Monday, March 30, 2009

Freedom And Results

Reading my entry from a few days ago (on alternatives to textbooks), I realized I should probably clarify my statements about Freedom to Innovate and Measurable Results, in light of my suggestion that teachers be allowed to choose non-board-approved textbook substitutes on the Internet.

I think all of us have memories of our favorite teachers. In many cases, these are the teachers who constantly surprised us-- who didn't stick to the usual lesson plans, and went beyond the textbook in conveying their love for their subject. Perhaps they introduced bizarre role-playing exercises, took the class on surprising field trips, or had a knack for creating cool lab explosions. That is why I believe the freedom to innovate is so important: while every teacher should receive advice from their peers and superiors, they must also have the ability to independently teach their classes, utilitizing their own creativity to bring their subjects to life.

But with this level of freedom we must also recognize that the teachers must be held accountable for their students' learning in the end. We must consistently test that the classes really have mastered their expected body of knowledge, using tests and other measurements that can be objectively compared across classes and schools. If a teacher is wildly creative and entertaining, but doesn't succeed in teaching, that's not a good fit for our school system. On the other hand, if a teacher uses unconventional methods and materials but delivers the results in the end, we should do all we can to reward and encourage them to continue.

In short, what I'm discussing here is the difference between process orientation and results orientation. (Those of you who work with me may recognize the influence of "Intel Values" here.) "Process orientation" means thousands of pages of policy manuals and dictates from every level of authority, controlling how classroom time is spent. "Results orientation" means a much greater degree of freedom for teachers and schools, as long as they deliver the results in the end. While there is a level of security in process orientation ("I did what they said, so they have no right to complain"), the results are really what matter. And I think you will find that in general, most educated professionals, including teachers, are much happier in a dynamic, results-oriented environment.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Personality Type

My wife pointed out an amusing site to me,, that analyzed your personality type based on your blog. It decided that I am a 'Mechanic':

The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts. The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life.

Sounds like a pretty good recommendation for a school board candidate. :-)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Idea #3: Electronic Textbooks

I read an article on CNET news yesterday, about the new Asus EEE PCs expected to retail for $180. And we've all heard about the push for $100 educational PCs. While these bottom-of-the-line PCs won't play the latest fancy games or dazzle you with 3-D effects, they are fine for displaying web pages and PDF files. When textbooks typically cost in the $100 price range, could we save some money by equipping each student with a cheap loaner computer, and using texts in electronic form?

One obvious way to do this would be to continue using the texts we have now, but purchase them in PDF format. We need to be careful here though-- if textbooks can be reused, but the PDFs are only sold per-student, this method might cost rather than saving money. But why should we be attached to current 'official' textbooks? It's no secret that the past few decades have represented a drive towards blandness, to avoid offending various interest groups.

Why not allow teachers to choose to use texts from Wikibooks (, a site with collaborative development of free texts, or Project Gutenberg (, which contains free online versions of classic works whose copyright has expired? And these are just scratching the surface of the many online resources available; some quick web searching will probably find a nice e-text on your favorite subject. I bet very few teachers or students would be found who are enthusiastic supporters of their official textbooks, and many would be eager to teach or learn based on these kinds of resources.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Idea #2: Online Education

Here's another idea from Jeff Kropf's blog ( that I really like. This is a great example of using technology to provide a high-quality education at reduced cost:

First, create an online education program such as the one I am involved with, Oregon Connections Academy, which has 2600 students from all over Oregon receiving a quality public education. We educate children for about half of what a traditional bricks and mortar public school does. We have certified teachers who are paid local union scale, PERS and health insurance. Our students test higher in virtually every area of study compared to the statewide average, our parents satisfaction survey for the third year (we are only 4 years old) remains in the 90 percentile and most of all, the kids enrolled in our program love it. It also can help struggling districts retain students they might otherwise lose as they are meeting the education needs of the student.

Next time we need to increase capacity, why not create a local Connections Academy that any Hillsboro student would be eligible to attend instead of their local school? A Hillsboro-based online education program, focused on our district, would have some additional advantages. In addition to the proven benefits and lower costs of online education, the online students could still participate in extracurricular and social activities at their local school, gaining some of the socialization benefits that some worry about in online education.

