Friday, December 7, 2012

Hillsboro's Hostages

Recently the Hillsboro School Board denied a request by the residents of South Cooper Mountain to transfer their neighborhood from the Hillsboro to the Beaverton school district. The first step is for Hillsboro to approve-- but our school board refused.      It looks to me like this was clearly a decision that was not in the best interests of the children.

Why would it make sense to transfer this neighborhood into the Beaverton school district?

  • Their main argument was simple geography: while they were in the Hillsboro district for historical reasons, they sit on the border of the Beaverton district, and Beaverton schools are much closer. The closest elementary and middle schools in Beaverton are .5 and 3.7 miles away, while the correponding distances for Hillsboro are 3 and 9 miles. And Beaverton is planning a new high school in the area, while the nearest Hillsboro high school is 10 miles away.
  • Due to these distances, as part of the Beaverton district, many students would be able to walk or bike to school, while as part of Hillsboro they would depend completely on buses. Aren't we supposed to be encouraging physical activity in students these days?
  • Beaverton is generally considered a much better school district overall. Shouldn't every parent have a right to demand the best possible education for their children from among available options?
  • Beaverton also offers many opportunities through its "learning options" program that simply aren't available in Hillsboro: magnet schools with Arts, International, and STEM foci, and two charter schools specializing in foreign language immersion.
  • Every homeowner in the neigborhood has signed on to this request.
Hillsboro's arguments against this change do not seem very impressive. Reading the Argus article  on the vote, we see the following counter-arguments from the district: Hillsboro would lose the $5.7 million in state funding that would move to Beaverton with the students. But board member Monte Akers, one of the few not to vote against the Cooper Mountatin residents, pointed out that each student currently costs the district slightly more than the state funding received, so the net effect on Hillsboro's budget would be negligible.
Hillsboro is growing and is capable of accomodating the neighborhood. But I don't see why this is an argument against the transfer-- certainly it is also capable of not accomodating the neighborhood, if that's what is best for the students. And if the district population isn't growing, won't the removal of some students help by slowing down the increase?
This would "hurt" the closest elementary school, Groner, which would have fewer students. Again, why is this a compelling reason to fail to provide the best education possible for each student?
Worry about the precedent this would set. In the words of board member Carolyn Ortmann, "You don't start whittling away the district". 
The last argument is what I find most disturbing. Clearly the board is afraid that if the precedent is set, other boundary regions who are not being well-served by Hillsboro's education system will also look for opportunities to flee the district. My answer to this is: what matters more, the power and money of Hillsboro's school district, or the actual education of children? The board's primary goal should be to provide the best possible education for every child in the district. If this goal is best served for certain students by allowing them to be educated in another district, they should support that. And if they don't, then it is clear that the board and administration consider their personal empire more important than the children they claim to serve. 
If you believe the Hillsboro school board and administration should consider children's education their top priority, call the Hillsboro School District at 503-844-1500 and email , and demand that board members Ortmann, Canas, Sollman, Strelchun, and Lantz change their votes on the South Cooper Mountain issue. And if they refuse, remember this when board members Ortmann, Sollman, and Lantz come up for re-election this May.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Courage To Act

I'm glad to see the minutes of the Hillsboro School District Curriculum Committee are now being published. But, as often happens with such things, I think some of the most interesting sub-discussions were not captured, though the details in the minutes are perfectly accurate.

Thinking about the items that led to extended discussion at the meeting, I'm struck by a common theme that seemed to run through a few:
  • One of the main duties of the committee is to review in advance any course proposal from an individual school, after review by another layer of internal committees, to ensure that new courses offered can be immediately implemented implemented district-wide.
  • There is a need for new texts that implement the common core standards, which will be tested on starting this spring-- but no compliant textbooks have been identified and adopted.
  • Many nearby districts have systems that allow parents to view their children's grades online-- but Hillsboro has been delayed for over a year in implementing such a system, with promises that it will come as part of a major upcoming IT overhaul.
It looks to me like in each of these cases, we may be suffering due to the district being of cumbersome size (it is the 4th largest in Oregon), and too many decisions being controlled from the top level. When a decision must be made for the entire district, it's only natural that there is lots of extra review and fear to avoid the possibility of doing it wrong. This is a common problem in industry as well-- large organizations create an inherent fear of failure in every action, and tend to inhibit the courage needed to proceed with good ideas.

