Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Options Tour & Our Final 2013 Board Meeting

Last week a group of us from the board went on an "Options Tour" of visits to several local schools. There are some great innovative lessons happening in Hillsboro classrooms: Qatama's STEAM program showed creative ways to integrate arts, engineering, and literacy as kindergarteners assembled letter shapes. In Tobias's STEM program, a group of kids using an electron microscope analyzed hair samples and other clues as they tried to catch the teacher who stole their pencil sharpener. At Minter Bridge, I watched kids learn a math lesson in Spanish as part of their dual-language program. And we visited the Online Academy (yes, they have a physical building), where a couple of students had come in to work on their lessons while teachers were nearby to answer questions.

Of course, since you've constantly heard me advocating school choice in this blog, you can probably guess where this discussion is going! I think we should be doing more to make such opportunities available to students throughout the district: right now the term "Options Program" is a misnomer, since nearly all students attend their geographically assigned school. Kids can transfer on request, and I encourage you to try this if you like the idea of these programs but are not near a STEM/STEAM/dual-language school, but this seems to be discouraged. Parents who request transfers have told me they were subject to strong attempts at dissuasion by their local staff and made to feel guilty for asking for exceptions to standard policy. Wouldn't parents feel more satisfied if empowered to make these kind of choices on a regular basis, and actively encouraged to choose the program that best fits their child?  

We also had our final board meeting of the year this past Tuesday. We had a discussion of the book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team", which we had all read in an effort to improve our teamwork, spawning an amusing article in the Argus.  As you will read there, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the value of the exercise.   Apologies to any business consultants I may have offended. 

Other points discussed included:

  • Anti-Bullying programs: Looks like our Youth Activities Council is running some excellent programs in this area. I especially like how they described their efforts to make it positive: "be a friend" instead of just "don't bully". One yellow flag though: there seemed to be a lot of focus on "protected categories". If someone is bullied based on a non-protected category, such as being a religious Christian, are they a less important victim? (Yes, I was told of such a case during the last board campaign.)
  • Legislative priorities: This is another topic that got a good summary in an Argus article, so no need for much more detail here. I continue to point out that we need to have a clear list of unfunded mandates, with dollar costs, that we can pressure our legislators to repeal.
  • Strategic Plan Performance: I was glad to see that bringing our bottom-5% schools up to parity is now shown as an element of the Equity category. Though I do also think it should be considered the top issue in that category, and the other items discussed there (mainly how many teachers are sent to politically correct seminars) are of very little value in comparison.

    That's about it for this year. Have a good Christmas & New Year, and I'll hope to see you back at this blog in 2014!

    Saturday, December 7, 2013

    Boundary Changes or Choices?, And Other 12/3 Highlights

    This past Tuesday 12/3, we had our first board meeting in a month. Surprisingly, we didn't spend much time on the controversial issues in the news recently: the Evergreen math revolt  is mostly in a stable state with the district continuing to work with affected parents, and the cell phone privacy issue is under review for discussion in a future meeting.   

    Probably the most interesting issue at this meeting was the need to change elementary school attendance area boundaries, due to concentrations of new families in the area not matching the locations of schools. Superintendent Scott reminded us that this always creates a lot of controversy, as parents don't like being told to attend a different school than they expected, especially when the new one may be farther away. The staff outlined a process that involves a lot of public notification, meetings with representaiton from affected parties, etc. If we are going to change boundaries, this seems like a good process to me.

    But I had a slightly different take on the issue: instead of telling selected parents to move their children, could we provide incentives for voluntary transfers?   For example, I bet many parents would be willing to let their children be bussed farther away for unique opportunities like a dual-language or STEM program, or even just to attend a school with a higher state rating. As an additional incentive we could provide guaranteed transportation from certain high-density neighborhoods (normally students transferring out of their local school are not guaranteed transport.) This would work better if we had more differentiated programs at our elementary schools, but why not consider some new ideas specifically due to this motivation?   And I bet parents would be a lot happier solving this problem through voluntary means than through dictating a solution based solely on residence areas. The staff is going to think further about this idea, though at this point we need to also start the boundary change process regardless.

    Other highlights of the meeting included:
  • A review of ELL (English Language Learner) programs and staff development.  Travis pointed out that some major gains by younger ELL students in the past couple of years are not yet reflected in test scores, since students are only tested at certain grade levels, but we should expect some dramatic increases soon.
  • Numerous small policy changes recommended by the OSBA to comply with state law. The more meticulous engineers of the group (Wayne and myself) nitpicked a new proposed policy on harrasment reporting: "In the event the designated person [to receive the report] is the suspected perpetrator, the assistant superintendent of Human Resources shall receive the report." Doesn't this re-create the original problem, of possibly needing to report someone to themselves, in case someone who is under the assistant superitendent of HR & needs to report him?  It would make more sense to state something generic like "the next higher manager in the organization", etc.

  • Our next board meeting is in two weeks, on Tuesday 12/17. Note that both this week's and the next one are full meetings rather than just work sessions, to make up for the lack of a meeting over Thanksgiving. Hope to see you there!

    Saturday, November 30, 2013

    Dual Language Followup: The Power of Choice

    You may recall that back in August, I looked into some issues related to opting out of Dual Language instruction.   Some HSD elementary schools are now 100% dual-language, but there were a subset of kids who were doing very poorly in this environment, and failing to acquire grade-level skills in either language.   Parents who wanted to pull their kids out were initially given a "hard sell" by the principal to try to keep them in the program, but in the end we found that the district does allow any child the ability to opt out by transferring to another school.  

    This week I received a great followup email from one of the parents involved, and he gave me permission to share with my readers:

    I wanted to update you on the progress of my second grader after being removed from the dual language program. She started second grade way behind state standards. She completely hated reading and writing. It is now 3 months into the school year. her increased abilities with basic academics has grown into a new passion for learning. she loves to read a book in her room when she's bored. She is now meeting state standards in all of her subjects. I was becoming suspicious of a learning disability last year because she was so frustrated because she wasn't able to grow with her peers... I think we both Agree dual language can be a great opportunity for some children, while others are going to suffer greatly by it, especially when there is no second language at home to help strengthen the foreign language in the child's mind.

    It's great to hear when such a change is working well!   I think this feedback helps to reinforce some key aspects of the overall discussions we have been having in this blog:
    • While it is a positive element in many situations, dual-language is not a panacea, and for many students in early grades it is not the right method to learn reading and writing.  
    • Each dual-language-only school needs to work on making it clear to parents that they can opt out, and actively assist those who want to make this choice for their child.
    • In general, one-size-fits-all solutions are a bad idea to implement across the board- students have different learning styles and different strengths, and we need to provide multiple choices of programs to meet each student's needs.
    I would love to hear more (good or bad) from parents in a similar situation; be sure to send me an email or post a comment here if you have a story to share.      


