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!

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