November 28, 2005

What can you infer from a single incident?

Crooked Timber is talking about the Madison incident involving third grade teachers assigning their students to write letters calling for withdrawal from Iraq. It's a good discussion, even though they say this about me:
Ann Althouse, oddly, uses the case as a reason to suspect that the District does not have its act together—an odd conclusion to draw from a single instance in which it does the right thing effectively and immediately.
Here's what I said:
The project was cancelled -- school district policy prohibits teachers from presenting controversial issues with bias and promoting their personal political views.

I wonder how well that policy is enforced. That a group of five teachers thought this was an acceptable assignment suggests that it's hardly enforced at all.

"I don't see it as a controversial issue." I love that. It's so it depends on what the meaning of controversial is. Community standards seem to apply to that. And we're all here in Madison, Wisconsin.
What can you infer from a single incident? In this case, you have five teachers who got together and planned something without anyone figuring out what the problem was and one of them continuing to assert that it is not a controversial issue. How did these teachers arrive at such a mindset? From living and working in a particular environment, I would assume. Oh, but the system "does the right thing effectively and immediately," Crooked Timber says. Not really. The response only came because parents got mad. If a letter describing the assignment had not been sent to the parents, would anything have happened? What evidence do we have that the school district's policy has any mechanism of enforcement? I think the fact that the teachers thought what they were doing is fine strongly suggests that the policy is not ingrained in the practice of teaching in the district.


brylin said...

With quotes like “[t]hey are cheerful about having our schools indocrinate [sic] students through the Pledge of Allegiance” and a blogroll including Atrios, Kos, Juan Cole and many other lefties, I wouldn’t take Crooked Timber too seriously.

jau said...

I think you can infer that the school district is run by the same group-think people that are taking over so much of our anti-group-think country. I don't get it and I don't like it. I would be just as unhappy if they asked the kids to write about expanding the war. It's utterly inappropriate to impose a point of view on children under the guise of a writing assignment. Thanks for writing about it.

peter hoh said...

And we're all here in Madison, Wisconsin.

That's a reference to a line from a song, isn't it? Wouldn't be the first time that a song reference got you in trouble. Or maybe I'm thinking of ". . . and we're living here in Allentown" from Billy Joel's "Allentown."

alkali said...

What evidence do we have that the school district's policy has any mechanism of enforcement?

Well, the fact that the policy was enforced here is evidence that it is enforced.

In general, where there's no imminent threat to life and limb, acting promptly in response to complaints is a pretty reasonable way of enforcing standards of conduct.

Is there some other workable mechanism of enforcement that you think the district ought to have?

If a letter describing the assignment had not been sent to the parents, would anything have happened?

Quite conceivably, a parent might have asked his/her child, "How was school today?"

MrsWhatsit said...

After five years of service on a school board, I've got to agree with Ann here. The fact that it did not even occur to any of the five teachers that the policy might conflict with the assignment until after a parent complained -- and that even after that happened, one teacher still didn't comprehend the problem -- is a pretty doggoned big clue that something's seriously wrong with the way the faculty is being trained to use and understand the school district's policies.

Policies exist to keep problems like this from happening in the first place. "Enforcing" the policy after the assignment has already been handed out to the kids is closing the barn door after the horse is gone -- the kids now understand exactly what they are supposed to think to keep their teachers happy, no matter what happened later with the assignment itself. This group of teachers should have known enough about this policy to realize ahead of time that there would be a problem with an indoctrination assignment of this type. Clearly, they didn't. It is not the job of parents to enforce school policies by complaining after a violation has already occurred. It's the district's job to make sure teachers know and understand district policies before they start teaching. It's the job of teachers to know the policies, to understand them, and to follow them. Obviously, neither this district nor these teachers did their jobs.

Stiles said...

To nit-pick, the copy of the assignment I have seen asked students to write about an end to the war, not specifically withdrawing immediately. Is there any American who doesn't want the war to end? The only question is whether our eventual scaling down is timeline-based or conditions-based.

However, discussing conditions for an Iraq withdrawal is too sophisticated for third graders, so the assignment was not well chosen at all.

Policy adherence in specific schools is usually dependent on just three factors: teacher awareness, the principal's role (awareness, communication, judgment), and district culture of uniformity vs. site-based/classroom-based discretion. Madison Metropolitan is not the most uniform district. My daughter attends a different elementary school and I doubt this assignment would have occurred there.

Ann Althouse said...

Peter: LOL. I didn't mean it as an allusion, but, yeah, "Allentown." Could do parody lyrics about Madison, I suppose.