    Sunday, November 24, 2013

    Comments on the CPM Math Curriculum

    By now you've likely heard about the parents who pulled their children out of Evergreen Middle School due to problems with the new CPM (College Prep Math) curriculum, newly adopted by our district this year in an attempt to comply with the Common Core standards.   There have been a lot of newspaper articles on this recently, but I'd like to point out a few details that many of these articles are glossing over.
    1. CPM is a radically new and different way of teaching math, not just a harder or more advanced curriculum.   A CPM-based class spends the majority of its time with the students working in groups to discover the mathematical rules, rather than having them presented directly by the teacher.    You can find many details at their website.  In Hillsboro we have implemented it across the board, all at once, as essentially the only available type of math class in our middle schools-- with our only in-house piloting being a 2-week trail last year.  So I'm not surprised that the new method of teaching math was a shock to many students and parents:  they are not objecting to math being harder, but to it being fundamentally different.     Was it a wise idea to make such a major change all at once district-wide?  
    2. CPM has been seen to create problems for students at the low end of the spectrum.   For students who find the math more challenging, there is no substitute for careful explanation from a skilled teacher.    Since the majority of the class is based on group work rather than direct instruction, some students are just not getting the straightforward teaching that would enable them to succeed.  I"ve heard from some parents that groups aren't even allowed to ask the teacher a question until the group has voted on it or arrived at a consensus as to phrasing.       Are some students pressured to just copy answers or pretend they understand so the group can move on, only to fail miserably when they have to work on individual assignments?
    3. CPM has been seen to create problems for students at the high end of the spectrum.   Many talented students are able to get the idea very quickly, and don't want to go through the motions of redundantly "discovering" a key principle to please their teacher, or act as supplementary teaching assistants for their group-- they want to move on.    This is especially frustrating for students hoping to get to advanced calculus and higher math classes by the end of high school so they can get a head start in STEM majors in college.
    4. CPM may be developmentally inappropriate for some students-- even very smart ones.   One topic sorely lacking in CPM discussions is the concept of stages of a child's mental development.   Children go through various stages of development , and only at the most advanced stages are they well-suited to truly discovering and generalizing mathematical laws.   Many middle schoolers, even very smart ones, are still in Piaget's "concrete operational" stage:  they can absorb facts and procedures that are directly taught, but are not ready to prove the validity of mathematical abstractions.   Thus I am not too surprised that some students who received As  and Bs in traditional math are severely struggling with CPM.
    So, with all this being said, what is the district doing about it?   There have been several meetings between district officials and parents, and HSD is working to modify the CPM curriculum based on parental feedback to address the issues above.   I think this is a positive step, and am glad that we are looking at ways to incorporate more direct instruction, rather than sticking to a pure group-based CPM curriculum.    Personally I would have preferred that we offer a variety of choices of styles of math classes rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.   But a properly reformed CPM program, with a larger portion of individual instruction + group "labs" to reinforce the concept like in science classes, might turn out to be an excellent choice for a majority of our students.   

    In any case, we need to make sure that we are properly meeting the needs of students at all levels of the math spectrum.   If you have a child in an HSD middle school, please be sure to discuss their math classes with them, take a look at their homework, and make sure the class format is working for them.    If your child seems to be falling behind, or if the class does not seem to be sufficiently challenging them, be sure to raise the issue with your teacher and principal.   (And consider escalating to the superintendent and the board if you do not receive satisfactory resolution. )   As a board member, I will be sure to follow up with district officials on the progress of the CPM changes resulting from this discussion.    There are many further improvements and changes that can still be made here if needed-- but we need parents to speak up.  

    Monday, November 18, 2013

    OSBA 2013 Wrap-Up: 3 New Rs, Character, and Charter Schools

    This past Friday and Saturday I attended the Oregon School Boards Association annual convention, another chance to share ideas and war stories with fellow school board members from other districts.   It was more of a grab bag than this past summer's conference, with less focus on training for new board members, and a broad selection of available topics. 

    The Day 1 Keynote by technophile David Warlick was called "Literacy In The Digital Age:  Redefining the Basics".    His basic premise was that for the first time, we can't even envision the world our students will be facing in 20 years, so we need to enable them to learn and process information.   This would lead to redefining the 3 Rs:
    • Reading:  Need to learn to critically examine information and ask the right questions, to separate the good and bad information.   For example, it's not enough to just read a Wikipedia site, you need to compare to independent sources & decide what to believe.
    • Writing:  It's not just about the written word, kids need to learn to use digital video and multimedia presentations to communicate ideas.   He gave an example of a powerful anti-sweatshop video by one of his students.
    • Math:  Need to be able to process large amounts of information, using available tools.   The key example here was a page of earthquake data from a government site, which Warlick (in real time) copied to a spreadsheet and was able to plot as a graph.
    Unfortunately, some of Warlick's examples undermined his main points:   the anti-sweatshop video for example, while a powerful propaganda piece, was a one-sided presentation of disconnected context-free factoids from various left-wing websites-- I think that student needed a refresher on Warlick's next-generation "Reading" education.   And he claimed that editing music in an app was an example of using "Math", since all the notes were treated as underlying numbers by the system-- but this is true of anything you can do on a computer.    Overall, I can see Warlick's ideas being used effectively to supplement traditional curricula, but I don't see them truly replacing the foundations every student needs in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

    The second day's keynote was less radical, "The Hidden Power of Character" by Paul Tough.   He was basically pointing out that success in life is determined by more than traditional IQ.   Non-cognitive traits such as willingness to recover from failure, "grit" and persistence, and ability to deal with conflict are just as important.   Getting practice recovering from failure is key:  students need the opportunity to fail and then learn from their mistakes.   Buying into the self-esteem movement so much that kids can never fail is counterproductive.   But we have to work hard to protect students who are from environments where they experience constant failure and are in permanent states of stress; that destroys rather than building character.   The best times to intervene in these areas are early childhood and adolescence.   Lots of great points, but I was a little disappointed that he didn't touch on many practical issues of how to teach the positive character traits day-to-day in a classroom.

    I also attended numerous smaller sessions.   One on tablet usage in classrooms was pretty interesting.   The speaker was pretty confident that the balance of good peer-reviewed studies shows that tablets in classrooms really can be a game-changer for a lot of kids.  But before adopting tablets, a school system needs to ask key questions:  Are they properly accounting for long-term costs, including support and bandwith?   Are they following a real plan, or just copying their neighbors?    Is there a strong enough code of conduct & culture of good behavior in the school, to prevent students from doing counterproductive things like playing games in class or using tablets to snap photos of tests?   And do the teachers want them, or are teachers facing a burden due to the need to monitor misbehavior on tablets? 

    There were also three different sessions on charter schools:  "Charter Schools 101", "Charter Schools 201", and "Charter Schools Legislative Update".  Mostly discussing things I had heard before, but I picked up & was reminded of some interesting charter facts:
    • Portland Public Schools has 10 charters, with 4% of their student body in charter schools.  (They have 47.5K students, making them about 2.5x the size of Hillsboro, and have 10x as many charter schools.  I think that shows we have room to grow in this area.)  They have been consistently getting 3-4 more applications every year.   Due to the large number, they are seeking changes to the law that allow them to be more picky once a district's total charter attendees exceed 3% of students.
    • Some recent changes to state charter school laws expand some of the application/decision timelines, and add options for the state BOE to remand applications back to a district after appeal rather than making a final decision.
    • Since charters get 80% of the per-student funding by law, there is sometimes conflict with district over whether the last 20% "really" deserves to be spent on services impacting charters, or should totally be at the district's discretion.  The best solution is to be very detailed about all such issues when setting up the charter agreement.
    • Charter school teachers must be included in district's reports of percentage of "highly qualified" teachers.  This can create some conflict, because charters are allowed to use alternative criteria in hiring, which can reduce a district's on-paper % in this area.
    • Oregon actually makes it much tougher than many other states to start charter schools-- fewer charter-granting agencies, more control of charters by districts, inability of charters to independently apply for several types of grants.
    Anyway, that pretty much covers the highlights.   Another solid conference with lots of good information, though once again a bit overwhelming by the end!

    Friday, November 15, 2013

    Lamenting The Bond, And Other 11/12 Highlights

    This has actually been a pretty busy week for the Hillsboro school board-- in addition to our regular monthly work session meeting, we had a parent rebellion against the new math curriculum go viral, and the annual Oregon School Board Association Covention .   Rather than try to cover everything at once, I'll discuss the meeting highlights in this post, and the other two items will be in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned!

    The first major issue discussed at the meeting was, of course, the failure of the bond issue.   Most comments centered around the thoughts that there was insufficient salesmanship & energy to bring out the small number of potential Yes voters in the district, and that we should try harder next time.   There was also discussion of the fact that voters seeing their tax bill just before the vote hurt the turnout; personally, I find it a bit offensive to suggest that we would prefer voters to have less information so they vote our way.   We also need to keep in mind that the economy in general makes this a bad time to ask for any kind of tax increase; we may have to face the fact that a significant increase in resources is simply not going to happen.   But I'm still of the opinion that a key lesson here was that our voters don't want more salesmanship and manipulation-- if we try again & sell the bond on a basis of openness and frankness, as I discussed in my blog post on the topic, perhaps we will have a shot.