But in the corporate world, many good solutions have been identified for this problem: look, for example, at the “Lean” philosophy being used by many large organizations.   One of the key teachings there is to try new ideas on a small scale, and then spread the learning wider when successful. So, for example, to address the issues discussed above, why can't we do the following?:
  • When a new course is proposed, allow an individual school to implement it for one year on a trial basis upon approval by the local dept head & principal. Use the experience and results to decide whether to make it an ongoing offering and spread throughout the district.
  • Allow individual schools to provisionally adopt a textbook for a small set of classes, working with the textbook company to provide a small set of its books at low cost on a trial basis.
  • Allow individual schools to use secure open-source networking solutions (or low-cost secure messaging software) to implement grade-sharing systems at the individual level.

Does every educational activity in the district really need to be approved through the central administration? Or could HSD become more nimble and successful by viewing itself as a collection of individual schools, and providing more freedom to each one to try new ideas?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New Directions For Hillsboro's Curriculum Committee

Recently I attended the first meeting of the Hillsboro School District Curriculum Committee for this school year.  (Well, actually there was a previous meeting, but it wasn't on the district calendar & they notified me at a bad email address, and less than half the committee attended, so I'm not counting it.)  It looks like there will be some positive changes on the committee.

As you may have gathered from my earlier blog posts, last year the committee's main activities consisted of watching presentations from district officials on various aspects of the curriculum.   While it was educational, there was a slight issue... in that we didn't actually DO anything.   We didn't present to anyone, generate written reports (unless you count this blog), or hold a vote on any issue. 

At this meeting, Kathi Robinson, the district official who runs the committee,  described some areas where we might contribute:
  • Reviewing the massive Common Core documents & producing simple explanations for parents
  • Investigating technology opportunities such as open source texts & "bring your own device"

At the next meeting, the plan is to divide us into subcommittees and discuss these areas further.   I'm a little nervous about the fact that they are aiming for all work to be done onsite at the 1.5 hour committee meetings (apparently some parents are too busy for homework)... But it seems like a good direction for the committee compared to last year!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Support the Commissions on Children and Families

This blog has been generally focused on school issues, but I've received some questions recently about another group of which I'm a member, the Washington County Commission on Children and Families (CCF for short).  The CCF is a group of local citizens appointed by the Board of County Commissioners (the governing body of each county), as part of a system of commissions in each of the counties of Oregon, helping to oversee and advise various programs related to early childhood education & readiness for school, child health care, abuse prevention, positive youth development, etc.

The main reason you haven't seen much here is that for the last year, the CCF has been spending most of its time staring at a Sword of Damocles over its head, the new H.B. 4165.    This bill replaces the system of local commissions with... get ready... ANOTHER system of boards, with a different name!   Amazing what a legislature can achieve when they put their minds to it.    OK, the new bill has lots of other stuff in it, but I think this is a reasonable summary of the CCF-related portions.    And naturally, it will enable the current governor and legislators to take credit for anything positive the "new" system does.

This new Early Learning System is based on a set of local Accountability Hubs (not called that anymore, the name has morphed a few times, but I've lost track), which are less rigidly defined than the CCFs, but will similarly be chartered to engage early learning programs in the local communities. It will be up to the state Early Learning Council to appoint these local hubs, which may take many different forms.

An obvious question is: why shouldn't the CCFs apply to become the hubs of the new local system, and continue in existence in roughly the same form they are now? It seems to me that this makes a lot of sense: why destroy a successful system of local oversight that is currently working?    The Washington County CCF has applied to become one of these local hubs, possibly merging with the Columbia County CCF in the process.

