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.

    Saturday, October 19, 2013

    Vote Yes On The Bond-- For The Right Reasons

    Soon we will all be receiving ballots in the mail to vote on the new bond requested by the Hillsboro School District.  I will be voting yes on this bond, although I didn't sign the statement in the voter pamphlet.  This is because I disagree with several elements of the "conventional" pro-bond reasoning, and didn't feel the printed statement accurately reflected my views.

    First of all, my reasoning does not involve the claim that it's "for technology and public safety". I'm very tired of the gimmick played by government bodies at all levels, where they withhold funding from something that's politically popular, and then announce that they need more taxes to fund these critical items. The bond funds will amount to a tiny portion of our district's annual budget, which means we could have moved funding from numerous other things into at least a partial funding of these technology and safety goals. Perhaps adding terms to the bond for "staff raises, district website upgrades, and diversity consultants" would have made it sound less compelling? We should recognize the bond for what it is, a request for a supplement to the district's general fund, and judge it on that basis.

     
    My Yes vote also is not because of the commonly-heard sentiment that "we've been cutting the budget forever, and our schools are being starved for funds". As you can see at this link, overall inflation-adjusted, per-capita Oregon school spending has been increasing without bound for half a century, and any occasional cuts are just a minor blip in that overall trend. Don't let all the public hand-wringing about cuts convince you otherwise.

    We also need to recognize that the money in the bond isn't magically created from nothing-- it is real money taken from the working people of our district, during very challenging financial times for our families. To quote a school board member facing a similar issue in another district (Dan Christensen of Gresham), "make no mistake, for many families and businesses... property tax rates will indeed be a sacrifice. While saying, ‘it’s-only-a-latte-a-day’ makes for a catchy talking point, it’s not so trivial to the barista who depends on all those daily latte’s for job and livelihood... Passage of the bond will result in the obvious economic benefit... What will be less visible, but just as deeply impacting, are the thousands of decisions to forego pizza night, that morning latte, the extra birthday or Christmas gift and the far-reaching ripple effect of those decisions on local businesses. "   This kind of effect on the economy will come to impact local children, and we must not forget that this is what we are offsetting against the needs to improve our schools.


    So... this being said, why do I think we should support this bond for the Hillsboro schools? I find two key arguments compelling:

    1. HSD is being squeezed by the utter failure of our state government to effectively rein in PERS, resulting in effective undeserved cuts to available classroom funds. More and more of our money is used to fulfill impractical and overly generous promises to retirees. Plenty has been written on this topic elsewhere, so I don't think I need to go into too much detail here. But just remember as you vote yes on the bond, that if you don't want to be passing new bonds like this every year, you must also send a clear message to our state government at next year's election that this situation cannot continue. We need to end this pattern to support the long-term economic health of Hillsboro's families and our schools.



     
    2. HSD is taking real action to make better use of its public funds, to provide increasing educational effectiveness while reducing costs. A key example here is the Hillsboro Online Academy (http://hillonlineacademy.org/), the first public non-charter online academy in Oregon. Experience in many districts has shown that, while online education is not for everyone, the students who it does serve can be educated in a much more cost-effective manner without sacrificing quality. As we increase the availability of this option to more children in HSD, we have a real shot at reining in costs in an innovative and exciting way.

    Before you vote on the bond measure, whatever position you decide on, please be sure to think carefully about the reasons. In the end, I will be voting Yes for the bond, and invite you to join me.
     

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Blogging Too Much

    Recently I was asked the question, "Why are you blogging so much?   Since you're new on the board, shouldn't you be in a listening rather than a talking mode?"   I believe this question stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of my blog.

    First of all, don't confuse my behavior when blogging with my behavior in the board meetings.     I'll be the first to agree that I have plenty to learn about the school district and the board-- and if you attend one of the meetings (or watch the online videos) , you'll see that I spend the vast majority of each meeting listening rather than talking.    

