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?


    Sunday, June 22, 2014

    Clarifications on the Superintendent Evaluation


    You may have read a short article in last week's Hillsboro Tribune on our superintendent evaluation vote:

    "Hillsboro school board members voted 6-1 last week to extend superintendent mike Scott's contract one year, through June 30 2017.  Board member Erik Seligman cast the dissenting vote, citing the fact that the district has two elementary schools... that are ranked among the lowest in the state, according to the Oregon Dept of Education report cards released yearly."

    While not saying anything strictly untrue, this article commits a major act of omission.    Reading the paragraph above, I think 99% of people would conclude that I had attempted to fire the superintendent.   That was not the case-- in fact, if you review the video of the meeting or the much better OregonLive article at  http://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/index.ssf/2014/06/hillsboro_school_board_evaluat.html you will see that I made some very positive comments about Mike.   My vote was about a disagreement with the working and content of the evaluation letter that came along with the contract renewal.

    My main objection was that rather than a nearly 100% positive letter, there should be an "areas of improvement" section, like there is in the annual evals I get from my employer, stating ways in which the district has been falling short and needs to improve.    While Mike has many positive accomplishments, it is also the case that (after 5+ years of his leadership) our district is still behind the level of quality we really want in a number of ways.   In particular, in the past year HSD still had some bottom-5%-ranked schools on the state report card, with their concentration in majority Latino neighborhoods leading some of us to declare an "Equity Emergency". (To review that discussion, see this blog post from last fall.)


    I really think that as part of our duties to hold the superintendent and the district accountable for performance, this should have been present in the evaluation letter.   Aren't there some things, like state academic ratings, that are implicitly part of every superintendent's job automatically?!?



    By the way--  I find it ironic that this piece of misleading reporting by the Tribune comes just a few months before our vote on the district's official "paper of record".    This will certainly factor into our debates on that topic. 

    Anyway, to reiterate:  contrary to the implications of the Tribune article, my dissenting vote on the superintendent evaluation was not an attempt to fire Mike, but merely a statement of my opinion that we need to do a better job stating the areas of needed improvement as well as the positive accomplishment in the annual evaluation letter.    I'll look forward to continuing to work with Superintendent Scott over the next year on improving Hillsboro's overall academic performance.



    Sunday, May 25, 2014

    Does Hillsboro Hold Hostages?

    At the last board work session, there were some objections to my use of the word "hostage" to describe a certain class of students. Suppose you were in this situation:
    • Your child's circumstances have changed (academic issues, unavailability of desired class, bullying incidents, misdirected discipline, etc) and you really want them in another school.
    • Due to poor past interactions with district staff or administrators, you are more comfortable transferring to another district than going to another school in HSD.
    • The nearby Beaverton school district has open slots in one school, and has accepted your child.
    • Hillsboro has refused to grant a "release", so your child (and the corresponding tax money) are not allowed to go to Beaverton.
    • Your financial circumstances do not allow you to pay tuition or send your child to private school.
    In other words, your child is not getting an appropriate education here, there is a slot for them at a good school in another district, and the only thing stopping them from going is that Hillsboro wants to keep your child in place in order to keep your share of tax money.

    What would you call this circumstance? How would you feel if this happened to you, and your child was forced to stay in Hillsboro despite major problems that are negatively impacting their education or safety?   I say that it is unfair and unethical for a school district to refuse the inter-district transfer when parents decide it would be appropriate.  And if someone is being held in a school district that they do not desire in order to extract money from them, I think "hostage" is a perfectly appropriate term.


    The discussion in the meeting was about the inter-district transfer process for this year. The original proposal was to put a cap of 20 on releases for such transfers out of Hillsboro, and if more than that apply, the rest would have to stay in our district.  I should point out that there was a separate state-mandated Open Enrollment process earlier in the year, where no student could be stopped from leaving.   But there's always the chance that someone's circumstances have changed, or their parents were not aware of the tight deadline for Open Enrollment, and I still think they deserve the right to transfer through this process as well.     Not to mention the fact that the previous board used legal loopholes to effectively negate Open Enrollment, and who knows when the law might change again.    So I do not believe we should have a cap on releases.


    Surely, there is some level of financial risk to the district, if for some reason there is suddenly a huge wave of transfer requests. But this is not significantly greater than other risks we constantly face-- sudden condemnation of our bleachers in one field, collapsed well in some school, etc, that we plug with emergency funds when needed.   It's also no different than the financial risk that other businesses, including private schools, continually face if they are not properly serving their customers. (Actually the risk is a bit less, since we get to keep a small proportion of each transfer student's tax share for overhead.) And it seems to me that a small level of financial risk is much better for our district than the moral hazard of potentially holding some students as hostages for their tax money.

    The good news is that, although some were offended by my terminology, our side ended up largely winning the argument.   We managed to increase the cap on releases from 20 to 100, which is much more than the number of new transfer requests we are likely to receive in a typical year. So now parents in Hillsboro have much more flexibility in case they need it, and at least this year HSD will not be holding any hostages.

    Friday, May 9, 2014

    Moving and Confusing The Goalposts

    Some of you may have noticed that I've been unusually quiet for the past month, missing my first board meeting since becoming a member, and (for the first time in years) not actively participating during an election cycle. This is because I had surgery a couple of weeks ago: nothing life-threatening, just a UPPP for sleep apnea, and then during my recovery, tripped and broke a foot, taking me out for another 2 weeks. Ugh.

    Anyway, as I caught up on various school-related stuff during my recovery, I noticed that there have been some interesting developments in Common Core (CC) over the past month. If you have been following the many CC debates online, you're probably aware that objections are arriving from a number of different directions to elements of the program.  One aspect that really troubles me is the new "Smarter Balanced" tests.  These have been getting a lot of media attention lately.    There are several potential problems I see with these tests:
  • Due diligence:  While I'm generally in favor of some level of standardized testing, it sounds like these new tests were accepted to be deployed nationally before being fully piloted, understood, or even fully defined.
  • Unfunded Mandates:  They are also creating massive expense for states and local districts, due to being computer-based and requiring new technology purchases for implementation.
  • Confusing Results:  Their rapid deployment, testing cohorts of students who have mostly been taught old standard vs the new standards, will inevitably create (bogus) labels of failure for schools and students.
  • Moving the Goalposts: If the new CC standards are truly "more rigorous", shouldn't we be able to test with the old tests for another 5 years or so, and see improving test scores validate the advocates' claims about CC? If we change both the curriculum and tests at the same time, that kills our ability to truly measure what has changed.