Ann Althouse said...

Stiles: The text of the letter sent to the parents appears in the comments at the CT link. The letter begins "The Frank Allis third grade will be writing letters to encourage an end to the war in Iraq." It also states: "If the war has not ended by the 12th day, then we will start the whole sequence over again." Seems to me to be about immediately ending the war.

Really, it imposes drudgery on the children for the failure of the administration to end the war. What kind of an impression do you think this puts on young kids? To state an obvious point that we don't give enough weight to: the government compels children to go to school. That creates a profound responsibility for teachers.

Ann Althouse said...

I note that my argument is very much like the argument for holding the higher ups responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib! Why put all the blame on the teachers? I'm saying they were inside a culture that needs to be improved.

Harry B said...

Nice to see that brylin is satisfied with ad hominems. Hope he/she feels superior to the teachers in question.

Here's how I responded to Ann on CT:

Ann, that’s certainly a problem; the US inclination to use complaint/litigation rather than inspection as the central enforcement mechanism is definitely non-ideal. Are you proposing that every classroom assignment should be examined and approved by the District? Taxpayers aren’t willing to pay for that sort of monitoring, and conservative complaints about excessive bureaucracy would be fuelled. There is, certainly, a problem with the faux autonomy given to teachers (more, I would add, at the middle and high school levels than at the elementary level). Parental monitoring and complaint is remarkably effective, as long as the school has a critical mass of parents who are attentive and confident enough to make themselves heard. Schools without such parents face much deeper problems than the odd wrongheaded assignment (though I’d cheerfully devise and propose various mechanisms to reduce the probability of such things occuring—but routine District, or even Principal, review of classroom assignments would not be one).

As to the environment—one of the reasons I posted this was to prompt discussion of what is and is not appropriate. The teachers lives in an environment in which, indeed, indoctrination is approved of—what else is the Pledge of Allegiance, or the “daily act of patriotic observance”. Most of the current history textbooks in the district contain a good deal of indoctrinatory propaganda (read Boorstin’s textbooks, eg). I think there is, in fact, something like a consensus between right and left that it is ok to use History to indoctrinate children in patriotic sentiment. It is also widely held that it is ok for parents to indoctrinate their children in religious and political views (at least to the extent that this assignment was indoctrinatory). I think all these attitudes are wrong, and would like to prompt a wider debate about what is, and what is not, ok, in teaching children.

Anyway, tell me if I’m misunderstanding you.

MrsWhatsit said...

harryb, I don't know about Ann, but there is no reason for daily inspection of assignments or any such straw-man nonsense. Teachers are not stupid. If they have read and discussed the policies ahead of time, and if policies like this one have been followed in the past when other assignments like htis one were proposed, they will remember that the policy exists, and be able to tell on their own whether an idea for an assignment will cause a problem or not.

This is not rocket science. Asking teachers to read and sign off on district policies is a routine part of teacher orientation everywhere. So is getting the policies out once a year and asking everybody to read them again. If you work for any kind of sizeable organization, you probably got trained on your company's policies when you were hired, and you probably get retrained from time to time, too. It isn't burdensome. It isn't unreasonable. It just requires a bit of forethought on the part of the administration, that's all.

And while I agree with Ann that it isn't right to blame the teachers here exclusively, I've got to wonder what kind of teacher has thought so little about the ethical responsibilities of the job that an assignment like this one didn't send up red flags, policies or no policies.

Henry said...

harry b -- what exactly do you mean by indoctrinate? You want to throw out Boorstin and put what in his place? Howard Zinn? Or do you have some political-neutral booklist in mind? Please share it!

As for parental indoctrination, you lose me there. I want my kids to be skeptics about politics and religion, but I'm not deceiving myself. Kids are not little logic machines. They are indoctrination sponges and for a long time yet my little agnostics are going to be functioning on faith, not reason.

oldgranny said...

As the prison guard in "Cool Hand Luke," said, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Check Ann's post, "I don't see it as a controversial issue ... I really don't," said Fitzpatrick.

It's the Pauline Kael* Syndrome. The teachers don't know a single person who wouldn't agree with them. They were just asking for peace. What could be less controversial or more ethical than wanting peace.

The problem is that as parents object to the schools getting their kids involved in liberal politics, there will be more secrecy. Even now some school districts don't permit parents to review textbooks or other teaching materials and a judge, I think in Washington or Oregon, ruled that parents had no right to object when their kids, even those in kindergarten, were asked to participate in a sex survey that a grad student was doing for her degree.

