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.