    The other major discussion was a followup on the equity emergency, where two schools in our district were rated in the bottom 5% statewide.   Superintendent Mike Scott presented a reasonable $250K plan that was proposed by the schools involving techniques such as more teacher training, additional tutoring and other attention for the at-risk students, and community outreach, based on methods that were successfully used in other at-risk schools to improve educational quality.   We approved this plan, as I do think bringing these schools to an equitable level should be a priority.   But we also discussed a graph showing wide variance across the district in the proportion of poor and at-risk students, with the ones at the most risk concentrated in a small selection of schools.   A few items to consider here:
    • Mike mentioned that we may need to consider moving more funding and resources into schools based on their needs.   This may prevent more from sliding into the lowest quality level in the future-- but is likely to be very controversial, at it would seem to punish schools with talented students, more involved parents, or local fundraising and direct donors.   (I'll be interested to hear from any of you who have a strong opinion on this.)
    • I know you're probably tired of having me repeat this-- but I think it's only fair to mention that it constantly came up that smaller class sizes would be a key factor to help improve the low-performing schools.   Has everyone already forgotten the statement in an earlier meeting that charter schools are able to have "unfairly" small class sizes due to our current regulatory structureSo why aren't we trying to reach out and attract more charter schools in response to our current problems?  I didn't bring this up at the meeting because I didn't want to rathole the meeting with more anti-charter tirades, but will be sure to bring this up as a factor if any charters do apply.
    • An interesting solution I heard from a friend in another district is to reduce the concentration of at-risk students in particular schools by increasing school choice within the public system.   In his district, every parent lists their top 3 school choices each year on a form, and the district then assigns students to schools based on the lottery system.  This also creates incentives and competition within the public school system, even without charter schools, and results in distributing kids more evenly rather than having a bunch of economically homogeneous islands.    Of course, before we could start such a system, we would need to bring our bottom-5% schools up to par (otherwise parents lotteried into those would scream bloody murder), so this is more of a thought for the future.
    The final major item discussed was state legislative priorities for the 2014 session.    It's unclear if many bills will be introduced, so it may be a moot point, but we will likely continue our usual uncontroversial ones of PERS reform, funding, unfunded mandates, and regulation.  One key issue I brought up is rather than our vague generality of unfunded mandates, we really need a full, itemized list of them.   It's very important that we can show our legislators not just the big-ticket items, but a full list of the many state requirements that are costing us money.   For example, new emissions requirements have significantly increased the cost of replacing old school buses-- would a waiver of this mandate just for school buses really have a noticeable effect on the environment?

    At the end of the meeting I brought up the parent revolt over the math curriculum.  But given the various twists that has taken in the media, I'll leave that for it's own blog post.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013

    The Equity Emergency, and other 10/22 Highlights

    By now, those of you following the Hillsboro School District have probably noticed the Argus article about the "Equity Emergency", a term I coined to reflect that sad fact that practically in the shadows of one of the world's most successful hi-tech companies (Intel), we have two elementary schools rated in the 5th percentile statewide.  Superintendent Scott and his staff presented a number of mitigating factors (high poverty among attendees, new staff getting acclimated, etc.), and promised to work with the school staffs on an action plan.   That sounds like a noble effort, but we can't lose sight of the fact that ultimately we have several schools where students are receiving a subpar education.    A few key points about this discussion that may not be quite clear in the newspaper article:
    • We need to call a bad rating a bad rating, and not use evasive or obfuscating language.   Some staff members seemed to take offense that I said the low-rated schools offered an "inferior" education.  But if 5th percentile (==> 5 out of 100) isn't inferior, then what is?  I realize these ratings don't take everything into account, being based on standardized test scores in key subjects, but they represent a key component of a child's education.    I know we have a lot of sincere staff who are trying really hard...  but ultimately, what matters to the children isn't the intentions, it's the results.   
    • The variance in educational quality in different neighborhoods is one of the key educational equity challenges of our generation, and we need to treat it as one of our primary challenges.   We usually think of this as being an issue with inner-city schools.   But what these ratings have shown is that that is not the case, and we need to think hard about what we are doing to improve educational equity for real.   I find it utterly ridiculous that the staff offered up a report on "progress in the Equity area" at the board meeting, where the district was patting itself on the back for how many people it had sent to diversity conferences and classes, while this real diversity crisis was sitting in our backyard and directly affecting children's lives.
    • We are not criticizing the students.   I'm especially frustrated by sentiments like those expressed in an open letter by one of the low-rated school princpals, that we should not worry about the low test scores because of the students "ability to speak two or more languages, their musical talents, their ability to dance and connect with rich cultural traditions from around the world".  It's precisely because the students have so much potential that we cannot let our district cheat them out of the basic education in English reading and writing, and basic math, that will enable them to succeed in modern society.
    • I applaud the staff's efforts to turn around the situation-- but no parent should be forced to bet their child's future on them.   This is an example of the situations when school choice is really important.   I'm sure some subset of students is thriving at the low-rated schools, and many parents will be encouraged at the turnaround efforts.   But if any parent wants to transfer their student to a better school, they should be offered the opportunity.   My proposal to enact this as written policy was voted down, based on Superintendent Scott's statement that it's already the district's practice to work with any parent who wants a different school.   So if you have a child in a low-rated school and want another opportunity, be sure to contact the district office, and let me know if you feel like you are not being offered viable alternatives.
     Aside from the discussion about the school ratings, there were a few other interesting items that came up.   (BTW, I've actually been pleasantly surprised by the level of coverage we've been getting in the Argus lately, with articles about most of the major issues we discuss.  Is it my imagination, or have they stepped up school reporting since the new correspondent, Luke Hammill, came on board?  Good work Luke!)

    • Double Dipping.    As you may have seen in the Argus, this is the practice of a staff member retiring in January, starting to get the generous state retirement benefits, and then also being hired by HSD on a contract basis to fill in for the rest of the year.   Sounds like a win-win, right?   The staff member is gone anyway, and they are the best fill-in contractor for the position they held, so why not?   Well, here's why not.   If we continually hire recent retirees when they have 'retired' in January, then many employees will game the system and retire in January to receive the double-dipping windfall.    In other words, even though it seems like a win-win in an isolated case, creating the expectation that this will be allowed results in long-term costs overall.   Many thanks to fellow board member Wayne Clift for spotting this on the "consent agenda"; I'm disappointed that we didn't have enough votes to stop it this time.
    • The Budget Committee.   We appointed the new Budget Committee as well.  You may have been surprised to see that I voted in favor of appointing my former election rival, Rebecca Lantz.   I have to say, though I don't agree with her on much, I am impressed at her willingness to continue to volunteer her time and effort for the district even after losing her board position.  
    • Moving Funds Out Of The ESD.    We also voted to remove the majority of our district funds from the Education Service District, a monopoly provider of education services created by the state, and instead purchase the relevant services on the free market or provide them locally.   This seems like the right decision to me.

    Saturday, October 19, 2013

    Vote Yes On The Bond-- For The Right Reasons

    Soon we will all be receiving ballots in the mail to vote on the new bond requested by the Hillsboro School District.  I will be voting yes on this bond, although I didn't sign the statement in the voter pamphlet.  This is because I disagree with several elements of the "conventional" pro-bond reasoning, and didn't feel the printed statement accurately reflected my views.

