Sunday, July 27, 2014

Oregon School Board Association Summer Convention Wrap-Up

[Taking a short break from my series on Critical Race Theory  this week, to summarize highlights of last week's conference.]

Last week I attended the Oregon School Board Association's  annual summer conference.  Once again, there was lots of useful information presented, and it was great to be able to meet & greet fellow board members from around the state.   I was a little unhappy, however, with the excessive emphasis on politics this year (news flash:  the OSBA wants the state to give the schools more money!); I think the OSBA needs to make a bigger effort to eliminate content that consists of direct political advocacy.   Anyway, here's a summary of the most interesting tidbits I'm taking home:

Most amusing (though slightly disturbing) anecdote:  Paraphrased from someone in a small rural area.  "Yes, our district was suffering, 50% population loss in the last five years due to the economy.  But then we were revitalized when a large group of new people moved into town.  They all wear white turbans, and most don't have jobs, because they preach that the world is about to end in the next year or two.  But they do send their kids to public school, and they are pretty well-behaved."

State School Fund Talk:    I think the biggest take-away here was that when a public official says "New program XXX won't cost your district any money, since it's being provided from the State School Fund", that's not quite right.  The State School Fund is what is divided among districts & provides 60% of your actual education funding-- so any statewide program funded from that is taking away money from every district!   Unless new funding is allocated for it, remember that any new state education program is probably taking money from your district.
  • Politically, this was one talk with a not-so-subtle bias, repeatedly mentioning money "lost" by districts when strategic investment programs / urban renewal districts lower property tax rates.   Completely ignoring that the whole point of these things is an improved economy which results in greater income tax revenues from successful businesses and residents.
Building Lasting Change In Schools:   This talk focused on implementing (rather than debating!) Common Core.  They really pushed the idea of providing more time for teacher preparation and collaboration, showing graphs claiming 20-40% less student contact time per teacher in Europe than the U.S.

Rob Saxton (Deputy Oregon Schools Superintendent) Keynote:   Largely talking about how new Common Core and related efforts will improve Oregon education performance.
  • Pointed out that currently 2/3 of our grads need some kind of remedial class in college, pretty sad.  He says Common Core is the solution, since it will teach to higher standards.  He didn't really explain why this couldn't also be solved by keeping the current standards, but requiring higher test scores to graduate-- either way, we're basically expecting teachers to teach more stuff with the same time/resources.
  • Claim is that federal govt made a mistake pushing Common Core too hard, which politicized it.
  • Another odd statement:  "This won't make it harder to graduate, the same or better percentage of students will ultimately pass."  Seems hard to reconcile with the claim of higher standards; my guess is that when fewer students pass, they will be dumbed down to the current level.
  • Currently 60% of students can read by grade 3, goal is for 90%.  Early learning programs starting at birth are supposed to enable this.
  • Saxton says we need smarter evidence-based teaching based on best practices.  Sounds nice, but will "best practices" mean that some state bureaucrat starts dictating every detail, instead of allowing local autonomy?

Ted Wheeler (state treasurer) Keynote:  100% political talk, advocating the "Oregon Opportunity Initiative", which amends the state constitution to add a new scholarship fund.  Looks to me like this will just feed the higher education tuition bubble.

Ethics Workshop:  The big surprise here was how much stricter the ethics laws are for school employees & board members than at most private companies.  In particular, all personal use of a school-owned computer- even sending an email about dinner to your wife between meetings- is forbidden!  Also, if you get credit card points/miles for school-related spending that ends up being reimbursed, you need to calculate their approximate value & subtract from your requested reimbursement.

