Sunday, May 17, 2015

School Budgeting For The Future

Recently our budget committee met to approve the Hillsboro School District budget proposal for the next school year. I provided the sole vote against the budget proposal, believing it irresponsible in light of our current financial situation. As it turns out, my concerns may be moot, since in the past week an amended forecast came out that will leave our schools with significantly more money than we thought. But I think there are some important principles here we still need to think about.

Some background: the original budget proposal calculated that we would have enough money to essentially provide the current service level, expand (as the state has mandated) kindergarten to all-day, and provide an additional $720K in targeted investments in areas such as athletics and activities.  But then the state Supreme Court threw in a monkey wrench, by ruling that recent PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) reforms were unconstitutional, creating a major new expense for the schools. Due to the oddities of Oregon's PERS accounting process, HSD would not be charged any money this year or next year, but two years from now would be facing a shortfall of around $3.5 million. The amount isn't exact-- there are a lot of other factors involved, including market performance and potential changes to the law-- but that was our CFO's best estimate.

It seemed to me that in light of this new informaton, we should be banking some money every year to prepare against this expected shortfall. Sure, it would be disappointing to have to cancel the majority of this $720K investment. But shouldn't we plan prudently for the long-term health of the district by preparing for the upcoming financial cliff, instead of just spending as originally planned in the hopes that luck or the state legislature will bail us out?

One argument in favor of the spending was that HSD needs it in order to be a top-tier district. Of course I'm not unsympathetic to this claim: surely with all other things being equal, spending more money wisely should allow improvements vs not spending the money. However, if you've been reading my blog, you know that I don't believe this dependence is absolute: many private and charter schools are successful with much smaller budgets than our traditional schools. I also believe we have put way too much effort into finding ways to spend money on new programs, rather than finding ways to improve our district's cost-effectiveness in educational delivery.  In any case, we need to face the fact that we may not have the money in the long term. Spending for today without regard for the future will just make it more painful a few years from now, when we have to face a massive cut to fill in the shortfall. I think many members of our community are growing cynical of the district for creating these kinds of situations on purpose-- that's one major reason the recent bond initiative failed. The best way for HSD to gain the public's confidence in its financial management is to refuse to particpate in the bureaucratic government tradition of continually increasing spending, to maximize the size of the "shortfall" caused by future expenses or general losses, and then demanding more money to compensate.

The other major argument  was that this year's money is there for this year's kids, and we are somehow cheating them if we don't spend it directly on them. If we had a pay-as-you-go system where every student was specifically paying their own tuition each year, this argument might hold water. But the entire public education system is based on redistribution: retirees, childless singles, local businesses, and others all pay tax money that is used to educate the majority of children, in theory serving the common good.  If we can redistribute across populations for the common good, why can't we distribute across time for the common good as well? If we can provide the best education to the most children in the long term by saving money this year, how can that be considered immoral? Aside from that basic observation, the truth is that we already are dealing with plenty of expenditures whose costs and benefits are unevenly distributed across time: long-term planning, investing in new equipment, building mainenance, and of course the notorious PERS, an insanely expensive burden foisted on us by our predecessors. So the argument that we are somehow morally bound to fully expend each year's budget, rather than prudently banking money when we see a huge expense looming, simply doesn't make sense.

So, in short, it seemed to me that our budget should include direct consideration of how we will cover for the looming PERS shortfall created by the Supreme Court decision, even though we technically are not forced to pay for it yet. As I mentioned above, it looks like we will have more money than expected, so perhaps this will become less of a concern. But be sure to watch how HSD is planning its spending, and pay close attention to how much (or how little) is being done to reduce long-term costs. When tax debates or ballot initiatives come up, do not reward the school district for overspending to maximize future "shortfalls": reward it for prudent actions taken to save money and reduce long-term expenses. Remember a fundamental rule of economics: we will almost always get more of the behaviors we reward.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Vote Clift, Rask, Honl for Hillsboro School Board

Hopefully, you are getting ready to fill out your ballots for school board.   If you are in our district, I strongly urge you to vote for Wayne Clift, Bart Rask, and Christian Honl.

I've known Wayne Clift, our current vice-chair, for over 15 years now, first as a colleague at Intel, then on the school board.  He has been a soft-spoken but consistent voice for common sense and careful consideration of all viewpoints, and deserves re-election.   His patience and excellent skills at listening and mediation have led to endorsements from members of both the liberal and conservative wings of the board.   However, if you look at the contested votes the board has had over the past two years on various issues,  you will find that Wayne and I are almost always on the same page.

Bart Rask is a newcomer with a truly impressive resume.   His successful orthopedic practice and background including a Harvard fellowship would alone put him among the leaders of our community. But on top of that he has served on the state level board of athletic trainers, appointed and reappointed by two previous governors.  Aside from his exceptional personal qualifications, his experience dealing with government regulations and tightening insurance budgets, while running his medical practice, are excellent preparation to manage the Hillsboro schools in these challenging times.   I believe he is by far the most deserving candidate for our open seat.

Christian Honl is an Intel manager with a strong track record overseeing large teams during periods of financial stress.    Christian has the insight to know what needs to be done, the vision to develop realistic goals, and the work ethic to make good and necessary changes happen without backing down under pressure.  This is the kind of experience we need more of on the school board, and is a key reason why we should elect him to replace our current chair.

As a parting note, I want to remind you that all the candidates and members of the board are generous, dedicated people who truly care about Hillsboro's kids.    But where your choice of members becomes critical is in the cases where there are disagreements, and conflicting visions of how to run our district.    So please do not vote based on personal connections or friendship, but on who you really want making these hard choices.   If you like the outlook on school issues that you have been reading in my blog, the candidates most likely to have similar views on many issues are the ones I recommend.

So please remember to turn in your ballot, and cast your votes for Wayne Clift, Bart Rask, and Christian Honl for the Hillsboro school board.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sex Ed: Opt Out or Opt In?

At last Tuesday's board meeting, Hillsboro resident Kathy Mikitka proposed a change in how we notify parents about the sex ed curriculum. Currently we have an opt-out policy: parents are informed about what the curriculum contains, and they have the option to contact the school if they want their child excused from that class. Kathy proposed changing it to an opt-in policy, where the default would be for children to be excused, and parents would have to officially approve their child's inclusion in the sex ed class. While this proposal would involve a bit more paperwork for the teachers, Kathy made some convincing arguments for why it would be an improvement:
  • Sex ed is fundamentally different from other curriculum areas. I think we can all agree that this topic touches on morality, religion, and personal privacy in a unique way. So the argument "if we do it for this, we need to do it for everything" doesn't carry much weight, as I see it.
  • Parents may miss or overlook the opt-out opportunity. Many parents are buried in various forms of paperwork and junk mail these days. And of course, there is a big peer pressure factor here: kids may fear the stigma of being opted out of sex ed, and thus intentionally hide information or fail to inform their parents. Since opt-out does not require any feedback from parents back to the school, the teacher will never know if they really received and were able to act upon the information.
  • Young children may be upset or disturbed by aspects of the sex ed curriculum. With various theorists promoting detailed information to be given at younger and younger ages, this seems like a legitimate concern. There also may be times when highly inappropriate information sneaks in unexpectedly: while the coastal conference that encouraged illegal activities was an extreme case, the same state bodies and officials that oversaw that conference have been in charge of developing K-12 curricula.