* Former film critic for the New Yorker magazine, now deceased, who famously said she couldn't understand how Nixon could have been elected when she didn't know a single person who voted for him.

The Drill SGT said...


I agree. two additional points on the same vein.

1. The country is becoming more polarized overall. Red states get redder, Blue cities get Bluer. The same thing is true of professions. When I was a young soldier and officer, the professional code was that officers didn't vote, and if they voted, they registered independent, and if they voted they sure didn't talk about who they supported or campaign or give money. I guess the Vietnam war changed that. If the anti-war movement injected politics into war, then the military, having been forced to chose sides, started to vote more and louder. a bad trend IMHO. Same polarization in the media. It used to be that you expected a certain balance in your paper or nightly TV news. now the markets are fragmented blue and red, and opinion and slant are found throughout the material, not just on the editorial page. One can argue that this was the underlying cause of the Rathergate document scandal. Everybody on the team including management was at some level anti-bush. Critical disbelief in the documents was suspended. "they had to be true".. a bad trend.

2. My other point is about exposure to alternative viewpoints. In my mind, clearly this was not an appropriate topic for 3rd graders. I agree with you that group thinking infected the whole peer group of teachers. Move this issue up to college level. I would argue that there are academic departments in major schools where as you phrased it:

It's the Pauline Kael* Syndrome. The teachers don't know a single person who wouldn't agree with them.

We need college level students to be exposed to alternate viewpoints and critical thinking about topics of current importance. Whether the school be UW or Oral Roberts University, diversity in the faculty deeper than skin color is a good thing as well.

Harry B said...

Just to be clear -- my post was a criticism of the Capital Times defence of the assignment, and I am the person quoted criticising the assignment in the original NBC story.

I don't think that reading the policy, once a year, helps; I have the districts policies in my study, and if every teacher read all policies once a year they would go inone ear and out the other. I can't even understand lots of the policies. On this one, I think that the teachers really didn't think that the policy amounted to indoctrination -- even I am not sure that it does (my compaint is that it is worse than indoctrination, because it recruits the students into action which they are not equaipped to understand, and teaches them the lesson that it is ok to demand political action on matters one has not thoguth about carefully in the liht of a good deal of evidence and argument).

I'm sure there's a lot to old granny and dril sgt's points. So what do we do about it? I tell you what happens. There's a lot of left-wing and right-wing indoctrination going on in schools, often both in the same school, both under the guide of academic freedom. There's no easy answer; but injecting a collaborative apporach to curriculum development and to assessment etc, as well as a full discussion of the legitimate pedagogical aims of teachers is a helpful step. The right wing ranters (not Ann, and not most of the contributors to this discussion) simply want to bash the teachers; and I felt that the Cap Times was similarly failing to engage in the necessary discussion. But there's no easy way out (as drill sgt and old granny obviously realise!)

Henry -- I'm sorry, I'm out of energy, but will try to come up with a useful definition, and a more useful set of suggestions about what boks to use! (short version -- I'd be somewhat happy with having both Boorstin and Zinn in a class,certainly much happier to have both than to have either!)

brylin said...

Harry B.,

"I pledge allegiance to the United Nations?"

You think it's wrong for parents to "indoctrinate" their children? And you would assert your moral superiority to set things right with our children?

What's next for you? Free Saddam?

Henry said...

I share Harry B's distate for the pledge of allegience, though I don't think it accomplishes much in the indoctrination vein. It may actually discourage patriotism by turning it into an insentient exercise.

brylin said...


But what do you stand for?

Buck Pennington said...

"Indoctrination" is such a loaded word, and I assign negative connotations to it. Just sayin'.

That CapTimes editorial said: The fact is that teaching children to express their views, particularly dissenting and provocative views, is essential if democracy is going to function and flourish. And teaching children to be for peace is entirely appropriate and patriotic.

To my eyes, there's something unsaid in that last statement. NO one is opposed to peace, but there are a lot of folks that believe some things are worth fighting for, and that "peace at any cost" is NOT a valid point of view. Somehow I get the feeling "at any cost" is where the editorial is going. YMMV.

Other posters have commented the issue is well beyond the grasp of eight and nine-year-olds. Agreed.

Drill Sgt said: ...then the military, having been forced to chose sides, started to vote more and louder. a bad trend IMHO.

For what it's worth, DS, my Navy son tells me the prohibition on discussing religion and politics in the ward room is still alive and well. My AF son echoes that sentiment as far as the official USAF policy goes. small private gatherings the gloves come off. I've seen it personally and I believe it's not an entirely bad thing. A military person SHOULD be apolitical publically. But they, like all other Americans, should vote to protect their interests, and in the case of the military, their interests happen to coincide with the greater good of American society.