I see three main reasons to support the CCF:   
  • Local Control: The biggest danger of social programs is seeing the money disappear into a huge state bureaucracy, never to be seen again. Bodies like the CCFs, composed of community volunteers close to the ground appointed by each county commission, help to ensure that the programs really will be directed to help the local community. 
  • Leveraged Funding:   There is a lot of money extracted from us in taxes that goes to higher levels of government, and then is designated to be dribbled back to us in various programs. The CCF has been very effective at applying for and gaining these grants, bringing the money that was taken from the community back to us in a positive way. The CCF has also been good about partnering with private charities and other non-government entities, to help increase the overall effectiveness. 
  • Baseline Social Programs : It's pretty clear that in Oregon, a solid majority of the voting public agrees that we expect some level of a social safety net to be provided by the government.   With local control and oversight, it's much easier to ensure that this safety net is provided in a transparent way, and that the programs really do help those for whom they have been designed.  

Now of course, all is not perfect: it looks to me like sometimes the CCF has a hard time making choices and prioritizing programs when funding is limited, and I think we need to work on coming up with solid, quantitative measures of success for each program the CCF oversees. But overall, as a body for overseeing these local programs, it looks to me like the CCF is far superior to the alternatives.

(BTW-- if you're on Facebook, be sure to join the Washington County CCF fan page .)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Online Education & Volunteer Opportunities

There are exciting things happening in Hillsboro education this year-- most specifically, the opening of the new Hillsboro Online Academy. This is a magnet high school open to any student in the Hillsboro district who wants to experience the new online model of education, which has proven successful at institutions such as the Connections Academy . Since it's the first year, they are starting out small, with about 80 students, four 50%-time teachers, and a 50%-time principal.

At the links for the schools above, you can find lots of information on the many benefits of online education. But I've recently met a couple of times with Linda Harrington, the principal of the new online academy, to discuss another opportunity that I think online education brings to the table: the ability for community volunteers to act as teaching assistants. Why is this more of an opportunity for online schools than for traditional ones? The key point is that online education is inherently asynchronous: in other words, the students, teachers, and teaching assistants do not need to be online at the same time, as much classwork and discussion can happen on message boards.

For people like me, I think this can make a big difference in the ability to help out in the schools. I typically mess around online for an hour or so in my pajamas at bedtime, with my laptop PC next to my bed. Instead of slaying digital dragons & catching up with 20 Scrabble games, could I be using this time more productively? Volunteering in a physical school or live tutoring session in this time slot would be relatively difficult. But online, I can log onto a class message board, answer student questions, help grade papers, or help in other ways. I have some experience of this teaching-in-my-jammies before: I taught a couple of quarters of Algebra I for the University of Phoenix online. So I know from experience that this can really work.

Anyway, I'm continuing my discussions with Linda, and we are going to work together (along with some Intel education people) on setting up a pilot program for online volunteers to help with the academy. If you're a local professional in the community who might be interested in this volunteer opportunity, be sure to send me an email!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Two Words Missing From School Budget Debates

The school budget crisis has been a consistent theme in the local newspapers over the past few months.   But I notice two words conspicuously missing from this debate:   Charter Schools.   Why is this concept relevant to the budget?     Let's look at the example of the Hillsboro School District, where I live.   Here are some interesting facts about City View, Hillsboro's one charter school:
  • City View spends only about $4774 per student, compared to the district's overall spending of about $11,507 per student ($240,752,767 budget / 20923 students, in the proposed budget posted online).
  • City View has a waiting list of 147 students.
  • City View asked for permission to grow its capacity by 200, but this request was refused by the school board in 2010. In 2011 the board allowed a slight expansion-- by only 16 students.
So we have a successful public school that spends less than half per student compared to our traditional schools, and is willing to accommodate hundreds more students--  but has been rebuffed and suppressed by our school board.   Does this make sense, in a time when we are repeatedly told that we are in a budget crisis?    (And here I haven't even mentioned the educational merits of charter schools, which are not the focus of this post, though evident enough in the size of City View's waiting list.   How many non-charters anywhere in Oregon have a waiting list of 147 students?   If you're curious for more general info on charter schools, look here  or here.) 
In particular, if they are serious about their long-term budget concerns, I call upon the Hillsboro School Board to immediately grant City View permission to double in size, and to make a pubic announcement inviting further proposals for charter schools.   If you are a parent in Hillsboro who is concerned about the budget, please call the district offices at 503-844-1500, or email the board chair, and demand that they take these actions.