It looks to me like these are pretty good arguments, and I am inclined to believe we should seriously consider Kathy's proposal. What do you think? Please email me, or the whole board, if you have an opinion in this area. And of course, remember to carefully fill out your May school board election ballot, if you want board members who are likely to support such a proposal. (My next blog post will discuss who I endorse).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Real Equity Through School Choice

In our April work session, I proposed that we officially make our district an Open Enrollment District, allowing and encouraging any student in the district to choose any in-district school to attend if they are dissatisfied with their local school.   (This is separate from the inter-district Open Enrollment policy, controlled by the state, where students can freely transfer out of our district.)    Currently we do allow in-district transfers if people apply through a district-defined process, and a surprisingly large number of students do jump through these hoops.   However, I see this as a fundamental equity issue for several reasons, most notably that high-poverty minority students concentrated in our lowest performing schools do not seem to be taking advantage.   Is it really the case that they and their parents are happy with their schools, or are requirements such as the cumbersome transfer process , communication problems, or transportation issues forming a major obstacle?   Equity should not be just about staff trainings-- it should be about actually providing the same opportunities to all students in the district.

We need to keep in mind that every school will not be right for every student.   Some schools will have different programs, such as STEM, STEAM, or dual/non-dual language, that may work better for some kids than others.   In the discussion it was suggested that all schools should offer all options.   But do we really believe one-size-fits-all is the best way to deliver education?   Every school has a finite amount of resources, and cannot focus on everything-- why not let each concentrate on certain programs, enabling us to better reach students with different personalities, interests, and learning styles?   And even if we could get precise parity of options, there will always be issues of some students simply not meshing with particular teachers or teaching styles, or problems such as bullying issues motivating a student to seek another school.    Parents should always have the option to seek a different education for their child, and not have to convince a bureaucrat of the validity of their reason (as required by the current policy) in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

I was surprised at the vehemence of the objections to this proposal, which was informally (not an official vote, since just a work session) voted down 4-3.   I saw two main objections come up in the discussion:
  • Cost.   This is the one that did actually have some validity, since providing transportation to a potentially unknown additional number of students outside their neighborhood could be a cost issue, especially in these times of tight finances.   I don't see this as insurmountable though:  for example, perhaps we could charge transportation fees that are waiveable based on need, using the better-off students to subsidize the poorer ones.  And maybe we should compare this to the cost of the thousands of staff hours spent in (and paying an Equity Director to organize) politically correct employee trainings of marginal benefit, which I will not flog further (for now) in this blog.    Wouldn't providing alternative options to our poorest students do a lot more for Equity in the long run than staff trainings?
  • "People should be invested in their neighborhood schools".   This is a nice ideal, and there would be nothing stopping anyone from continuing to attend their local school.   I suspect that even under full Open Enrollment, the majority would make this choice.   But should we be forcing people who want to leave to remain in the local school, just to improve the neighborhood?   This makes me very uncomfortable-- in effect, we are saying that certain students (the ones who want to leave) should be conscripted by the government to remain in their local school in order to improve neighborhood investment.    How would you feel if your child were forced to remain in a school that wasn't working for them, just so their presence could "benefit the neighborhood"?
Anyway, ultimately the conclusion of the discussion was that parents who really want to transfer can avail themselves of the current process, and there was no need to change anything right now.   Superintendent Scott also stated that transfer procedures have been liberalized in recent years, and internal transfers are almost never denied in our district, except due to a school being at its capacity.     As a community, we need to make sure we are holding the district to this promise-- the written policy  still leaves the ultimate decision to the district staff.     I'll be interested to hear about your experiences, good and bad, with the transfer process-- please send me an email if you have dealt with this recently, and tell me how it went!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boundary Adjustment Sense and Nonsense

At Tuesday's school board meeting, board member Glenn Miller presented the case for exchanging some land with the Beaverton School District. This was based on the recognition that through oddities of historical chance, our district serves land that is adjacent to highly developed areas of Beaverton, but miles away from major population concentrations in Hillsboro. In contrast, another area near the Beaverton/Hillsboro border is owned by BSD but adjacent to land we just purchased for a new school. It seemed to me like a sensible and reasoned proposal that could save us significant money in the long run.   But due to the fact that Glenn discussed it outside the meeting with a local developer, Ed Bartholemy, and with the county commission chair, Andy Duyck, fellow school board member Janeen Sollman accused Glenn of some kind of ethics violation. This charge was unwarrented, ridiculous, and utterly offensive.  Why do I say this?

First, anyone can meet with Glenn, and he has been continually accessible to everyone in the community.  You know what it takes to get a meeting with Glenn? One email or phone call. If you have substantial information that invalidates the argument for the land exchange, talk to him yourself! Janeen tried to paint this as some kind of secret backdoor access for Mr. Bartholemy, when in fact any concerned citizen can bring this up with Glenn. (By the way, her implication that Mr Bartholemy gave Glenn a campaign donation was incorrect: Glenn's campaign was primarily financed by several thousand dollars out of his own pocket .)

Second, as a member of the Long Range Planning subcommittee, Glenn is directly responsible for researching and discussing district planning issues between regular board meetings. The mere existence of this subcommittee indicates that such discussions are expected. And personally, with the regular meeting agendas being fully packed, I am very grateful to Glenn for taking so much of his personal time to research these issues offline before bringing concrete proposals to the main meetings.

Third, in cases where other districts or government bodies are impacted, it makes perfect sense to have offline discussions with members of those bodies.  Sure, when it comes time for details of a concrete proposal, each body will have its formal discussions and votes. But without such preliminary chats to feel out the feasibility, it is possible that lots of public meeting time will be wasted on one board when the issue is a non-starter on another.

In short, Glenn has sacrificed many hours of his own time to do preliminary research on an important planning issue, one which is controversial but, if carefully handled, could result in millions of long-term dollars ending up in our classrooms instead of in transportation expenses. Yes, a particular developer might have an interest here, but he has been given no more access to board members than every citizen in the community has. Rather than slinging mud at Glenn, we should be praising his diligence and personal sacrifice, which may very well result in significant gains for the education of Hillsboro's children.

P.S. In the interests of full disclosure: the Washington County Business Council, of which Mr Bartholemy is a member, did donate to my 2013 campaign. However, I was on record supporting the boundary change long before thar.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Increase Funding for City View Charter School

One of the major topics at January's board meeting was the proposal for expansion of City View Charter School, the only public charter school in the Hillsboro School District.   In case you don't recall, a charter school is an alternative public school, which any student can choose to attend instead of their traditional school, without having to spend additional money.   Charter schools are independently run and thus can potentially offer a very different style of education from the traditional district schools.  Because they tend to demonstrate significant academic success while spending less money than traditional schools, they are also not very popular among the unions and the traditional education establishment.   City View has gained a reputation in our district for delivering a successful alternative form of education, and now has a triple-digit waiting list for children who want to attend.    (When more children apply than the "enrollment cap" provided by the district, they are admitted by lottery.)

Based on its success, City View requested a doubling of its enrollment cap, a 10-year extension of their charter contract, and an increase in their funding.    There wasn't any serious opposition to extending their charter or doubling their enrollment cap, based on their current success and the excessively large size of their waiting list.   The one sticking point was the request for a funding increase.   Right now City View receives 80% of the state per-student funding for each student that attends, the minimum required by law, and they want this increased to 90%.   I think there are two important principles we need to keep in mind as we make this decision.

