Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Idea #8: Management Diet

Continuing to walk around & talk to neighbors, I've heard several comments on the number of administrative employees being excessive. Now I have to admit, this is something I would need to examine more closely in order to get the hard data. But I have read many general reports of public school districts having much greater ratios of nonteaching to teaching employees than private schools, and I would be surprised to find that Hillsboro is an exception.

This is not a problem unique to schools: many companies also hired too many managers in relation to individual contributors during past good times. During the recent economic difficulties, the best companies have been re-examining this ratio, and reducing unnecessary layers of middle management or increasing the number of contributors under each manager. This is especially effective when the individual contributors are educated professionals, who can largely due their day-to-day work independently & without much direct supervision.

We should carefully examine the administration and other nonteaching employees, and benchmark in relation to other school districts and private schools. I bet we will find opportunities there for cuts that will not directly impact the teaching staff.

A Child's Right To Transfer

One important policy that I think should apply to all school boards is the following:
  • If a parent believes their child's needs are not being met by the current school, they should have an absolute right to transfer their child to another school.

But of course, in Hillsboro, the board has the power to deny any transfer. Greg Clark, candidate for Position 3, posted recently (at about his struggles to get his daughter into a school in a neighboring district. The neighboring district had the space and had no problem accepting her-- but the Hillsboro school board did not want to let her go, no doubt afraid to let go of the small bundle of money that would travel with her. That is an attitude that needs to change.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Talented And Gifted ('TAG') Children

One theme that seems to have come up quite often as I chat with neighbors is the issue of handling exceptionally intelligent, or 'TAG', children. There is a common perception that the Hillsboro school district is willing to spend lavishly on special-needs students, but believes talented students are going to do fine anyway, so should be left on their own.

But we all know what happens when a student is far above the level of their peers, and feels like their time in school is being wasted. At best it leads to boredom and disconnection from their own education, and at worst can lead to behavioral problems as the child desperately lashes out for some kind of mental stimulation.

I think we need to start with a fundamental principle: Every student whose needs are not being served by their current school is equally worthy of attention. This applies whether they are TAG, special-needs, or have other specific issues.

Once we accept this principle, I think we can look at several directions for addressing the needs of these students.
  1. Teacher Empowerment: We need to make sure teachers have the freedom to use unorthodox approaches when needed, as I have been stressing in the "Freedom to Innovate" part of my platform. As an example, I recall my experience in 5th grade, when I was getting 100% on every spelling test the teacher could throw at me. Finally she took me aside and said, "I think we both agree that I'm wasting your time with these exercises. Want to try a real challenge?" She took out her New York Times, and opened it to the crossword page. We came to an agreement that whenever the class is working on spelling exercises, my assignment was to work on the New York Times crossword puzzle, and solve 10 words per week. Not every student is as independent as I was, but for me, that was a great solution. And definitely a real challenge. I'm sure that idea wasn't in any policy manual, and that teacher would have been in trouble if some administrator came and judged my experience against officially approved teaching methods.
  2. Magnet Schools And Programs : If there is not enough demand at any individual school for a separate TAG class, especially at lower grade levels or in specific subject areas, why not create a magnet program? It can be a whole separate magnet school, or merely a program offered in a small subset of classrooms in an existing school; the key point is that students from all parts of the district can easily transfer there if eligible. Students who can demonstrate a certain level of achievement, through tests or current grades, should be eligible to transfer to the school where the magnet program is offered. Because the classes focus on high-achieving students, they can learn more advanced topics and at a faster pace, to keep these students engaged.
  3. Charter Schools: At some point, we have to face the fact that some students learn best with models simply not found in the default public schools, and will find that their current school just isn't working for them. Students need other options, and simply transferring to another nearly-identical neighborhood school in another neighborhood doesn't really solve anything. We should foster and encourage charter schools, as you have seen me mention in previous blog posts, offering real and distinct choices to our students. This way, children not currently being served have as many options as possible.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hillsboro Argus and Lawn Signs

I was pleasantly surprised to pick up yesterday's Hillsboro Argus ( , and see a big photo of myself on the front cover. Although 12 candidates participated in the debate, they chose my photo to illustrate the story. Probably a matter of luck, but it can't hurt my campaign. The text was very evenhanded, not favoring any particular candidate, and included a good quote from me on applying Intel principles to managing the school system. Their editorial page had a nice story calling all the candidates "heroes" for running, but as far as I can tell they have not chosen any particular ones to endorse.

