captures the essence of the evening:

PARENT: There is more to education than raising test scores. We want to educate the whole child.


ANOTHER PARENT: Evidence shows that kids learn better if they eat a healthy lunch and have sufficient down time to socialize and play.


ANOTHER PARENT: I don’t see why my first-grader needs an hour of math instruction every day. If math were fifty minutes long, and lunch was twenty-five minutes long, nobody would be here complaining that we need to cut lunch and add to math.

ANOTHER PARENT: We need to question the assumption that more is always better. Piling additional instructional time on the kids is counterproductive, even if raising test scores is your goal.

SIXTH-GRADER: After about forty minutes of any class, I start to zone out anyway.


PARENT: So how do you suggest we solve this lunch problem?

(Drum roll please . . .)

SUPERINTENDENT: I think we should make the school day longer.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

In fairness, a few of the parents were open to the idea of extending the school day to make more time for lunch. I don’t know whether that’s because they’d be against redrawing the line between instructional time and down time, or just because they sense that the administrators won’t be willing to extend lunch any other way.

One student said -- and was quoted in the paper -- “I’d much rather have a long day than a short lunch.” That’s exactly the choice the superintendent wants us to see. Considering the possibility of a longer lunch in the existing school day would force a discussion of whether the administrators’ interests actually differ from the kids’ interests, a subject I sensed the superintendent would prefer to avoid.

My sense was that the superintendent already wanted to extend the school day, and hoped to use the school lunch issue as a way to win parents over to the idea -- thus pleasing both parents and administrators. I know a lot of parents whose reaction will disappoint him.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

For a while discussion turned to how the district’s behavior management program, PBIS, was creating a negative and overly restrictive atmosphere in the schools. The superintendent’s defense of PBIS struck me as particularly lame. He said that there is nothing wrong with PBIS itself, because all it means is setting clear community expectations about how the kids should act. I’ll agree that PBIS, defined in that way, is unobjectionable, but it’s also a meaningless platitude. No one objects to the schools setting clear expectations about behavior. But it is simply false to say that that is what PBIS is. PBIS is a specific approach to achieving behavioral goals -- one that emphasizes rewards and external motivators, and puts no emphasis on helping the kids develop their own intrinsic sense of right and wrong that is independent of simply obeying whatever rules the authorities present them with. All of the non-imaginary objections to PBIS follow from that fact.

Although the superintendent defended his contentless version of PBIS, he at least conceded that there may be problems with the way PBIS is being implemented. All right. If he wants to think of all the actual content of PBIS as an “implementation problem,” fine, let’s work on that implementation problem.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

Am I being too harsh? The guy came out on an eight-degree night to meet with us for an hour and a half when he could have been at home with his family, and I appreciate that. And he understood -- and even anticipated and sympathized with -- much of what we had to say. But I’m afraid my experience has taught me that school administrators often try to placate parents by sympathizing profusely with their concerns, only to then enact policies that exacerbate those very concerns -- usually asserting that they have no choice because of decisions made at higher levels. I sometimes think it must be the first strategy they learn in Parent Management class in education school.

If this superintendent increases lunch and recess time without extending the school day, and gets rid of the harmful aspects of PBIS, and resists as much as possible the dehumanizing pressures of No Child Left Behind, I’ll be his biggest fan, and you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, I’ll view him the way I hope my kids will someday view public officials who tell them what they want to hear: skeptically first, and hopefully second.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

Above all, I was struck yet again by how our “public” school system is primarily driven by factors other than the community’s preferences. Here is an issue -- allocation of time in the school schedule -- which is entirely in our community’s hands. Yet even the identity of the people deciding the issue remains unclear. The superintendent said that the schedule is decided by individual principals, but also mentioned that the district “suggests” a rough schedule outline to the principals. My experience is that “suggestions” made by one’s employer carry a lot of weight. But, conveniently, this division of responsibility between the district and the principals allows each to blame the other for the outcome.

The superintendent explained that our district operates “more like a confederation than like a nation,” and that the district gives a lot of discretion to individual principals. I’d be in favor of that system, but for the fact that principals are the least democratically accountable of any actors in the system. We can vote for the school board members, who hire the superintendent. But if they delegate the policymaking to the school principals, what possible role is there for public input into those decisions? (Even the superintendent acknowledged that the PTAs do not play that role.) My suggestion that each school might have a parent council that would advise the principal on policy decisions -- an idea borrowed from our Canadian friends -- received a polite nod from the superintendent before he moved on to the next person.