  • Steve Buel of the Portland Public Schools board (separate district from Hillsboro, about 2.5x our size) introduced a proposed resolution at their 4/16 meeting listing a large number of objections to CC, and proposing numerous solutions. You can find the full text at his Facebook page. I think the resoluton suffers a little from the kitchen-sink effect, trying to list everything about CC that has raised objections from someone and propose every possible solution, and I would be surprised if it ends up passing.   It also looks to me like Steve included a bit too much anti-corporate populism ("corporate interests to advocate for and develop CCSS for the benefit of corporations"), which might sell well in Portland, but is this really that different from other types of curriculum materials sold to the district by education companies?   Perhaps if they draft some smaller resolutions based on specific areas, like the concerns with the new testing, they might have a better chance of converging on some good policy reforms. I'll be following what happens there, and watching for possible relevance to our distict as well.

    The Oregon Education Association has also just passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the new Smarter Balanced tests. They don't get into too many specifics in their resolution, but it looks like the new and unproven nature is their biggest concern, as discussed in my first point above. I can see why they are concerned, of course-- our hardworking teachers deserve better than to be labeled and judged based on a new and unproven set of tests.

    Anyway, it seems like concern about Common Core is going more and more mainstream these days. I'll continue to try to keep abreast of these concerns as a school board member-- but remember that our local hands are largely tied, with CC being enforced by state law. So in addition to talking to your school board members, be sure to write to your local legislators and share your concerns directly!
     

    Thursday, April 17, 2014

    Balance The School Budget

    A good portion of last week's work session was focused on budget discussions. As you may recall from my last blog entry, it looks like we will actually have more money than projected this year, freeing up some funds to spend on additional useful projects and causes: hiring additional teachers, investing in technology, etc.  However, this projection was also accompanied by additional projections that starting 2 years from now, we expect continually growing deficits, peaking at $8 million near the end of the decade. (Revised projections reduced this, as discussed below, but we still see many future years with deficits.)  Given likely upcoming deficits, should we be looking to spend all our surplus money or save some of it for the lean years?

    I'm not a professional accountant, but it seems to me that fiscal responsibility and common sense demand that we should plan our budget with a focus on actually being able to afford all our costs for the foreseeable future.    As long as I can remember, HSD has been constantly reporting to the public (==> you!) that the schools are in crisis, and don't have the money we need, so therefore you must approve new taxes/bonds/etc. for the children.  How can we say this when our inflation-adjusted spending has not only been increasing without bound for half a century, but in the years when we do have sufficient money, we spend it all instead of engaging in prudent financial planning?   Does a district that manages its funds like this really deserve to spend more of your hard-earned tax dollars?

    That is why I and several other board members asked a lot of questions about this budget, and specifically requested that the district come up with a zero-deficit plan: a spending plan that will show how, for the projected future over the next decade, we can organize our district finances so that we will be able to afford the expenses in our budget.   Of course there are no guarantees in life-- things might work out differently from the projections-- but we need to at least make an attempt at this, rather than spending all our money and hoping the future "crisis" will result in more gifts from the public or legislature.

    The arguments for spending all our money in the good years seem to be focused on the following points:
    • "This year's taxes are collected for this year's children, and we're morally obligated to spend our money on them." I fail to see the moral or legal force of this argument: doesn't every government organization in existence spend some money in preparing for future needs, servicing past debt, etc? Not to mention the many families without children currently in public school who pay taxes: do they really prefer their money be instantly squandered when it could be better spent carefully over several years? Is it immoral or illegal to plan for the long-term needs of the majority of children?
    • "If we don't spend the money, the people and our legislators will think we don't need it, and give us less next year."   As I've mentioned before, I find this argument extremely disturbing, both an insult to the intelligence of the voting public and a recipe for permanently snowballing government spending. Would you really vote in favor of a bond allocating more money for a government agency that openly espouses this philosophy? If we want any respect for our financial management, and want the public to have an open mind about future bond requests, we need to purge this line of reasoning completely from our district.
    • "We need to invest in our future."   This is the one argument that has some force here: like a company that goes into debt to modernize a factory, maybe there are some cases where we should spend more money now to enable reduced expenses later.  But we have to watch out for confusing two senses of the word "invest" here.  In one sense, anything our district spends on education is an investment in our children-- but this kind of general investment, such as hiring new teachers to slightly reduce class size, does not reduce long-term expenses (and in fact often adds to them.)   True productivity-changing investment, such as in the Hillsboro Online Academy which provides a new model of education delivery, really does modify education in a way that can reduce per-student costs in the long term.  To the extent that we do increase expenditures, we need to carefully direct it towards cost-reducing investments rather than general feel-good spending.
    • "The projections are very rough anyway, and can't really be used for planning."  This is an issue that can be solved: we asked our CFO, Adam, to try to make better projections.    He emailed us back a week later with very different numbers, that show much smaller deficits and fewer deficit years, based on some more detailed assumptions.  We do need to be careful here; in some sense these seem almost too good to be true in comparison to the previous numbers, so we need to carefully watch how the actual numbers end up in the next few years and continually recalibrate the models.   However, past years have shown Adam's projections tended to be on the very pessimistic side, so it's not so unreasonable that the corrected projections put us in much better shape.  In any case, we have a duty to intelligently plan based on the best projections we can, rather than just throw up our hands and give up thinking about the future.



    •  Anyway, I am somewhat encouraged by the fact that the revised projections look like they will truly enable us to create a zero-deficit plan without making many major sacrifices as a district. Mike and Adam have promised to come back with such a plan at our next meeting, in addition to the current spend-everything plan. While we may have to give up a few elements of our wish list, and live with less class size reduction or arts grants, I really think that making long-term plans based on continually living within our means is the best direction for our district and our children.