First, we need to look at City View funding in comparison to overall district spending, which is about $11K per student.    The discussion is often incorrectly framed by limiting it to parceling out the state "per student" funding-- which is what the charter funding law is based on-- but this is not actually what we spend per student.  The nominal per-student funding, amounting to about $7000 per student, only represents a portion of district spending.   There are some categories, such as special ed services (which the district supplies to City View) and transportation (which City View doesn't provide) that it makes sense to subtract off the top.  But our all-funds budget also includes some other categories that I don't think it is fair to deprive City View of.  For example:
  • Gain Share and other miscellaneous funding that isn't bucketed in the "per student" category, but is spent on the district's non-charter schools.
  • Construction Loan payments:  This is basically the mortgage on the district's buildings.  City View has to pay rent or mortgage on their own location, which seems directly comparable.  
  • ESD (Education Service District) Services and Funding:  Our district receives state credits for ESD services, plus $4.2 million in opt-out money from state ESD funding that we have decided to spend elsewhere.   Yet City View shares in none of this, and needs to pay directly out of it's "80%" for any ESD services it uses.
When we had this conversation in 2013, the board asked district staff to do a quick calculation, and they determined that when you subtract the appropriate non-comparable areas, the district spends the equivalent of about $8900 per student.   This can vary somewhat depending on judgement calls of what to include, but I think it's pretty clear that the real total is significantly higher than the nominal per-student spending.
Second, a City View student is just as much a part of our district as any other HSD student, and has just as much of a right to our education dollars.   They are public school students in our district, and any student in HSD is eligible to attend.   City View provides a critical alternative option for families who are not wealthy enough to choose a private school or homeschooling, but whose children are not experiencing success in a traditional school.  Thus, we should be aiming for the spending on a City View student to match what we spend on other students in the district, perhaps with a small proportion subtracted for overhead.   And to enforce fundamental fairness, this should be calculated based on each student's proportion of the all-funds budget, not just the nominal "per student" funding.

With these principles in mind, it seems to me that the 90% of the per-student funding that City View has requested is, if anything, less than they rightfully deserve.   As fellow board member Monte Akers mentioned at the meeting, we should ideally have a more specific calculation.   It would be best to see a detailed spreadsheet of actual overhead expenses incurred by supporting City View and subtract that from the district's real comparable per-student spending, to get a precise reasoning for what we spend on this program.   But just based on the core principles above, it seems to me that such a calculation would almost certainly yield a result more than the 90% of nominal state per-student funding that has been requested.   Thus, I am strongly inclined to vote in favor of City View's request, and provide the opportunity for hundreds of HSD students to benefit from the continued success of this innovative program.

Right now we are in the feedback period before the board makes its final decision.   If you agree with me, be sure to send constituent feedback to the board secretary, to help demonstrate public support for City View.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Oregon's Politicized School Board Association

The Oregon School Board Association (OSBA) recently unveiled the "Promise of Oregon" campaign, a set of political ads describing the importance of education to Oregon's future.   This campaign is aimed at generating public pressure on the legislature to increase the proportion of funding going to the schools.  Some of you may have been surprised that I voted against endorsing this campaign at our most recent board meeting.   While there are many positive things to say about educating Oregon's children, it makes me a bit uneasy to see the enthusiasm with which school boards around the state are endorsing this particular ad campaign.   We need to keep in mind that the OSBA is largely funded through dues from each school board, which ultimately come from money collected from the taxpayers.   So in effect, this campaign is using taxpayer money to ask for more taxpayer money.   While I don't think any laws are being broken, I really believe such use of taxpayer money for this kind of campaign crosses an ethical line, and is not something we should support.
Think about it for a minute:  if the government can fund organizations which then use their government funding to campaign for increases in their own budget, where does it end?   Many would argue that our spreading crisis of budgets and deficits nationwide is a direct result of the fact that we already provide too many avenues for this snowball effect.  There are too many different ways in which recipients of government money can turn around and use this money in the political process to multiply itself.   We cannot solve it everywhere, but I think it is very important that we try to change this in cases where we can.   If we want to leave sustainable budgets and functional government for our children, we need to try to counter this effect wherever possible.
The OSBA does perform a number of important services for school districts:  it runs annual conferences that are important for learning and networking with other board members, it provides various other forms of training, and it analyzes changing laws to come up with aligned policy recommendations.   So I do think that paying OSBA dues from taxpayer money is reasonable overall.  I can also see some level of legitimate role for the OSBA in the political process:  I would expect the OSBA to do some global analysis of the common interests and effects of state laws on the individual districts, and communicate these to the relevant lawmakers.   But because taxpayer money is involved, I think we need to limit this to simple communication of information and testimony at relevant legislative hearings.   A multimedia lobbying campaign is something that should be done by an associated PAC using collected voluntary contributions, rather than direct use of taxpayer money.
This campaign is also especially worrying in conjunction with the increasing use of the OSBA to advance partisan political causes.   In the past year we have also seen:
  • A set of official legislative priorities which includes keeping Oregon charter school laws weak, and eliminating our "kicker" tax refunds.   Both of these are causes that are espoused by one end of our political spectrum, and on which mainstream Oregonians, including solid supporters of education in general, are of many opinions.
  • The OSBA handed over a major session of the 2014 summer conference for advocacy of the ill-advised "Oregon Opportunity Initiative".  This wasn't just a passing mention:  this keynote session by State Treasurer Ted Wheeler was devoted entirely to advocating this measure and enlisting the attending school board members in its support, without a hint of an opposing view.   The extreme nature of this initiative is demonstrated by the fact that even in a landslide Democrat election year in Oregon, this Democrat-endorsed measure solidly lost. 
With the OSBA taking strong positions on these controversial political causes, I think we need to tread very carefully when encouraging this organization to start spending taxpayer-derived dues on political ads.   While our board did outvote me to endorse the Promise of Oregon campaign, I was happy to see that the majority joined me in a vote against the OSBA's legislative priorities.  As a board member, I believe we need to continue looking more skeptically at OSBA activities, and challenge them directly in cases where they are venturing too far beyond their core duties and spending taxpayer money on one-sided politics.   Be sure to inform your school board members or OSBA representatives if you agree.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sex Ed Followup

Wow, I guess I should have predicted this, but the parents of Hillsboro have really strong feelings about sex education-- on both sides.   I thought my last post would be relatively non-controversial, just questioning one aspect of a current program rather than its fundamental premises, but some of the commenters seem really angry with me for bringing up the topic.   I'll let you read the comment thread on that article, rather than rehash the arguments here, since both sides seem well-represented.   As I mentioned at the last board meeting, we also have had amazing community turnout on this event, with multiple citizen speakers at the last two meetings and record attendance (5 people) at my constituent coffee yesterday.