Henry said...

But what do you stand for?

Well obviously not religion or the pledge of allegience.

I actually think patriotic history can be part of an even-handed curriculum, but it's also a complex issue and I haven't had time to develop my argument.

brylin said...

"I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

All lefties can tell us what they are against, but few can say for certain what they are for.

oldgranny said...

Harry, Please let us know of an instance of right wing indoctrination in the schools because there ain't no such animal unless you mean the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, and if you think they're rightwing indoctrination, I really feel sorry for you.

We're the luckiest people who have ever lived on the face of the earth because we're living in the finest country the world has ever seen. Is everything perfect? No, but we're not done, we're still a work in progress.

I read on another blog that immigrants that want to come to the U.S. to work hard and make a better life for themselves and their families are just Americans who were born in the wrong country. I couldn't agree more.

Wake up Harry.

The Drill SGT said...


Isn't it a shame that those who only see the US in particular and Western Civilization in general as evil can't volunteer to trade citizenship with those immigrants who want to be here?

Bruce Hayden said...

One criticism of history texts today in the public schools is that they are often not neutral. You have all seen the complaints - for example, concentrating on Japanese internment in WWII instead of the heroism of Iwo Jima, etc.

I am sure that there are school districts using "red" history texts too.

Stiles said...


No disagreement, I was just nit-picking. And I do think that we often do not fully appreciate the significant responsibility that falls on teachers and public education generally as a result of compulsory attendance. There is also the hard reality that there are 180 days of instruction and there is an obligation to make the most of them. Assignments that are not a good developmental match for students waste that time. As does the whole idea of repeating the letter writing process after the twelfth day.


Bless your district for having such a modest set of policies. My experience is that policies usually fill a three inch binder, although I do know that some districts have a very limited set of policies, but voluminous administrative rules. Annual review typically focuses on the policies required for annual review or at significant risk for litigation like blood-borne pathogens, mandated child abuse reporting, confidential records, and (sometimes) copyright. Again, my experience. Your mileage may vary.

This does get me thinking about the need for a policy "Cliff Notes" on the top ten or twenty for teachers, and that would certainly encompass this scenario.

Joe Baby said...

Between the faux grad degrees, the sham career-ladder crapola, and the endless complaints about pay while slouching toward mediocrity, one goofy assignment whereby 8yo's petition Congreff is so small and silly that I can only laugh.

Policies (assuming that an employee has even read the damn things) have never scared anyone. Only firing people does, and we all know that for a teacher to be fired they'll have to be caught with a dead boy or a live penguin.

Henry said...

Harry B

Here's what I might consider a valid patriotic approach to education.

First, kids learn about their families, relatives and neighborhoods. This is their tribal education and it is unavoidable. Hopefully it is an education based on love of the familiar and not fear of the unknown.

In school, kids get educated on their region and nation. They have to live where they live, after all, so they should know about it. They need to know their own history and culture and they need to now how to function as citizens. This education can be wide ranging and cover bad and good, pros and cons. Yet even a completely evenhanded approach will instill patriotism -- students will identify with what they know and aggregate knowledge around their tribal education.

So now lets talk about active indoctrination. Here's two ways to promote patriotism that I think have value. First, kids should be taught the mythology of their region and nation -- the stories that people tell about themselves. This mythology (Thanksgiving, Harriet Tubman, Ellis Island, Curse of the Bambino) is inherently heroic and patriotic. It should be presented as myth and contrasted against facts, but kids need to know it, to develop a love for history and understanding of their own culture.

Second, I would educate kids in the ideals of the country. For U.S. kids, let them know that Thomas Jefferson was a hypocritical racist slaveowner, but give equal time to the ideals in the Declaration of Indepence.

The point of patriotism is to extend tribal loyalties to a larger body politic. It is the concept of citizenry; the belief that people can govern themselves through the rule of law.

Maybe patriotism can be replaced by some kind of academic global humanism, but my sense is that such an education is simply divorced from the way people live within their immediate culture. The result would be little more than a cloak of fuzzy abstractions around a core of solipsism.

Joe Baby said...

Most lib education types have by now concluded that our system of government is vital for ensuring underage abortions w/o parental notification + serving as an endless well for such scams as additional subsidies for special ed...yet not so vital that it's worthwhile to teach kids of those who actually devised the system and risked all to enact it.

And if we do bring up these individuals, we need to address their flaws first and primarily.

Ayn Rand's ideas were never so true as when looking at our modern system of education.