      Saturday, March 22, 2014

      Boundary Adjustments, Biased Equity, And Other Springtime Issues

      Sorry for the long gap since my last update. Here's a roundup of the most interesting issues I'm currently watching in our district, or that have been discussed at recent meetings:

      • The boundary adjustment. As many of you have heard, due to the population moving to locations in numbers that don't precisely match the current elementary school districts, we had to move some boundaries. I want to commend Adam Stewart and the boundary adjustment committee for an impressive performance: I was very surprised that we were not beseiged by angry parents at Tuesday's vote. While not everyone was happy, it seemed like the affected parents all felt that they had been listened to. However, we shouldn't sugarcoat the fact that this process resulted in forced transfers (or revocation of already-approved transfers) and broken promises for many families that liked their current school and are now being made to go elsewhere. I pointed out at the meeting that we really need to take a longer-term view of these issues, to avoid the need for these painful adjustments in the future: on a continuous basis, we should analyze whether each school is growing beyond its capacity, and provide incentives (free transport, special programs, etc) for those students to transfer voluntarily to another school.
      • The Hillsboro Online Academy (HOA). HOA is continuing to succeed and grow, due to a great job by Principal Harrington and the rest of the staff. We had a meeting of the HOA steering committee on Monday, and there are lots of great ideas for expanding the online education opportunities. I'm especially excited to see the plans for offering more classes online to students who aren't in HOA full time. This could play a significant role in helping to relieve some overcrowded classrooms, as well as allowing students advancement or remedial opportunites that are hard to offer at their current school. I have helped to arrange an HOA info session at Intel; if you know of other groups of parents that want to know more, be sure to fill out the contact form or send an email.
      • Class Sizes. HSD earned another Argus headline last week related to its large class sizes, highest of any district in the Portland metro area. In the budget discussions, Superindentent Mike Scott proposed that we do some focused reduction in class sizes for the youngest grade levels (K-2), which makes a lot of sense. But we really need to look at new approaches for addressing this issue, since we don't expect lots of new money coming in any time soon, especially with the failure of last fall's bond vote. I think approaches like better utilizing the HOA, or encouraging other forms of independent study for the students who are responsible enough to handle it, could play a major role here. We also need to think again about calling for more charter schools, given their well-documented "unfairly small" class sizes.
      • Budget Discussions. It looks like we have slightly more money than expected this year, with current proposals directing it at targeted class size reduction, investing in arts programs, technology enhancements, and other high-need focus areas. I'm still a bit worried by the fact that current projections show a deficit in future years; is it really safe to spend rather than banking the extra money in our one good year, with the economy still iffy, and significant job reductions recently announced by major local employers?  I still think we should have more of an emphasis on spending money on specific items that will likely reduce long-term costs, such as greater investment in online education.
      • High School Math Adoption: The staff and the Curriculum Committee are looking at updating our high school math programs. I was very happy to see that the Curriculum Committee is more actively involved this year. Another bright spot is that the group is not limiting themselves to static textbooks, but looking at ways to leverage online materials, and at Tuesday's meeting we approved a pilot study where several classrooms will attempt to teach math using these new methods. It's also good to see that while being pro-active in adoping innovations in teaching methods, they are currently looking at maintaining the traditional math sequences (algebra, geometry, calculus, etc) rather than bringing in radical new curricula like the controversial CPM that you have read about here
      • Biased Equity: Recently some truly vicious attacks on conservatives were posted at the facebook site of "Uniting to Understand Racism" (UUR), the organization providing the district's Equity programs.   You can see a great citizen statement against this group at this link . But I think focusing on a few offensive posts obscures the greater issue. The program this group has been teaching, based on Critical Race Theory, is inherently political: whether you agree or disagree with it (see my opinion at this link if you're curious), the CRT thesis, that our society is permanently racist and filled with invisible White Privilege, is a central teaching of the Left side of our political spectrum, and one that nearly every conservative would disagree with.  Our Equity classes should be based on giving individuals tools to make their own behavior more fair, not on teaching one-sided political doctrines.   For a great example of politics-free equity programs, check out Microinequities.   
      As always, if you have opinions or questions on any of these issues, be sure to email me (erik@erikseligman.com), or come to my monthly Constituent Coffee, 10am on the first Saturday of every month, at the 10th & Oak Human Bean in Hillsboro

          

      Sunday, February 16, 2014

      Academic Achievement, Punch Fight, and Other Mid-February Highlights

      At last Tuesday's school board meeting, assistant superintendent Steve Larson gave the annual presentation on student achievement in HSD.    Our district was compared to the other 12 large (10000+ student) Oregon districts, first analyzing our demographic profile (% kids in poverty, English learners, etc) and then measuring our achievement with those factors in mind.   Based on this information, Steve calculated that with all other factors being equal, if HSD offers comparable quality education to the other megadistricts, we should expect to rank around 9th on the list.

      With this taken into account, HSD actually did very well in a couple of areas:   we rank #1 and #2 statewide for SAT participation and dropout prevention.    We should congratulate the staff for their great work in this area.   Thanks staff!     In other areas, we are roughly in line with Steve's calculation, being somewhat in the neighborhood of 9th in most areas.   This is most disappointing in the areas of reading and math achievement, where we are at this baseline.     We have some work to do here; while some might say it's pretty good to be at the baseline, we need to keep in mind that Oregon as a whole is not ranked very highly among the states educationally (see, for example, this link), so we need to aim for much more than being on par with our expected statewide average.     

      We also need to keep in mind that in this economy, HSD cannot expect a sudden infusion of money to solve these problems.   (Well, we might actually have some money to work with in HSD this year as discussed in my last post, but as I mention there, this is likely to be temporary.)    And the recent bond rejection makes it even less likely that we will find ourselves with more money to work with.   Thus I was a little worried by Steve's emphasis in his conclusions that we need more resources to improve educational quality in HSD.      Similar to the situation faced by many businesses these days, the district needs to place a strong emphasis on finding new methods that will improve student achievement *without* spending extra money.   

      As I have often stated in this blog, I think one big under-realized opportunity for us to raise achievement is the concept of offering different educational options to meet the needs of different students.    We are already doing this in some areas:    one example is the Dual Language program, which for some subset of students seems to be significantly increasing achievement according to Steve's measures.    (Note that I am not contradicting my earlier posts:  there are also some students for whom dual-language is not a good choice, and we need to take care to match the methods to the students.)    The Hillsboro Online Academy is another great example of a new teaching method that is not inherently more expensive, probably a real cost savings in the long term, and increases the achievement of a subset of students who were having trouble in a traditional school.     We need to be spending more time pushing for initiatives like these, helping students by identifying and offering them the right options for their abilities and learning style, rather than repeatedly demanding more money.