Anyway, as we head into Tuesday's vote on the district's sex ed policy,  (see p.65 of the linked pdf),  I thought it might be good to clarify a few aspects of what's going on.
  • The policy changes fix the two big issues with the previous revision:  "skill-based instruction" and vague parent communication requirements.   My biggest initial concern was the phrase "skills-based instruction", which sounded like (under a future interpretation) it might form a gateway to crazy programs like the coastal conference you may have heard about in the news.    This phrase was removed, with the change that the instruction is in the risks and benefits of various methods of contraception and other disease prevention measures.    We also have added a direct statement that there will be a clear parent notifiction policy, access to curriclum, and a student exemption process on the district website.
  •  The policy is not meant to specify every detail of HSD's curriculum, and passing it will not end the conversation.   Remember that board policies just form a general outline, and district staff are selecting and implementing the exact curriculum that implements that outline on a continuing basis.   Lori Porter from the Parent's Rights in Education group raised a lot of good questions about how the policy will be implemented-- will it be interpreted in a way that provides graphic, disturbing content for children who are not ready?   (Again, see that conference link for examples at the extreme end of what some sex ed proponents feel is appropriate.)    I believe our staff are aware of the concerns, and HSD has not been participating in that controversial conference or using its handouts.   We will need to keep watching this, to ensure that we continue to use appropriate materials:  take advantage of the district's offer to access your child's curriculum, and notify your principal, superintendent, and board if you do see anything that you believe does not agree with your or the community's values.
  • Lots of people really love the "My Future, My Choice" program, including its use of teen mentors.    My experience may have been colored by hypocritical "teen leaders" in a similar program in my high school days, who effectively conveyed the opposite of the official messages through their weekend behavior.    Since my last post, I've learned that this program in Oregon has been around for a decade,  and while many community members share my general concerns, every commenter who had specific experience with the program (as a student or parent) was very positive about it.    So, while I still believe we need to think carefully about the concerns I raised in my last article, and need to keep our eyes open for possible abuses, I will not be taking any action right now to try to change the current program.   Be sure to contact me if you or your child has had a negative experience, though.
As always, please contact me or come speak up at our Tuesday meeting if you have additional insights into these issues.    Due to the level of concern the community has shown, this is definitely an area to which I believe we should continue to pay close attention.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Teenagers Teaching Sex Ed?

At last week's board meeting, the always-touchy subject of sex educaton policy was up for review by the board.  As with many topics, the general content of what we teach here is dictated by the state.   But the two citizens who spoke up, one a local parent and the other a leader of the Parents' Rights in Education group, brought up some serious concerns about our curriculum.  What concerned me the most was that our "My Future My Choice"  program includes the use of high school teen volunteers to help lead discussions in middle school sex ed classes.  They have to go through an extensive training/certification program first, but it seems to me that teenagers should not be leading class discussions in this area, regardless of their level of training.   Why do I say this?

  1. Our laws directly state that kids are not ready to make decisions about sex until age 18, and about alcohol until age 21.   We have age of consent laws regarding sex, and a minimum age for the sale of alcohol.   Since we have agreed as a society to not trust kids of high school age to properly judge these topics, no matter how seemingly mature they are or how much training they receive, isn't it somewhat inconsistent to trust them to counsel younger kids on these matters?
  2. Some of the high school kids will have experimented with sexual activity or drugs, and the younger kids will likely pick up on this.   Although the training teaches them to change the subject when inappropriate topics come up, I have a feeling it won't be as smooth as in the ideal training conditions.   The younger children will recognize that the older teens are being evasive, and some my be more influenced by their inferred real behavior than their teacher-dictated official statements.
  3. Teenagers are very skilled at telling adults what they want to hear, then doing the opposite.   Back in the 80's, at my high school (a public school in New Jersey) there was a program called "Teens Need Teens" (TNT), similar in philosophy to this one, where teen leaders would learn to counsel their peers in avoiding drug use and sexual activity.   During my senior year, the advisor abruptly resigned, when the news came out that many of the "responsible student leaders" of TNT had been spending their weekends attending wild parties filled with alcohol, drug use, and sexual activity, while officially preaching the exact opposite as part of their TNT programs.
So, for these reasons, I am very uncomfortable with this concept of teen leaders helping run middle school sex ed classes.   As we discuss next steps to take on the board, I'm interested in hearing further about your children's experiences, positive or negative, with this program.   

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Opportunity Initiative" (Measure 86) Will Harm Oregon's Children

At first glance, the "Oregon Opportunity Initiative" (measure 86) sounds like a great idea, providing college scholarships for deserving children.   Who could argue with that?   Well, I can, for one.  In fact, if you look at the details, this Initiative is a horrible idea that will ultimately harm the children of Oregon in the long term.   Why do I say this?
  • The Opportunity Fund funded will consist of borrowed money, and paying it back will likely come out of other education spending.   Every year we will have a new item on the state budget, paying interest on the opportunity fund loan.   When legislators look to fund this, purely an education-related cost, won't it be natural to take the money out of other education spending?   After all, nearly every legislator claims to have already prioritized education, which means that the state is spending as many of our current tax dollars on education as it believes appropriate. 
  • The Initiative will pump the engine of tuition inflation, ultimately hurting every student who attends college without a full scholarship.   As a society, we seem to have forgotten the laws of supply and demand.   There are numerous scholarship opportunities available for talented, deserving, and needy children to attend college.   But the overabundance of funding and easy loans has freed college tuition from any form of market discipline.  Programs like this enable many marginal students who would not benefit from a college degree, or will end up dropping out anyway, to avoid a realistic cost/benefit analysis.   As a result they will funnel lots of other peoples' money to colleges, as well as mortgaging their own futures through massive loans, and the colleges will happily raise their tuition in response.
  • The Initiative contains a loophole authorizing permanent deficit spending that will bankrupt our state.   A little-discussed clause in the initiative contains the following:  "...when the Governor declares an emergency pursuant to this subsection, the Legislative Assembly, with the approval of four-fifths of the members present in each house, may pass a bill to...  (a) Use the moneys for any lawful purpose if the Legislative Assembly has approved a plan to replenish the fund on appropriate terms."   So in other words, as long as the Governor and the Legislature generate nice-sounding (but unenforcable) pieces of paper, they can loot this scholarship fund for "any lawful purpose" they want.   Do we really expect our politicians to resist the temptation to route even more public funds for favored constituents and special interests?
    So please, don't fall for the pretty language by its advocates of the Oregon Opportunity Initiative being necessary "for the children".  The right decision for Oregon's children is to vote No on Measure 86.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

True Career Readiness

At last week's board meeting, a group of the district's guidance counselors introduced us to the new Naviance system for college and career readiness.   This is an excellent new website that allows students, based on their own personal preferences and qualifications, to explore possibilities for future careers and the education path to get there.   Once it suggests a career, it also has buttons that let them view videos and hear advice from people who were successful in that particular path.    While the counselors put a lot of work into this system and it provides a lot of useful information, though, I believe there is a critical flaw in the concept:  the system refuses to make value judgements about particular careers, and treats all paths as equally valid.   Why do I think this is a reason for concern?

  • There are some careers that simply are not in demand, and students who choose them will have a very bleak future.   For example, I entered "computer engineer" in the search box, and got back a set of personal attributes that are common for engineers.  I then entered "actor" into the search box, and got to a set of personal attributes common for actors.   The system did not make any effort to tell me that if I chose the engineering path, I would be virtually guaranteed to have a job waiting at graduation-- while if I chose the acting path, I would be very lucky to be able to make a living in my chosen field.  Articles such as this one talk about how numerous college majors are very bad ideas for future employment.   
  • This is compounded by the fact that idealistic, immortal-feeling teenagers can easily be led to "follow their passion", and these long-term considerations about making a living tend to be very abstract.   This is a case where students really need wise guidance, and really need strong pushes into the fields where they will be providing useful skills that others will pay for.   Years later they will suffer mightily for their young idealism, but it may very well be too late by then.   Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame recently wrote a great article on why following your passion is often a bad idea-- check it out at this link.
  • Many middle class students are being effectively led into a life of indentured servitude, by being encouraged to take out bankruptcy-proof loans that they can never repay, to pay for an education with barely any career relevance.   The fact that many types of student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy is another issue that may sound very abstract to a teenager.   But if they take on a $100K debt for that art history degree, they will find it following them around for the rest of their life.   This will impact their chance to own a home or a car, take out loans to start a business, or even years later make it harder to provide for their children's education.   This article talks about majors that will often lead to earning less than a high school graduate, while ending up saddled with this permanent debt.
  • Hearing from successful people in a career tells you nothing about what proportion of those who attempt it are successful.   This is actually an instance of a well-known mathematical fallacy:  "A implies B" does not mean that "B implies A".  For example, suppose a well-known artist talks about how they practiced 12 hours a day to reach their level of success.  This tells you nothing about how many would-be artists practiced 12 hours a day, went to a decent college as an art major, and are now serving coffee at Starbuck's.   The fact that being a successful artist implies you practiced 12 hours a day has no bearing on whether practicing 12 hours a day implies you will be a successful artist.  
  • This implication-fallacy issue also relates to the salary charts in the tool.  They tell you your expected salary *if* you are successfully employed in that field.   What about the many people who started out hoping to enter each career, but ended up underemployed or in an unrelated field due to lack of demand? 
The guidance counselors seemed to think this would not be much of an issue, because the computer system is "just part of a conversation" between students and their counselors.   Perhaps they can help put some realism into students in these conversations, but I suspect the time each student spends with their counselor will be relatively small compared to the time they spend in the computer system.   In any case, since we have this complex computer system already developed, would it really be that hard to also incorporate data about the success rates of people entering various careers?   I brought this up at the meeting, and the staff began discussing the possibilities.   I really think integrating actual demand into this tool's career advice would have the potential to make a huge difference in the future success and happiness of our students.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Improving The Teaching Process

