"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

Monday, October 22, 2012

Responsible Participation in a Democracy

Note: I am NOT aware of any of these materials being used in Alpine District Schools. However, where they are recommended by the USOE's Materials Committee, they are fair game for any public school in Utah to adopt.

Imagine your daughter comes home from school.  She presents you with an essay on a political topic she is, all of a sudden, very passionate about.  Her essay makes you angry and afraid.  She deliberately projects the worst that could happen with this particular situation.  And finally, she wants you to join her cause.

...Now imagine she's six years old.

Too far-fetched?  Read on.

One of the big issues for parents has to do with textbooks. Which textbooks are used?  Can they bring them home?   I have been told we want to allow our teachers to use whatever materials and resources they need to accomplish their objectives.  However, parents want to know what their kids are learning and have some idea of what is being taught.  How do parents stay involved in that process? Should the local school board have oversight in this regard? Or should it be left to the individual teachers? Should teachers provide a syllabus and a list of materials for parents? Should parents even want to know, as long as the kids are doing well and meeting the objectives?

And just what are some of those objectives?

At a Utah School Boards' Association meeting last January, the President of the National School Boards' Association gave the keynote address.  She concluded her speech with the idea that if public schools ceased to exist, we would lose our democracy. 

At a recent Governor's Education Summit, it was reported that while it is important for us to educate our students for employment, it is also important they know how to treat people in society and act "civilly".

The State Board of Education says, "Utah's public education system is created in the state Constitution to 'secure and perpetuate' freedom."

Alpine School District's first value statement is, "To prepare our students for responsible participation in a democracy."

Currently, the emphasis of public education seems to be more on perpetuation of our democracy/way of life/democratic republic/[insert your preferred description here] than on the 3 R's.  Nationally, as I read publications, teachers are being told their role is to make sure their students become good citizens.  Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic take a back seat to participatory democracy. 

"So what?" you say. "Who can argue against good citizenship?"  I would submit that while securing and perpetuating freedom are very good and noble goals (ones I whole-heartedly support), good citizenship (however defined) is not the sole purpose or even the primary purpose of education, public or otherwise.  When you make good citizenship the primary objective, you remove the focus from the individual child.  The child becomes a cog in the wheel of the larger society.  At one point, education was about providing skills for discerning truth from error; classical education was about creating an educated individual without any other expectation.  Citizenship and public involvement were the by-products instead of the objectives.  Public involvement was also reserved for adults, not children.  Furthermore, depending on who determines what "good citizenship" looks like, you could be opening a big can of worms.

That brings us back to the original questions: how do we know what our kids are being taught, and how involved should parents be in following along?

The Utah State Office of Education has an Instructional Materials Database.  A committee, made up of educators from the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) along with appointed citizens, reviews materials and makes recommendations. The official purpose of the Instructional Materials Committee is to determine how closely materials align with the Utah Core standards for a given grade and subject. Recommended materials may be used without reservation for that grade/subject. Recommended Limited materials may be used in the classroom but require supplementation.  So, someone is watching over us and determining what our kids should learn.  No need for us to be concerned, right?

Let's take a look at a few examples.

In our district, it's safe to say the majority of parents want a more traditional approach to math.  Since implementing Common Core, we have been trying to find textbooks that would appeal to our parents.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find any Common Core integrated math textbooks for Grade 9. Only one other Common Core state adopted the integrated math approach besides Utah. The other 45 states still teach Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, etc.  Obviously, the textbook publishers didn't have a market for the integrated textbooks.   Alpine's ninth-grade teachers are having to use whatever they have and put things together on their own. (As a side note, a parent at a School Community Council asked what the approval process was for teacher-developed materials. There is no formal process.)

One integrated textbook the State's Review Committee recommends is the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP). This math book doesn't have any examples, but does have a political agenda. The introduction says this program is appreciated for the "communication skills...developed....The ability to persuade people and to effectively argue ideas has proved priceless...in personal, academic, and professional situations." This is a math book, remember. 

Here is a link to the IMP evaluation from the Materials Review Committee. "Lessons consist of single-page individual or group tasks without traditional mathematical instruction or explanations. Mathematics is learned through the culture and practice that is developed within the classroom as students work on the various tasks.[emphasis mine]"  This is an approved textbook. 

By contrast, Saxon Math, considered a traditional math text, didn't have an integrated approach available yet.   Even so, a pre-Common Core review of Saxon was considered "Recommended Limited" by the Materials Review Committee. "While we found much of the content of the Utah State Core in Saxon Math, the philosophy in how children best learn math differs greatly. The following skills and pedagogy were considered by the review committee...Problem solving is more teacher-driven. It does not encourage students to develop their own ideas. Lessons in problem solving are very superficial. Students are told how to solve each problem. [emphasis mine]"

The more traditional approach is marginally recommended, not because of WHAT is taught. The problem is HOW it is taught. So, the review committee reviews for content but can also "blacklist" a teaching philosophy most parents prefer for their kids. In short, if a math book shows kids how to solve problems and doesn't force them to develop those solutions on their own, the State Office of Education doesn't think it should be used to teach math. 