      Other highlights of the meeting included:
      • Corporate sponsorships:   Should we allow companies to buy naming rights to sports fields, gymnasiums, etc?   I say yes, as long as we are raising money for the general fund that will help academically, not just improve the sports fields.   Kids are bombarded with thousands of ads a day anyway; I don't think a few signs on sports fields will make a noticeable difference.   Fellow board member Wayne Clift was worried that it would "make him feel dirty" to accept corporate money.   But I think it feels much dirtier to be part of an academically weak school district.
      • Board Members Speaking in Public:   Board member Janeen Sollman recently testified in favor of a proposed law in Salem.   Some board members were worried that she might be giving the false impression that the whole board agrees with her statements.   This is similar to the issue at the root of my objections to the "One Voice" policy that I posted last summer.   Personally, I think we should err on the side of free speech:    recognize that board members may speak out as individuals, and trust in the intelligence of the public to sort it out.     So although I disagree with the substance of some of her comments, I'm on Janeen's side on this one.
      Also this week, I went on a technology tour of Century High School.   I was impressed with how much shop class has changed since when I was in school:   Mr. Morley showed me how his students designed their projects using CAD software, then manufactured them using 3-D printers and laser etching machines.    He really seemed to have the students excited and engaged in the topic.   Then Mr. Winikka showed me his computer programming class, where students are developing cool Android apps.   I was impressed at his ability to manage a class full of students at widely varying sophistication levels:  some were busy with "hello world"-type programs, while another was pretty far along in developing an amusing (G-rated) Mortal Kombat-style game called "Punch Fight".      Overall, it looks like Century students have some great opportunities to learn advanced tech skills that will serve them well in their post-graduation lives.   Great work guys!


      Sunday, February 2, 2014

      Counting Your Chickens, and Other Budget Matters

      You've probably heard the good budget news by now-- according to current projections, our district looks like it will have about $3.5 million extra to spend this year, a welcome chance from past years when the budget was consistently in the red.   At Tuesday's board meeting, the budget process was kicked off with an initial presentation of this information, along with asking everyone to think about where the district should prioritize its spending.   Some suggestions included targeted class size reduction, technology improvements to replace some of what we had been hoping for from the failed bond, or focused attention on the most challenged schools to improve student outcomes.

      While it's great to be able to think of various positive uses of this extra money to improve educational outcomes, there are a few notes of caution here.   My past election opponent (and now budget committee member) Rebecca Lantz brought up the fact that some of our revenue sources are not completely guaranteed, and also may be one-time bumps, so we should be very careful not to spend in ways, such as hiring new teachers, that implicitly assume they will be repeated next year.      It looks like there are a few areas where I agree with her!    Some also suggested that given the large number of red years, maybe it made more sense to bank some of this money for a rainy day?

      This actually ties in to another topic that we didn't discuss much Tuesday, but came up in the Audit Committee meeting the day before.   The district's annual financial report, which was blessed by the auditors, looks reasonable and seems to show the district finances are in good shape.  But-- and this is a big But-- it does not show the full estimated future costs of growing PERS retirement liabilities.   Apparently for arcane legal & regulatory reasons, the discussion of future costs is based on old PERS estimates that only include a subset of the massive Tier 1 cost bubble expected in the next decade.    So, the net summary:  we have a huge future liability that is missing from the financial report.   The good news is that when I asked about this, Adam (district CFO) reported that the law has changed, and starting from the 2015 report, this PERS liability will be directly included.    I asked if he could try to include estimates of this in an appendix to the 2014 report as well.

      Back at the school board meeting, one other aspect of the budget discussion really disturbed me.   This was the idea that we have to spend our surplus, because otherwise the legislators would think we don't really need the budget we have, and would feel safe reducing it next year.    This conforms to one of the worst stereotypes of government bureaucracies, that they constantly increase their spending to show their 'need' for the money, and thus are in a permanent state of monolithic growth.   We should have the courage to save when saving makes sense, and then openly defend our decisions in the political arena.   As I see it, agencies that prudently save instead of increasing spending when they are aware of a major upcoming cost are being responsible with the public money; they should be considered more, not less, legitimate stewards of public tax funds.

      Anyway, given the uncertainty of some of our revenue sources and the expected upcoming PERS liability, I think we do need to be very careful about how we handle any budget surplus,  We must make sure that we set aside enough money so that we do not drown under red ink in future years, even if things do look good now.    Given the generally negative public attitude towards school district spending as shown by the recent bond vote, I don't think we can expect major increases in district funding.   I'd love to hear what you think about these issues, and (assuming we do have some portion of the surplus that we don't bank) where you think we should spend the extra money.


      Sunday, January 19, 2014

      Students' Right To Privacy, and Other 1/14 Highlights

      At our board meeting this past Tuesday, we spent a lot of time discussing how search and seizure rules apply to searches of students by school staff, as motivated by an incident that recently made national news.   While some details of that story may not have been fully accurate (a student's re-tweet was apparently deleted rather than the original photo), it brought up some important issues, so our district lawyer came to talk to us about the laws in this area and suggest policy changes.   Apparently the rules for searches in school are a bit weaker than those governing searches of adults by police:  instead of the "probable cause" standard we are used to, only "reasonable suspicion" is required.   The difference between those is a bit fuzzy, and the lawyer pointed out that there is some conflicting case law in this area.  

      But one thing that did become clear is that we have a hole in district policy here:   it looks like our policies on student searches have been basically the same for about 20 years, and thus do not take into account ubiquitous cell phones and computers with massive amounts of student data on them.   We definitely need to have well-defined rules in this area, or else there will be confusion, misunderstandings, and inconsistencies in how our staff approaches this issue.   We need to clarify when a search can extend beyond a student's physical possessions and into their emails and data;  I think the standards need to be pretty high here.   The Blaze article implies that a student's emails were searched as a result of the student simply breaking the rule of having a cell phone out during class, which doesn't sound very reasonable.   On the other hand, if they had credible information that a student was arranging drug sales by email, that would be another story.

      Another issue that really bothered me in the Blaze article was the concept of a staff member deleting data off a student's phone.   What if the student had been capturing evidence of improper behavior by staff, or of dangerous behavior by another student that was not properly being addressed at school?   I think we need to have a very strong bias in favor of preserving evidence; regardless of whether the staff like the contents of a student's phone or computer, they should never have the power to delete the data.     