At our last board work session, the main agenda item was a presentation by a large group of HSD teachers on our implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  While I continue to have many reservations about CCSS, which you can read in earlier blog entries (such as this one, this one, or this one),  I was happy to see that this presentation mainly highlighted positive changes to the teaching process that are underway in our district.   Most of the practices presented were forward-looking reforms that look likely to result in solid improvements to education in HSD, regardless of their relationship to CCSS.   The enthusiastic group of teachers and principals who presented all showed a solid dedication to examining and improving their teaching processes.   The topics I found most interesting were:
  • Professional Learning Communities:   You may have seen occasional remarks on this idea in my past blogs, where teachers of related subjects get together to share successes/failures and plan improvements.  This seems like an excellent idea to me, and marks a major shift in teaching culture over the past few decades.   Contrast it with my experiences as a student teacher at a New Jersey public school back in the early 90s-- one of the "master teachers" actually told me to expect that the majority of my colleagues would only be marginally competent, so the key to teaching success was to close my classroom door and ignore the rest of the school!  
  • Learning How To Read and Understand Texts.   A Social Studies teacher spoke about how she is now focusing on teaching students how to interpret nonfiction texts, rather than simply presenting them with readings.   This sounds like another good reform, filling in a gap an explicitly teaching a skill which students were formerly expected to pick up implicitly.   I think this will probably help some of the students who were struggling in this area.   We do need to be careful though, that this 'learning to understand' doesn't completely replace the memorization of relevant facts, which I believe also has a critical place in preparing a successful citizen of 21st century America.
  • National (Voluntary!) Lesson/Curriculum Sharing.   Our teachers will be connected to a national online community of fellow educators, all developing lessons relating to the CCSS topics, and shared in an open-source manner.   This will enable our district to effectively make use of successuful lessons developed elsewhere, as well as share our own successes with other districts across the country.   As increasing amounts of quality materials become available, this may actually be able to reduce our long-term spending on textbooks.
While this session did not turn me into a CCSS cheerleader, I'm happy to see that as a result of the reexamination of our general curriculum and teaching practices, we are making many positive improvements.   You can see more about HSD's implementation of CCSS at this district website .  As always, I'll be hoping to hear from you about your own children's experiences with these new standards-- please email me or stop by one of my monthly coffees to share your perspectives!

Monday, August 25, 2014

What A Difference A Day Makes

It's always nice to be able to post about good news for HSD!   As you have probably read in one of the local papers or on the HSD website by now, an unexpectedly large contribution from Gain Share resulted in about $728000 extra showing up in our budget.   At the August meeting, we agreed to use $466000 of that to restore the final 'budget reduction' day that had been cut from our district calendar.  The remainder will be targeted towards augmenting staff for particular classrooms which are identified as having special need, such as larger-than-expected classes in September (advance registration is never 100% accurate), or other academic challenges.

At the meeting, I was a little skeptical about restoring the day.   Of course restoring a lost day sounds like an objectively good thing.   But almost all the arguments in favor of this sounded to me like they were primarily based in either public relations, or in emotion:  "I want to feel like our district is no longer broken".  But as I see it, the question we should be asking is:  what will make the biggest difference in the lives of some of our district's children?

If students attend school for about 170 days of roughly equal importance, an additional day is only about a 1/170 (0.6%) improvement to each child's education, a barely noticeable amount of across-the-board change.   On the other hand, if we have a kindergarten class of 35 in one of our challenged high-poverty schools and are able to supply an additional teacher's aide to that class, that is probably a real, noticeable improvement to the education of those 35 kindergarteners.   So, my inclination would be to not bother with restoring the lost day, and instead direct all the extra money to such targeted local improvements.
I didn't argue too hard on this, though, because I saw one compelling argument in favor of restoring the day:  keeping our implied promises to the unions.  The employee unions had willingly agreed to the budget reduction days when times were tight, and though we did not have a contractual obligation, it was strongly implied that this decision would be reversed when we had the money.   Because of this, it made sense to me to follow through and restore the missing day, even though I didn't find the other arguments that convincing.
Anyway, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues.  Send me an email or FB message anytime, or come visit my next Constituent Coffee, held the first Saturday of each month, 10am, at the Human Bean at 10th & Oak.  I hope to see you there!

BTW- If you're curious about the followup on my discussions of problems with the district Equity programs:  In one of those "be careful what you wish for" situations, it looks like the solution will be to put me on the committee designing the next round of Equity training.   Stay tuned for further updates as that committee starts to meet...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Public Schools Encouraging Anti-Semitism

When I first started writing this series on the politically biased, racist, logically confused, and embarrassing "White Privilege"-based Equity training materials used by many public school districts, including Hillsboro, earlier this summer, I wasn't planning to write this article.    After all, if you have read my previous blogs, you probably have noticed that I strongly advocate striving to treat everyone as individuals, not divide into groups and count up Victim Points.   But who would have predicted that in the summer of 2014 we would see a massive surge of anti-Semitism worldwide, including protestors chanting for the murder of Jews all over the Western world, leading to a Newsweek cover story on the Jewish community beginning to flee Western Europe again , and even local Portland seeing protestors supporting these calls for mass murder?  With all this happening, I find it very chilling that our local public schools are teaching Equity classes that directly encourage anti-Semitism.    In addition to all their other flaws, it is important to recognize that these Equity classes are failing on their own terms:  directly encouraging hatred of a particular minority group, for which open calls to murder have suddenly become fashionable and acceptable.