Nancy Golden (Oregon Chief Education Officer):  Emphasizing the state's new "P20" focus, from prenatal years to age 20.    Not too much new ground, lots of advocacy of new state policies like Saxton.   
  • Interesting point about Oregon's low graduation rate stats:  hurt somewhat by districts that offer "5th year programs" and "modified diplomas", both siutations where student is ultimately successful but count against the 4-year grad rates.  Need to work on supporting these programs, when they work, in a way that won't hurt the stats.
Legislative Advocacy Session:  3 steps to communicating with legislator:  get informed, develop a relationship, share your story.    Don't be afraid to deal with staff- they are often the brains of the operation
School Finance:  A dry but important topic.   A few good takeaways here:
  • Remember, to be spent, money must be both appropriated and received.  Don't assume you have the money until it actually arrives- state has a nasty habit lately of sudden mid-cycle budget changes.
  • If a school official says "trust me", that's an indication that you should probably take a closer look.
  • Remember to have the board, not the CFO, sign expense reports from the superintendent- don't put employee in position of auditing his own boss.

Board Governance Through Policy:  Another dry but important topic.    When setting policy, ask:  Is it legal?  Does it reflects current practice?  Does it work?  Is it needed?    Avoid specific dollar amounts or time frames- policy may easily become out-of-date or nonsensical.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is Meritocracy A Myth?

Today we continue our discussion of the politically biased and racist Equity training materials, provided by the organization "Uniting To Understand Racism", that I began describing in my last blog.   These materials have been used to train staff members in how to achieve Equity for our students.

Do you believe that the United States is a land of opportunity?   That people coming here with nothing have a chance to succeed through hard work and merit?   That we are one of the few nations in the world where someone without connections, or without being a member of a dominant racial or cultural group, is given a fair chance?    Of course there are no guarantees-- there are many other factors such as luck, intelligence, and being in the right place at the right time.    But the United States offers unique opportunities that are virtually unparalleled anywhere in the world, one reason why so many immigrants are desperate for the chance to carve out a new life for themselves here.    However, according to the Equity training materials used by the Hillsboro School District (and many other local school districts and public entities), the idea of  meritocracy in America is a myth, a deception used by the dominant culture to enforce a system of White Privilege.

Here are a few excerpts from these training materials expressing this idea:
  • [p.7]  This de-emphasis on one's racial group membership may allow the individual to think that race has not been or will not be a relevant factor in one's own achievement, and may contribute to the belief in a US meritocracy that is often part of a Pre-encounter [== before taking this class] worldview.
  • [p.22, Describing initial stages of White identify before taking this class:]  We may perceive ourselves as color-blind and free of prejudice.   We think of racism as the prejudiced behavior of individuals, rather than the institutionalized system of advantage benefiting whites.
  • [p.27, Describing Whites at later stages of the class:] The social inequities they now notice directly contradict the idea of an American meritocracy.
  • [p.30]  For Whites, thinking of oneself only as an individual is a legacy of White Privilege....  The view of oneself as an individual is very compatible with the dominant ideology of rugged individualism and the American myth of meritocracy.
  • [p.42] For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.  The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy.
They continually refer to "the myth of meritocracy", treating it as an established, indisputable fact, with the only possible source of disagreement being due to the ignorance resulting from having not taken their class.   The overall point seems to be that to gain a mature understanding of race in America, attendees need to give up the antiquated concepts of striving for a colorblind society and of success through merit.   What kind of ignorant bumpkin could still "look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character"?  Educated and knowledgeable people, according to this class's view, must recognize that real success in our country usually results from the exercise of racial privilege.   

I find this teaching especially disturbing because such a large proportion of our minority students, who these classes are supposedly going to help succeed, are part of first- or second- generation immigrant families from Mexico and other Central American countries.   These are places where the failure of local government really has made it impossible to succeed-- and they have come here to enjoy the opportunities that America offers.   Many of them are both successfully supporting themselves and sending extra money to relatives, truly making a better life for themselves and their families despite being at the bottom of the economic ladder by our standards.   It takes a lot of work to teach these people, naturally inclined to be grateful for what our country has offered them, to instead resent the United States for supposed race-based unfairness.   With the aid of the philosophy taught in this class, we are apparently indoctrinating the notion that there is no hope of success through merit and hard work, and instead it is better to succeed by demanding redress for racial grievances.