Rather than the Materials Committee being a resource to the districts, it has an obvious philosophy and an agenda. Should local schools and their constituents wish to pursue a method of math instruction varying from the preferred philosphy of the USOE, they are hindered in their ability to do so, even IF the content matches the state standards. Remember this, when you hear how Common Core is "just standards, not curriculum".

Language Arts is even more subjective and values-laden than math.  And, it, apparently, is a great opportunity for encouraging responsible participation in a democracy.  Here's an example. 

The Zaner-Bloser Voices First Grade Langauge Arts series is Recommended Limited for elementary reading but Recommended Primary for Character Education. You can see the official review here. (All emphasis below is mine.)
  • Six- and seven-year-olds are taught to deliberately make their parents "upset or angry". This is done in order to get parents to participate in specific social or political activism. "Say: We're going to write a letter to parents about our problem. We need parents to understand our problem, so we're going to use words that make them feel how important it is to help us. Write anger, fear, and joy." Say: Now remember...this is for your parents...Guide discussion, as needed, to the idea that parents might be upset or angry [i.e. it will be a good thing to get your parnets upset or angry for your cause]." (Assessment Handbook, pp. 38)
  • An exercise about using "emotional words" teaches children the phrase "my mom always 'nags' me to clean my room" is better than "my mom always 'asks' me to clean my room."
  • The materials teach First Grade children to deliberately exaggerate or distort reality in order to stir up emotion and action in others. "By stating the worst that could happen, the writer appeals to the readers' feelings of anger." (Good Neighbors, pp.T79)
  • "The purpose of the book is for students [ages 6-7] to use their voices to advocate solutions to social problems that they care deeply about. They are engaged in learning...social advocacy." (Good Neighbors, pp. T1)
So, instead of learning to read and write about pets or fairy tales, your six-year-old is learning to use emotional words to manipulate you into becoming an involved citizen in some "good" cause the publishers are advocating and the teacher is facilitating. When I was in school, manipulating your parents using emotional words wasn't a character trait to be desired. It was called a tantrum, and you were sent to your room. These days, it's taught as "character education" and "political advocacy" in a First Grade writing class. (Incidentally, does anyone really believe a six-year-old is advocating something other than more Oreo cookies and a later bedtime on their own?)

This series also comes with a selection of Informational Text readers (instead of literature--Thank You, Common Core). These readers include a lot of emotional words to inspire the children to action. The books in the series include a political agenda and encourage activism. One book from probably a Fifth- or Sixth-Grade series is The Highlander Center.  Not only is there an entire book on this center, it is then referenced in another book called Education for All. By way of information, from Wikipedia: "Current focuses of Highlander include issues of democratic participation and economic justice, with a particular focus on youth, immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America, African Americans, LGBT, and poor white people."  Nope.  No agenda here, right?

MVVG and You
In our school district, we have our Mission, Vision, Values, and Goals (MVVG).   Our website says they "guide the focus and priorities of the Board..."  The Goals were determined by a very-involved community process several years ago. The Mission, Vision, and Values were adopted and promoted, over several years, by our district administration.  Remember our first value: To prepare our students for reponsible participation in a democracy.  Given this value, the recommendation by the State Office's Review Committee for character education, and all the rest, is it any wonder that a good and decent teacher might feel this reading package is exactly what everyone wants their children taught in First Grade?  And if parents are not happy with this, who should they blame?  the teacher? the district? the *State Board? the Governor?

As we are laying blame, we should first take a look in the mirror. This Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm at Timpanogos High School, our board will be reviewing our district value statements.  Is the primary purpose of education democratic participation?  Good citizenship?  Or are we looking to create educated individuals, the by-product of which may include securing and perpetuating our freedoms?  What do you think our values should be?  If you aren't there, our district values will be left up to those who are.

*About half of the State School Board members are up for election this November. The State School Board appoints the State Superintendent who oversees the entire USOE. (Here is a map for the State School Board districts.) I would encourage you to find out who is running, and vett them.

P.S. Special Thanks to Zaner-Bloser's "Voices" series for instruction on using emotional words.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sunday Competition and other items

In September, we've had two board meetings.  In summary, this blog will touch on these issues:

Sunday Competition
Community Input Meetings: We NEED YOU!
RDAs (Redevelopment Plans): Your Tax Dollars at Work

Audio for Sept. 11, 2012 located at the bottom of the page here: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1223

Audio for Sept. 25, 2012 located at the bottom of the page here: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1245

Sunday Competition
The most recent issue was an inquiry into a "new policy" forbidding Sunday competitions in the district.  The short answer is the Board has no policy (new or old) regarding Sunday competitions.  In the past, some teams have asked students to commit to competing on Sundays, should they rise to a national level of competition.  Our administration has recently reiterated that this practice is not allowed.  Because of some of the requirements at national competitions, the lack of participation by one or more of the team would disqualify the entire team.  Coaches and principals have been asked to work together with parents and students to find options for this Catch-22 situation.  By way of information, individual schools, as long as sufficient public input has been sought, can establish a practice of forbidding school competitions on Sundays.  This is what Lone Peak has done, but it has been done at a school, not a district, level. 