Of course I have no way of knowing how much the parents in the room last night were representative of our district’s citizens as a whole. But when I heard the stories of kids being rushed through lunch in their winter coats and/or in near silence, I couldn’t help thinking how little resemblance our school system bears to any system that our community would ever consciously choose to create.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -____________

More soon. Part 1 here.


  1. My response to "those penalties can even lead to administrators and teachers getting fired" would have been:

    "Good, better you get fired than my child be abused."

    I'm not a big fan of standardized tests, but there are ways to raise those scores without damaging children in the process. Few educators seem to have the skills, interest or professionalism to accomplish that, however.

  2. How much would it cost to extend the school hours from 6 to 8? Who gets more money? How high will taxes go up? How much more fund raising will be done to cover cost?

    Imagine if your boss told you your not good enough stay later and improve. If we extend the hours we probably will have more drop outs.

    Oh and let's not forgot about the all important extra curricular activities. What schools will allow football/basket ball players to be excused from class to participate because now school is pushing into the Coach's time?

    Longer hours are not the answer they only provide more questions.

  3. Anonymous, that's why I don't even worry about the prospect of extending school hours. It would cost money, so it won't happen, at least in a regular public school.

    On the other hand, charters like KIPP and HSA routinely extend the school day, week and year. How do they do it? Well, their teachers have no union, for starters. I often wonder how long they will be able to find young, naive, idealistic teachers who are willing to put their own lives on hold while they work ridiculous hours for not much money.

    As soon as the job market picks up (the sooner, the better) the charter schools will be in big trouble trying to recruit teachers.

  4. "Am I being too harsh? The guy came out on an eight-degree night to meet with us for an hour and a half when he could have been at home with his family, and I appreciate that."

    Don't feel too bad for the poor guy. If you got his compensation package, you'd be packing the room at eight degrees too. Yea, he could have been with his family but that's what I always said. About me! And I didn't even get paid.

    Given how schools rope parents into unpaid involuntary teachers' assistants under the guise of a "partnership," your super's after work commitment pales in comparison.

  5. Mathew wrote: "Few educators seem to have the skills, interest or professionalism to accomplish that, however."

    Hi, Mathew! Remember your comments well from StopHomework. You've said it in a nutshell. For me, it ultimately boiled down to this. And it's why I pulled my daughter out and homeschooled her for one magical creative challenging and FUN year. It all came down to that. There wasn't much there. There wasn't much to fight for. Oh, the fight was long and meaty but I could spend the year advocating and still be banging my head against the wall by year's end. And this was arguably the "best" middle school in the county!

    It wasn't a terrible school. At least, not the way other parents tell it. This is the school where parents will knock each other down to scramble for a spot, either by moving or attempting to pupil place their child into that Gifted Talented Center. It was fine. It was okay. Okay, not okay but there's worse, I'm told.

    So why did I pull her? Because on the best day, that school was merely okay. On my worst homeschool day, we had it wonderful.

    You just get to the point where you'd rather look for alternatives. What if there are none? Well, that's the million dollar dilemma. Mobilize, canvasse and make sweeping changes. It's the only way. Go for it! I guess... Unless you can find a better way. I homeschooled on a shoestring budget. In the end, it was the only way.

  6. @HomeworkBlues... I get so tired of the fight. I never thought when I was a kid that I would look forward to the end of each school year more as an adult than I did then, but I do.

    I hear so many parents in my neighborhood grumble about issues at school. They complain to one level, but never take it further. When I suggest they the escalate to the principal, the administration, the school board, whoever...they just shrug and don't do anything. So I fight it alone because I'm willing to take it all the way to the top and don't care what the people at the schools think of me.

    Homeschooling wouldn't be possible for us. We have a kid in high school and he needs his peer group there and the extracurricular activities. For those who can though, I've come to understand much better why they make that choice.

  7. Homework Blues- I understand your choice. At some point it just seems like your bogging down and there is no other choice. I can sympathize with Matthew (and keep on fighting the good fight) but at the end of the day, I don't think anyone who gets paid by the school system will ever be motivated enough to change it.