"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, September 30, 2010

If Only There Were More Hours in the Day

In the past few weeks, the idea of extending school days and the school year has been proffered by both the President and the Secretary of Education. The reasoning goes like this. The US does not do very well on international math and science tests. A lot of countries do better and many of their kids go to school longer or for more hours a day. Therefore, if we extend the hours in school, math and science proficiency will increase. I just have one question. Will throwing more time at the problem result in higher test scores?

Here's the problem as I see it.

First, every so many years, a new "New Math" program comes out. Most, like the latest get-rich-quick or diet fads, promise to teach kids greater understanding of math without any of the difficulties we commonly associate with math. No times tables. No long division. Instead, we have: What color is the number 10? Kids like it because it's easy and fun. Some teachers like it. And parents like it until they realize their kid doesn't know basic arithmetic.

And science? Science is dependent on math skills to quantify its ideas and implementations. To be good in science, you have to have fluency with math. It's that simple.

In ASD, we spent several years, and the mathematical foundation of thousands of students, on Investigations Math. This, and other related programs, are ubiquitous in this country. (My sister, a teacher in New Jersey, had to deal with "Fuzzy Math".) If we had increased classroom time during "Investigations", would our kids have a firmer grasp of math? No. Would more time on a diet that doesn't work result in weight loss? More time spent does not equate to a better result.

Even teaching traditional math, more class time doesn't equal more proficiency. Like budgeting, dieting, sports, or most anything else, you learn a principle, and then you have to put that principle into practice. Michael Jordan didn't become a great basketball player by just studying dribbling and three-point-shooting. He had to spend a lot of time practicing. The same is true for math and science. Math is about seeing relationships between numbers. Science is finding relationships in nature by way of math. If you do not have the basic facts as an automatic part of your problem solving, you can't free up higher brain functions to find those higher-level relationships. We need to ensure we are teaching a good foundation of the basics and encouraging practice. And then, we will see improvement.

Next, I am reminded of a phrase that says, "Sometimes less is more". Sometimes putting more of something into a problem doesn't yield good enough results to justify the effort you put into it. I read the account of a woman who decided to cut back her work day by one or two hours each day. She was amazed to find that she accomplished the same amount of work in less time. We tend to fill the time we have. There is a point at which the time is properly managed and a point when it is wasted (or even counter-productive). Let's not turn math instruction into "too much of a good thing".

Finally, whether it is intentional or not, increased school hours result in fewer family hours. The days are already filled with school, homework, and various activities. How many days each week do you have where you are not running kids from one thing to the next? How many days are you actively involved with your family, as a family? The most important of all relationships are those within our own families. We need to be able to properly balance school, activities and home life. Parental involvement is what is needed, not more school time.

There are so many days I have wished for more hours in the day. But the answer isn't more hours. The answer is in optimizing the hours that we have.

Friday, September 17, 2010

4. Financial Accountability

The role of school board member for Alpine School District (ASD) comes with an amazing fiscal responsibility. 100% of our state income tax goes to education. Approximately 67% of our property tax goes to education, and in this area, with a very small amount excepted, that property tax goes directly to ASD. None of this is a bad thing, but it underscores the great responsibility that comes with so great a trust. Since, by law, the school board approves the district budget and appoints the superintendent, the school board is the final decision-maker on those large percentages of your state and local tax dollars.

At a recent board meeting, it was outlined how well, fiscally, the district does. We spend more than other districts in Utah on teacher salaries and compensation, but less overall, per pupil. This indicates a good "bang for the buck".

At the same time, the district is going to request a new bond in 2011. The discussions have centered on population growth, and whether or not to bond a little bit at a time and ask for bonding more frequently or to bond for a lot of money less frequently. The board has decided that more money, less often is the approach they want to take.

The bond appears to be a foregone conclusion. In all the discussions, there hasn't been any specifics as to why the bond is needed. There are implications (with the growth) that there will be new schools built and older ones refurbished, but what the bond will actually provide has been sketchy.

Because of the fiscal soundness of the district, it is easy to just accept things with complacency. However, we are in a recession, and tax revenues have plummeted, as has the employment rate. The idea that people will be able to accommodate the additional burden associated with a bond isn't a foregone conclusion. This brings us back to why we have a school board. At all levels of government, we have a check and balance. The board is there to represent and advocate for the interests of the community at large. They are not there to agree and support the district's initiatives. The board members are to weigh the pros and cons of these fiscal decisions, not just on the district, but also on the individuals that make up this community. I would suggest that the board should present voters with a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A is with the bond, Plan B is without. Give the voters a clear choice, not just a plea for more money.