Having taught in a college-level online program with the University of Phoenix, I can personally attest to the fact that such programs can be just as rigorous and teach just as well as a classroom environment. In fact, online communication may help some of the more shy students (or students with disabilities like autism-spectrum disorders) interact more with their teachers than they would in face-to-face classrooms.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Idea #1: Four Longer Days

As promised, here's the first idea for saving money without compromising education: schedule a 4-day school week, with longer class periods so the amount of instruction does not change. Plenty of people do this in industry; my wife has arranged a '4/40' schedule so she can spend more time with our 2-year old daughter. I heard this idea in the school context from Jeff Kropf's blog (, which I will quote here:

...move to a true four day school week as some 40 Oregon school districts have done and more are considering as a cost efficiency measure. If implemented properly it saves money, makes everyone happier and gets better results. You can actually save substantive amounts of money by not holding any activities in the school district one day a week.... Schools save money by not turning on the lights, heating the building, paying for janitors and cafeteria workers or transporting students... Some teachers say that longer class periods allow students to finish projects uninterupted, producing better results. A longer school day also keeps bored kids working and helps diminish the latch key kids issue.

This sounds like a fine idea to me. I see one monkey wrench in that full-time working parents may depend on the fifth day of child care. But if that turns out to be an issue, we can just implement this in middle and high schools, where all students are old enough to be legally allowed to stay at home if needed. And of course nothing prevents community volunteering, intramural sports, or other volunteer-run recreational activities for the kids on Fridays.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Good And Bad Ways To Save Money

Funding shorfalls seem to be a constant issue with our schools: we always want more money than we have. That's not surprising, as that's a general condition of human existence. But it's important to constantly ask ourselves the basic question: are we spending all our money wisely? Are there opportunities to better target our spending, in ways that will get us more education for less money? We should be asking this question constantly, in good financial times and bad.

When the budget seems to be less than what we want, there is a reflexive impulse towards across-the-board cuts. By across-the-board I mean a cut that affects virtually all programs equally: shortening the school year, or reducing all salaries by a set percentage. An across-the-board cut is convenient for a bureaucracy, as it impacts all political consituencies equally, and thus never requires you to worry about being accused of playing favorites. And if you depend on political processes to allocate funding, an across-the-board cut is a shrewd power stratagem, as it will cause voices of complaint from many directions, demonstrating your "need" for more money.

But an across-the-board cut is almost never the best option. If your business is losing money, you need to closely examine all aspects, look for efficiencies, and find the best places to reduce spending while maintaining your focus on results. There may be opportunities to better leverage technology or more carefully manage our purchasing of supplemental services, to give a better education without any visible cuts. But in addition, hard decisions need to be made on which programs are truly essential, which are optional, and which ones can be compromised upon or replaced with optional community-volunteer-run extracurriculars. Is it really the case that AP Physics classes are no more or less important than Introductory Jewelry Making? I'm sure I'll be ripped apart by art advocates for asking the question... but truly, in your heart, what do you really think? What is the answer that will have the most impact on our children's success in the 21st century?

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be discussing various ideas for getting an equal and better education while spending less money. Feel free to email or comment if you think you have a good reason why some idea I mention can't work in real life. Maybe some were even discussed by the board at some point, but I missed them in the hundreds of pages of PDFs online; please point this out to me if you spot such a situation. But I think it's time to seriously consider out-of-the-box ideas that can have a real positive impact on the amount of education, relative to the money we spend, that our children receive.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Easy Ways To Help My Campaign

So, you read yesterday's post, but are a bit too busy to call & volunteer? No problem-- there are plenty of easy things you can do that can significantly boost my chances of getting elected.

  • Write a letter to the Hillsboro Argus, explaining why you think I should be elected to the school board. You can send snail mail to the Hillsboro Argus, People's Forum, P.O. Box 588, Hillsboro, OR 97123; fax to 503-648-9191; or E-mail to
  • Print out my Press Release or Campaign Flyer and post it somewhere visible. It can be outside your cube at work, in the window of your business, etc.
  • Hand out my Press Release or Campaign Flyer at a meeting of some club or organization you belong to. Even though it may seem like just a few people, every bit of name awareness helps.
  • Tell your friends! Remember that these local races can be decided by a small number of votes, so simple word-of-mouth can help a lot.

As before, if you have general questions or would like to help out, either with one of the above tasks or something else I haven't thought of, please contact me: email, @erikseligman on Twitter, or call me at 503-312-1665.

Thanks for your support!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Call For Volunteers

As I continue recovering from surgery, it's time to think about doing some 'real' campaigning. Like I mentioned before, I'm trying to avoid the ugliness of campaign finance, PACs, etc, and run an old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor campaign.

But I can't do it all on my own. If you agree that I can bring new way of thinking to our school board, and would like to see me win, please consider volunteering to help out!

Here are some available volunteer positions:
  • Neighborhood Captains: This just means you are willing to print out some copies of my Press Release and go door-to-door in your neighborhood, helping to tell your neighbors why they should vote for me. Of course I'll be doing lots of door-to-door campaigning as well, but often people react better to a neighbor they know than a stranger at the door.
  • Sign Coordinator: Someone to shop around, figure out the cheapest way to get or make a bunch of lawn signs, and help get them put together. We're trying to keep the total campaign budget under $300 (otherwise we have to legally form a PAC), so the default professional sign services are probably not the best way to go.