Why do I say this?   Well, keep in mind that the Equity training packet is full of articles discussing various minority groups sympathetically:  how they first came to America, their struggles fitting in and being accepted, etc.   But let's take a look at what they have to say about Jews:

For example, Jewish people of European ancestry sometimes do not think of themselves as White because for them the term means White Christian.  Also, in Nazi Germany, Jews were defined as a distinct, non-Aryan racial group.  In the context of an anti-Jewish culture, the salient identity may be the targeted Jewish identity.   However, in terms of U.S. racial ideology, Jews of European ancestry are also the beneficiaries of White racial privilege.  My White Jewish students often struggle with the tension between being targeted and receiving privilege.  (p.31)

Why should we consider this anti-Semitic?   Aside from the fact that this form of clinical racial analysis sounds like a throwback to a 1930's KKK pamphlet--  is it really appropriate to pick apart various groups and analyze their levels of Whiteness?--  this analysis is directly picking at one of the sorest scabs in the Jewish racial psyche:   the idea that the world has been secretly manipulated to bring invisible privileges to Jews.     You may recall that about a hundred years ago, there was a popular book being passed around called the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", supposedly showing how the Jews were manipulating and controlling the world; and its ideas were used to justify rabid anti-Semitism that led to mass murder.     This scientific-sounding analysis is essentially making the same charge, that Jews secretly have invisible privileges that have led to their disproportionate success in the economic world.   How many who attend these seminars will have these ideas still floating around their subconscious, and have them magnified and legitimized when they are specifically taught to resent Jews for their secret privileges?   And worries about this perception leading to real physical danger are not naive or outdated:  the Hamas terrorist organization, which massive numbers of these protestors are supporting, specifically cites the Protocols in its charter  .  

This flabbergasting level of insensitivity to Jewish history is made even worse when you contrast it with the treatment of a fellow "model minority" group, Asians, in the same training materials:

The stereotype is that Asians are hard workers, quiet, and get good grades because they have tremendous pressure from their parents to succeed.  While initially appearing to be beneficial, the stereotype has had some negative effects.  It has pitted Asian Pacific Americans against other groups targeted by racism, often at the instigation of whites.  It has also contributed to White fear and resentment, leading to an increase in sometimes deadly violence.  (p.13)

Could there be a starker contrast between the treatment of two minority groups?   For the exact same set of stereotypical characteristics that lead to academic and economic success, Jews are guilty of perpetrating White Privilege, while Asians are victims of other groups pitted against them.    If you're looking for cases when groups have been "pitted against" each other in order to create violence, here's a question for you:  when was the last time you heard about marching crowds all over the Western world openly and unapologetically calling for the deaths of Asians, or for that matter for the death of any other group besides Jews?

Anyway, I'm not advocating that we add another unit to these ridiculous training materials to properly account for anti-Semitism.    Horrible gaffes like this are inevitable when you build your Equity philosophy around dividing people into groups and judging racial grievances.   If you weren't convinced to protest these materials based on their crazy definition of racism, denial of merit in America , or poorly thought out ad hominem rhetoric, how about the fact that it tacitly encourages anti-Semitic attitudes that are leading to death threats and riots against Jews today, in 2014, all over the world?    Be sure to contact your local school district (remember, I found this in Hillsboro, but the same program is being used in many other places), find out if they are teaching about "White Privilege", and carefully examine any materials they are using to train their faculty and staff.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Advancing Equity Through Ad Hominem Arguments

This week we continue our discussion of Hillsboro's (and many other public school districts') embarrassing Equity training materials, which are based in Critical Race Theory , redefine "racism" so that only white people can be racist, and teach that meritocracy in America is a myth, since most success really results from the exercise of White Privilege

An important principle of rational debate, which we should (hopefully) have all teachers understand and pass on to their students, is to avoid logical fallacies, unsound styles of argument that lead you to conclusions which do not follow from your premises.  One basic fallacy that most students learn early in their career is the fallacy of ad hominem arguments, arguments that attack the opposing speaker instead of addressing their ideas.   Aside from being logically invalid, such arguments are impolite, disrespectful, and ultimately unproductive, if the goal  is rational debate.  Sadly, the teaching materials used by our district's Equity training are built upon the concept of legitimizing ad hominem attacks, and effectively instruct the staff to both utilize and encourage this invalid form of argument when discussing racial issues.

To start with, the very concept of White Privilege has ad hominem reasoning built into it.  You may recall the internet article that went viral a few months back, by a Princeton undergraduate frustrated at being repeatedly told to "check your privilege" when he expressed politically incorrect ideas. Too many of the responses to that article were picking apart his exact level of social privilege, without looking at the most important point: your level of social privilege is irrelevant to the validity of your logical arguments. If someone makes a cogent point, its validity should not depend on whether they are black, white, Latino, or a purple alien from the planet Tralfamadore.     Sadly, this invalid mode of argument has become so common that some have proposed explicitly labeling the "Appeal to Privilege" as a new type of logical fallacy.  If you disagree with something someone says, find a rational way to refute their arguments; simply labeling a person's statements inherently invalid based on the color of their skin is logically incoherent, lazy, and contrary to the spirit of rational debate.   

But the materials used by our district also embed another, even more ridiculous, style of ad hominem argument: the elaboration of psychological stages. This is the method, increasingly popular in academic circles, where you supposedly analyze your opponents' psyches, and determine a series of stages they need to go through before coming to agree with your supposedly enlightened point of view. If someone is in a pre-final stage, there is no question of addressing the validity of their arguments; their disagreement is a kind of mental disorder, and you just need to guide them through the proper stages. Here are some of the stages of "White Identity Development" from these training materials:

- Contact: We think of ourselves as part of a racial norm with no awareness of white privilege... We may perceive ourselves as color-blind and free of prejudice. We think of racism as the prejudiced behavior of individuals, rather than an institutionalized system of advantage benefiting whites.
- Disintegration: We have a growing awareness of racism and white privilege as a result of personal encounters... We experience discomfort due to guilt, shame, and anger...
- Pseudo-independence: We have an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage...maybe take on a "guilty white liberal" persona...
- Autonomy: We incorporate a newly defined view of whiteness as a part of personal identity.

So in their view, if you believe in the advancing the ideal of a color-blind society, of aiming for fairness to individuals instead of dividing people by race and "thinking about whiteness", you are simply mired in an early, immature psychological stage. The fact that I'm writing these blogs supposedly shows that I'm mired in the "Contact" stage due to not attending enough politically correct seminars. Even if you are a mainstream liberal, apparently you are only in a "Pseudo-Independent" stage if your mind has not been fully reprogrammed to condemn American society based on its pervasive White Privilege. Once you are bombarded with emotional "encounters" and heavy peer pressure, you will either advance to the stage where you fully agree with Critical Race Theory, and want to restructure society to eliminate the advantages of Whiteness, or you are in need of further treatment. Any rational arguments you make against this thesis are not worth discussing, until you make your way through the necessary psychological stages determined by the enlightened elite.

Should our Equity classes be modeling and enforcing ad hominem arguments, teaching that your statements can be dismissed as a product of White Privilege if your skin is the wrong color? Should we be teaching that if you believe in treating people as individuals and judging them by the content of their character, there is no possible validity to your rational arguments, since you are simply in an undeveloped psychological stage? If you disagree, please make your voice heard. Call the district at 503-844-1500, come and speak at the public comment period during one of the board meetings, or contact HSD through one of the other methods on the contact page

And remember--  if you live in another school district, or are more involved with some non-school public entity--  do not assume you’re not affected by this issue!   Radical supporters of Critical Race Theory have worked their way into Equity or Diversity positions in many school districts, and the organization Uniting to Understand Racism supplies training materials to many public bodies.   Call your administration and ask to see the materials they use to teach these subjects.   You will likely be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Oregon School Board Association Summer Convention Wrap-Up

[Taking a short break from my series on Critical Race Theory  this week, to summarize highlights of last week's conference.]

Last week I attended the Oregon School Board Association's  annual summer conference.  Once again, there was lots of useful information presented, and it was great to be able to meet & greet fellow board members from around the state.   I was a little unhappy, however, with the excessive emphasis on politics this year (news flash:  the OSBA wants the state to give the schools more money!); I think the OSBA needs to make a bigger effort to eliminate content that consists of direct political advocacy.   Anyway, here's a summary of the most interesting tidbits I'm taking home:

Most amusing (though slightly disturbing) anecdote:  Paraphrased from someone in a small rural area.  "Yes, our district was suffering, 50% population loss in the last five years due to the economy.  But then we were revitalized when a large group of new people moved into town.  They all wear white turbans, and most don't have jobs, because they preach that the world is about to end in the next year or two.  But they do send their kids to public school, and they are pretty well-behaved."