Since tax money, by definition, comes from the labors of others, it is a solemn duty that the school board undertakes as it approves and votes on these fiscal matters. It is important that every aspect of this be open to public scrutiny. I have seen recently that part of the benefit of public comment is that school boards, and city councils cannot possess enough knowledge and wisdom to cover all the possibilities and aspects of the major issues impacting the population they represent. Giving the public information and allowing them to do the research for you, benefits everyone. Those who are interested use their expertise to advise the governing body. In effect, the research arm of the school board is made up of the residents. Ideas and options unimagined by the board can be presented and, possibly, used when the people are given the opportunity to help find our solutions. Public comment is invaluable, not to lead the public where you want them to go, but to obtain the necessary information from those with the additional knowledge that 7 members of a school board cannot possibly have on their own.

Finally, it is important to understand the impact of our fiscal decisions on both the children in our schools as well as the people who pay for those schools. It has been and always will be a balancing act. No one thinks that 100% of one's income should go to public schools. At the same time, there is always the opportunity of what could be done with more funding. In short, there is no "perfect" balance. This is why board members are just people in the community--there to represent the interests of all: balancing the needs of our schools with the needs of the people. George Washington said of government, "It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." The fiscal responsibility of a school board member is to keep the balance between what the schools need to operate and the burden imposed, by force, on our community.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Meeting with Alpine Education Association

Today I met with the Alpine Education Association (AEA) as they decide which candidates they will be endorsing for the upcoming election.

Prior to being contacted by the AEA, I didn't know much about them. I looked on their website, but didn't get a whole lot of information. I talked to a few neighbors, teachers and my state legislator. All were very positive about the AEA. I did find out that they are in charge of negotiating the teachers' contracts with the district.

The interview started out with my describing my background and my interest in education. They asked what I had heard about the AEA, and I told them what I outlined above. Their Vice-President wanted to assure me that their association wasn't there to keep bad teachers around. She said their goal is to help teachers who need remediation and to make sure that they get their due process. They hear stories all the time about teachers' associations being there to enable bad teachers to keep their jobs. They wanted to make sure that I understood that this wasn't their position at all. I certainly appreciated that they wanted to make this position clear. I assume that it would make good teachers' jobs more difficult to have "bad apples" in the bunch. I also appreciate that you want to make sure you're being fair with people.

We discussed Investigations Math, and my "lack of enthusiasm" for it. However, this isn't the reason I'm running, per se, as Investigations isn't supposed to be used in ASD anymore. One of the teachers wondered if it wouldn't have been better if they had introduced Investigations, starting in Kindergarten and First Grade, and following it through, rather than switching wholesale as was done. I agreed that it would have been better, but that I felt kids needed more of a basic foundation in arithmetic that Investigations doesn't provide. As I've said, math is about knowing the relationships between numbers and seeing the patterns. If you have a firm grasp of that, you free your mind up for higher computations and associations with those numbers.

Another question was about my desire for greater parental involvement. I told them about the district using technology like emails and more "front page" website posts to "push" information out to parents. I didn't go into too much more detail, but you're welcome to read the post about that here.

I was also asked about the latest talk of increasing the high school requirement to four years of math and science. I am opposed to this. I think we want kids to have the basics: basic knowledge of arithmetic, and whenever possible, basic algebra. With algebra, you can go to most other disciplines successfully. Other than that, we don't need to force people to spend time on math, if they aren't interested in it. It doesn't benefit anyone. I was required to take only 2 years of math in high school. However, because I was interested in it, and I thought it would benefit me in college, I did take four years of math. This is what we want. Those who are interested, spend the additional time studying it. And those that aren't, get to study something else that would be of benefit to them.

Finally, I was asked if I was a "jump into things with both feet" kind of person, or a "sit and watch" kind of person. I think that I'm more of a "jump in" person, but I am very aware that you don't want to take what's working and start all over from scratch. I want to make sure that any changes that I advocate are actually beneficial and not just throwing the baby out with the bath water, as it were.

I really appreciated their taking the time to meet with me. It was a good opportunity for me to spend a bit of time with people that are on the "front lines" of educating our children. I appreciate their dedication and their commitment to that end.