Does this controversial, one-sided political analysis belong in our required Equity classes?  Should this be the official philosophy of the Hillsboro School District?   Do you believe this is an appropriate way to train our teachers?   If not, please make your voice heard. Call the district at 503-844-1500, come and speak at the public comment period during one of the board meetings or contact HSD through one of the other methods on the contact page

By the way--  if you live in another school district, or are more involved with some non-school public entity--  do not assume you’re not affected by this issue!   Radical supporters of Critical Race Theory have worked their way into Equity or Diversity positions in many school districts, and the organization Uniting to Understand Racism supplies training materials to many public bodies.   Call your administration and ask to see the materials they use to teach these subjects.   You will likely be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

How To Be Racist In Hillsboro

A few months ago, we had a small controversy regarding the political bias of the "Uniting to Understand Racism" (UUR) organization, which created the Equity training used by the Hillsboro School District to train all staff members.  They base their teachings on the radical and divisive Critical Race Theory, which teaches that invisible White Privilege is the primary source of inequity in America.  If that wasn't enough to demonstrate their political bias, they posted some truly vile Internet memes on their Facebook page, equating political conservatives with KKK members. After Superintendent Scott complained on HSD's behalf, they removed the offending posts. Then, a week later, they posted an additional attack on conservatives, perhaps hoping that after the first removal we would no longer be paying attention. After another set of complaints, they removed the new post... but should we really be trusting (and sending your tax dollars to) an organization that has shown such open defiance towards our real concerns about political bias?

Anyway, after that I thought I should review their training materials that have been used in HSD. I opened their training packet, and read this definition of racism on the first page:

"Racism is racial prejudice (which both people of color and white people have) plus systemic, institutional power (which white people have). To say people of color can be racist denies the power imbalance inherent in racism. ... People of color can act on their prejudice to insult, even hurt a white person. But there is a difference between being hurt and being oppressed. People of color, as a social group, do not have the societal, institutional power to oppress white people as a group. An individual person of color abusing a white person - while clearly wrong - is a acting out of personal racial prejudice, not racism."

They have played an underhanded and manipulative (though standard in Critical Race Theory) rhetorical trick here: redefine a word, "racism", that has major emotional connotations.  Their definition is completely at odds with the word as used by ordinary English speakers, and as defined in most dictionaries   Keep in mind that "Racism is unfair and wrong" is one of the few statements that liberals, conservatives, Democrats, and Republicans all agree on. By redefining this emotionally charged word, UUR has essentially reframed the argument, requiring all conversation in the class to conform to their belief that invisible White Privilege pervades our society, and that addressing racism is a one-way task of correcting White behavior. This is a controversial political analysis to say the least, not a generally agreed fact as they imply. And it is one that most conservatives not only profoundly disagree with, but find deeply offensive and- yes- racist. (As per the dictionary definition.) UUR's redefinition of the term effectively declares conservative views out-of-bounds and beyond the pale of debate.