State School Fund Talk:    I think the biggest take-away here was that when a public official says "New program XXX won't cost your district any money, since it's being provided from the State School Fund", that's not quite right.  The State School Fund is what is divided among districts & provides 60% of your actual education funding-- so any statewide program funded from that is taking away money from every district!   Unless new funding is allocated for it, remember that any new state education program is probably taking money from your district.
  • Politically, this was one talk with a not-so-subtle bias, repeatedly mentioning money "lost" by districts when strategic investment programs / urban renewal districts lower property tax rates.   Completely ignoring that the whole point of these things is an improved economy which results in greater income tax revenues from successful businesses and residents.
Building Lasting Change In Schools:   This talk focused on implementing (rather than debating!) Common Core.  They really pushed the idea of providing more time for teacher preparation and collaboration, showing graphs claiming 20-40% less student contact time per teacher in Europe than the U.S.

Rob Saxton (Deputy Oregon Schools Superintendent) Keynote:   Largely talking about how new Common Core and related efforts will improve Oregon education performance.
  • Pointed out that currently 2/3 of our grads need some kind of remedial class in college, pretty sad.  He says Common Core is the solution, since it will teach to higher standards.  He didn't really explain why this couldn't also be solved by keeping the current standards, but requiring higher test scores to graduate-- either way, we're basically expecting teachers to teach more stuff with the same time/resources.
  • Claim is that federal govt made a mistake pushing Common Core too hard, which politicized it.
  • Another odd statement:  "This won't make it harder to graduate, the same or better percentage of students will ultimately pass."  Seems hard to reconcile with the claim of higher standards; my guess is that when fewer students pass, they will be dumbed down to the current level.
  • Currently 60% of students can read by grade 3, goal is for 90%.  Early learning programs starting at birth are supposed to enable this.
  • Saxton says we need smarter evidence-based teaching based on best practices.  Sounds nice, but will "best practices" mean that some state bureaucrat starts dictating every detail, instead of allowing local autonomy?

Ted Wheeler (state treasurer) Keynote:  100% political talk, advocating the "Oregon Opportunity Initiative", which amends the state constitution to add a new scholarship fund.  Looks to me like this will just feed the higher education tuition bubble.

Ethics Workshop:  The big surprise here was how much stricter the ethics laws are for school employees & board members than at most private companies.  In particular, all personal use of a school-owned computer- even sending an email about dinner to your wife between meetings- is forbidden!  Also, if you get credit card points/miles for school-related spending that ends up being reimbursed, you need to calculate their approximate value & subtract from your requested reimbursement.

Nancy Golden (Oregon Chief Education Officer):  Emphasizing the state's new "P20" focus, from prenatal years to age 20.    Not too much new ground, lots of advocacy of new state policies like Saxton.   
  • Interesting point about Oregon's low graduation rate stats:  hurt somewhat by districts that offer "5th year programs" and "modified diplomas", both siutations where student is ultimately successful but count against the 4-year grad rates.  Need to work on supporting these programs, when they work, in a way that won't hurt the stats.
Legislative Advocacy Session:  3 steps to communicating with legislator:  get informed, develop a relationship, share your story.    Don't be afraid to deal with staff- they are often the brains of the operation
School Finance:  A dry but important topic.   A few good takeaways here:
  • Remember, to be spent, money must be both appropriated and received.  Don't assume you have the money until it actually arrives- state has a nasty habit lately of sudden mid-cycle budget changes.
  • If a school official says "trust me", that's an indication that you should probably take a closer look.
  • Remember to have the board, not the CFO, sign expense reports from the superintendent- don't put employee in position of auditing his own boss.

Board Governance Through Policy:  Another dry but important topic.    When setting policy, ask:  Is it legal?  Does it reflects current practice?  Does it work?  Is it needed?    Avoid specific dollar amounts or time frames- policy may easily become out-of-date or nonsensical.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is Meritocracy A Myth?

Today we continue our discussion of the politically biased and racist Equity training materials, provided by the organization "Uniting To Understand Racism", that I began describing in my last blog.   These materials have been used to train staff members in how to achieve Equity for our students.

Do you believe that the United States is a land of opportunity?   That people coming here with nothing have a chance to succeed through hard work and merit?   That we are one of the few nations in the world where someone without connections, or without being a member of a dominant racial or cultural group, is given a fair chance?    Of course there are no guarantees-- there are many other factors such as luck, intelligence, and being in the right place at the right time.    But the United States offers unique opportunities that are virtually unparalleled anywhere in the world, one reason why so many immigrants are desperate for the chance to carve out a new life for themselves here.    However, according to the Equity training materials used by the Hillsboro School District (and many other local school districts and public entities), the idea of  meritocracy in America is a myth, a deception used by the dominant culture to enforce a system of White Privilege.

Here are a few excerpts from these training materials expressing this idea:
  • [p.7]  This de-emphasis on one's racial group membership may allow the individual to think that race has not been or will not be a relevant factor in one's own achievement, and may contribute to the belief in a US meritocracy that is often part of a Pre-encounter [== before taking this class] worldview.
  • [p.22, Describing initial stages of White identify before taking this class:]  We may perceive ourselves as color-blind and free of prejudice.   We think of racism as the prejudiced behavior of individuals, rather than the institutionalized system of advantage benefiting whites.
  • [p.27, Describing Whites at later stages of the class:] The social inequities they now notice directly contradict the idea of an American meritocracy.
  • [p.30]  For Whites, thinking of oneself only as an individual is a legacy of White Privilege....  The view of oneself as an individual is very compatible with the dominant ideology of rugged individualism and the American myth of meritocracy.
  • [p.42] For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.  The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy.
They continually refer to "the myth of meritocracy", treating it as an established, indisputable fact, with the only possible source of disagreement being due to the ignorance resulting from having not taken their class.   The overall point seems to be that to gain a mature understanding of race in America, attendees need to give up the antiquated concepts of striving for a colorblind society and of success through merit.   What kind of ignorant bumpkin could still "look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character"?  Educated and knowledgeable people, according to this class's view, must recognize that real success in our country usually results from the exercise of racial privilege.   

I find this teaching especially disturbing because such a large proportion of our minority students, who these classes are supposedly going to help succeed, are part of first- or second- generation immigrant families from Mexico and other Central American countries.   These are places where the failure of local government really has made it impossible to succeed-- and they have come here to enjoy the opportunities that America offers.   Many of them are both successfully supporting themselves and sending extra money to relatives, truly making a better life for themselves and their families despite being at the bottom of the economic ladder by our standards.   It takes a lot of work to teach these people, naturally inclined to be grateful for what our country has offered them, to instead resent the United States for supposed race-based unfairness.   With the aid of the philosophy taught in this class, we are apparently indoctrinating the notion that there is no hope of success through merit and hard work, and instead it is better to succeed by demanding redress for racial grievances.

