Questions You Should Be Asking Your School Board
It is common to criticize the quality of education and to think mostly of teachers and administrators. But much of what happens in each school is a direct consequence of the dictates of state and local government. At the local level, it is the members of the school board who are most responsible for the policy and vision of each school.
School board campaigns, like all campaigns, tend to ignore what policies candidates advocate or how they will affect schools. Voters miss out on a healthy conversation about schools and are left guessing who will be best. To fill the gaps, I’ve developed a list of questions voters should be asking their local school board candidates. Under each, I’ll give a short explanation of why the question is important and the type of response I’d like to see.
Where does the loyalty of a school board member ultimately lie?
Ultimately, with the students. This should not be perverted to mean that children know best, however. It means we are acting on behalf of the students and their long term benefit - their future and the future communities they will need to be capable of leading. This is all vague and easily bent to misguided policy, however.
Schools are rampant with what I have called “the perversion of kindness” - a common youth development malady where naive attempts to be nice to kids and young-adults cause far more harm than good. This manifests in removing accountability, teaching helplessness, and intentionally making courses easy. A new study finds that (you may need to sit down for this) students do not learn as well with teachers who give out grades more easily. More specifically, students performed worse in the years subsequent to having an easy teacher. For anyone who has ever been around a classroom or a kid, this is obvious. But within the current educational paradigm, rigor is often seen as code for cruelty.
School boards and educators alike must appreciate the essential role of challenge and the ultimate goal of creating an empowered high-schooler who is capable of standing on her own two feet.
What flaws do you currently see in (our district) schools and the (district) vision?
This is the “what do you stand for” question. It forces the candidate to take a position or reveal themselves as a purely political animal. I’m asking them to state their beliefs and how they differ from the consensus vision so I can see the direction they wish to push the district towards. If they deflect and give a “non-answer” that says a lot. A few flaws I’d be happy to see them identify:
A propensity to substitute new technology for substance. Everywhere you turn, there is technology for technology’s sake but little vision for how, why, and when technology is implemented and how, specifically, each new gadget is helping us learn.
An obsession with marketing and parental appeasement at the expense of clear values.
Too much standardization and rigid oversight. The educational reformer, Ken Robinson explains this best in his latest TED Talk:
“One of the effects of the current culture has been to de-professionalize teachers.… the dominant culture of education has come to focus on, not teaching and learning, but testing…. Standardized tests have a place…. But all that should support learning. It shouldn’t obstruct it…. in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms, rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.”
Administrative blight. Too many policy makers getting in the way.
A complete ignorance of the foundations of physical and mental health.
What flaws do you see in the TEA's broader educational vision?
TEA is the Texas Education Agency - the governing body for public schools in Texas. To not see flaws in the TEA is to be unaware. Start with curriculums that are too broad and the propensity to create unnecessarily rigid roadblocks that interfere with local districts’ ability to adapt. This is another feeling-them-out question to see what candidates know and if they stand for anything concrete. (Note: I was surprised how hard it was to find anything resembling a concrete platform in my town’s recent Mayoral elections)
How do you approach unequal performance between schools within (our district)?
This is a problem locally that I’m sure applies elsewhere. Our district has grown very large - six high-schools and at least twice that many middle, intermediate, and elementary schools. Schools serve very different populations who often have differing needs and school cultures, but uniformity reigns. New schools are built to look just like all the others. And policy is typically driven by a focus on the lowest common denominator. All the focus goes to equalizing the academic performance at the lower performing schools, which means the district is far less concerned with the improvement of its highest achieving schools. To some extent, some might not mind a slight dip in performance among the top achievers because it brings them closer to the other schools. This sentiment seeps into the school setting where I’ve heard teachers say that smart kids don’t really need great teaching because they’ll learn well regardless. All schools will be benefited most when we take them as individual organisms and put our focus on empowering and expecting great teaching.
Why do you believe that mental health has been declining rapidly in children and the broader U.S. population? This trend far pre-dates COVID-19, so please exclude any specific pandemic-related policies in your answer.
Oh, baby! This is the good stuff. Schools should feel a responsibility to strive to be an authority in human development that takes note of pernicious forces and responds to empower its citizens to overcome them. Education is anything but that. I want a school board member who recognizes the problems in mental and physical health, can demonstrate an understanding for what causes them, and who embraces the school’s responsibility to combat these issues.
What is the role of schools in responding to this?
I don’t want the band-aid, political approach - more counselors and anti-bullying presentations. Let’s get to the root of the damn problem. We can create a school environment where our kids thrive and are trained to thrive in the modern world. This is explained in detail in my upcoming book.
Should virtual schooling still be an option in the 21-22 school year and, if so, how should that look?
Let’s begin by dispelling any notion that virtual education is comparable to a classroom environment for learning or socio-emotional health. Only the most committed students with the most diligent parents have been able to get anything resembling an education from virtual school. The toll on mental wellbeing has been profound.