      I should note, however, that I disagree with some of my strict-libertarian friends on the threshold for staff searching students at school.   There seems to be a line of reasoning that treats the schools like any other government entity, and wants full Fourth Amendment rights for kids in school.   But we need to keep in mind that children do not have the same level of autonomy or responsibility as adults, and the schools are responsible for keeping them safe from themselves and each other during the school day.    If staff were to have reasonable suspicion that a classmate of my daughter's were involved with weapons or drugs, I would want them to be able to quickly address the situation without having to launch an undercover investigation or go to a judge for a warrant.

      Anyway, the staff and the district lawyer are going to work together on proposals for revision of our district's search and seizure policy, with these issues in mind.   You'll probably read more here after a concrete proposal is on the table.

      Other highlights of the meeting included:
      • Discussion of potential K-8 programs in the district.   The idea here is that some students might benefit from a smaller, intimate, elementary-like atmosphere at the middle school level, rather than the traditional chaos of our large junior highs.   I think it's a great idea to have another option like this available.
      • Inter-district transfer issues.   I was glad to hear that regional agreements blocking cross-district transfers are no longer legal:  so HSD will no longer be able to collude with neighboring districts to force our students to stay here in cases where, for example, they would prefer a Beaverton or Forest Grove school (assuming it had the space).      On the negative side, new laws about these transfers are apparently very confusing, so the staff is waiting for the state to create some guidelines to solidify our current process.
      • Instruction Strategy Update:  Assistant Superintendent Steve Larson updated us on evidence of progress in improving instruction in the district.   Lots of great efforts and training are happening, but rather than a confusing collection of "artifacts" that show all the activity, I would prefer to see a bottom line:  how are we showing that as a result of these training programs, students are actually learning more?   Steve is going to work on some measurements in this area.

      That pretty much covers it for this week.   Be sure to email me or post in the comments if you want to weigh in on the student search policy, or any of this week's other topics.




      Sunday, December 22, 2013

      An Options Tour & Our Final 2013 Board Meeting

      Last week a group of us from the board went on an "Options Tour" of visits to several local schools. There are some great innovative lessons happening in Hillsboro classrooms: Qatama's STEAM program showed creative ways to integrate arts, engineering, and literacy as kindergarteners assembled letter shapes. In Tobias's STEM program, a group of kids using an electron microscope analyzed hair samples and other clues as they tried to catch the teacher who stole their pencil sharpener. At Minter Bridge, I watched kids learn a math lesson in Spanish as part of their dual-language program. And we visited the Online Academy (yes, they have a physical building), where a couple of students had come in to work on their lessons while teachers were nearby to answer questions.

      Of course, since you've constantly heard me advocating school choice in this blog, you can probably guess where this discussion is going! I think we should be doing more to make such opportunities available to students throughout the district: right now the term "Options Program" is a misnomer, since nearly all students attend their geographically assigned school. Kids can transfer on request, and I encourage you to try this if you like the idea of these programs but are not near a STEM/STEAM/dual-language school, but this seems to be discouraged. Parents who request transfers have told me they were subject to strong attempts at dissuasion by their local staff and made to feel guilty for asking for exceptions to standard policy. Wouldn't parents feel more satisfied if empowered to make these kind of choices on a regular basis, and actively encouraged to choose the program that best fits their child?  


      We also had our final board meeting of the year this past Tuesday. We had a discussion of the book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team", which we had all read in an effort to improve our teamwork, spawning an amusing article in the Argus.  As you will read there, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the value of the exercise.   Apologies to any business consultants I may have offended. 

      Other points discussed included:


    • Anti-Bullying programs: Looks like our Youth Activities Council is running some excellent programs in this area. I especially like how they described their efforts to make it positive: "be a friend" instead of just "don't bully". One yellow flag though: there seemed to be a lot of focus on "protected categories". If someone is bullied based on a non-protected category, such as being a religious Christian, are they a less important victim? (Yes, I was told of such a case during the last board campaign.)
    • Legislative priorities: This is another topic that got a good summary in an Argus article, so no need for much more detail here. I continue to point out that we need to have a clear list of unfunded mandates, with dollar costs, that we can pressure our legislators to repeal.
    • Strategic Plan Performance: I was glad to see that bringing our bottom-5% schools up to parity is now shown as an element of the Equity category. Though I do also think it should be considered the top issue in that category, and the other items discussed there (mainly how many teachers are sent to politically correct seminars) are of very little value in comparison.


      That's about it for this year. Have a good Christmas & New Year, and I'll hope to see you back at this blog in 2014!

      Saturday, December 7, 2013

      Boundary Changes or Choices?, And Other 12/3 Highlights

      This past Tuesday 12/3, we had our first board meeting in a month. Surprisingly, we didn't spend much time on the controversial issues in the news recently: the Evergreen math revolt  is mostly in a stable state with the district continuing to work with affected parents, and the cell phone privacy issue is under review for discussion in a future meeting.   

      Probably the most interesting issue at this meeting was the need to change elementary school attendance area boundaries, due to concentrations of new families in the area not matching the locations of schools. Superintendent Scott reminded us that this always creates a lot of controversy, as parents don't like being told to attend a different school than they expected, especially when the new one may be farther away. The staff outlined a process that involves a lot of public notification, meetings with representaiton from affected parties, etc. If we are going to change boundaries, this seems like a good process to me.

      But I had a slightly different take on the issue: instead of telling selected parents to move their children, could we provide incentives for voluntary transfers?   For example, I bet many parents would be willing to let their children be bussed farther away for unique opportunities like a dual-language or STEM program, or even just to attend a school with a higher state rating. As an additional incentive we could provide guaranteed transportation from certain high-density neighborhoods (normally students transferring out of their local school are not guaranteed transport.) This would work better if we had more differentiated programs at our elementary schools, but why not consider some new ideas specifically due to this motivation?   And I bet parents would be a lot happier solving this problem through voluntary means than through dictating a solution based solely on residence areas. The staff is going to think further about this idea, though at this point we need to also start the boundary change process regardless.