I also finally have my lawn signs ready. If you are a supporter with a home in the Hillsboro school district, please email me ( if you would like to display a sign. Thanks for all your support!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Teaching To The Test

Often when I bring up the issue of measurable results, people respond with the dread specter of "teaching to the test". This is the idea that, in order to maximize the scores on standardized tests, teachers will start spending all their time having students memorize multiple-choice answers instead of truly understanding the material. Let me explain why I do not believe this should be as important a concern as some make it out to be.

  1. Standardized tests are the only real way to compare different classes and schools. If you have seen a better, objective measurement, please point it out to me. But it is very difficult to compare students from different environments, classes, etc. A standardized test is one of the few measurement instruments that really is the same regardless of who is administering it or where it is administered. Even those who criticize standardized tests ultimately worry if their kids score low, and breathe a sigh of relief when their kids do well. We instinctively know that if you want to find out how much somebody knows about something, you do it by asking a bunch of questions on the topic.
  2. What's wrong with wanting students to know some facts? An important part of learning is to know the basic facts. While items testable on multiple-choice tests do not cover all aspects of knowledge, they cover a minimal basis that students need in order to achieve higher-level thinking. I've rarely been impressed by the "higher" mathematical reasoning of a smart student who had never heard of the Pythagorean Theorem.
  3. Parents can help judge elements of learning that cannot be measured by a test. This is one reason why I consider an element of parental choice so crucial in a school system. The parts of learning that cannot be judged by standardized tests need to be judged by the parents, in consulatation with the students' teachers. And if they believe their child is not effectively learning, they need to be able to easily move them to a different class, method, or learning environment.
  4. "Teaching to the test" is unlikely to result in exceptional test scores anyway. How do we best learn things? Is it by being presented a bag of disconnected, multiple-choice facts and told to memorize them? Or is it by fitting the facts into a coherent narrative? Think about, for example, the Civil War. A flood of images come to mind from when I studied this: the controversies over abolitionism, the failed presidencies of Pierce and Buchanan, Lincoln's fateful decisions to hold the Union together, etc. With this vision of the whole in my head, I think I will do much better on a standardized test than somebody simply given dull rote drilling on several thousand specific questions, unless they are an exceptionally talented memorizer. So, why would a teacher choose to "teach to the test" when there are more enagaging and effective teaching methods available?
  5. When teaching to the test is done, it is often an act of desperation or protest. I have heard of cases where the class lessons are thrown out to just practice tests over and over. But I largely view this as an act of either desperation, where teachers in the worst-performing schools have not been given the tools to succeed and want to show they are doing something, or of protest, where they do it so they can say "see what you're making me do" as a criticism of the tests. What I haven't heard much about is quality schools where the students achieve high test scores solely due to their strategy of teaching to the test.

I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on these issues as well.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Idea #7: More Charter Schools

This is one idea I've forgotten to include simply because it was so obvious. Previously I discussed online charter schools, which have especially low costs due to their unique education model. But what about "regular" charter schools? If you're not familiar with the concept, you can read lots of details at But basically, a charter school is an independently-run school (like a private school) that, based on certain agreements with the board, becomes part of the public school system, enabling parents who could not otherwise afford private schools to take advantage of alternative educational models. And since attendance at charter schools is 100% by free choice, a charter school that does not offer quality education will automatically be shut down as the students and parents "vote with their feet", unlike traditional public schools. A robust system of charter schools in Hillsboro would provide real choices for families not currently being served by the neighborhood schools.

So, charter schools may be nice, but why would they save money? As you may have heard, a district is only required to give charter schools 80% of its per-student funding for each student that attends. But it's actually even less than that: if you look closely at the budget, various parts of it are in special buckets that "don't really count" as per-student spending, by some judgements. (Construction bond repayment, etc.) So if you actually look at the total district expenditure divided by the total number of students, charter schools receive significantly less than 80% of what the district spends per-student. This means that the more students in charter schools, the more the district saves. Because they only gain money to the extent that voluntary customers choose their schools, charter schools have much greater incentive than traditional public schools to find efficiencies and increase quality at lower cost.

Of course, the fewer students in the traditional non-charter schools would mean that there might be some teacher layoffs-- but the loss of demand for teachers in public schools would be balanced by increased demand for teachers in the charter schools, so for each teaching job lost, one would likely be created. Experienced teachers should easily remain employed, and the loss of students to charter schools might well be the wake-up call the current schools need to improve their own efficiency and quality.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Charter School For Hillsboro?