It's also important to recognize that City View is not some unique outlier among charter schools: long waiting lists, budgets that are a fraction of the traditional schools' budgets, and enrollment caps enforced by local school boards are common characteristics of charter schools throughout the state.     If you are in another district, chances are that your own local school board is unnecessarily limiting charter schools in order to protect the union-dominated and expensive traditional public schools-- even as they cry about their lack of budget.   So regardless of what area you live in, you should call or email your local school board and demand that they create real long-term savings by expanding charter school opportunities for the children of your district.

[I have also sent a Letter to the Editor based on this post to the Hillsboro Argus.  Waiting to see if they print it...]

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Careful Decision

As you may recall from an earlier post,  I had expressed some apprehension that our district might soon be adopting math texts without sufficient information for such an important decision.  I'm pleased to report that this did not actually happen-- the teachers' committee decided to put the decision on hold until October.   From the district's update on the topic, we can see that they stated three main reasons:
  • Teachers on the Team were not convinced that the curriculum under review will sufficiently support teachers and students under the newly adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Waiting until th efall will allow publishers to complete various updates for the team to consider.
  • The Oregon Department of Education has not yet completed its identification of approved math materials under the CCSS—the expected completion date is October 2012.
  • The team would prefer to delay the expenditure of such a large sum of money until the curriculum providers have a more comprehensive product.
While waiting to for these missing pieces of information, the district will discuss alternate plans, and may choose to emphasize some additional training on the core standards rather than rushing into a district-wide textbook adoption.
I'll continue to watch this process, and post an update here when more information is available.   I'm glad to see that our district was not dazzled by textbook companies' marketing materials, and is treating the math curriculum with the seriousness it deserves.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Simple And Sensible Reform

At last week's Hillsboro School Board work session, one of the budget committee members made an interesting suggestion. It only occupied about 30 seconds of the discussion-- but is so eminently sensible, I thought I should highlight it here.

The idea was that we could save money on physical education classes, by making these classes optional for student athletes, giving them PE credit directly for their team sports.   I was actually surprised during my school board campaign back in 2009 when I read the local high school catalogs, and found that even varsity athletics doesn't earn a PE credit. This is a great idea for a number of reasons.
  • If you have ever known any students who are on athletic teams, you know that between practices and games, they get many more hours of exercise through these activities than they ever could in PE class.
  • If you have ever been in a public high school PE class, you know also that the level of actual exercise in these classes is pretty minimal anyway. In fact, judging by the classes from my H.S. days in the 80s, I would bet that the chess team gets more exercise walking to the bus for away tournaments than they do in PE class. (Don't worry, I'm not suggesting PE credit for the chess team, just making a point!)
  • Due to the incredible time commitment of high school athletics, taking them away on evenings and weekends when other students would be working on homework, the student athletes could definitely use an extra free study period. And they deserve it, for all the hard work they put in on the field. This would also provide an opportunity for them to fit in extra classes, if they are especially ambitious.
Superintendent Scott said he would look into this issue during the budget discussion. But I think this goes beyond budget: it's simple common sense. Even if the savings are minimal, why should student athletes be forced into busy-work PE classes when there are better educational uses of their time?   Although I'm sure the gym teachers will be opposed for obvious reasons, I can't see any sensible arguments against it.   The district should enact this reform as soon as posisble, regardless of the actual significance of the budget impact.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Adventures In Textbook Adoption

The Hillsboro School District is near the end of a long 2-year curriculum adoption process, deciding on the new textbooks and curriculum for middle school mathematics. They have shared the process with the curriculum committee & given us a chance to review the texts, though we only get to comment and vote after the committee of teachers has narrowed down the choice to one selected text. As with the Bridges K-5 curriculum I mentioned in my last entry, these texts seem very lively and activity-oriented: at first glance, I think the district has done very well in identifying textbook candidates that cover the material while making math fun as well. However, as usual, I do have a couple of concerns.

First, I am a bit surprised that despite many hours of meetings over the course of two years, almost none of those voting for the curriculum will have actually read the textbooks cover to cover.   Why is this the case?   Reading the agenda of a curriculum committee meeting, I saw that we would have the opportunity to view the new middle school math textbooks. I emailed back asking about the procedure for signing one out to review, and was told there are no spare copies for this purpose. Even the district teachers on the committee that makes the actual decision are not given copies to check out: they just review them in the room, after having been given marketing presentations by each of the providers. I guess the theory is that the state-level body that approves the curriculum has already reviewed the books in more detail, and the district should trust that they have done their job.