      Other highlights of the meeting included:
    • A review of ELL (English Language Learner) programs and staff development.  Travis pointed out that some major gains by younger ELL students in the past couple of years are not yet reflected in test scores, since students are only tested at certain grade levels, but we should expect some dramatic increases soon.
    • Numerous small policy changes recommended by the OSBA to comply with state law. The more meticulous engineers of the group (Wayne and myself) nitpicked a new proposed policy on harrasment reporting: "In the event the designated person [to receive the report] is the suspected perpetrator, the assistant superintendent of Human Resources shall receive the report." Doesn't this re-create the original problem, of possibly needing to report someone to themselves, in case someone who is under the assistant superitendent of HR & needs to report him?  It would make more sense to state something generic like "the next higher manager in the organization", etc.

    • Our next board meeting is in two weeks, on Tuesday 12/17. Note that both this week's and the next one are full meetings rather than just work sessions, to make up for the lack of a meeting over Thanksgiving. Hope to see you there!

      Saturday, November 30, 2013

      Dual Language Followup: The Power of Choice

      You may recall that back in August, I looked into some issues related to opting out of Dual Language instruction.   Some HSD elementary schools are now 100% dual-language, but there were a subset of kids who were doing very poorly in this environment, and failing to acquire grade-level skills in either language.   Parents who wanted to pull their kids out were initially given a "hard sell" by the principal to try to keep them in the program, but in the end we found that the district does allow any child the ability to opt out by transferring to another school.  

      This week I received a great followup email from one of the parents involved, and he gave me permission to share with my readers:

      I wanted to update you on the progress of my second grader after being removed from the dual language program. She started second grade way behind state standards. She completely hated reading and writing. It is now 3 months into the school year. her increased abilities with basic academics has grown into a new passion for learning. she loves to read a book in her room when she's bored. She is now meeting state standards in all of her subjects. I was becoming suspicious of a learning disability last year because she was so frustrated because she wasn't able to grow with her peers... I think we both Agree dual language can be a great opportunity for some children, while others are going to suffer greatly by it, especially when there is no second language at home to help strengthen the foreign language in the child's mind.

      It's great to hear when such a change is working well!   I think this feedback helps to reinforce some key aspects of the overall discussions we have been having in this blog:
      • While it is a positive element in many situations, dual-language is not a panacea, and for many students in early grades it is not the right method to learn reading and writing.  
      • Each dual-language-only school needs to work on making it clear to parents that they can opt out, and actively assist those who want to make this choice for their child.
      • In general, one-size-fits-all solutions are a bad idea to implement across the board- students have different learning styles and different strengths, and we need to provide multiple choices of programs to meet each student's needs.
      I would love to hear more (good or bad) from parents in a similar situation; be sure to send me an email or post a comment here if you have a story to share.      

       

      Sunday, November 24, 2013

      Comments on the CPM Math Curriculum


      By now you've likely heard about the parents who pulled their children out of Evergreen Middle School due to problems with the new CPM (College Prep Math) curriculum, newly adopted by our district this year in an attempt to comply with the Common Core standards.   There have been a lot of newspaper articles on this recently, but I'd like to point out a few details that many of these articles are glossing over.
      1. CPM is a radically new and different way of teaching math, not just a harder or more advanced curriculum.   A CPM-based class spends the majority of its time with the students working in groups to discover the mathematical rules, rather than having them presented directly by the teacher.    You can find many details at their website.  In Hillsboro we have implemented it across the board, all at once, as essentially the only available type of math class in our middle schools-- with our only in-house piloting being a 2-week trail last year.  So I'm not surprised that the new method of teaching math was a shock to many students and parents:  they are not objecting to math being harder, but to it being fundamentally different.     Was it a wise idea to make such a major change all at once district-wide?  
      2. CPM has been seen to create problems for students at the low end of the spectrum.   For students who find the math more challenging, there is no substitute for careful explanation from a skilled teacher.    Since the majority of the class is based on group work rather than direct instruction, some students are just not getting the straightforward teaching that would enable them to succeed.  I"ve heard from some parents that groups aren't even allowed to ask the teacher a question until the group has voted on it or arrived at a consensus as to phrasing.       Are some students pressured to just copy answers or pretend they understand so the group can move on, only to fail miserably when they have to work on individual assignments?
      3. CPM has been seen to create problems for students at the high end of the spectrum.   Many talented students are able to get the idea very quickly, and don't want to go through the motions of redundantly "discovering" a key principle to please their teacher, or act as supplementary teaching assistants for their group-- they want to move on.    This is especially frustrating for students hoping to get to advanced calculus and higher math classes by the end of high school so they can get a head start in STEM majors in college.
      4. CPM may be developmentally inappropriate for some students-- even very smart ones.   One topic sorely lacking in CPM discussions is the concept of stages of a child's mental development.   Children go through various stages of development , and only at the most advanced stages are they well-suited to truly discovering and generalizing mathematical laws.   Many middle schoolers, even very smart ones, are still in Piaget's "concrete operational" stage:  they can absorb facts and procedures that are directly taught, but are not ready to prove the validity of mathematical abstractions.   Thus I am not too surprised that some students who received As  and Bs in traditional math are severely struggling with CPM.
      So, with all this being said, what is the district doing about it?   There have been several meetings between district officials and parents, and HSD is working to modify the CPM curriculum based on parental feedback to address the issues above.   I think this is a positive step, and am glad that we are looking at ways to incorporate more direct instruction, rather than sticking to a pure group-based CPM curriculum.    Personally I would have preferred that we offer a variety of choices of styles of math classes rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.   But a properly reformed CPM program, with a larger portion of individual instruction + group "labs" to reinforce the concept like in science classes, might turn out to be an excellent choice for a majority of our students.   

      In any case, we need to make sure that we are properly meeting the needs of students at all levels of the math spectrum.   If you have a child in an HSD middle school, please be sure to discuss their math classes with them, take a look at their homework, and make sure the class format is working for them.    If your child seems to be falling behind, or if the class does not seem to be sufficiently challenging them, be sure to raise the issue with your teacher and principal.   (And consider escalating to the superintendent and the board if you do not receive satisfactory resolution. )   As a board member, I will be sure to follow up with district officials on the progress of the CPM changes resulting from this discussion.    There are many further improvements and changes that can still be made here if needed-- but we need parents to speak up.  