    First of all, my reasoning does not involve the claim that it's "for technology and public safety". I'm very tired of the gimmick played by government bodies at all levels, where they withhold funding from something that's politically popular, and then announce that they need more taxes to fund these critical items. The bond funds will amount to a tiny portion of our district's annual budget, which means we could have moved funding from numerous other things into at least a partial funding of these technology and safety goals. Perhaps adding terms to the bond for "staff raises, district website upgrades, and diversity consultants" would have made it sound less compelling? We should recognize the bond for what it is, a request for a supplement to the district's general fund, and judge it on that basis.

    My Yes vote also is not because of the commonly-heard sentiment that "we've been cutting the budget forever, and our schools are being starved for funds". As you can see at this link, overall inflation-adjusted, per-capita Oregon school spending has been increasing without bound for half a century, and any occasional cuts are just a minor blip in that overall trend. Don't let all the public hand-wringing about cuts convince you otherwise.

    We also need to recognize that the money in the bond isn't magically created from nothing-- it is real money taken from the working people of our district, during very challenging financial times for our families. To quote a school board member facing a similar issue in another district (Dan Christensen of Gresham), "make no mistake, for many families and businesses... property tax rates will indeed be a sacrifice. While saying, ‘it’s-only-a-latte-a-day’ makes for a catchy talking point, it’s not so trivial to the barista who depends on all those daily latte’s for job and livelihood... Passage of the bond will result in the obvious economic benefit... What will be less visible, but just as deeply impacting, are the thousands of decisions to forego pizza night, that morning latte, the extra birthday or Christmas gift and the far-reaching ripple effect of those decisions on local businesses. "   This kind of effect on the economy will come to impact local children, and we must not forget that this is what we are offsetting against the needs to improve our schools.

    So... this being said, why do I think we should support this bond for the Hillsboro schools? I find two key arguments compelling:

    1. HSD is being squeezed by the utter failure of our state government to effectively rein in PERS, resulting in effective undeserved cuts to available classroom funds. More and more of our money is used to fulfill impractical and overly generous promises to retirees. Plenty has been written on this topic elsewhere, so I don't think I need to go into too much detail here. But just remember as you vote yes on the bond, that if you don't want to be passing new bonds like this every year, you must also send a clear message to our state government at next year's election that this situation cannot continue. We need to end this pattern to support the long-term economic health of Hillsboro's families and our schools.

    2. HSD is taking real action to make better use of its public funds, to provide increasing educational effectiveness while reducing costs. A key example here is the Hillsboro Online Academy (, the first public non-charter online academy in Oregon. Experience in many districts has shown that, while online education is not for everyone, the students who it does serve can be educated in a much more cost-effective manner without sacrificing quality. As we increase the availability of this option to more children in HSD, we have a real shot at reining in costs in an innovative and exciting way.

    Before you vote on the bond measure, whatever position you decide on, please be sure to think carefully about the reasons. In the end, I will be voting Yes for the bond, and invite you to join me.

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Blogging Too Much

    Recently I was asked the question, "Why are you blogging so much?   Since you're new on the board, shouldn't you be in a listening rather than a talking mode?"   I believe this question stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of my blog.

    First of all, don't confuse my behavior when blogging with my behavior in the board meetings.     I'll be the first to agree that I have plenty to learn about the school district and the board-- and if you attend one of the meetings (or watch the online videos) , you'll see that I spend the vast majority of each meeting listening rather than talking.    

    On the other hand, when blogging after each meeting, I try to communicate as much as possible on the key points covered and my thoughts about them.   As your elected representative on the board, I'm trying to be as open as possible about these topics:   it's what I promised during my campaign, and I believe it's an important opportunity for the people of Hillsboro.   It's also a two-way method of communication:  any member of the community can post followup questions in the comment field, or send me an email.     I' ve received enough positive feedback about my blog to believe that there are a decent number of you out there who appreciate this service.    

    Most importantly, the open communication fostered in my blog has already shown results.   You may recall that back in August, I published some info about a discussion on Dual Language programs  that came up in our meeting, and the fact that parents could always choose to opt out.   It turns out that due to poor communication at the school level, some parents thought they did not have this option, and contacted me about it.     I was then able to work with Superintendent Scott to get a clear opt-out policy posted on the HSD website, as discussed in this followup post

    So, please continue following this blog, and contact me if any issue I mention here touches on your family.

    Sunday, October 6, 2013

    Common Core, Charter Schools, and Other 10/1 Highlights

    This week's board meeting was a little livelier than the last few-- we actually had protestors holding up signs in the audience.   They were there due to concerns about Common Core, the new set of education standards being rolled out nationwide.    You can read more about the discussion, and the incident where one of the protestors yelled out to the board, at the article in this week's Argus.    I don't think the protestor was justified in the rude outburst accusing our assistant superintendent, Steve Larson, of a "Lie", though our staff might do a better job of preparing to answer questions during presentations on this controversial topic.    One issue that consistently bothers me about public CC discussions by its sponsors is that they treat the other side as a bunch of mentally unstable kooks (not helped by outbursts during a meeting!), instead of trying to understand the details of some very real concerns.    On the other hand, protesting it is somewhat futile at this level anyway, as it's been imposed on us by the state of Oregon.  

    During the discussion, I brought up some issues related to my concerns about CC (you can review this blog entry  for more).    I asked Steve if it was correct to label Common Core an unfunded mandate from the state, and he insisted that it wasn't, because the district periodically revises the curriculum anyway.    But I remain skeptical of this point:  is it really the case that statewide, not one more cent is spent on curriculum materials or teacher training due to the major changes made in CC?    And without CC, would it really be the case that, for example, Algebra has changed so radically in the last ten years that totally new materials & training would be needed?   My other big question was on how we will do apples-to-apples comparisons between last year's students & those 4 years from now to prove CC isn't dumbing down the curriculum.    He had a better answer here, that the ACT would be a constant yardstick we could use.    We need to watch this carefully though-- will there be moves to modify the ACT to sync with Common Core?

    Other highlights of the Tuesday meeting included a joint session with the Hillsboro City Council.   It was mostly a touchy-feely get-together with barely any real agenda.    A joint School Board / City Council meeting seemed a bit redundant to me, as the school district has the council pretty well-infiltrated:   members include Tobias Elementary principal Steve Callaway, Hillsboro Schools Foundation director Aron Carleson, and HilHi assistant principal Olga Acuna.   (I actually have mixed feelings about employees of one body of government being so involved in managing another body of governement... but that's another discussion.)    We divided into pairs to discuss ideas for ways the schools and city could better collaborate, pretty much coming up with what you would expect:  joint projects in areas the city sponsors like arts and recreation, internships with city utilities, etc.    The reservoir project, where the city turned new reservoir work into an engineering class for kids as well, was a great example of the schools and city collaborating.    Being a believer in minimal government (==> each government level should concentrate on what it's designed to do, rather than looking for grand initiatives), I think my other favorite suggestion from the list was giving priority to repaving sidewalks near elementary schools with lots of walkers.

    Then, finally, there was yet another contentious debate on charter schools.   I won't bother rehashing too much here, since you've seen most of it in my blog before, and there was a nice article in the Argus that covered the major points.   I was most amused by the fact that the first 10 minutes were spent bashing me for saying Hillsboro was historically hostile to charters (finally I backed down and said maybe I was wrong, since this wasn't the point of the discussion), then three of the longer-serving board members spent the next half hour on harangues about charters being a "horrible idea", insulting to our staff members, and un-American.   Hmmm, maybe there is a little hostility there?    But the good news is that the debate showed that the other four members of our board are not hostile to charter schools, and we will be looking into improving our district website to make the charter application process clearer.    My resolution to call explicitly for more charters was tabled for now, but I think just having the public discussion accomplished a good portion of what I wanted anyway, to spread the message that now is a good time for potential charters to apply. 