But what worries me the most is that the district is selecting a totally new math program, from top to bottom-- and implementing it in all the schools at once. Wouldn't it be a little less risky to do some kind of phased adoption, trying out in one school and seeing its effect on math achievement in comparison to the current programs? Or even to select different texts in different schools, and compare them? There were some concerns about curriculum training costs, or delays in syncing to the new state-level common core standard-- but has math really changed that much? We have intelligent, educated teachers: I'm sure they could adapt to the curriculum differences by studying the teachers' editions of the new texts, assuming they have a solid understanding of the core math in the first place.

Fundamentally, this leads back to one of the common themes you have seen in this blog: my preference for decentralization and local control. Why can't each school have the "freedom to innovate", and make its own choice from among the finalist texts? I don't see a fundamental reason why a single text must be chosen district-wide. (There may be some concerns about students who move between schools, but this is a rare situation, and is faced anyway when kids transfer from other districts.) With different schools independently deciding, we would get to see how the different texts work in practice, and have a better chance to optimize based on real learning in the classroom environment.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Royal Bridges To Mathematics

At the Hillsboro school district’s March curriculum committee meeting, we were introduced to the new “Bridges” math program recently introduced for the elementary grades.   The teachers were very enthusiastic, reporting that for the first time, students in elementary grades actually looked forward to math lessons, and there has been an explosion in students claiming math as their favorite subject!   It sounds pretty impressive.  The district is now working on choosing a successor program for middle grades, to be discussed more in upcoming meetings.
Asking for concrete examples of lessons, I was pleasantly surprised.   The one they showed me involved challenging students to make as many different rectangular arrangements of a fixed number of paper squares as possible, using the variety of possible shapes to illustrate the different ways of factoring numbers, and leading to the concept of prime factors.   Through active manipulation of physical objects, they were learning real concepts.  If most of the lessons are like this, there could be some real potential here.
There are a few notes of caution, however.   Bridges advocates do claim anecdotally that the students are learning real math, but “it will be a few years” before the results show up in test scores.   I’m a little nervous that, while not very exciting, the repetitive nature of traditional math worksheets and similar exercises plays a critical role in building an inherent “number sense”.   The cumulative nature of math education, where each level builds on what was learned before, means that if the foundations are shaky, students are potentially put at a huge disadvantage later on.  
Looking online, it’s not too hard to find strident Bridges skeptics, such as “Mathematically Sound Foundations”  and the What Works Clearinghouse, which includes a critique of the various pro-Bridges studies.   Mathematics education also has a poor history of latching on to various fads, such as the New Math of the 60s (see my podcast on the topic) and the New New Math of the 90s.   It seems like every few years, someone wants to find a new miracle in math teaching that will eliminate the need for focused, disciplined study—and these new methods repeatedly fall short.   We seem to be constantly relearning the lesson Euclid taught Ptolemy, that “there is no royal road to geometry”.   Traditional methods of teaching math may not seem cutting-edge or romantic, but might truly be the most effective methods long-term.
Of course, this is not to disparage Bridges—if this new approach turns out to really work, and to really teach the core concepts as well as being fun, it may very well represent real progress in early math education.  But we need to closely watch the progress of test scores and other measures of math achievement in our district, and be prepared to do an about-face if it turns out that Bridges is not coupling its fun methods with truly solid foundations. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Death Of Homework?