      Monday, November 18, 2013

      OSBA 2013 Wrap-Up: 3 New Rs, Character, and Charter Schools

      This past Friday and Saturday I attended the Oregon School Boards Association annual convention, another chance to share ideas and war stories with fellow school board members from other districts.   It was more of a grab bag than this past summer's conference, with less focus on training for new board members, and a broad selection of available topics. 

      The Day 1 Keynote by technophile David Warlick was called "Literacy In The Digital Age:  Redefining the Basics".    His basic premise was that for the first time, we can't even envision the world our students will be facing in 20 years, so we need to enable them to learn and process information.   This would lead to redefining the 3 Rs:
      • Reading:  Need to learn to critically examine information and ask the right questions, to separate the good and bad information.   For example, it's not enough to just read a Wikipedia site, you need to compare to independent sources & decide what to believe.
      • Writing:  It's not just about the written word, kids need to learn to use digital video and multimedia presentations to communicate ideas.   He gave an example of a powerful anti-sweatshop video by one of his students.
      • Math:  Need to be able to process large amounts of information, using available tools.   The key example here was a page of earthquake data from a government site, which Warlick (in real time) copied to a spreadsheet and was able to plot as a graph.
      Unfortunately, some of Warlick's examples undermined his main points:   the anti-sweatshop video for example, while a powerful propaganda piece, was a one-sided presentation of disconnected context-free factoids from various left-wing websites-- I think that student needed a refresher on Warlick's next-generation "Reading" education.   And he claimed that editing music in an app was an example of using "Math", since all the notes were treated as underlying numbers by the system-- but this is true of anything you can do on a computer.    Overall, I can see Warlick's ideas being used effectively to supplement traditional curricula, but I don't see them truly replacing the foundations every student needs in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

      The second day's keynote was less radical, "The Hidden Power of Character" by Paul Tough.   He was basically pointing out that success in life is determined by more than traditional IQ.   Non-cognitive traits such as willingness to recover from failure, "grit" and persistence, and ability to deal with conflict are just as important.   Getting practice recovering from failure is key:  students need the opportunity to fail and then learn from their mistakes.   Buying into the self-esteem movement so much that kids can never fail is counterproductive.   But we have to work hard to protect students who are from environments where they experience constant failure and are in permanent states of stress; that destroys rather than building character.   The best times to intervene in these areas are early childhood and adolescence.   Lots of great points, but I was a little disappointed that he didn't touch on many practical issues of how to teach the positive character traits day-to-day in a classroom.

      I also attended numerous smaller sessions.   One on tablet usage in classrooms was pretty interesting.   The speaker was pretty confident that the balance of good peer-reviewed studies shows that tablets in classrooms really can be a game-changer for a lot of kids.  But before adopting tablets, a school system needs to ask key questions:  Are they properly accounting for long-term costs, including support and bandwith?   Are they following a real plan, or just copying their neighbors?    Is there a strong enough code of conduct & culture of good behavior in the school, to prevent students from doing counterproductive things like playing games in class or using tablets to snap photos of tests?   And do the teachers want them, or are teachers facing a burden due to the need to monitor misbehavior on tablets? 

      There were also three different sessions on charter schools:  "Charter Schools 101", "Charter Schools 201", and "Charter Schools Legislative Update".  Mostly discussing things I had heard before, but I picked up & was reminded of some interesting charter facts:
      • Portland Public Schools has 10 charters, with 4% of their student body in charter schools.  (They have 47.5K students, making them about 2.5x the size of Hillsboro, and have 10x as many charter schools.  I think that shows we have room to grow in this area.)  They have been consistently getting 3-4 more applications every year.   Due to the large number, they are seeking changes to the law that allow them to be more picky once a district's total charter attendees exceed 3% of students.
      • Some recent changes to state charter school laws expand some of the application/decision timelines, and add options for the state BOE to remand applications back to a district after appeal rather than making a final decision.
      • Since charters get 80% of the per-student funding by law, there is sometimes conflict with district over whether the last 20% "really" deserves to be spent on services impacting charters, or should totally be at the district's discretion.  The best solution is to be very detailed about all such issues when setting up the charter agreement.
      • Charter school teachers must be included in district's reports of percentage of "highly qualified" teachers.  This can create some conflict, because charters are allowed to use alternative criteria in hiring, which can reduce a district's on-paper % in this area.
      • Oregon actually makes it much tougher than many other states to start charter schools-- fewer charter-granting agencies, more control of charters by districts, inability of charters to independently apply for several types of grants.
      Anyway, that pretty much covers the highlights.   Another solid conference with lots of good information, though once again a bit overwhelming by the end!

      Friday, November 15, 2013

      Lamenting The Bond, And Other 11/12 Highlights

      This has actually been a pretty busy week for the Hillsboro school board-- in addition to our regular monthly work session meeting, we had a parent rebellion against the new math curriculum go viral, and the annual Oregon School Board Association Covention .   Rather than try to cover everything at once, I'll discuss the meeting highlights in this post, and the other two items will be in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned!

      The first major issue discussed at the meeting was, of course, the failure of the bond issue.   Most comments centered around the thoughts that there was insufficient salesmanship & energy to bring out the small number of potential Yes voters in the district, and that we should try harder next time.   There was also discussion of the fact that voters seeing their tax bill just before the vote hurt the turnout; personally, I find it a bit offensive to suggest that we would prefer voters to have less information so they vote our way.   We also need to keep in mind that the economy in general makes this a bad time to ask for any kind of tax increase; we may have to face the fact that a significant increase in resources is simply not going to happen.   But I'm still of the opinion that a key lesson here was that our voters don't want more salesmanship and manipulation-- if we try again & sell the bond on a basis of openness and frankness, as I discussed in my blog post on the topic, perhaps we will have a shot.