    Sunday, September 29, 2013

    Class Size, and Other 9/24 Highlights

    As you have probably seen in the local papers, there was a lot of discussion about class size at the last board meeting. This is especially a concern at very young ages-- is it really good for a kindergardener to be part of a class of 31 students? Naturally there is no need to belabor the fact here that we could reduce class size with more money. But here a few key points worth keeping in mind when discussing this issue:
    • Superintendent Scott reported that he used to hold 10 teachers in reserve, to use to split up crowded classes due to unexpectedly high enrollment at one school, but due to recent budget cuts can't do this anymore.
    • A parent rightfully brought up the point that maybe we should shift our budget priorities-- are the 3 days we bought back with the Gain Share donation really more valuable than smaller kindergardens? Sure, that money would not reduce district-wide average class size by much, but it could have paid for the 10 spare teachers mentioned above.   
    • I'll also have to look very hard at similar tradeoffs, as I go through the budget process this year as a board member for the first time. I'm a bit worried that we're spending on popular fads while ignoring the basics. Investments in "STEM schools" are nice-- but would we rather have classes of 35 learning science from fancy technology, or 25 students catching butterflies with old-fashioned nets?
    • One other bright spot in this area is HSD's Hillsboro Online Academy.   Many other districts have reported that in an online setting, teachers can comfortably handle significantly more students, since they are freed from the stresses of classroom management.    I'm hoping that we can expand HOA opportunities to more of the district, including letting more students in other schools take some HOA classes, and thus help to relieve class size pressures district-wide.   I've volunteered for the board subcommittee overseeing HOA, and will post updates here as I learn more.
    • I didn't want to rathole the conversation by repeating the last meeting's charter school debate-- but if you review my blog entry from last time you'll see that under our current regulatory structure, charter schools are able to offer class sizes capped at 24, which Superintendent Scott said is impossible for non-charters. Isn't this yet another reason why we should be demanded more charter schools in HSD?

    Aside from the class size discussion, some other highlights of the meeting included:

    • We're being recorded now on video!  As I've mentioned, I like this for several reasons. It's a full public record of the meeting, rather than just the terse minutes we've seen in the past. And it frees the spectators to view it at their leisure, rather than having to sit for several hours on a busy weekday evening.   
    • Curriculum Committee appointments were ratified. I'm especially excited to see two great new members join who I'm personally acquainted with: my Intel colleague Cameron Wilde, and "Stop Common Core" activist Jennifer Gallegos. I'm hoping we'll see this committee take a more active and skeptical role moving forward.
    • New drafts of numerous policies were presented, basically suggestions by the OSBA to improve compliance with current laws. I'm reviewing these & sending in questions; if you have interest in legal minutiae, you can also see them in the board packet (

    That's it for this meeting. As always, be sure to comment on this blog or email me ( if you have comments or questions on the items above or on HSD in general.

    Saturday, September 14, 2013

    Who We Represent, and other 9/10 Highlights

    It was mostly a routine meeting this week; we discussed some business matters, such as approving the new union contracts, and the staff presented on the various measurements they are planning to judge success according to the strategic plan    I also discussed my efforts between meetings to follow up on the Dual-Language opt-out issue; in addition to reiterating the points I have already mentioned here, I pointed out that many parents have reported negative interactons with school staff on this matter.   When the district's current decisions aren't working well for their child, parents should never have to feel afraid or guilty about asking for something different to be done.   We need to make sure the staff treat all parent concerns with respect, especially at the stressful times when their child is having problems in school.

    The most interesting part of the meeting was the beginning of a discussion on charter schools, triggered by my suggestion that we consider a resolution to inform the community that Hillsboro is no longer hostile to the concept, and we want charter schools to apply to open in our district.    The discussion was mostly a rehash of things I have already mentioned in this blog.   There were three main anti-charter arguments that came up, none of which seems to me to hold much weight:

    • "I support public education.   Why don't you?"   This is a classic strawman argument-- supporting public education is perfectly consistent with supporting charter schools.   The defining characterstic of public education is that any child can attend, regardless of wealth or social class, and that is just as true of charters as of traditional schools.
    • "Charters like City View have an unfair advantage due to small class size."    This argument seems kind of odd to me: class size, like most other aspects of a school, is a result of how it manages its resources within its budget.   So maybe other schools have something to learn from City View.   Supertintendent Scott fairly pointed out that charters are subject to fewer regulations than the traditional schools, so there is no way he could manage the other school budgets to allow such a small class size.   But this just makes my larger point-- if in the current regulatory environment, charters can offer significantly smaller class size, and we think small class size is a good thing, shouldn't we be demanding more charters?
    • "No real business would hand over customers to its competitors, so why should we?"   I guess this is true on some level-- if a real business was able to get legislators to grant it a geographical monopoly, it probably would like to keep it.   But the reason businesses in our nation have been so successful and productive is that customers are free to choose which ones they want to patronize.      Amusingly, fellow board member Glenn Miller came up with an answer to this argument on its own terms:  "Haven't you seen those Progressive insurance commercials?"
    Reflecting on this discussion after the meeting, though, I realize there was one major point I failed to make.   Often in this conversation, board members used the pronoun "we" when discussing the current traditional schools and district structure.   But were we elected to represent particular current institutions, or the children of the district?   As board members, out of necessity, the majority of our energy is spent overseeing the operations of the traditional schools.   But  I believe we are there to represent the people of the district-- the customers-- not the current institutions.   

    Our goal should always be that every child's needs be properly fulfilled, whether or not it's by some employee directly reporting under Superintendent Scott.     We should be strictly neutral with regards to whether a child we are representing gets educated through a traditional school, a charter school, a homeschool, or even through a transfer to another district-- as long as the child's family has had the opportunity to make an informed choice.   When we on the board think of ourselves as representing a particular institution, rather than the children, we are doing a disservice to the people of Hillsboro.

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    Opting Out of Dual-Language: Clarifications

    In my last blog post, I mentioned that I had heard some parent concerns about children being forced into bilingual programs, but the district staff had assured me that all parents have the option of opting their children out of bilingual programs.  Before you accuse these parents of xenophobia, keep in mind that there are some children in our district who are struggling with basic reading/writing skills-- and if your child is in such a situation, it makes a lot of sense to want them spending 100% of their time on English skills instead of dividing their efforts. 

    After the post, I was surprised to be contacted by some local parents who did feel that their children are being forced into dual-language, and communications with their local school had left the impression that they were on some kind of waiting list for an alternative, but not guaranteed an alternate placement.   If your child is in the attendance area for one of the designated dual-language schools, they will be placed in dual-language by default.    But Superintendent Scott assured me that all parents really do have the option to opt out of these programs.   It looked to me like there was a communications gap here, so I asked for improvements to the info on the district website.

    If you go to the HSD website's Options section, you will now see that there is a subsection labeled 'Opting Out', which gives a clear procedure for parents to opt their children out of the dual-language or STEM programs if needed.  I'm glad to see that this is now clearly documented-- be sure to inform me if you do not see this process working, or if the district is refusing you a transfer out of dual-language.   By the way, the info on this page can also be used to transfer into the dual-language or STEM programs, if you are not at a school that offers them.

    A few key points to take away from this discussion thread:
    • Keep reading this blog & contacting me if your family is affected by a topic mentioned here!   I was glad to see that people contacted me after my last post was inconsistent with their experience-- that's the whole reason I'm posting these things.
    • It's very important that 'exceptions' to typical processes are well-documented.   The district has a strategic objective of Equity, and I think it's a critical Equity failure if parents feel like they have to use inside knowledge/contacts to get the district to act on behalf of their children.
    • There is some variety in HSD's elementary school programs, and a well-defined procedure to transfer; don't just blindly accept your geographical assignment.   If you have a child with talents or interests that could especially benefit from the STEM, dual-language, or City View Charter opportunities, don't be afraid to request a transfer.   (Of course this doesn't take away from my oft-stated general opinion that we should be offering even more choice, including additional charters & real participation in Open Enrollment.)

