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
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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
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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?


    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.