    On the other hand, when blogging after each meeting, I try to communicate as much as possible on the key points covered and my thoughts about them.   As your elected representative on the board, I'm trying to be as open as possible about these topics:   it's what I promised during my campaign, and I believe it's an important opportunity for the people of Hillsboro.   It's also a two-way method of communication:  any member of the community can post followup questions in the comment field, or send me an email.     I' ve received enough positive feedback about my blog to believe that there are a decent number of you out there who appreciate this service.    

    Most importantly, the open communication fostered in my blog has already shown results.   You may recall that back in August, I published some info about a discussion on Dual Language programs  that came up in our meeting, and the fact that parents could always choose to opt out.   It turns out that due to poor communication at the school level, some parents thought they did not have this option, and contacted me about it.     I was then able to work with Superintendent Scott to get a clear opt-out policy posted on the HSD website, as discussed in this followup post

    So, please continue following this blog, and contact me if any issue I mention here touches on your family.

    Sunday, October 6, 2013

    Common Core, Charter Schools, and Other 10/1 Highlights

    This week's board meeting was a little livelier than the last few-- we actually had protestors holding up signs in the audience.   They were there due to concerns about Common Core, the new set of education standards being rolled out nationwide.    You can read more about the discussion, and the incident where one of the protestors yelled out to the board, at the article in this week's Argus.    I don't think the protestor was justified in the rude outburst accusing our assistant superintendent, Steve Larson, of a "Lie", though our staff might do a better job of preparing to answer questions during presentations on this controversial topic.    One issue that consistently bothers me about public CC discussions by its sponsors is that they treat the other side as a bunch of mentally unstable kooks (not helped by outbursts during a meeting!), instead of trying to understand the details of some very real concerns.    On the other hand, protesting it is somewhat futile at this level anyway, as it's been imposed on us by the state of Oregon.  

    During the discussion, I brought up some issues related to my concerns about CC (you can review this blog entry  for more).    I asked Steve if it was correct to label Common Core an unfunded mandate from the state, and he insisted that it wasn't, because the district periodically revises the curriculum anyway.    But I remain skeptical of this point:  is it really the case that statewide, not one more cent is spent on curriculum materials or teacher training due to the major changes made in CC?    And without CC, would it really be the case that, for example, Algebra has changed so radically in the last ten years that totally new materials & training would be needed?   My other big question was on how we will do apples-to-apples comparisons between last year's students & those 4 years from now to prove CC isn't dumbing down the curriculum.    He had a better answer here, that the ACT would be a constant yardstick we could use.    We need to watch this carefully though-- will there be moves to modify the ACT to sync with Common Core?

    Other highlights of the Tuesday meeting included a joint session with the Hillsboro City Council.   It was mostly a touchy-feely get-together with barely any real agenda.    A joint School Board / City Council meeting seemed a bit redundant to me, as the school district has the council pretty well-infiltrated:   members include Tobias Elementary principal Steve Callaway, Hillsboro Schools Foundation director Aron Carleson, and HilHi assistant principal Olga Acuna.   (I actually have mixed feelings about employees of one body of government being so involved in managing another body of governement... but that's another discussion.)    We divided into pairs to discuss ideas for ways the schools and city could better collaborate, pretty much coming up with what you would expect:  joint projects in areas the city sponsors like arts and recreation, internships with city utilities, etc.    The reservoir project, where the city turned new reservoir work into an engineering class for kids as well, was a great example of the schools and city collaborating.    Being a believer in minimal government (==> each government level should concentrate on what it's designed to do, rather than looking for grand initiatives), I think my other favorite suggestion from the list was giving priority to repaving sidewalks near elementary schools with lots of walkers.

    Then, finally, there was yet another contentious debate on charter schools.   I won't bother rehashing too much here, since you've seen most of it in my blog before, and there was a nice article in the Argus that covered the major points.   I was most amused by the fact that the first 10 minutes were spent bashing me for saying Hillsboro was historically hostile to charters (finally I backed down and said maybe I was wrong, since this wasn't the point of the discussion), then three of the longer-serving board members spent the next half hour on harangues about charters being a "horrible idea", insulting to our staff members, and un-American.   Hmmm, maybe there is a little hostility there?    But the good news is that the debate showed that the other four members of our board are not hostile to charter schools, and we will be looking into improving our district website to make the charter application process clearer.    My resolution to call explicitly for more charters was tabled for now, but I think just having the public discussion accomplished a good portion of what I wanted anyway, to spread the message that now is a good time for potential charters to apply. 



