Sunday, May 25, 2014

Does Hillsboro Hold Hostages?

At the last board work session, there were some objections to my use of the word "hostage" to describe a certain class of students. Suppose you were in this situation:
  • Your child's circumstances have changed (academic issues, unavailability of desired class, bullying incidents, misdirected discipline, etc) and you really want them in another school.
  • Due to poor past interactions with district staff or administrators, you are more comfortable transferring to another district than going to another school in HSD.
  • The nearby Beaverton school district has open slots in one school, and has accepted your child.
  • Hillsboro has refused to grant a "release", so your child (and the corresponding tax money) are not allowed to go to Beaverton.
  • Your financial circumstances do not allow you to pay tuition or send your child to private school.
In other words, your child is not getting an appropriate education here, there is a slot for them at a good school in another district, and the only thing stopping them from going is that Hillsboro wants to keep your child in place in order to keep your share of tax money.

What would you call this circumstance? How would you feel if this happened to you, and your child was forced to stay in Hillsboro despite major problems that are negatively impacting their education or safety?   I say that it is unfair and unethical for a school district to refuse the inter-district transfer when parents decide it would be appropriate.  And if someone is being held in a school district that they do not desire in order to extract money from them, I think "hostage" is a perfectly appropriate term.

The discussion in the meeting was about the inter-district transfer process for this year. The original proposal was to put a cap of 20 on releases for such transfers out of Hillsboro, and if more than that apply, the rest would have to stay in our district.  I should point out that there was a separate state-mandated Open Enrollment process earlier in the year, where no student could be stopped from leaving.   But there's always the chance that someone's circumstances have changed, or their parents were not aware of the tight deadline for Open Enrollment, and I still think they deserve the right to transfer through this process as well.     Not to mention the fact that the previous board used legal loopholes to effectively negate Open Enrollment, and who knows when the law might change again.    So I do not believe we should have a cap on releases.

Surely, there is some level of financial risk to the district, if for some reason there is suddenly a huge wave of transfer requests. But this is not significantly greater than other risks we constantly face-- sudden condemnation of our bleachers in one field, collapsed well in some school, etc, that we plug with emergency funds when needed.   It's also no different than the financial risk that other businesses, including private schools, continually face if they are not properly serving their customers. (Actually the risk is a bit less, since we get to keep a small proportion of each transfer student's tax share for overhead.) And it seems to me that a small level of financial risk is much better for our district than the moral hazard of potentially holding some students as hostages for their tax money.

The good news is that, although some were offended by my terminology, our side ended up largely winning the argument.   We managed to increase the cap on releases from 20 to 100, which is much more than the number of new transfer requests we are likely to receive in a typical year. So now parents in Hillsboro have much more flexibility in case they need it, and at least this year HSD will not be holding any hostages.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Moving and Confusing The Goalposts

Some of you may have noticed that I've been unusually quiet for the past month, missing my first board meeting since becoming a member, and (for the first time in years) not actively participating during an election cycle. This is because I had surgery a couple of weeks ago: nothing life-threatening, just a UPPP for sleep apnea, and then during my recovery, tripped and broke a foot, taking me out for another 2 weeks. Ugh.

Anyway, as I caught up on various school-related stuff during my recovery, I noticed that there have been some interesting developments in Common Core (CC) over the past month. If you have been following the many CC debates online, you're probably aware that objections are arriving from a number of different directions to elements of the program.  One aspect that really troubles me is the new "Smarter Balanced" tests.  These have been getting a lot of media attention lately.    There are several potential problems I see with these tests:
  • Due diligence:  While I'm generally in favor of some level of standardized testing, it sounds like these new tests were accepted to be deployed nationally before being fully piloted, understood, or even fully defined.
  • Unfunded Mandates:  They are also creating massive expense for states and local districts, due to being computer-based and requiring new technology purchases for implementation.
  • Confusing Results:  Their rapid deployment, testing cohorts of students who have mostly been taught old standard vs the new standards, will inevitably create (bogus) labels of failure for schools and students.
  • Moving the Goalposts: If the new CC standards are truly "more rigorous", shouldn't we be able to test with the old tests for another 5 years or so, and see improving test scores validate the advocates' claims about CC? If we change both the curriculum and tests at the same time, that kills our ability to truly measure what has changed.

  • Steve Buel of the Portland Public Schools board (separate district from Hillsboro, about 2.5x our size) introduced a proposed resolution at their 4/16 meeting listing a large number of objections to CC, and proposing numerous solutions. You can find the full text at his Facebook page. I think the resoluton suffers a little from the kitchen-sink effect, trying to list everything about CC that has raised objections from someone and propose every possible solution, and I would be surprised if it ends up passing.   It also looks to me like Steve included a bit too much anti-corporate populism ("corporate interests to advocate for and develop CCSS for the benefit of corporations"), which might sell well in Portland, but is this really that different from other types of curriculum materials sold to the district by education companies?   Perhaps if they draft some smaller resolutions based on specific areas, like the concerns with the new testing, they might have a better chance of converging on some good policy reforms. I'll be following what happens there, and watching for possible relevance to our distict as well.

    The Oregon Education Association has also just passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the new Smarter Balanced tests. They don't get into too many specifics in their resolution, but it looks like the new and unproven nature is their biggest concern, as discussed in my first point above. I can see why they are concerned, of course-- our hardworking teachers deserve better than to be labeled and judged based on a new and unproven set of tests.

    Anyway, it seems like concern about Common Core is going more and more mainstream these days. I'll continue to try to keep abreast of these concerns as a school board member-- but remember that our local hands are largely tied, with CC being enforced by state law. So in addition to talking to your school board members, be sure to write to your local legislators and share your concerns directly!