      The other major discussion was a followup on the equity emergency, where two schools in our district were rated in the bottom 5% statewide.   Superintendent Mike Scott presented a reasonable $250K plan that was proposed by the schools involving techniques such as more teacher training, additional tutoring and other attention for the at-risk students, and community outreach, based on methods that were successfully used in other at-risk schools to improve educational quality.   We approved this plan, as I do think bringing these schools to an equitable level should be a priority.   But we also discussed a graph showing wide variance across the district in the proportion of poor and at-risk students, with the ones at the most risk concentrated in a small selection of schools.   A few items to consider here:
      • Mike mentioned that we may need to consider moving more funding and resources into schools based on their needs.   This may prevent more from sliding into the lowest quality level in the future-- but is likely to be very controversial, at it would seem to punish schools with talented students, more involved parents, or local fundraising and direct donors.   (I'll be interested to hear from any of you who have a strong opinion on this.)
      • I know you're probably tired of having me repeat this-- but I think it's only fair to mention that it constantly came up that smaller class sizes would be a key factor to help improve the low-performing schools.   Has everyone already forgotten the statement in an earlier meeting that charter schools are able to have "unfairly" small class sizes due to our current regulatory structureSo why aren't we trying to reach out and attract more charter schools in response to our current problems?  I didn't bring this up at the meeting because I didn't want to rathole the meeting with more anti-charter tirades, but will be sure to bring this up as a factor if any charters do apply.
      • An interesting solution I heard from a friend in another district is to reduce the concentration of at-risk students in particular schools by increasing school choice within the public system.   In his district, every parent lists their top 3 school choices each year on a form, and the district then assigns students to schools based on the lottery system.  This also creates incentives and competition within the public school system, even without charter schools, and results in distributing kids more evenly rather than having a bunch of economically homogeneous islands.    Of course, before we could start such a system, we would need to bring our bottom-5% schools up to par (otherwise parents lotteried into those would scream bloody murder), so this is more of a thought for the future.
      The final major item discussed was state legislative priorities for the 2014 session.    It's unclear if many bills will be introduced, so it may be a moot point, but we will likely continue our usual uncontroversial ones of PERS reform, funding, unfunded mandates, and regulation.  One key issue I brought up is rather than our vague generality of unfunded mandates, we really need a full, itemized list of them.   It's very important that we can show our legislators not just the big-ticket items, but a full list of the many state requirements that are costing us money.   For example, new emissions requirements have significantly increased the cost of replacing old school buses-- would a waiver of this mandate just for school buses really have a noticeable effect on the environment?

      At the end of the meeting I brought up the parent revolt over the math curriculum.  But given the various twists that has taken in the media, I'll leave that for it's own blog post.




      Sunday, October 27, 2013

      The Equity Emergency, and other 10/22 Highlights

      By now, those of you following the Hillsboro School District have probably noticed the Argus article about the "Equity Emergency", a term I coined to reflect that sad fact that practically in the shadows of one of the world's most successful hi-tech companies (Intel), we have two elementary schools rated in the 5th percentile statewide.  Superintendent Scott and his staff presented a number of mitigating factors (high poverty among attendees, new staff getting acclimated, etc.), and promised to work with the school staffs on an action plan.   That sounds like a noble effort, but we can't lose sight of the fact that ultimately we have several schools where students are receiving a subpar education.    A few key points about this discussion that may not be quite clear in the newspaper article:
      • We need to call a bad rating a bad rating, and not use evasive or obfuscating language.   Some staff members seemed to take offense that I said the low-rated schools offered an "inferior" education.  But if 5th percentile (==> 5 out of 100) isn't inferior, then what is?  I realize these ratings don't take everything into account, being based on standardized test scores in key subjects, but they represent a key component of a child's education.    I know we have a lot of sincere staff who are trying really hard...  but ultimately, what matters to the children isn't the intentions, it's the results.   
      • The variance in educational quality in different neighborhoods is one of the key educational equity challenges of our generation, and we need to treat it as one of our primary challenges.   We usually think of this as being an issue with inner-city schools.   But what these ratings have shown is that that is not the case, and we need to think hard about what we are doing to improve educational equity for real.   I find it utterly ridiculous that the staff offered up a report on "progress in the Equity area" at the board meeting, where the district was patting itself on the back for how many people it had sent to diversity conferences and classes, while this real diversity crisis was sitting in our backyard and directly affecting children's lives.
      • We are not criticizing the students.   I'm especially frustrated by sentiments like those expressed in an open letter by one of the low-rated school princpals, that we should not worry about the low test scores because of the students "ability to speak two or more languages, their musical talents, their ability to dance and connect with rich cultural traditions from around the world".  It's precisely because the students have so much potential that we cannot let our district cheat them out of the basic education in English reading and writing, and basic math, that will enable them to succeed in modern society.
      • I applaud the staff's efforts to turn around the situation-- but no parent should be forced to bet their child's future on them.   This is an example of the situations when school choice is really important.   I'm sure some subset of students is thriving at the low-rated schools, and many parents will be encouraged at the turnaround efforts.   But if any parent wants to transfer their student to a better school, they should be offered the opportunity.   My proposal to enact this as written policy was voted down, based on Superintendent Scott's statement that it's already the district's practice to work with any parent who wants a different school.   So if you have a child in a low-rated school and want another opportunity, be sure to contact the district office, and let me know if you feel like you are not being offered viable alternatives.
       Aside from the discussion about the school ratings, there were a few other interesting items that came up.   (BTW, I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the level of coverage we've been getting in the Argus lately, with articles about most of the major issues we discuss.  Is it my imagination, or have they stepped up school reporting since the new correspondent, Luke Hammill, came on board?  Good work Luke!)

      • Double Dipping.    As you may have seen in the Argus, this is the practice of a staff member retiring in January, starting to get the generous state retirement benefits, and then also being hired by HSD on a contract basis to fill in for the rest of the year.   Sounds like a win-win, right?   The staff member is gone anyway, and they are the best fill-in contractor for the position they held, so why not?   Well, here's why not.   If we continually hire recent retirees when they have 'retired' in January, then many employees will game the system and retire in January to receive the double-dipping windfall.    In other words, even though it seems like a win-win in an isolated case, creating the expectation that this will be allowed results in long-term costs overall.   Many thanks to fellow board member Wayne Clift for spotting this on the "consent agenda"; I'm disappointed that we didn't have enough votes to stop it this time.
      • The Budget Committee.   We appointed the new Budget Committee as well.  You may have been surprised to see that I voted in favor of appointing my former election rival, Rebecca Lantz.   I have to say, though I don't agree with her on much, I am impressed at her willingness to continue to volunteer her time and effort for the district even after losing her board position.  
      • Moving Funds Out Of The ESD.    We also voted to remove the majority of our district funds from the Education Service District, a monopoly provider of education services created by the state, and instead purchase the relevant services on the free market or provide them locally.   This seems like the right decision to me.