Sunday, September 27, 2015

State Laws Preventing Responsible School Spending

At our 9/22 Hillsboro school board meeting, CFO Adam Stewart presented a plan to contract substitute teachers through an outside agency, rather than having our district employ them directly. We approved the plan, which will lead to a modest but real savings of around $1.3 million over the next three years. (See details in the meeting packet at page 16.)  But I was surprised by one hoop that Adam had to jump through due to state law: in Oregon, government agencies, including school districts, are not allowed to replace employees with contractors if the savings is solely in terms of salaries and benefits.

Huh?  This seemed strange to me. If we are overpaying an employee to provide a service that is offered in a more cost-effective way by the open market, shouldn't that be a great reason to make a change?  Don't we owe it to the children to avoid wasting money, so more can go where it is most sorely needed?  Our schools are an education program for children, not a jobs program for our employees.  But the state legislature seems to have a different idea: take a look at .  The language is somewhat obfuscated, but section 2a on that page really does require that for a service to be contracted, the savings cannot be solely in terms of wages and benefits.

Fortunately, Adam was able to identify some savings outside this category, based on freeing up staff time to be used on tasks other than supervising substitutes, so we will be able to contract out for the substitutes.   But I still find it very disturbing that we had to go through these convolutions.   How many government employees are we overpaying statewide to comply with this law?  How many millions of your tax dollars are going to waste ? Next time you hear anyone in state or local government talk about how we need to raise taxes to get more money for schools, think hard about laws like this.   Any Oregon politician who claims to need more money, but is not supporting reforms to ORS 279B.033, is intentionally encouraging the waste of state money, and prioritizing the needs of state employees over the public at large.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Opting Out of SBAC Tests

Recently there has been a major movement to opt out of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing, the new standardized test being used by schools in many states including Oregon.   Oregon recently passed a state law to ensure that parents have the right to opt out.  I think the major motivation for this effort is opposition to Common Core (CC), the new set of standards being implemented across many subjects.  As you've probably learned from reading my earlier blog entries, I'm not a big fan of CC:  it's a top-down effort masquerading as a grassroots initiative, and there are real questions about political motivations for many aspects of the standards.   Changing to a "more rigorous" standard while changing the tests at the same time also seems to provide a huge opportunity for trickery:  if the new teaching is so much more rigorous, why not first demonstrate that fact for a few years by watching scores rise on the old tests?   There are also serious concerns about data tracking in SBAC, and we cannot be totally sure about its guarantees of privacy to counter this.   Yet, even with these factors in mind, it still seems to me that opting your child out of the SBAC tests is not the right approach.  This is because of the critical role standardized tests play in being able to truly understand whether your child is learning what they need to at school.

My views on this are colored by an experience I had while teaching at a summer program at Phillips Academy at Andover back in the 1990s.  (Yes, that's the elite high school attended by the Bushes at one time!)  There was one student, who we'll call Chris (not his real name), who attended a rough inner-city school during the year, and was there on a scholarship.   He had a very high GPA at his school, and had been led to believe that he was a top academic achiever.   Yet it became apparent after a few weeks that he had simply never encountered a math program that even slightly challenged him:  at his school, the teachers were probably astonished that anybody was paying the slightest bit of attention.   So to be a top achiever, all he had to do was regurgitate facts and procedures from the teachers, with almost no actual understanding.   Chris was lucky that this issue was identified at this summer program; it could have easily been left stagnating until he was in his senior year & applying to colleges.   At Andover, we were able to help him a bit, but how many others are there like him across the country, who think they are doing great academically, but don't find out the true inadequacy of their education until it's too late?

That's why standardized tests are critical.  I know they are painful, and I'm sure they can always be improved, especially the SBAC with its known flaws of the CC basis, computer dependence, and exceptionally long testing time.   But having a method to compare knowledge and progress with others across the nation, independent from the judgment calls of your local teacher, is an absolutely critical part of your child's education.  At the last board meeting, we looked at some sample SBAC questions, and it looks like they are making a solid attempt at designing an academically challenging test to measure student knowledge, and its grading will be handled independently of any local school or district.   You can also see detailed examples at sites like this.   It's not perfect, and there are some questions about how truly objective the grading can be when the answers are free-form rather than multiple choice-- but scoring is independent of the local district.   We need this method available to flag cases where we are failing to educate some portion of the children, or our district is falling behind other districts, and this is not being detected due to grading curves or relaxed standards used by local teachers. 
I'm totally on board with continuing to protest the rush to CC and SBAC to your state legislators, and working to expose any issues with these new tests.  District officials have ensured me that there is an appeals process which you can use to review the actual SBAC questions and your child's answer, in case they spot something that seems unfair or politically biased:  be sure to take advantage of this if needed.   In addition, we need to be careful that "teaching to the test" doesn't become so dominant that it damages education, though I have already written about that topic, so won't belabor it here.    I believe the most legitimate objection to SBAC is the question of privacy and data tracking-- but this is really a more general issue; if you trust the government with your child 8 hours per day, this concern will always be there with or without SBAC.   Be sure to stay on top of such issues, and contact your legislators regularly with your concerns.  Overall, due to the critical nature of standardized tests for detecting and correcting possible major flaws in our children's education, it seems to me that opting out of SBAC tests is not the right decision.