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.

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