As you may recall from my last entry, a vocal group of parents is very angry about the Hillsboro School District's recent grading reforms.  The most controversial part of these is the move to a complete reliance on tests, rather than homework, for grading.   The new policy is summarized here :

In June of 2011, IK-AR (Administrative Rule) was revised and is the tool to implement the new grading policy.  
2010-2011: Implement balanced grading
2011-2012: Academic Practice (ie: formative=homework) grades may count for a maximum of 10% of the grade. Academic Practice is a fancier way of saying homework, but is referenced by the district also as a "formative" assessment.
Academic Achievement (ie: summative =tests, projects, term papers, etc.) must count for a minimum of 90% of the grade. Academic Achievement is also known as "summative" assessments.
"Nonacademic behaviors" (ie: late work) that could affect grade are not to exceed 10% of the grade
2012-2013: Academic Achievement (ie: summative=tests, projects, etc.) must count for 100% of the grade

The key point, other than the silly "balanced grading" aspect, which I discussed last week, is that regular homework is considered a "nonacademic behavior", and this cannot be considered in grading.     This idea has some merit to it, in certain cases.  For example, I was always annoyed in high school math class by the fact that after I "got it", I had to do hours of tedious busy-work assigned by my teachers in order to get a decent grade.  And there are some merits to have a grade based directly on student knowledge without confusion from other factors.  (Though this role is already played by standardized tests.)

The biggest problem is that this grading reform ignores a very important fact:  there is a lot of learning that gradually sinks in after repeated practice.    A huge number of students, including the ones most at risk of failure, do not have the emotional and intellectual maturity to decide when they do and don't need to do homework.   Some supporters of this policy might argue that treating homework as a behavioral item will not eliminate it, just change the form of the incentives for doing it.   I think the best way to counter this argument is with an anecdote from when I was tutoring inner-city African-American kids in Pittsburgh, and a junior high student asked me for help.

Student:   "I'm failing math, can you help me?"
Me:  "Sure, show me your most recent homework assignment & we'll take a look."
[Student hands me the assignment.  I am totally baffled, as the answers seem like random numbers with absolutely no relation to the questions.]
Me, in confusion:  "How did you arrive at the answer for number 1?"
Student:  "Oh, I just put anything there, because the teacher just checks off whether we did it."
Me:  "Ummm... have you ever thought about actually trying to do your homework for real?"
Student, annoyed:  "That would be dumb, it doesn't count towards our grade!"
Me:  "I think I may know why you are failing math."

This strikes me as the scariest aspect of the new policy:  it puts a level of responsibility on the students that many are simply not ready for, and many will take the easy way out, putting in a symbolic job on homework to avoid disciplinary action, while not spending the time and effort to actually understand it.   In short, this policy sounds like it was designed from an ivory tower without understanding how it would affect actual children.   Real children will be happy to blow off their homework and spend more time on their X-Box, and will deny the connection between this behavior and their eventual low test scores. 

There are plans for a large group of parents to appear at the upcoming school board meeting to protest the policy, and I hope they succeed in producing a repeal.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dialing Hillsboro's Education Up To 11

After noticing that a new parent group has sprung up to protest recent changes to Hillsboro's grading policies, I began taking a look at what these policies are. The first policy pointed out to me was "balanced grading". Here's how it is described on the district website

This is not an indictment of how grades have typically been formulated and issued for years, but traditional grading practices have included both academic achievement and behavioral information. A 'traditional' grading scale is comprised of scores using a 100-point scale:
90-100 = A
80-89 = B
70-79 = C
60-69 = D
59 and below = F

In this scale, there are 59 ways to get an F and only 10 ways to get an A. ...

The first phase of implementation for the revised policy is to ensure all teachers are using balanced grading scales. This change will ensure that academic achievement is accurate and consistent throughout the district. A balanced grading scale is one where there are an equal number of points in each grading category: A, B, C, D, F.

While reading this, I couldn't help being reminded of a scene from the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, where the intellectually-challenged rock star describes his new guitar. "...and the volume goes up to 11!"  The narrator replies,  "Couldn't they have just made 10 louder?"   The perplexed star answers, "But this one goes to 11!"   The key insight that the musician seemed to miss was that changing how you label something doesn't change the underlying property you are labelling.

As I see it, the fairness of grades in any classroom is almost completely determined by the fairness and judgement of the teacher. Did Hillsboro previously have an epidemic of students unfairly failed due to 0s averaged into their grades? If a teacher notices the numbers trending oddly low or high for their class, haven't they always had the freedom to adjust the curve according to their judgement? And haven't they assigned weights properly to homework and tests so that grades reach reasonable levels at the end of each quarter? I sure hope so.