To help my school with the logistical nightmare that virtual schooling presents, I’ve picked up a virtual class during my planning period this year. Each day I stare at kids sitting in their dark rooms, by themselves. They’ve been doing this for over a year now. The number of avenues for excuse-making within our current virtual education expectation-set are infinite. We’ve made this worse with a myriad of insane policies. For example, we allow kids to play high-school sports while remaining virtual students. They can decide that going to class poses too much of a risk for them, but that they are comfortable tackling and sweating all over kids from their school and others.
Many students have just decided they like virtual better because it is easier. In the long run they learn less and their mental health declines, but in the short term they are freed to watch Netflix and Snapchat all day. Many parents have decided they like virtual better because they can keep a high-schooler home to run errands for them or watch their pre-K siblings. Still more prefer it because, with any effort, it is easier to get a good grade. Still, there are many virtual students who have hardly attended a virtual class or turned in an assignment all year and, subsequently, will fail.
This does not even begin to go into the costs in the time, energy, and focus of school employees who are trying to balance the virtual load along with in-person classes and all their other responsibilities.
Assuming at-risk populations continue to have access to vaccines and we continue to see progress in the Covid realm, then virtual schooling, as we’ve seen it, must cease to be an option next school year.
In order to accommodate social distancing needs for the 20-21 school year, all elementary and middle schools have been given iPads. What are your thoughts on the role of iPads in elementary education going forward?
This comes down to understanding the developmental needs of young children and the power of this technology. When asked if his kids love the iPad, Steve Jobs responded as any sane tech designer would: “Actually we don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it is too dangerous for them in effect.” This is why top tier Silicon Valley schools, such as the Waldorf School in Mountain View are intentionally low-tech, celebrating the fact that they use chalk and number two pencils.
Anything but a complete removal of the iPad from elementary schools is unacceptable.
What are your thoughts on the current breakfast and lunch menu offered to students?
Nachos, pizza, French toast sticks, single serving cinnamon toast crunch. How are we still doing this?
What are your thoughts on vending machines and the PTA selling Otis Spunkmeyer cookies in the halls?
Schools have become a conveyor belt of junk food. I have many thoughts. Suffice it to say, an institution that felt “a responsibility to strive to be an authority in human development that takes note of pernicious forces and responds to empower its citizens to overcome them” - that type of place would probably do more to counter self-destructive health norms and less to embed them.
Sally and Becky are both taking U.S. History. Sally's teacher gives more homework and puts essay questions on the test rather than maintaining the multiple-choice and short answer format of other teachers in the school. Is this right? Explain.
The best schools expect and empower teachers to be the expert in both content and teaching. This is what we see in all the top countries like Finland, Sweden, Japan, and South Korea. When I look back on high-school and college it was the challenging teachers that impacted me most and whose lessons stick with me. However, there is a lot of pressure to standardize every assignment in every class so that no parent can ever complain about one geography teacher being harder than another. These complaints would have been dismissed immediately a couple of decades ago. It is time to restore that common sense. To be clear, hard teaching is not necessarily good teaching, but the point remains. Policies that push for uniform classes guarantee blander education and less engaged teachers.
Is P.E. twice a week sufficient for elementary students?
No. For those interested see Dr. Rhea’s LiiNK Program. After visiting Finland, who routinely tops the international education rankings, she has pushed for an hour of recess per day at the elementary level. P.E. is an essential daily course for the same reasons.
What are your thoughts on the role of smartphones in high schools, particularly in regards to the BYOD policy?
BYOD - Bring Your Own Device. In other words, let's pretend you could use your phone to learn without it creating far greater problems. Our school now has Chromebooks so I don’t know how or why you’d justify this policy anymore. New policy acronym: BTDWGY - Bring The Device We Gave You.
Freddy did not pass his 8th-grade math or science STAAR exam and he failed multiple classes because he rarely showed up for his Microsoft Teams calls. Should he have the option to be promoted to high school? Please explain your thinking.
Too many students are put in classes and asked to learn subjects they could never learn because they don’t have any of the prior skills necessary. I’m not a fan of grade inflation and social promotion. I think they distort reality and discourage the appropriate adaptations that would happen in a more honest society.
Are you for or against the test retake policy (requiring teachers to allow students to retake tests for up to 70%) and why?
Meta-lessons are more valuable than any grade on a test. You failed because you did not prepare well enough. Now you are in a hole. Time to get a planner, to begin studying, to start studying better, etc.
Furthermore, when you dictate to a teacher that they have to go out of their way to give another test and the teacher grasps that it is because of the grade not because we care about what is being learned, resentment festers.
What will you bring to the (district) school board that other candidates won't?
I won’t answer this one.
THE NURSERY OF DEMOCRATIC VIRTUES
On his mid-nineteenth-century trip to America, the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the self-governing American spirit and our propensity for active engagement in local politics. He suggested that we learn to be good citizens by governing our local communities first.
I hope that going through Covid-19 might help restore a more active and engaged local citizenry. We can have far more impact in city elections than national elections and local elections often have far more impact on us. Furthermore, local elections tend to trickle up into the quality of the state and national sphere.