Last night I attended the board hearing on the proposal for a new Knova Learning charter school in Hillsboro. Their proposal can be found here:

I thought they made an excellent presentation, though I was disappointed that they showed up late. The board quizzed them on some issues I consider important (how will you handle English language learners?), and others I would label as rather unimportant (how is it possible to get a quality education from uncertified teachers?). They seemed very skeptical that a charter school could deliver good educational results with lower cost-per-student than the traditional schools. But I think the overall questioning exhibited an emphasis on process orientation rather than results orientation, and missed the main point:

Attendance at the charter school will be entirely voluntary.

So if they fail to deliver, the parents will vote with their feet, and the school will fail. Inherently, a charter school only receives money in proportion to the students it can attract. So if the board is worried that they won't be as successful in their educational model as the current public schools, why not let them try? It is up to the individual parents to learn about the school, and actively make the choice to send their children. The internal details are interesting, but should not be the criteria for allowing or disallowing the chartering of the school.

In my opinion, the main requirements to open a charter school should be:
  1. A basic level of sincerity and competency, showing they have the means, intention, and ability to run a school.
  2. The ability to attract parents willing to try the school.
  3. Transparency of results: an honest system for reporting the same measurable results by which public schools are judged.
In my chats with various neighbors, I have found some who are perfectly happy with our current schools-- and some who are furious at the way their local schools are run. The latter group is eager for additional charter school options, and we need to do all we can to open up more choices for them.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Voters' Pamphet, and Fiscal Responsibility

Washington County has published the voters' pamphlets online:

I see that my opponents have lined up numerous members of the local education establishment to supply endorsements. Well, given the generally mediocre educational ranking of the Hillsboro school district, I think being an outsider candidate should be considered a virtue in this race. It's time for some change on the school board, and real focus on my key points: results orientation, freedom of innovation, and responsible use of technology.

It's interesting to see that both my opponents claim to be in favor of "fiscal responsibility". But read the fine print: Nina Olson-Carlson writes that we should "...advocate for more dependable ways to stably fund our schools", and Janeen Sollman considers it a major selling point that she "stands up for adequate school funding in Salem". While both of these sound like fine sentiments, in practice they are both saying that they believe the solution to our schools' problems is more taxes. I believe that this is not the economy in which to raise taxes, and there are better ways to be fiscally responsible.

As far as I can tell, I'm the only candidate advocating that our school district face the economy in the same way as local businesses: look for places to responsibly cut spending without hurting the quality of education. Such opportunities are abundant, if we allow a bit of out-of-the-box thinking. The various ideas I've mentioned so far in my blog (read the many posts below if you need to catch up) are probably just the tip of the iceberg. I'd love to hear more ideas from you.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Idea #6: Selected Online Classes

Rather than a full Connections Academy, as I suggested in Idea #2, why not start gradually introducing online classes to the district? In other words, offer some classes in online form, and enable students from any district school to enroll in them, for the same types of credits as standard classes. They can attend online from the local school library or their own homes.

Why would this save the district money? Well, the Oregon Connections Academy has shown that online instruction can handle much larger ratios, up to 50-1. This isn't a surprise to me: much of a typical teacher's energy is taken up by classroom management. Without that issue, they are able to concentrate on the teaching itself. So by offering some proportion of its classes in online form, the district can gradually increase capacity without needing to hire additional teachers.

There are further benefits to this idea as well. If an elective class is rarely offered at any individual school due to low demand, it might be possible to offer it district-wide in online form if there is enough collective demand. And similarly, if an upper-level class is lightly attended at each school, perhaps the classes can be consolidated online, freeing up some teaching resources for other purposes. This could help improve the student/teacher ratio in the more popular 'live' classes.

And, there is the additional benefit that some students who may struggle in standard classes are especially suited for this form of education. In particular, online communication has sometimes been found to be very helpful for people with autistic spectrum disorders.

Some Oregon districts have already been taking steps in this area. This is one trend that I believe we should fully embrace, both for the cost savings and the potential educational benefits.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Curse Of The Calculator

I've been having many discussions with neighbors about their concerns for Hillsboro schools. One interesting theme that came up was the problem of over-reliance on calculators when teaching arithmetic.