    Tuesday, August 20, 2013

    The Freedom To Disagree, and Other 8/12-8/13 Highlights

    Last week we had the annual "school board retreat", a pair of back-to-back 6 hour meetings that kick off our board activities for the year.  Amusingly, due to public meeting laws the retreat had to be opened to the public like any other meeting.  I have to say, I am impressed with the one union rep (Maureen, I think) who came at the beginning of the first day & managed to endure for nearly all 6 hours, despite having to quietly watch without participating.
    The first day was led by a management consultant, who had us do quick surveys to figure out our Myers-Briggs personality categories & discuss how they would affect our communication.  There was probably some value here in breaking the ice & helping us to discuss things as a team, though there were definitely long periods that felt like a Dilbert  cartoon.  The second day got more concrete, discussing issues that would be facing us in the upcoming school year.
    The most contentious debate was on the board-superintendent working agreement.  I strongly disagreed with one clause in there, requiring each board member to "publicly support" the vote of the majority, even if they disagreed with it.  As I have mentioned before in this blog, I think clear and open communication with the public is an important duty of the board-- and this includes honesty about when I think the district is going in the wrong direction.  I won't complain endlessly about every lost vote, but I want to reserve the right to rally the public to pressure the board to change a bad decision.   After much wrangling, we settled on compromise language that we would all "publicly accept" the vote of the majority.  This is reasonable, as even if I want to change a decision, I will acknowledge when relevant that the decision I disagree with is the current district policy.
    Some other discussion highlights of the retreat include:
    • Podcasting board meetings.  We revisited the discussion from the last meeting, about recording our meetings.   As I learned the hard way, since our last meeting didn't result in a vote on this topic, or a formal request to staff, nothing happened even though we had discussed it.  Now we have directed our Communications Director to investigate options for doing this.
    • Emancipation from the ESDs.  The ESDs, or Education Service Districts, are local monopolies chartered by the state in each region to provide secondary services to schools.  As you may recall, I have been critical of the ESDs in the past , since in general open markets provide services more efficiently than monopolies.  Superintendent Scott told us that under a new state law, we can withdraw 65% of our ESD funds and spend them to purchase services elsewhere.   He is going to investigate the costs of external services and prepare a report for the next meeting.  I think this is a great step forward; my main worry is whether the existence of ESDs has prevented the market from offering these services at all in Oregon.
    • English Language Learners.  Some interesting discussion about ELL programs.  I mentioned that during the campaign, some Mexican-American consituents had contacted me very angrily about their children being put in biligual programs instead of English-only, which was their parents' preference.  I was told that under current Hillsboro policy, placement in ELL/bilingual programs is always by explicit parental choice.  If you know of any specific case where someone was put in such a program against their parents' wishes, please contact me with the details.
    • The Strategic Plan.  Lots of time discussing the district's strategic plan and how we will measure success.  We gave lots of suggestions, and the staff will return in a future meeting with a proposal for key measurements.  What I'm watching for here is to make sure we are pursuing results, rather than processFor example, I don't care if each teacher spent hours in professional development classes-- I care if the students learned more in the end.  
        Anyway, as always, be sure to contact me ( if you have comments or personal experience with any of these topics.  And if you want to chat more, be sure to show up for my next constituent coffee, on Saturday 9/7, 10am, at the Human Bean Coffeehouse at 10th & Oak.

    Wednesday, July 24, 2013

    College In High School, & Other 7/23 Highlights

    Well, it's finally happening for real:   attended my first Hillsboro School District board meeting as an actual member, rather than just sitting in the audience.   As I promised during the campaign, I'll try to post highlights after each meeting.   These aren't a substitute for the official minutes-- I'll skip a bunch of boring stuff and focus on the interesting bits--  but should be able to give you the general idea if you couldn't make it to the meeting.   (And of course, as with all my posts, these are just my take, not any kind of official statement by the board as a whole.)

    So here are the interesting topics from last night:
    • Podcasting the board meetings:  Fellow new member Glenn Miller suggested that we record the meetings and make them available on the web, an idea that I seconded.   Communications Director Beth Graser explained that they had considered this a few years ago, but fees to broadcast on public access TV were prohibitive.   Public Access TV???  Does anyone really remember that still exists?   Upon further discussion,  we agreed that we could podcast these things for nearly zero budget, assuming we accept the limited video/audio quality of our current equipment.   Hopefully we'll be able to implement this sometime soon.    I really think the public deserves a full record of these meetings, instead of just secondhand minutes and blog posts.
    • The new chair:   Following board tradition, the majority voted for current vice-chair Kim Strelchun as our new chair.   She seems very dedicated to board work, and I'm sure she'll do a great job.   My favored chair candidate, Monte Akers, was elected as the new vice-chair.   I think Monte's 40 years of accounting experience will be increasingly relevant with all the financial troubles going on.   And Monte holds a special place in my heart, having been the only local elected official to speak out against the Hillsboro Hops stadium boondoggle, which I was very unhappy about.
    • The Youth Advisory Council:   A presentation by a great group of kids who have been very involved in the community.   But one aspect of it made me a little uneasy-- one of their goals was "political activism", and they talked about all going together to Salem to demand more money for K12 education.  Have they really thought deeply about this issue, or are they being used as political pawns?    How many of them have been exposed to conservative ideas, or to the concept that maybe PERS reform might be a more sensible request at this time than just begging for more money?
    • School Bus Purchases:  The district needs to buy some new buses, to replace decaying ones from the 80s.  But what really worried me here was a remark that due to new state emissions standards, we would have to spend an extra $15K per bus in the future (we have a fleet of 150+ buses), plus upgrade our garage facilities.  This is an example of an unfunded state mandate with real costs to the schools.  When I asked what the total cost to HSD of this mandate would be, nobody had exact numbers.   I asked if we could get some more detailed data on this; I will follow up with the superintendent and in future meetings.  
    • College and Career Pathways.  A new program for helping students to comprehensively plan their futures.  I saw a lot of good stuff here:
      • A web interface for parents, students, and counselors to share info on a student's strengths, weaknesses, and career plans.   
      • When assessing student strengths and weaknesses, a question-by-question breakdown of recent standardized tests will be available, with individual questions linked to relevant subtopics.
      • Increased opportunities to do college-level work in HS, and take classes within their school for college credit, encouraging every student to see themselves as potentially in college.
      • I did have a couple of concerns here.   
        • We need to make sure we are also allowing for potential vocational education & other non-college choices.   As I pointed out in the meeting, there are plenty of 20-something college-educated Starbuck's cashiers, living under crippling bankruptcy-proof debt, who could have been much happier at this point in their lives as experienced, financially-secure electricians.   
        • Will the "college credits" be as good as the real college courses?   I could easily envision a student who completed Linear Algebra thru PCC being totally lost when they try to move on to advanced classes at a top engineering college afterwards.   We need to track the students who get out of these programs, and make sure we are not setting talented kids up to have a much tougher time in college.
      • Another question to keep in mind:  does the ability of so many non-exceptionally-talented HS students to complete college level classes indicate that our HS standards are getting higher, or that our college standards are getting lower?

    Monday, July 22, 2013

    Reflections on the 2013 Oregon School Board Association summer conference

    I attended my first Oregon School Board Association conference this past weekend.   Quite an experience-- I would highly recommend it for other school board members.   

    Major Themes:

    • There is a lot to learn about being on a school board!  Got many useful little tidbits & advice from more experienced school board members from across Oregon.
    • "District Culture" was a major theme this year, showing up in the keynote and in various forms in many sessions.   We need to try to foster an environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking, open communication, and trust.
    • Being a school board member is a legal minefield-- if on a board, be careful that you know about the basic laws regarding your service.  Some examples are the Public Meetings laws (can't discuss school business if a quorum forms by chance at a non-meeting event), and the rules regarding Executive Sessions (possible individual $1000 ethics fine if you divulge content!)
    • One area where I think the OSBA needs to improve is in the boundaries between recommended practices and legal requirements.   In their talks they often blurred the distinction between the two.  In some cases, it looked to me like they were trying to push opinions as facts:  in particular, the "one voice" policy that a board member should never express disagreement in public once a majority vote on an issue has occurred.   I see it as my duty to tell you the truth here-- and if I think the board has made a fundamentally poor decision, I won't be shy about telling you.

