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.