While there is certainly a place for calculators in some situations, I think it is vital that students first learn how to do old-fashioned calculations with a pencil and paper. This is often derided as "drill and kill", but is what gives people a basic intuition of how to deal with numbers. Sure, technically it's the same if you remember 2+3=5 from repeating a lot of hand calculations, or if you type 2 and 3 into a magical black box and get 5-- but the thought process is a lot different. When you do it by hand, you can't help but notice patterns and gain an inherent feel for the numbers. If all you do is mechanically type them in and always get a guaranteed answer, you may lose even your basic impulses of curiosity about what's happening. In one of my podcasts, I illustrated this issue with a story about a run-in I had with an obviously machine-dependent teenager:

Recently I was at a local fast food restaurant, and I saw a burger that looked good for $1.98. I ordered two of the burgers, plus a soda which was 99 cents, and the cashier told me the total was 6.93. I looked at her, confused, and tried to reason with her. "You see that burger I ordered is about 2 dollars? And I got two of them, plus a one dollar soda. Shouldn't the total be around 5 dollars?" She was a bit annoyed. "So, you're not going to pay the amount displayed on the register?" I valiantly tried one more time to reason with her."Look, 2 + 2 + 1 equals 5. So the total should be close to 5 dollars. Something is wrong here." She gave up and went back to get the manager. I could overhear her speaking to him, though she didn't realize it. "An irate customer up front is refusing to pay for his meal." Needless to say, after the manager finally sorted things out, it turned out she had rung me up for an extra burger.

I'm glad to see that a backlash is developing against the emphasis on calculators these days, both in neighborhood chats and online. While I love technology, it has its proper time and place, and we cannot allow a dependence on cool gizmos to replace our kids' basic skills.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Idea #5: Sensible Architecture

This point was brought up by a neighbor chatting about the campaign, and also makes a lot of sense to me.

If you look around at the school buildings in Hillsboro, you will likely be impressed with many of them. There are unique designs and architectural touches to each one, and some are quite beautiful. But why has our school district devoted so many resources to its buildings?

Compare to how Intel, one of the most successful and profitable businesses in Oregon, designs its facilities. If you drive by the buildings, you will be rather unimpressed-- they all look like large boxes. On the inside, you will find that many of them seem like exact copies of each other. This isn't by coincidence: the company follows a "copy exactly" methodology, where they make minimal variations to a standard design as they build new facilities.

I see no reason why the school district should be any different. Settle on a standard, simple, modular design and do not waste time or resources changing it, except to the degree absolutely necessary based on local land contours, regulations, or similar issues. Resources that should be going to education should not be spent on making buildings aesthetically pleasing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Idea #4: Free The Service Districts

Hopefully, most of you read the fine print (or the date) on my proposal from yesterday ( Now let's get back to some real ideas for improving the cost-effectiveness of our education system. Here's one I heard in a random chat that sounds quite sensible to me.

In Oregon, many supplemental services for schools such as speech therapy, special ed, etc., are provided by ESDs, or Education Service Districts. These districts are each tied to a specific set of school districts, with a monopoly on services for their selected schools, and centrally funded. As we all know with monopolies, this means they have little incentive to cut costs or improve their service.

Why not give the money to the school districts, rather than the ESDs? We could then allow each school district to shop around, and have a choice of ESDs to purchase services from. The healthy competition would increase the business for the more efficient service providers, and force the others to examine their operating procedures to catch up.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Another Cost-Saving & Education-Improving Idea

How many times have we seen this situation in a classroom: the teacher is in the middle of a brilliant lesson, the students are all enraptured, education is flowering in the truest sense, and suddenly it is all ruined. A hand is raised in the middle of the room, begging, "Can I have a bathroom pass?"

Attempts to solve this problem by limiting availability of these passes, or requiring good behavior from students, simply fail to address the root. Let me ask the obvious question: Why are there bathrooms in our schools at all? Every bathroom in the Hillsboro school system should have all its toilets and sinks removed, and the rooms should be re-purposed as classrooms. Think about the benefits:
  • Schools will gain additional classrooms in what is now wasted space, increasing capacity.
  • Custodial costs will go down, as janitors have significantly fewer cleaning tasks.
  • Students will learn the valuable techniques of self-control.

It's about time we leave the self-indulgent school designs of the 20th century behind, and fully utilize our schools' spaces for their intended purpose, education.

(Non-April-Fools ideas will resume tomorrow...)