Sunday, February 16, 2014

Academic Achievement, Punch Fight, and Other Mid-February Highlights

At last Tuesday's school board meeting, assistant superintendent Steve Larson gave the annual presentation on student achievement in HSD.    Our district was compared to the other 12 large (10000+ student) Oregon districts, first analyzing our demographic profile (% kids in poverty, English learners, etc) and then measuring our achievement with those factors in mind.   Based on this information, Steve calculated that with all other factors being equal, if HSD offers comparable quality education to the other megadistricts, we should expect to rank around 9th on the list.

With this taken into account, HSD actually did very well in a couple of areas:   we rank #1 and #2 statewide for SAT participation and dropout prevention.    We should congratulate the staff for their great work in this area.   Thanks staff!     In other areas, we are roughly in line with Steve's calculation, being somewhat in the neighborhood of 9th in most areas.   This is most disappointing in the areas of reading and math achievement, where we are at this baseline.     We have some work to do here; while some might say it's pretty good to be at the baseline, we need to keep in mind that Oregon as a whole is not ranked very highly among the states educationally (see, for example, this link), so we need to aim for much more than being on par with our expected statewide average.     

We also need to keep in mind that in this economy, HSD cannot expect a sudden infusion of money to solve these problems.   (Well, we might actually have some money to work with in HSD this year as discussed in my last post, but as I mention there, this is likely to be temporary.)    And the recent bond rejection makes it even less likely that we will find ourselves with more money to work with.   Thus I was a little worried by Steve's emphasis in his conclusions that we need more resources to improve educational quality in HSD.      Similar to the situation faced by many businesses these days, the district needs to place a strong emphasis on finding new methods that will improve student achievement *without* spending extra money.   

As I have often stated in this blog, I think one big under-realized opportunity for us to raise achievement is the concept of offering different educational options to meet the needs of different students.    We are already doing this in some areas:    one example is the Dual Language program, which for some subset of students seems to be significantly increasing achievement according to Steve's measures.    (Note that I am not contradicting my earlier posts:  there are also some students for whom dual-language is not a good choice, and we need to take care to match the methods to the students.)    The Hillsboro Online Academy is another great example of a new teaching method that is not inherently more expensive, probably a real cost savings in the long term, and increases the achievement of a subset of students who were having trouble in a traditional school.     We need to be spending more time pushing for initiatives like these, helping students by identifying and offering them the right options for their abilities and learning style, rather than repeatedly demanding more money.

Other highlights of the meeting included:
  • Corporate sponsorships:   Should we allow companies to buy naming rights to sports fields, gymnasiums, etc?   I say yes, as long as we are raising money for the general fund that will help academically, not just improve the sports fields.   Kids are bombarded with thousands of ads a day anyway; I don't think a few signs on sports fields will make a noticeable difference.   Fellow board member Wayne Clift was worried that it would "make him feel dirty" to accept corporate money.   But I think it feels much dirtier to be part of an academically weak school district.
  • Board Members Speaking in Public:   Board member Janeen Sollman recently testified in favor of a proposed law in Salem.   Some board members were worried that she might be giving the false impression that the whole board agrees with her statements.   This is similar to the issue at the root of my objections to the "One Voice" policy that I posted last summer.   Personally, I think we should err on the side of free speech:    recognize that board members may speak out as individuals, and trust in the intelligence of the public to sort it out.     So although I disagree with the substance of some of her comments, I'm on Janeen's side on this one.
Also this week, I went on a technology tour of Century High School.   I was impressed with how much shop class has changed since when I was in school:   Mr. Morley showed me how his students designed their projects using CAD software, then manufactured them using 3-D printers and laser etching machines.    He really seemed to have the students excited and engaged in the topic.   Then Mr. Winikka showed me his computer programming class, where students are developing cool Android apps.   I was impressed at his ability to manage a class full of students at widely varying sophistication levels:  some were busy with "hello world"-type programs, while another was pretty far along in developing an amusing (G-rated) Mortal Kombat-style game called "Punch Fight".      Overall, it looks like Century students have some great opportunities to learn advanced tech skills that will serve them well in their post-graduation lives.   Great work guys!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Counting Your Chickens, and Other Budget Matters

You've probably heard the good budget news by now-- according to current projections, our district looks like it will have about $3.5 million extra to spend this year, a welcome chance from past years when the budget was consistently in the red.   At Tuesday's board meeting, the budget process was kicked off with an initial presentation of this information, along with asking everyone to think about where the district should prioritize its spending.   Some suggestions included targeted class size reduction, technology improvements to replace some of what we had been hoping for from the failed bond, or focused attention on the most challenged schools to improve student outcomes.

While it's great to be able to think of various positive uses of this extra money to improve educational outcomes, there are a few notes of caution here.   My past election opponent (and now budget committee member) Rebecca Lantz brought up the fact that some of our revenue sources are not completely guaranteed, and also may be one-time bumps, so we should be very careful not to spend in ways, such as hiring new teachers, that implicitly assume they will be repeated next year.      It looks like there are a few areas where I agree with her!    Some also suggested that given the large number of red years, maybe it made more sense to bank some of this money for a rainy day?

This actually ties in to another topic that we didn't discuss much Tuesday, but came up in the Audit Committee meeting the day before.   The district's annual financial report, which was blessed by the auditors, looks reasonable and seems to show the district finances are in good shape.  But-- and this is a big But-- it does not show the full estimated future costs of growing PERS retirement liabilities.   Apparently for arcane legal & regulatory reasons, the discussion of future costs is based on old PERS estimates that only include a subset of the massive Tier 1 cost bubble expected in the next decade.    So, the net summary:  we have a huge future liability that is missing from the financial report.   The good news is that when I asked about this, Adam (district CFO) reported that the law has changed, and starting from the 2015 report, this PERS liability will be directly included.    I asked if he could try to include estimates of this in an appendix to the 2014 report as well.

Back at the school board meeting, one other aspect of the budget discussion really disturbed me.   This was the idea that we have to spend our surplus, because otherwise the legislators would think we don't really need the budget we have, and would feel safe reducing it next year.    This conforms to one of the worst stereotypes of government bureaucracies, that they constantly increase their spending to show their 'need' for the money, and thus are in a permanent state of monolithic growth.   We should have the courage to save when saving makes sense, and then openly defend our decisions in the political arena.   As I see it, agencies that prudently save instead of increasing spending when they are aware of a major upcoming cost are being responsible with the public money; they should be considered more, not less, legitimate stewards of public tax funds.

Anyway, given the uncertainty of some of our revenue sources and the expected upcoming PERS liability, I think we do need to be very careful about how we handle any budget surplus,  We must make sure that we set aside enough money so that we do not drown under red ink in future years, even if things do look good now.    Given the generally negative public attitude towards school district spending as shown by the recent bond vote, I don't think we can expect major increases in district funding.   I'd love to hear what you think about these issues, and (assuming we do have some portion of the surplus that we don't bank) where you think we should spend the extra money.