Does this controversial, one-sided political analysis belong in our required Equity classes?  Should this be the official philosophy of the Hillsboro School District?   Do you believe this is an appropriate way to train our teachers?   If not, please make your voice heard. Call the district at 503-844-1500, come and speak at the public comment period during one of the board meetings or contact HSD through one of the other methods on the contact page

By the way--  if you live in another school district, or are more involved with some non-school public entity--  do not assume you’re not affected by this issue!   Radical supporters of Critical Race Theory have worked their way into Equity or Diversity positions in many school districts, and the organization Uniting to Understand Racism supplies training materials to many public bodies.   Call your administration and ask to see the materials they use to teach these subjects.   You will likely be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

How To Be Racist In Hillsboro

A few months ago, we had a small controversy regarding the political bias of the "Uniting to Understand Racism" (UUR) organization, which created the Equity training used by the Hillsboro School District to train all staff members.  They base their teachings on the radical and divisive Critical Race Theory, which teaches that invisible White Privilege is the primary source of inequity in America.  If that wasn't enough to demonstrate their political bias, they posted some truly vile Internet memes on their Facebook page, equating political conservatives with KKK members. After Superintendent Scott complained on HSD's behalf, they removed the offending posts. Then, a week later, they posted an additional attack on conservatives, perhaps hoping that after the first removal we would no longer be paying attention. After another set of complaints, they removed the new post... but should we really be trusting (and sending your tax dollars to) an organization that has shown such open defiance towards our real concerns about political bias?

Anyway, after that I thought I should review their training materials that have been used in HSD. I opened their training packet, and read this definition of racism on the first page:

"Racism is racial prejudice (which both people of color and white people have) plus systemic, institutional power (which white people have). To say people of color can be racist denies the power imbalance inherent in racism. ... People of color can act on their prejudice to insult, even hurt a white person. But there is a difference between being hurt and being oppressed. People of color, as a social group, do not have the societal, institutional power to oppress white people as a group. An individual person of color abusing a white person - while clearly wrong - is a acting out of personal racial prejudice, not racism."

They have played an underhanded and manipulative (though standard in Critical Race Theory) rhetorical trick here: redefine a word, "racism", that has major emotional connotations.  Their definition is completely at odds with the word as used by ordinary English speakers, and as defined in most dictionaries   Keep in mind that "Racism is unfair and wrong" is one of the few statements that liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans all agree on. By redefining this emotionally charged word, UUR has essentially reframed the argument, requiring all conversation in the class to conform to their belief that invisible White Privilege pervades our society, and that addressing racism is a one-way task of correcting White behavior. This is a controversial political analysis to say the least, not a generally agreed fact as they imply. And it is one that most conservatives not only profoundly disagree with, but find deeply offensive and- yes- racist. (As per the dictionary definition.) UUR's redefinition of the term effectively declares conservative views out-of-bounds and beyond the pale of debate.

But more importantly, we also need to ask the practical question: even if you agree with this political analysis of American society, is teaching staff to think of racism as a one-sided societal oppression, carried out by universally by white people, an effective way to encourage Equity for every individual in our school district?   Every staff member in our schools should be expected to deal fairly and impartially with people of all races, in all their interactions.  Think about who are the real victims of the "societal, institutional power" in each of these entirely plausible scenarios (based on real situations I have seen, read about, or been told of):
  • A multiracial group of bullies repeatedly torments an overweight white girl at recess. A teacher knows what is going on, but finds it easiest to ignore, rationalizing that white people will do fine anyway.
  • A white student is placed in a nearly 100% Latino class with a teacher who spends much of the day trying to keep a small group of discipline-problem students under control by speaking to them in Spanish. He is being ignored when he falls behind and is unable to read, and when his mother complains, she is brushed aside and told that the immigrant students just need more attention.
  • A Jewish student is absent on Yom Kippur (the most important Jewish holiday of the year), but a teacher had made that the due date for a paper. The teacher grudgingly accepts the paper the next day, but angrily warns the student, "I will be grading this very strictly, because I can't let you use your religion to gain an academic advantage."
  • Two students of different races get into a fistfight at recess. One, who is nonwhite, has been seen repeatedly bullying other kids and clearly started the fight. But because the teacher has been reprimanded for punishing a statistically high number of minority students in the previous quarter, he is afraid to take any specific action against the aggressor.
  • During a discussion in history class about immigration, one student voices the opinion that we shouldn't be providing more benefits to illegal immigrants, who violate our laws, than we do for veterans who risked their lives to defend them. A group of Latino students then accuse the speaker of racism, and the teacher considers their request to punish the offending student for violating the school's harassment code.
  • Several teachers apply for a department head position. The selection ends up being based not on qualifications, talent, or experience, but on the fact that one (who appears to be blonde and white) claims to have a Native American ancestor three generations back.
  • Shouldn't we be striving to treat all members of the HSD community fairly, not dividing them by skin color into groups more- or less- deserving of fairness, based on a political analysis of American society?  Shouldn't every staff member be expected to look at their own behavior, whether they are members of a majority or minority race, and treat everyone they interact with according to the facts of the situation and the content of their character?  As I've mentioned before, there are plenty of other Equity programs, such as Microinequities, that address these issues by treating people as individuals instead of dividing and labelling them by skin color.

    If you agree with me, and want politically biased concepts and manipulative redefinitions of racism removed from Hillsboro's equity training, be sure to make your voice heard.   Call the district at 503-844-1500, come and speak at the public comment period during one of the board meetings or contact HSD through one of the other methods on the contact page.

    By the way-- this is just what I saw on page 1. Wait until you see some of the outrageous statements I found further down in the training packet, in my next blog entry...

    Saturday, July 5, 2014

    Guns In The Schools?

    By now I'm sure you heard about the recent shootings at Reynolds High School, not too far from our district.   This is the latest example of a tragic series of incidents we have heard about in our nation's public schools, and once again has led to many knee-jerk calls to tighten gun control laws.  However, one detail that has been de-emphasized (deliberately?) in many of the news stories is that it was armed School Resource Officers in the school-- good guys with guns-- who stopped the shooting soon after it began.   So I'm inclined more to ask the opposite question:  how can we increase opportunities for qualified staff members to be ready to defend our children and our schools if needed?

    As you may be aware, current Hillsboro School District policy is that staff members, even if licensed for concealed carry, are not allowed to possess guns in schools.  There is a lot of confusion about the legal issues involved here:  at the last board meeting, we reviewed OSBA-supplied policy language that implied that the federal Gun Free School Zone act required us to have this rule, and there were some questions about whether that is really true.   I met with some staff members afterwards to clarify, and found out that states can override the GFSZ act-- and Oregon has done so, enabling local districts to allow weapons if they want.   I'm a bit annoyed at the OSBA here, for sticking this misleading sentence into their recommended policy:  "Further, in accordance with the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act, no person shall possess or discharge a firearm, as defined by the federal statute, in a school zone."  The word "person" there should be changed to "student", to accurately reflect the legal requirement in Oregon.

    Unfortunately, there is one other major complication:  liability insurance for the schools.   Superintendent Scott informed me that our insurance provider has made it an explicit requirement that we have the policy forbidding gun possession by staff members, unless they have law-enforcement-level weapons training.  In other words, due to our insurance rules, School Resource Officers from the police department are in effect the only ones that can be authorized to carry weapons.   The staff do not believe we have to worry about this, because local police have measured response time during drills, and believe that we can have armed officers at any school in the district within 4 minutes of the alarm being raised.   

    So, it looks like the current situation for HSD is that we cannot change the policy on staff weapon possession due to insurance issues, and need to rely on the rapid response time of our local police.   I'll be interested to hear from any of you out there who have experience with law enforcement, weapon possession issues, and insurance issues-- is this a situation where we should be happy with the current plan, or do we need to push back and re-examine the various insurance rules and laws impacting this topic?