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!

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