If you would like to help out, either with one of the above tasks or something else I haven't thought of, please contact me: email, @erikseligman on Twitter, or call me at 503-312-1665.

Thanks for your help!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lars Larson today

Just a quick post today, reminding everyone that I will be on the Lars Larson show around 12:30. Be sure to tune in (750 KXL in Portland), or listen online at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Math Mutation

I'm still recovering, so thought I would just post a short blog entry today on my podcast, "Math Mutation", available at Since I have mentioned it in my campaign literature, some of you may be curious about what it is, and how it came about.

As you've probably heard by now, a podcast is a short audio program you can listen to at your computer or MP3 player. I enjoy listening to my iPod in a mode where it is shuffling music and short (<10 minute) podcasts, so I hear songs randomly interspersed with interesting tidbits on a variety of subjects. A few years ago, I realized there were great short-form podcasts on a lot of topics I find interesting: history, science, astronomy, skepticism, humor, and etymology, for example. But somehow the few math podcasts all seemed focused on directly helping students with their schoolwork.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. But this meant that the fun parts of mathematics, the crazy and wild ideas that had brought the subject to life for me & motivated my desire to major in the subject in college, were just not covered. Some examples: the geometric implications of higher dimensions, the weird consequences of defining infinity, the amazing thought processes of autistic savants, or the strange math-based composition methods of John Cage.

So, I thought I would fill this gap, and create a podcast that highlights all these areas that fascinate me. It won't directly help anyone with tonight's math homework-- but hopefully, it just might make them more interested in getting it done, and really understanding what's going on in some of the infinite worlds of mathematics.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Teaching Certificate & Education Background

I'm recovering from yesterday's surgery; everything went fine, though I'm supposed to take it easy the rest of the week.

Anyway, at Monday's Stand For Children interview there were some questions about the phase "certified teacher" in my profile. Since I expect many of you are curious about what exactly that means, I thought it would be good to clarify here.

Essentially it means just what it sounds like: I have a teaching certificate. It was issued by the State of New Jersey Department of Education in July 1991, certifying me as a Teacher of Mathematics. I earned it by minoring in education as an undergrad, under Princeton's Teacher Preparation Program. ( It involved taking various education-related classes, culminating in a semester of student teaching at a local public high school.

I should clarify that having the certificate does not mean I am currently legally licensed to teach high school: As I do not teach public school in Oregon, I never investigated the local licensing rules. I'm sure there would be various paperwork and possibly additional classes required, if I were to decide to leave Intel to teach in a public school.

However, I have kept up my interest in teaching, as you have probably seen in my background. During my summers in grad school, I taught in the summer programs of some prestigious high schools: Northfield Mt Hermon, Phillips Academy at Andover, and the American School in Switzerland. When I moved to the Hillsboro area, I taught English to immigrants in various local programs from 1995-2000. I also have taught mathematics at University of Phoenix Online, and during the past three months developed and taught an original graduate Computer Science class on "Formal Verification", my specialty at Intel. (Syllabus at And, in addition, I have been hosting and producing a free educational podcast, "Math Mutation", available at, for the past two years.

So, how does all this relate to my school board campaign? I'm sure you'll see that I'm bringing many elements from my 14 years at Intel into the central ideas of my statement: results orientation, freedom to innovate, and responsible use of technology. But it's a common criticism of people coming from the business world that they don't really understand what a teacher's life is like, and that bringing business-inspired ideas to the classroom is naive. I believe that having both a varied education background and real industry experience, I am an ideal candidate to help bring together the best ideas from both worlds, to continue Hillsboro's progress towards a truly world-class school system.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stand For Children, and Surgery Tomorrow

Just finished an interview with an organization known as Stand For Children. They had a lot of questions, but were suprisingly pleasant. I'm not sure if I have much of a chance at their endorsement (rumor mill says an opponent of mine is a member of theirs), but some of their ideas are not too far off from some of mine-- check out this speech by their CEO:

Anyway, I know it's not good to miss a board meeting at the start of the campaign, but I think I have a good excuse for missing tomorrow's meeting: I'm scheduled for surgery tomorrow. It's a relatively minor procedure, but I will be recovering the rest of the week, so expect a pretty quiet week campaign-wise. I will try to update this blog with random thoughts, but remember that I'll be on drugs most of the week. You'll have to decide whether that enhances or reduces my electablility.