    Sunday, September 29, 2013

    Class Size, and Other 9/24 Highlights


    As you have probably seen in the local papers, there was a lot of discussion about class size at the last board meeting. This is especially a concern at very young ages-- is it really good for a kindergardener to be part of a class of 31 students? Naturally there is no need to belabor the fact here that we could reduce class size with more money. But here a few key points worth keeping in mind when discussing this issue:
    • Superintendent Scott reported that he used to hold 10 teachers in reserve, to use to split up crowded classes due to unexpectedly high enrollment at one school, but due to recent budget cuts can't do this anymore.
    • A parent rightfully brought up the point that maybe we should shift our budget priorities-- are the 3 days we bought back with the Gain Share donation really more valuable than smaller kindergardens? Sure, that money would not reduce district-wide average class size by much, but it could have paid for the 10 spare teachers mentioned above.   
    • I'll also have to look very hard at similar tradeoffs, as I go through the budget process this year as a board member for the first time. I'm a bit worried that we're spending on popular fads while ignoring the basics. Investments in "STEM schools" are nice-- but would we rather have classes of 35 learning science from fancy technology, or 25 students catching butterflies with old-fashioned nets?
    • One other bright spot in this area is HSD's Hillsboro Online Academy.   Many other districts have reported that in an online setting, teachers can comfortably handle significantly more students, since they are freed from the stresses of classroom management.    I'm hoping that we can expand HOA opportunities to more of the district, including letting more students in other schools take some HOA classes, and thus help to relieve class size pressures district-wide.   I've volunteered for the board subcommittee overseeing HOA, and will post updates here as I learn more.
    • I didn't want to rathole the conversation by repeating the last meeting's charter school debate-- but if you review my blog entry from last time you'll see that under our current regulatory structure, charter schools are able to offer class sizes capped at 24, which Superintendent Scott said is impossible for non-charters. Isn't this yet another reason why we should be demanded more charter schools in HSD?


    Aside from the class size discussion, some other highlights of the meeting included:

    • We're being recorded now on video!  As I've mentioned, I like this for several reasons. It's a full public record of the meeting, rather than just the terse minutes we've seen in the past. And it frees the spectators to view it at their leisure, rather than having to sit for several hours on a busy weekday evening.   
    • Curriculum Committee appointments were ratified. I'm especially excited to see two great new members join who I'm personally acquainted with: my Intel colleague Cameron Wilde, and "Stop Common Core" activist Jennifer Gallegos. I'm hoping we'll see this committee take a more active and skeptical role moving forward.
    • New drafts of numerous policies were presented, basically suggestions by the OSBA to improve compliance with current laws. I'm reviewing these & sending in questions; if you have interest in legal minutiae, you can also see them in the board packet (http://www.hsd.k12.or.us/Portals/0/District/Board/Boardpacket/2012-2013/Board%20Packet%2009-24-13%20-%20rev.pdf).

    That's it for this meeting. As always, be sure to comment on this blog or email me (erik@erikseligman.com) if you have comments or questions on the items above or on HSD in general.

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    Who We Represent, and other 9/10 Highlights


    It was mostly a routine meeting this week; we discussed some business matters, such as approving the new union contracts, and the staff presented on the various measurements they are planning to judge success according to the strategic plan    I also discussed my efforts between meetings to follow up on the Dual-Language opt-out issue; in addition to reiterating the points I have already mentioned here, I pointed out that many parents have reported negative interactons with school staff on this matter.   When the district's current decisions aren't working well for their child, parents should never have to feel afraid or guilty about asking for something different to be done.   We need to make sure the staff treat all parent concerns with respect, especially at the stressful times when their child is having problems in school.