    Amusing Moments:

    • Great opening quote:  "To you newly elected board members:  remember, the public voted for you, they believe in you, they like you, and they will back you up.  Until you do one tiny thing they disagree with."
    • To illustrate the need to not get focused on minutiae while running a district, one presenter used the famous "gorilla video".   He asked us to count basketball passes in a game going on on a video, and afterwards asked if anything unusual had happened.   Most of us who were concentrating on counting the passes missed the gorilla that walked across the video and waved at the camera!
    • You've probably heard about the politically correct movement to outlaw Indian-based team names for school sports teams.  Did you know that there's actually a Native American-themed charter school run by the Siletz tribe, that would have had to eliminate Indian references from its own team name under the originally proposed policy?!?

    Random Conversations:

    • It was interesting to see how unique Hillsboro really is among OR school districts.   Most board members I spoke to had less than 3000 students in their district, with some as low as the 200s.   (We have over 20000).  Not too surprising, given that we are the 4th largest in OR, but something to keep in mind when comparing experiences with other boards.
    • Had a nice chat with Todd Miller, who used to run the OR Connections Academy but moved to become superintendent of a brick-&-mortar district.   He has nothing bad to say about ORCA, just wanted to help out his home district & try some new experiences.   He hopes to introduce more online options locally once he gets his footing.
    • It was a great opportunity to meet some facebook/email contacts who I had been in touch with but didn't yet know in person.

    Session Highlights

    Boardsmanship Workshop   

    A fun workshop where we watched videos of an obnoxious board member named Andy, and had to discuss what he was doing wrong in each one.

    • In one, he accused fellow board members of accepting bribes due to receiving cookie baskets from a vendor.   He may have been technically correct, depending on basket value (annual limit: $50 due to ethics laws).
    • Be careful of requesting reports from the superintendent or staff!  Remember that any request might take $$$ to research/report on-- discuss with whole board first.
    • Revealing executive session info?  May subject you to $1000 individual fine, & district to lawsuit.
    • Be careful about "shall" vs "may" in policies-- may subject yourself to all kinds of minutia if public "shall" be allowed to appeal to board in various circumstances.   In one case board subjected to deliberating voleyball game lengths!
    • In one case, I was on Andy's side-- he talked to a constituent in the supermarket about a recent board vote, and why he disagreed with it.   My interpretation of a board member's duties differs from the OSBA on this one.  If I think the board made a bad decision on a major issue, I will consider it my duty to inform the public.   I won't be trying to stir up trouble over every lost vote, and will make it clear when I am stating my own opinion's rather than the board's, but I won't pretend to agree with poor or misguided decisions.

    School Safety- Legal issues

    • The lawyer pointed out that this is one issue that has been very over-legislated:  once a law to "improve safety" is proposed, everyone wants to get on board supporting it, even if it creates major unfunded mandates that take away from education.
      • One particularly egregious example:  schools required by law to inform victims of a bully's discipline-- but are also prohibited by law from discussing one student's discipline with another!
    • Remember, nobody will sue a teacher, they will sue the district-- they go where the $$$ is.
    • In athletics, every student needs a physical-- but flexible laws allow alt-health practitioners such as licensed herbalists to do it.  Hmmm....
    • Making a student sit in the principal's office for a long time is not an illegal seizure, since law lets the student be "seized" to go to school anyway.
    • "Discretionary Immunity"-- school immune from lawsuit if they had reasonable  policy in place for an issue, even if policy fails in some cases.

    School Safety- Policy  

    This is a session we need to take with a slight grain of salt, since given by rep from "New Dawn Security", which sells security certifications to schools.   But still had lots of good info.
    • Good policy/procedures are much more valuable than cameras.  Cameras don't prevent incidents, but make followup easier afterwards.
    • I was surprised to see lower safety scores on some metrics for private schools vs public.   While it's true that private schools keep out some level of violent students, an in-house predator is actually the greatest risk.   
    • Simple policies are important.  
      • One bad example:  30-page emergency guide in one school, kept under teachers' desks, that 2/3 of teachers could not quickly locate.   
      • Good example:  if bus driver receives code signal, drives to known location & waits for police.  Successfully used to apprehend student involved in armed robbery.
      • Another example:  If responding to an urgent issue, always trigger nearest fire alarm.   Claim: could have sped up response at Sandy Hook.
      • DC spent $32M to outfit emergency responders with (slow) system to bring up video maps of each school.   But could have had supply of printed maps ready for about 78 cents per school.
    • Look for opportunities thru creative environmental design.  Example:   Large field didn't have fence, so installed blackberry bushes around perimeter.   (Though based on my experience with a backyard blackberry infestation, I'm kind of scared of the long-term effects of this one!)

    Keynote- Jim Bearden, "Leadership & Culture"

    Great speaker, Vietnam vet who lectures on culture & management for a living.   Highly recommended if you have an opportunity to catch him somewhere.
    • What subordinates see from you is what you should expect to get from them.
    • "Happily Ever Afters" don't just happen.   Often people are hopeful that a new change will be the ultimate answer, then go through a denial/anger/blame cycle until the next panacea shows up.   
      • Dangers of emphasis on blame:   lose ability to draw lessons, lose your own accountability, black hole for energy
      • Need will to learn from failure & create a "heroic culture"
    • What is a culture?
      • Composite of behavior
      • What gets noticed, honored, or confronted by leaders
    •  Most orgs create culture unconsciously-- try to do it consciously
      •  Support those who step up  & do the right thing
      • Support those who challenge the status quo
      • Active Accessibility-- not just "open door policy", go out & seek input
      • Ask, listen and understand.
      • Reward risk-taking- even if it results in failure sometimes.
    • Steps to create the culture
      1. Ensure others understand their expectations
      2. ID & eliminate barriers
      3. Model the behavior
      4. Measure performance vs expectations
      5. Honor efforts & progress towards expectations- including mistakes
      6. Confront unwillingness & bad faith

    District Climate & Culture

    Workshop taught by Steve Lamb, OSBA.  Probably a good workshop on its own, but largely felt redundant after keynote!   A few points to emphasize.
    • Dissatisfaction can be good-- need to reach a certain level to overcome inherent resistance to new ideas
    • High trust is important to create positive culture.   But be careful of silly gimmicks like "trust fall" exercise (where one worker falls & others catch)-- trust in one domain may not lead to trust in another.
    • Be careful about treating board's "accountability" duty as seeking out things to punish:  can create climate where everybody ruled by fear & won't do anything without permission from top.
    • Recognize what you want to see.   Why is academic recognition so rare compared to sports recognition?  (I liked this one-- back in HS, I successfully fought a battle to get varsity jackets for the math team!)

    School Law Basics for Board Members

    Kind of a dry recitation by an OSBA lawyer.  Good stuff to know, but I think they could have made a more lively seminar by using more Andy videos, role-playing, or something similar.   A few of the more interesting legal points:
    • The board's duty is to "make policy", but there is no specific legal definition of a "policy".   Kind of surprising.   So in reality the board can do just about anything, though focusing on big-picture stuff is highly advised.   
    • Be careful to follow all your policies-- if you don't, can significantly hurt district's case in court if sued.
    • If a board majority is gone, ESD gets to appoint a new board.
    • Board members may be fined by state ethics board for ethics violations, or for violating rules of Executive Sessions.