Requiring that teachers adjust their scales such that the A/B/C/D/F are "balanced" seems like a superficial reform that does not really solve any core problem.  If some teachers are giving too many low/high grades, or there is some class where grades are distinctly uncorrelated with other measures of achievement, that is something worth addressing. I would be quite surprised to find a teacher to be blindly following the numbers of the traditional system and excessively failing students as a result.

Claiming that it is "unfair" for F to cover half the grading scale also seems to miss another key point of the classical grading scale:  in order to pass a class, there is a general expectation that the student has absorbed at least half the material.    It is completely fair to have some minimal standard, and consider students to be failing if they cannot meet that standard.

But this "balanced grading" reform strikes me as a silly and annoying micromanagement of teachers by distant bureaucrats. If a teacher ultimately grades fairly and the students are determined to be learning successfully, does it really matter what numbers they used in their day-to-day scoring? I'm pretty sure this "balanced" system will be ultimately neutral in terms of student learning, but if I were teaching in the district, this kind of top-down interference in a trivial matter would certainly not help my morale.

(By the way-- there are other aspects of the grading reforms that are inspiring more serious opposition; I'll talk about those in a future blog post.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Poor Strategy

The February 6th HSD Curriculum Committee meeting focused on the district's Strategic Plan, available at this link.
Sadly, it looks like the issue of the radical, hateful, and racist teaching of Critical Race Theory (discussed in my last blog post) is more pervasive than I thought. Page 18 of this strategic plan contains the action item "Continue education and awareness training through Pacific Educational Group..." And to make sure no teachers remain un-brainwashed, the same page requires the schools to create a "tracking system of the participation rates for equity focused professional development".

What is the Pacific Educational Group? Basically, they are a consulting group that has been providing "diversity education" to school districts around the country-- centered on the most radical, divisive teachings of Critical Race Theory. An informative article online summarizes their beliefs better than I can:

Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group has become a rich man by preaching racism, hate, and scapegoating. School systems hire him for hundreds of thousands of dollars to insult and scapegoat teachers and students based on their race under the guise of “diversity training.” That embarrasses the school systems that hire him in high-profile legal cases. Yet foolish school superintendents continue to hire him at exorbitant rates, as the Discriminations blog notes, citing a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Singleton promotes the basest racial stereotypes, such as claiming that “’white talk’ is ‘verbal, impersonal, intellectual’ and ‘task-oriented,’ while ‘color commentary’ is ‘nonverbal, personal, emotional’ and ‘process-oriented.’” He also blathers about “the ubiquity of white privilege and racism,” and depicts Asian students as being “majority students” just like whites because they have the temerity to succeed academically in a predominantly white society. But although he views minority culture as not being “intellectual” and “task-oriented,” it is white teachers whom he blames for the underperformance of many minority students, since he claims it would be a “racist statement” to place any responsibility for minority underperformance on minorities themselves.

Not only is this use of race irratonal and insulting, it is also illegal:

In June 2007, the Supreme Court struck down Seattle’s use of race, and 4 of the 9 justices cited Seattle’s wacky, Singleton-influenced, definitions of racism in the course of their opinions. Justice Thomas, for example, cited those definitions as an object lesson in why not to defer to school districts when they use race. I filed the brief that brought those wacky definitions to the Supreme Court’s attention; it was one of the few amicus briefs filed in the case that opposed Seattle’s use of race. As a result of losing the case, Seattle is expected to pay more than a million dollars in attorneys fees to the lawyers who challenged its use of race.

Other interesting articles, on more recent experiences with this group, can be found here and here.  So, in summary, the Pacific Educational Group provides a radical, extremist form of "equity training" that is racist at its core, and its policy suggestions have even been held illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the Hillsboro School District has not only hired this group, but embedded dependence on them in its strategic plan.

I have brought this issue to the attention of some school board members, and am waiting to see what action is taken.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fighting Racism With... More Racism?