    The most interesting part of the meeting was the beginning of a discussion on charter schools, triggered by my suggestion that we consider a resolution to inform the community that Hillsboro is no longer hostile to the concept, and we want charter schools to apply to open in our district.    The discussion was mostly a rehash of things I have already mentioned in this blog.   There were three main anti-charter arguments that came up, none of which seems to me to hold much weight:

    • "I support public education.   Why don't you?"   This is a classic strawman argument-- supporting public education is perfectly consistent with supporting charter schools.   The defining characterstic of public education is that any child can attend, regardless of wealth or social class, and that is just as true of charters as of traditional schools.
    • "Charters like City View have an unfair advantage due to small class size."    This argument seems kind of odd to me: class size, like most other aspects of a school, is a result of how it manages its resources within its budget.   So maybe other schools have something to learn from City View.   Supertintendent Scott fairly pointed out that charters are subject to fewer regulations than the traditional schools, so there is no way he could manage the other school budgets to allow such a small class size.   But this just makes my larger point-- if in the current regulatory environment, charters can offer significantly smaller class size, and we think small class size is a good thing, shouldn't we be demanding more charters?
    • "No real business would hand over customers to its competitors, so why should we?"   I guess this is true on some level-- if a real business was able to get legislators to grant it a geographical monopoly, it probably would like to keep it.   But the reason businesses in our nation have been so successful and productive is that customers are free to choose which ones they want to patronize.      Amusingly, fellow board member Glenn Miller came up with an answer to this argument on its own terms:  "Haven't you seen those Progressive insurance commercials?"
    Reflecting on this discussion after the meeting, though, I realize there was one major point I failed to make.   Often in this conversation, board members used the pronoun "we" when discussing the current traditional schools and district structure.   But were we elected to represent particular current institutions, or the children of the district?   As board members, out of necessity, the majority of our energy is spent overseeing the operations of the traditional schools.   But  I believe we are there to represent the people of the district-- the customers-- not the current institutions.   

    Our goal should always be that every child's needs be properly fulfilled, whether or not it's by some employee directly reporting under Superintendent Scott.     We should be strictly neutral with regards to whether a child we are representing gets educated through a traditional school, a charter school, a homeschool, or even through a transfer to another district-- as long as the child's family has had the opportunity to make an informed choice.   When we on the board think of ourselves as representing a particular institution, rather than the children, we are doing a disservice to the people of Hillsboro.

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    Opting Out of Dual-Language: Clarifications

    In my last blog post, I mentioned that I had heard some parent concerns about children being forced into bilingual programs, but the district staff had assured me that all parents have the option of opting their children out of bilingual programs.  Before you accuse these parents of xenophobia, keep in mind that there are some children in our district who are struggling with basic reading/writing skills-- and if your child is in such a situation, it makes a lot of sense to want them spending 100% of their time on English skills instead of dividing their efforts. 

    After the post, I was surprised to be contacted by some local parents who did feel that their children are being forced into dual-language, and communications with their local school had left the impression that they were on some kind of waiting list for an alternative, but not guaranteed an alternate placement.   If your child is in the attendance area for one of the designated dual-language schools, they will be placed in dual-language by default.    But Superintendent Scott assured me that all parents really do have the option to opt out of these programs.   It looked to me like there was a communications gap here, so I asked for improvements to the info on the district website.

    If you go to the HSD website's Options section, you will now see that there is a subsection labeled 'Opting Out', which gives a clear procedure for parents to opt their children out of the dual-language or STEM programs if needed.  I'm glad to see that this is now clearly documented-- be sure to inform me if you do not see this process working, or if the district is refusing you a transfer out of dual-language.   By the way, the info on this page can also be used to transfer into the dual-language or STEM programs, if you are not at a school that offers them.

