Thursday, December 22, 2011

Magnet Schools For Hillsboro?

At a recent curriculum committee meeting, we were given a presentation on STEM education (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) at Hillsboro schools. I was happy to hear that there is a lot of focus on this area recently, no doubt heavily influenced by money coming in from local companies like Intel.

One especially interesting point was that some of the elementary schools are going to become STEM showcase schools, with specific focus on science and technology. This may mean that Hillsboro is finally thinking about mimicking our successful neighbors in Beaverton (, and instituting magnet schools to provide another option for students.

As you probably have inferred from 342892 of my other blog posts, I'm a big fan of offering different options for different children. It is beyond question that students vary in interests, ability, and learning style, and I think there is a lot to be said for offering many unique choices rather than cookie-cutter neighborhood schools. Especially in the sciences and math, students who are with a group of others who share their interest can advance significantly beyond their peers.

You may detect that I also have some personal feelings on this topic: way back in the ancient days of the 1980s, I was attending a New Jersey public school, and was rather annoyed that by senior year I had no more math classes to take. If I had been in a magnet school that concentrated others with similar interests in science and math from neighboring areas, we probably would have had critical mass to offer a class beyond calculus. 

As usual, we need to watch this closely. I see both notes of caution and positive developments.
  • When I asked point-blank if these STEM-focus schools would be magnet schools, district officials gave verbose and circuitous answers that left all options open, instead of a simple "yes". So it means that these schools might just be provided to selected neighborhoods, with out-of-neighborhood transfers being possible but involving lots of procedure and paperwork, rather than true magnet schools.
  • On the plus side, In the September board minutes (, I see a discussion of the "Instructional Options Plan". There is a lot of potential there, including discussion of the STEM schools as well as international and online options.
I'll keep watching the board minutes for further updates. Be sure to tell me if you have more info on these efforts!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Being Impolite

Some of you may have a few concerns about this blog.  "If you are meeting with a small group like the curriculum committee, it is appropriate for you to discuss their workings in a public blog, rather than bringing them up with the group?"  Actually, I share this concern.

In fact, before reviving this blog, I proposed at a curriculum committee meeting that we have a online group forum, so we could have followup discussions in the long period between meetings.  But the district staff brought up the fact that this committee is required to have public meetings, and any online group discussion would be considered a non-public meeting.  I suggested making the online forum public, but apparently this did not alleviate their concerns.

This is especially ironic given that one of the major topics at the meeting where I had made this proposal was the fact that our committee's only power is to approve new course proposals, and there were no new course proposals this year, so we would not actually have any issues to vote on.  But they will be nice enough to present us information on curriculum plans and listen to our (non-binding) feedback.

So, in summary:
  • A poorly-publicized monthly 1.5-hour meeting, at an inconvenient time and location on a weeknight, which nobody but committee members ever attends, is public.
  • An online forum, accessible 24/7 by anyone in the district  (and at a public library anytime by those without PCs), is non-public.
  • Our public committee has no power anyway.
Ah, the joys of bureaucracy.

I do think it's important to be able to do online research following the meetings, and discuss the topics with others to gain a better understanding.  I'm pretty sure a blog is kosher, as former (elected) school board member Hugh O'Donnell published a regular blog on school board issues while in office.    And I think this blog is certainly in the spirit of public communication that seems to be required.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

English Language Learners

At a recent HSD curriculum committee meeting, the district's director of English Language Learner, or ELL, programs gave a presentation on their plans. This is a critical issue, as we have a huge Mexican immigrant population in Hillsboro, as well as a smattering of other nationalities.

He described some foundational understandings, including some impressive-looking graphs showing that bilingual programs, especially the new "two-way bilingual" programs where English- and Spanish-speaking students learn from each other, are the most effective methods. Overall it looks like there will be a combination of structured instruction and bilingual programs.

They have clearly done a lot of analysis and planning around these programs, and it certainly seems like there is a lot of potential for improving the proficiency of our students. I very much liked the focus on measuring outcomes in order to understand the effectiveness and course-correct as needed. In addition, the speaker had a lot of credibility, as he had personally been very successful as an ELL teacher in one of our local schools with a high Latino population.

There are a few aspects of the issue that give me a bit of concern, though.