    Table Session-- Communiation

    Saturday afternoon we had several mini-sessions where we sit at a table with an expert on a topic.   
    • The communication one had a lot of good suggestions for improving district communication, such as sharing positive stories, developing elevator speeches about the school system, building relationships with local media, and taking notes on questions you can't answer.
    • However, this is another one where I had some reservations about the OSBA's position, which seems to be that we should be propagandists for the public school system, relentlessly pushing positive aspects of the district.   As an elected board member, I believe my primary duty is honesty with the public, and will continue to share both the bad and the good as applicable.   
    • One other item that annoyed me here "...make sure public schools are represented fairly and on par with private or charter options..."    Charter schools are just as public as traditional public schools!   And I don't think we have any problem with charter schools being over-emphasized in district communications-- it's quite the opposite in HSD.

    Table Session-- Outsourcing

    Another session to take with a grain of salt, since the speaker was Greg Johnson from Sodexo, an outsourcing service provider.
    • They mainly supply cafeteria mgmt, but also can build an entire school for a district & rent out the building, saving them the trouble of passing a bond when a new school is needed.   Sounds too good to be true, though I suppose we might look at such opportunities if the need comes up.
    • Interesting wrinkle of Oregon law-- district has to jump thru hoops to outsource, showing "cause" & demonstrating that employees will not be hurt.  Greg says that they often keep all the cafeteria employees and just insert new managers when taking over a school food service.
    • One guy at the table knows Sodexo from his non-board life, and pointed out that they do a good job running his company's cafeterias.

    Table Session- Strategic Planning

    •  Goal-setting is short-term, strategic planning is longer term
    •  Often the process has as much value as the end result

    Professional Learning Communities (PLC)

    • A PLC is a group of teachers who continually learn together on the job, helping to plan lessons, eval/critique each other & grow together. 
      • Also do "action research" together to tackle real problems encountered in classrooms.
    • Be careful of PLC-like forms that have little substance: just because you have teaching team meetings doesn't mean you have a PLC.   Need to allocate nontrivial time &; foster real collaboration.
    • International benchmarks show teachers spend 2x as much time on professional learning in other countries as compared to US. 

    Roles And Responsibilities

    This is the one where they showed the gorilla video, hammering home the point that we should look at the big picture & not focus on minutiae.   
    • How many school board members does it take to change a light bulb?  -- NONE.  They should pass a policy that there is light, and let the superintendent report back on how it was implemented.
    • 5 key roles:
      1. Learn together as a board-superintendent team.
      2. Set Expectations.   
        • Aim for Elevating Beliefs ("This is a place for all kids to excel") rather than Accepting Beliefs ("With the students we have, we just have to expect low test scores.")
        • Recent surveys show 37% of org employees don't clearly know their goals.  "This is like a football team with 4 members not knowing where the end zones are."
      3. Build Collective Will.     Culture matters.   
      4. Create Conditions For Success.
      5. Hold System Accountable.
    • Though elected, a school board member is a bit different than a legislator-- in fact, a board member has legislative, executive, *and* judicial roles!
    • Be careful about seeming to 'represent' a constituent on a low-level issue-- may later need to recuse yourself from board when appealed to for a final decision.

    A Systems Approach to Student Achievement

    This was largely a cheerleading session for the Common Core.   I've documented my reservations about that in enough other places that I won't rehash them here.   To learn more, listen to this podcast episode or read this blog entry.

    Final Thoughts

    Whew.   That covers all the notes I took at the conference.   Apologies if the notes on later sessions tend to be less detailed; note-taking fatigue began to set in.   Anyway, like I said at the beginning, there was a lot of useful info.  And even though I disagreed with the OSBA on a few points, overall I was very impressed with the conference they put together, and would highly recommend it for other board members.    

    Thanks OSBA!

    Sunday, June 16, 2013

    Constituent Coffees

    Following the lead of some other local elected officials, I've decided to start holding constituent coffees.   Basically I'll be hanging out at a known place and time, for you to catch me and update me on your concerns for school issues.    Or for you to yell at me, though you need to keep your volume down to the level acceptable at the cafĂ©.

    These will be on the first Saturday of every month, from 10-11 am, at the Human Bean on 10th & Oak in Hillsboro.   ( .   Hope to see you there!

    As always, I'm open to contact outside those hours-- just email me ( if you want to set up a meeting for a different time.

    Saturday, June 8, 2013

    More Choices In Hillsboro?

    Hi everyone-- Sorry this blog has been kind of quiet; I'm still recovering from the campaign, and have been travelling for work this week.

    Once nice development is that due to my emphasis on school choice during the school board campaign, I've already heard from a potential charter school org that wants to propose a school in Hillsboro.     They have asked for help getting in contact with local parents who might be interested, to discuss your needs & opinions. If you are willing to speak to them, please send me an email (   Thanks!

    Monday, May 27, 2013

    Some General Thoughts On Modern Math Programs

    I just posted a new episode of my math podcast, Math Mutation, where I discuss some general thoughts about "discovery-based" math programs.   Click on this link to read the transcript or listen to the podcast.   I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic.  

    Friday, May 24, 2013

    We Did It! What Happens Now?

    Thanks again for all your support!   Looks like we really did it...  Today's update (more-or-less final, only a tiny handful remain uncounted) gives me a solid victory:

     Erik Seligman .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     7,112   55.55
     Rebecca Lantz .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .     5,582   43.60
     WRITE-IN.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .       109     .85
    I won't actually be sworn in until the July meeting, but will start attending the meetings immediately.   I have a lot to learn, naturally, about the many details of this board position.   But I'm still very interested in hearing from any of you who have specific issues with the district that you want me to help look into.

    I'll also be continuing to blog at this site, as I promised during the campaign.   Hopefully my reflections as I ramp up on this position will be useful to future board members and others interested in our school district.   Or, at the very least, will provide some entertainment.

    Monday, May 6, 2013

    "We Don't Have A Communication Problem"

    Today all the candidates spoke at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.   I don't think there were too many surprises-- most of the candidates have made it pretty clear where they stand by now-- but I was amused by my opponent's attempt to refute my point about needing clear and open communication.  [paraphrasing] "We do not have a communication problem, we are great at communicating with the public:  just take a look at our website!"  I think that's a great idea-- please take her up on her challenge, and try to find information about the new Common Core math adoption on the district website, .

    To start with, you need to figure out what term to put in the search box.  Actually, before we continue, I should mention that 6 months ago the search box was not there-- it was added as a result of a request from myself and other curriculum committee members.   But OK, it's there now, so I guess we can give the district credit for that.   All our communication problems are now solved, right?   Ummm... maybe not.

    I can pretty much guarantee that whatever term you type in, you will get a bunch of apparent matches-- mostly links to powerpoint presentations full of fluff, that happen to mention the math curriculum adoption process in passing.   If you pore through the many useless matches, you may find your way to such exciting documents as the April board packet at , which mentions the curriculum discussion on page 43, or the "listening session" presentation at , which mentions the adoption in passing.     Will you even get far enough to understand that the issue was discussed in a Curriculum Committee meeting?   Where will you find out what happened in the discussion, or why one committee member abstained from voting?   I don't think there's even enough information there to know who to ask.

    The real question is:  where would you find a detailed discussion of what were the key issues surrounding this new curriculum?    It would take a lot of work poring through search results in the current system, and as far as I can tell, nobody has been tasked with clearly explaining this new curriculum and the issues surrounding it to the public.   Maybe the district is planning on something later-- but the changes to the middle school math curriculum are a radical restructuring from top to bottom, fundamentally changing the way middle schoolers learn math, and likely to create a parental uproar that dwarfs last year's "grading reform" fiasco.      If we don't clearly explain what it going on now, it will lead to confusion and anger later.

    It looks to me like my blog at is the only attempt to explain the key issues surrounding this new curriculum.   We need to be willing to explain and involve the public in ongoing issues like this, not just wait until the decisions are all made and publish a sanitized summary.    Take another look at my blog posts, and I think you will agree that this is a different type of communication than what we currently get from the school board-- and it's the kind of communication that we need in order to truly involve the community.