But more importantly, we also need to ask the practical question: even if you agree with this political analysis of American society, is teaching staff to think of racism as a one-sided societal oppression, carried out by universally by white people, an effective way to encourage Equity for every individual in our school district?   Every staff member in our schools should be expected to deal fairly and impartially with people of all races, in all their interactions.  Think about who are the real victims of the "societal, institutional power" in each of these entirely plausible scenarios (based on real situations I have seen, read about, or been told of):
  • A multiracial group of bullies repeatedly torments an overweight white girl at recess. A teacher knows what is going on, but finds it easiest to ignore, rationalizing that white people will do fine anyway.
  • A white student is placed in a nearly 100% Latino class with a teacher who spends much of the day trying to keep a small group of discipline-problem students under control by speaking to them in Spanish. He is being ignored when he falls behind and is unable to read, and when his mother complains, she is brushed aside and told that the immigrant students just need more attention.
  • A Jewish student is absent on Yom Kippur (the most important Jewish holiday of the year), but a teacher had made that the due date for a paper. The teacher grudgingly accepts the paper the next day, but angrily warns the student, "I will be grading this very strictly, because I can't let you use your religion to gain an academic advantage."
  • Two students of different races get into a fistfight at recess. One, who is nonwhite, has been seen repeatedly bullying other kids and clearly started the fight. But because the teacher has been reprimanded for punishing a statistically high number of minority students in the previous quarter, he is afraid to take any specific action against the aggressor.
  • During a discussion in history class about immigration, one student voices the opinion that we shouldn't be providing more benefits to illegal immigrants, who violate our laws, than we do for veterans who risked their lives to defend them. A group of Latino students then accuse the speaker of racism, and the teacher considers their request to punish the offending student for violating the school's harassment code.
  • Several teachers apply for a department head position. The selection ends up being based not on qualifications, talent, or experience, but on the fact that one (who appears to be blonde and white) claims to have a Native American ancestor three generations back.
  • Shouldn't we be striving to treat all members of the HSD community fairly, not dividing them by skin color into groups more- or less- deserving of fairness, based on a political analysis of American society?  Shouldn't every staff member be expected to look at their own behavior, whether they are members of a majority or minority race, and treat everyone they interact with according to the facts of the situation and the content of their character?  As I've mentioned before, there are plenty of other Equity programs, such as Microinequities, that address these issues by treating people as individuals instead of dividing and labelling them by skin color.

    If you agree with me, and want politically biased concepts and manipulative redefinitions of racism removed from Hillsboro's equity training, be sure to make your voice heard.   Call the district at 503-844-1500, come and speak at the public comment period during one of the board meetings or contact HSD through one of the other methods on the contact page.

    By the way-- this is just what I saw on page 1. Wait until you see some of the outrageous statements I found further down in the training packet, in my next blog entry...

    Saturday, July 5, 2014

    Guns In The Schools?

    By now I'm sure you heard about the recent shootings at Reynolds High School, not too far from our district.   This is the latest example of a tragic series of incidents we have heard about in our nation's public schools, and once again has led to many knee-jerk calls to tighten gun control laws.  However, one detail that has been de-emphasized (deliberately?) in many of the news stories is that it was armed School Resource Officers in the school-- good guys with guns-- who stopped the shooting soon after it began.   So I'm inclined more to ask the opposite question:  how can we increase opportunities for qualified staff members to be ready to defend our children and our schools if needed?

    As you may be aware, current Hillsboro School District policy is that staff members, even if licensed for concealed carry, are not allowed to possess guns in schools.  There is a lot of confusion about the legal issues involved here:  at the last board meeting, we reviewed OSBA-supplied policy language that implied that the federal Gun Free School Zone act required us to have this rule, and there were some questions about whether that is really true.   I met with some staff members afterwards to clarify, and found out that states can override the GFSZ act-- and Oregon has done so, enabling local districts to allow weapons if they want.   I'm a bit annoyed at the OSBA here, for sticking this misleading sentence into their recommended policy:  "Further, in accordance with the federal Gun-Free School Zone Act, no person shall possess or discharge a firearm, as defined by the federal statute, in a school zone."  The word "person" there should be changed to "student", to accurately reflect the legal requirement in Oregon.

    Unfortunately, there is one other major complication:  liability insurance for the schools.   Superintendent Scott informed me that our insurance provider has made it an explicit requirement that we have the policy forbidding gun possession by staff members, unless they have law-enforcement-level weapons training.  In other words, due to our insurance rules, School Resource Officers from the police department are in effect the only ones that can be authorized to carry weapons.   The staff do not believe we have to worry about this, because local police have measured response time during drills, and believe that we can have armed officers at any school in the district within 4 minutes of the alarm being raised.   

    So, it looks like the current situation for HSD is that we cannot change the policy on staff weapon possession due to insurance issues, and need to rely on the rapid response time of our local police.   I'll be interested to hear from any of you out there who have experience with law enforcement, weapon possession issues, and insurance issues-- is this a situation where we should be happy with the current plan, or do we need to push back and re-examine the various insurance rules and laws impacting this topic?