  • Generations of immigrants have succeeded through English immersion, without bilingual programs. Many of us grew up on stories of grandparents and great-grandparents who arrived from non-English-speaking countries, entered public schools in large cities, and achieved the American dream.
  • It is not an established fact that bilngual programs are the most effective. To be fair, there are many studies that do make this claim. But on the other side, there is a lot of concern that the "crutch" of the native language reduces the imperative to learn English, and does the students a long-term disservice when they enter the job market and find themselves at a huge disadvantage. In the presentation, I saw no real acknowledgement of the controversy over these methods, and the many dissenting studies. For example, from a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision (
    • After the 2000 order was entered, Arizona moved from a "bilingual education" methodology of ELL instruction to"structured English immersion" (SEI). Research on ELL instruction and findings by the State Department of Education support the view that SEI is significantly more effective than bilingual education
  • Our district has real experience with badly-implemented bilingualism. I know this due to hearing firsthand experiences of students and parents, when I knocked on hundreds of doors during my 2009 school board campaign. In particular I remember one woman who was practically in tears that her 1st-grader could not read yet, and the teacher was spending virtually all her time speaking in Spanish to a group of unruly immigrant students.

But like I said, I was impressed overall with the dedication and energy of the district's ELL director, and am cautiously optimistic about the district's direction. (I also give him bonus points for his mathematical integrity, as explained in my previous blog post.)  We just need to keep a close eye on outcomes. We also need to keep in mind that programs that work for some students may not work for others, and be ready to create alternative or charter programs for students not reached by the district's primary methods.

And as always, I would love to hear comments from readers about firsthand experience they have had in this area. Please post a comment or send an email!

Friday, November 25, 2011

"That's How We Do It In Government"

At a recent meeting of the curriculum committee, a Hillsboro School District official presented a statistic that looked something like this:

  • Mean test score: 73%
  • Margin of error: 9%
  • Adjusted score : 82%

Now, for any of us in engineering or other professions that use margins of error, this looked distinctly odd. A "margin of error" represents the imprecision in a measurement, and inherently can show uncertainty in either direction. So a 73% with a 9% margin of error represents a range of 64%-82%. Why does it make sense to add the margin of error to the mean score? The answer, when I raised the question: "That's how we do it in government."

This is a nice trick: it enables every statistic to be presented in the best possible light for promoting the success of public officials. It also is inherently insane, in my opinion, granting bonus points for the imprecision of the measurement. Normally, measurements with lower margins of error are seen as more valuable, as they give a clearer and more precise picture. But look at the scores above: if they had a better sampling and lowered their margin of error, the "adjusted score" would actually be penalized! And if they know the true scores are going down, they can game the system by aiming to increase the margin of error rather than improving student knowledge. Is this the right way measurements should be done in our education system?

I can see how this would become the custom in government: once one official does it, everyone else has to follow suit, or else their statistics would appear inferior. Imagine if the district suddenly stopped "adjusting" these scores. "Look, in Hillsboro the scores went down 9% this year!" Any elected officials involved would see their opponents demagogue the issue, and the employees who stopped the adjustments would suffer for it.

Don't take this post as a criticism of the particular official (Travis) who made this presentation though: in fact, I am commending him. In a regime where this silly "adjusted score" must be produced, the most intellectually honest policy is to do what he did: present the actual source numbers in addition to the final adjusted score, and let the viewers see the full story. I'm happy to see our district doing this.

The big lesson: any time a government body reports an "adjusted" statistic, look very closely at the adjustment.



Monday, November 21, 2011

Back To The Blogosphere

After an absence (from this blog, not from life!) of a couple of years, I've decided to start blogging again on education & related issues. Why, you might ask? Several reasons:
  • Having a daughter who just entered kindergarten (at the Carden Cascade Academy), I continue to be very interested in issues involving children and education.
  • While I'm not sure I have the stamina for another School Board election race after my hair-pulling 1% loss in 2009, I have become involved on some appointed committees: the Washington County Commission on Children and Families (WCCCF), as well as the Hillsboro School District's Citizens' Curriculum Advisory Committee (CCAC).
  • I also have continued to produce my free educational math podcast, Math Mutation, which you can find on iTunes (or at
  • Writing my thoughts helps to clarify them. On issues I don't fully understand, maybe a blog conversation can help me to figure them out. Maybe with a well-crafted response, you can even bring me around to your point of view.
  • And naturally there is the usual bloggers' ego motivation, where I imagine that out of the 304897812037 blogs on the net, mine will contain the occasional brilliant insight that will enrich the lives of all readers. It would be selfish of me to deny this service to humanity.
I can't guarantee that you'll like everything I write, though it all will make sense to me, at least for the time it takes to write a blog. Hopefully you'll occasionally find it interesting enough that you'll be motivated to post a reply. Please do so, even if it is to disagree with me. I hope to hear from you!