Campaign Finance & Fiscal Responsibility

It has been pointed out to me that there is nothing wrong with raising money for a school board campaign: since Oregon allows a $100 tax credit for political contributions, it doesn't really cost the donors much, and is just "free money".

But where does this free money come from? In effect, it comes from state tax revenues. In this time when schools are reducing days due to lack of state money, is this really the best use for our dollars? I think if we are claiming we wish to be fiscally responsible, we should start by modeling that behavior.

It still seems to me that spending lavishly on a school board campaign is unnecessary and frivolous. In this kind of local election, I'm hoping that we can avoid the ridiculous level of advertising and spending we see in higher-level political campaigns, and use old-fashioned conversation to convince friends and neighbors of our ideas.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"You Can't Measure Teacher Performance"

When I bring up the issue of results orientation, I consistently hear one major objection: "You can't measure teacher performance. There are too many factors from the students' home lives and previous education. Thus standardized test scores cannot be used." Let me explain why I do not think this is a valid objection.

First, those of us who work in non-education industries are very familiar with being evaluated. As an engineer, each year I work on various projects that are almost impossible to compare with other engineers' work. How do they evaluate engineers? Well, my manager has to look at what he knows about the design, comparing it to previous years, and weighing effects of external factors. In addition, he has to figure out how the difficulty of my designs this year compared with those I worked on in previous years, and those other engineers are working on. It's not an exact science, and can sometimes feel unfair-- but in order for our company to continuously improve and ensure success, the evaluation must be done.

How does this relate to teaching? I think to start with, evaluating teaching has a huge advantage over evaluating engineering: a large sample size. If you look at a particular class and track, such as 9th-grade college-prep algebra, each year you typically have several dozen students taking the class, spread across several classrooms. In addition, those students tend to be roughly comparable to a similar group from the same school the year before, and to similar groups in neigboring schools. If we assume that there are a large number of students impacted by an unfair home life, let's throw out the bottom 20%, for example, of scores when looking at test scores. Of those remaining, we can further reduce the influence of outliers by using medians rather than averages, or similar techniques.

In this case, I think looking at the large set of test scores, and comparing to similar groups of students, should be quite informative. It should be supplemented with classroom observations, student opinion surveys, and other available evaluation instruments. While no evaluation system can ever be perfect, I think this would still be likely to be much more accurate than systems used routinely by successful corporations. Overall, if I have a child in the school, my bottom line is how much he or she really learned in the class. If we can measure that to a decent level of approximation, and reward and learn from the most consistently successful teachers, I think that will be a recipe for increased success.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Going Overboard?

I was surprised to see in the Argus yesterday that one of my opponents is throwing a launch party at a local bar this weekend. I also saw a group in today's St. Patrick's parade marching with school board candidate signs.

I guess I can appreciate my opponents' enthusiasm. But I have to wonder, where is all this money coming from for a school board race? Is there a 'political machine' in town trying to buy the seat? It makes me a little nervous.

As for myself, I chose the self-finance / under-$300 box on the paperwork. I won't be throwing any major parties or peppering the town with professionally-produced signs. But I believe I can bring a unique perspective to the school board, and that should be what counts.

My Campaign Statement

As a certified teacher, an engineer in Hillsboro's high-tech industry, a 14-year resident of the Hillsboro area, and father of a two-year-old child, I believe I am uniquely qualified to help steer Hillsboro schools in the right direction in these difficult times.

My qualifications include:
- Experience teaching at the middle and high school levels, including Phillips Academy, Northfield-Mt.Hermon, and the American School in Switzerland;
- College-level teaching at Portland State University and the University of Phoenix Online;
- Experience as chair of an IEEE subcommittee designing international engineering standards;
- B.A. in mathematics, with a minor in education, from Princeton University, and an M.S. in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University;
- Experience as a volunteer English teacher to immigrants to the Hillsboro area; and
- Host of a free educational podcast, "Math Mutation", rated 4.5 stars on iTunes.

Our children's education is more essential than ever. I feel the priorities of the Hillsboro school district need to be directed towards these critical goals:

1. Measurable Results. The primary goal of the school system is to teach our children. Tough choices must be based on real data about what is and is not effective to achieve this end.
2. Freedom To Innovate. Teachers need the freedom to do their jobs effectively, taking advantage of new ideas when they truly have promise. In addition, we must continue to encourage charter schools, enabling expanded opportunities for students, parents, and teachers.
3. Leverage Technology Responsibly. Living in the Silicon Forest gives us access to many technological tools. However, we need to look carefully at technology expenditures and ensure that we are not just following popular trends, but pursuing key educational goals.

For all these reasons, please vote for Erik Seligman for the Hillsboro school board. If you have any questions, please email me at I deeply appreciate your support.