We hear a lot about government being by "We, the People".  Well, this is your chance to have a direct impact on your school district!  District administrators (and, when feasible, board members) will be at combined School Community Council/PTA meetings for the next 4 weeks or so.  These meetings are open to the public, and every school will host one.  You can attend any one that you choose, even if you don't have kids in the school.  They will be addressing Common Core, our Mission Vision Values and Goals (MVVG), and any other issue you would like to discuss.  I would recommend you attend and share your thoughts and observations.  This is your opportunity to give direct input on the things that are important to you in our schools.  Bring a friend with you.  Here is a partial list:

Oct 3:
10:00 am Westfield
1:30 pm Mountain Ridge
Oct 4:
9:30 am Alpine
Oct 10:
1:00 pm Lone Peak
Oct 16:
3:40 pm Highland
Oct 17:
9:30 am Cedar Ridge
Oct 18:
1:00 pm Ridgeline
1:30 pm Timberline
Oct 23:
3:45 pm Deerfield

Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs: Your Tax Dollars at Work)
Many of you remember the Vineyard Redevelopment from last year.  For more detailed information, please go here.  As a quick refresher, RDAs are an arrangement where a portion of the additional taxes that will be coming to the district (and other agencies) from increased property values on a development are not collected by the district for a set period of time, but returned to the developer for aid to move more quickly.  The thinking is that, over time and with the tax incentives, additional businesses will come and the development will progress more rapidly.  The end goal is to increase the overall tax base faster than would have otherwise happened.  The district has several criteria used to determine whether or not an RDA is something to consider.  It's important to remain consistent with each entity asking for this type of tax-incentive/deferral. The district has the opportunity to participate in two additional RDAs, currently. 

The first one is with Eagle Mountain City and is called an Economic Development Agency (EDA).  As far as I can tell, this one requires our participation by state law.  It will help develop infrastructure in Eagle Mountain City so a business park can be established and the anchor client can begin operations.  The advantage to this agreement is a cap on the amount of tax dollars to be reinvested, as well as the time commitment.  So, if the tax dollars allocated are spent prior to the 20-year time frame, the district (and the other taxing agencies) start receiving 100% of their tax dollars at that time.  The Board's overall feeling is they want to help Eagle Mountain City with their infrastructure, and this seems to be a reasonable way to do so. 

The second one is an optional situation where we are asked to return a portion of tax revenue for a business park located between Adobe and IM Flash.  The appeal is for the higher tax base that comes with HighTech jobs.  The question is whether or not those jobs would come anyway.

I thought, with Vineyard, this wasn't something that happened very often.  I am finding this is really a fairly common occurrence.  The question for you is what do you think of this kind of practice?  At best, it is the way things are done, and brings additional jobs into our local community.  At worst, it is crony capitalism--government giving incentives to select businesses for some pay-off down-the-road. 

Additionally, the legislature changed the laws on RDAs this past session.  It used to require 2/3 vote of the taxing entities to go forward with a plan.  This put the district (with 2 votes) in a position to lobby the State Board's rep (1 vote) to block anything unfavorable to the school district.  (In the case of Vineyard, the State Board rep voted AGAINST Alpine, as did Commissioner Larry Ellertson, increasing your taxes last year, but that's another story.)  Now, with a simple majority, any taxing plan can be approved without buy-in from the district, even though our tax-incentive will comprise roughly 60% of the total.  I find this change egregiously unfair, because it allows taxation without proper representation.  The legislature makes changes to these rules, by my count, on almost an annual basis.  This is something with great potential impact on all taxpayers, but it doesn't register on the average person's radar.  It would be good to contact your legislators and ask that a proportional representation on these committees (called TECs: Taxing Entity Committees) be put into law, instead of one that allows everyone else to run roughshod over the school district.  Also, the 2/3 majority seems like a better threshold for providing tax-incentives that will impact the local taxpayers.

I don't think this is the proper role of government--determining winners and losers.  I am sympathetic to the argument that some of this helps to bring in new businesses and increase our tax base.  However, a lower tax rate, treating all people and businesses the same, should accomplish the same goal.  So, on the promise of a greater tax base, in say twenty years, our kids now will not reap the benefit of increased development that might have come anyway.  Of course, all this requires a crystal ball, so it's anyone's guess whether the tax-dollar investment will be worth it.  But, as stated in our Board Study Session, we are never presented a proposal where the district isn't supposed to get more money in the long run. 

If you support RDAs, you need to let the local governments know, as well as the legislature.  If you do not support them, you need to get involved in changing the laws at the state level, and lobbying your local government agencies to stop approving them.  If a majority of the entities doesn't vote in favor of the RDA, it doesn't happen.  But, how often does this become an election issue so our officials are held accountable?   It hasn't been, but it should be. 

Next blog: New Assessment/Accountability Requirements from the State/Feds, Differentiated Diplomas and State Textbook Reviews