At the Monday 1/9 meeting of the Hillsboro School District’s Curriculum Committee, I was shocked to learn that the district’s new diversity programs are centered on instructing every staff member in Critical Race Theory.  In case you have not heard of it, Critical Race Theory is a trend at the most radical fringes of postmodern academia, based on analyzing how Whiteness is the root cause of the major problems of modern society. As summarized by Judge Richard Posner,

What is most arresting about critical race theory is turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative. Rather than marshal logical arguments and empirical data, critical race theorists tell stories — fictional, science-fictional, quasi-fictional, autobiographical, anecdotal — designed to expose the pervasive and debilitating racism of America today. By repudiating reasoned argumentation, the storytellers reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.

What does Critical Race Theory teach? Basically, all whites must take responsibility for all the historical crimes committed by their race. These crimes have bought them an unfair Privilege of Whiteness.  Minorities face insurmountable obstacles today, and whites receive endless privileges, all stemming from these crimes. (And implicitly, in any historical event that has occurred over the past thousand years, any whites who participated must be judged by 21st century moral standards, though no others are subject to this condition.)   So it is a form of Orwellian doublethink, where racism is bad, except that Caucasians are uniquely responsible for the problems of modern society based on the color of their skin.
I wonder how my 16th-century ancestors would have felt, as they eked out the living of poor Jewish peasants in Russia, knowing that they were personally responsible for Hernan Cortes’ disruption of Aztec society thousands of miles away in Mexico, due to their roughly similar skin tone. I think someone forgot to send them their share of Montezuma’s gold.

More seriously, what are the consequences of this Critical Race Theory philosophy?
  • It teaches that racial consciousness is a core requirement for progress, throwing out the ideal of judging people by the content of their character, dividing people by race, and using this as a basis to assign responsibility for the problems of modern society.
  • It is used to justify racial quotas and First Amendment-violating speech codes, teaching that the “voices of the oppressed” universally take priority over Western ideals of freedom and equality, and leading to persecution of students for politically incorrect statements.
  • It teaches minority children that success is not to be expected due to problems caused by other races, rather than encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunities offered them.
  • It fans flames of racial animosity, alienating minority students from their teachers and classmates.
  • These programs are self-perpetuating regardless of the fact that they exacerbate problems they claim to solve, as any who dare criticize them are accused of racism or hate crimes. (I’m sure I’ll be called a racist for this blog post.)
  • Scarce resources are wasted teaching workshops on Critical Race Theory instead of being used for effective, race-neutral programs that could be helping these children.
Note that I am not claiming here that we should be ignoring the disproportionate problems of minority students in our schools. I agree that we need to examine the situations of disadvantaged and struggling students (whether minority or not), and take the action needed to provide them the opportunity to learn and achieve to their full potential. But we need provide such opportunity through race-neutral programs that nurture each individual child, not by teaching irrational anti-Westernism and racial hatred. In a future blog post I will provide examples of such programs.

But right now, I am outraged that our school is wasting resources and indoctrinating its staff in Critical Race Theory. You can find Hillsboro school board contact information at the district website linked here.   The radical, irrational, and racist philosophy known as Critical Race Theory has no place in our school district. If you agree, please call or email your school board member today.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Positive Steps In Leveraging Technology

Recently at a Hillsboro School District Curriculum committee meeting, it was mentioned that science textbooks in the district had not been updated since 1997.  This got me a little worried, especially after I did some research online and found that some new online texts had been approved by the state in 2009 for local districts.    So I emailed the adminstration for more details... and was pleasantly surprised by the answer.   Basically, they didn't adopt the online texts because they saw no need to pay money for something being provided so widely for free. 

If you haven't been following this area, there is an amazing amount of free educational content available these days on the web.   You probably know that I'm a big fan of free online educational resources, having been making my own small contribution through my podcast over the past few years.  HSD sent me a presentation they had given to teachers in the district on the many online education resources available, such as,,, etc.   Their presentation frankly admits "We're behind... we need to lead."

There are no statistics available on our district's actual usage of such resources at this stage.  But I'm hoping that as teachers do examine these resources and become more comfortable with them, the district will be able to look across-the-board at phasing out expensive textbook purchases in favor of online sources.  Most texbooks are insanely expensive, and we may find that providing every student with an e-reader is a lot more cost-effective in the long run than buying them.   This also is a great end-run around the slow, politicized state-level approval process that ensures mediocre but high-priced textbooks as the standard.