    A few key points to take away from this discussion thread:
    • Keep reading this blog & contacting me if your family is affected by a topic mentioned here!   I was glad to see that people contacted me after my last post was inconsistent with their experience-- that's the whole reason I'm posting these things.
    • It's very important that 'exceptions' to typical processes are well-documented.   The district has a strategic objective of Equity, and I think it's a critical Equity failure if parents feel like they have to use inside knowledge/contacts to get the district to act on behalf of their children.
    • There is some variety in HSD's elementary school programs, and a well-defined procedure to transfer; don't just blindly accept your geographical assignment.   If you have a child with talents or interests that could especially benefit from the STEM, dual-language, or City View Charter opportunities, don't be afraid to request a transfer.   (Of course this doesn't take away from my oft-stated general opinion that we should be offering even more choice, including additional charters & real participation in Open Enrollment.)

    Tuesday, August 20, 2013

    The Freedom To Disagree, and Other 8/12-8/13 Highlights

    Last week we had the annual "school board retreat", a pair of back-to-back 6 hour meetings that kick off our board activities for the year.  Amusingly, due to public meeting laws the retreat had to be opened to the public like any other meeting.  I have to say, I am impressed with the one union rep (Maureen, I think) who came at the beginning of the first day & managed to endure for nearly all 6 hours, despite having to quietly watch without participating.
     
     
    The first day was led by a management consultant, who had us do quick surveys to figure out our Myers-Briggs personality categories & discuss how they would affect our communication.  There was probably some value here in breaking the ice & helping us to discuss things as a team, though there were definitely long periods that felt like a Dilbert  cartoon.  The second day got more concrete, discussing issues that would be facing us in the upcoming school year.
     
     
    The most contentious debate was on the board-superintendent working agreement.  I strongly disagreed with one clause in there, requiring each board member to "publicly support" the vote of the majority, even if they disagreed with it.  As I have mentioned before in this blog, I think clear and open communication with the public is an important duty of the board-- and this includes honesty about when I think the district is going in the wrong direction.  I won't complain endlessly about every lost vote, but I want to reserve the right to rally the public to pressure the board to change a bad decision.   After much wrangling, we settled on compromise language that we would all "publicly accept" the vote of the majority.  This is reasonable, as even if I want to change a decision, I will acknowledge when relevant that the decision I disagree with is the current district policy.
     
     
    Some other discussion highlights of the retreat include:
     
    • Podcasting board meetings.  We revisited the discussion from the last meeting, about recording our meetings.   As I learned the hard way, since our last meeting didn't result in a vote on this topic, or a formal request to staff, nothing happened even though we had discussed it.  Now we have directed our Communications Director to investigate options for doing this.
    • Emancipation from the ESDs.  The ESDs, or Education Service Districts, are local monopolies chartered by the state in each region to provide secondary services to schools.  As you may recall, I have been critical of the ESDs in the past , since in general open markets provide services more efficiently than monopolies.  Superintendent Scott told us that under a new state law, we can withdraw 65% of our ESD funds and spend them to purchase services elsewhere.   He is going to investigate the costs of external services and prepare a report for the next meeting.  I think this is a great step forward; my main worry is whether the existence of ESDs has prevented the market from offering these services at all in Oregon.
    • English Language Learners.  Some interesting discussion about ELL programs.  I mentioned that during the campaign, some Mexican-American consituents had contacted me very angrily about their children being put in biligual programs instead of English-only, which was their parents' preference.  I was told that under current Hillsboro policy, placement in ELL/bilingual programs is always by explicit parental choice.  If you know of any specific case where someone was put in such a program against their parents' wishes, please contact me with the details.
    • The Strategic Plan.  Lots of time discussing the district's strategic plan and how we will measure success.  We gave lots of suggestions, and the staff will return in a future meeting with a proposal for key measurements.  What I'm watching for here is to make sure we are pursuing results, rather than processFor example, I don't care if each teacher spent hours in professional development classes-- I care if the students learned more in the end.  
     
     
        Anyway, as always, be sure to contact me (erik@erikseligman.com) if you have comments or personal experience with any of these topics.  And if you want to chat more, be sure to show up for my next constituent coffee, on Saturday 9/7, 10am, at the Human Bean Coffeehouse at 10th & Oak.