At 8 p.m. a week from Tuesday, we will have elected two new members to the Salem-Keizer School Board, responsible for overseeing Oregon's second-largest school district.
In Zone 6, an incumbent is running unopposed; in Zone 4, Jim Green is running against a nominal opponent who actually filed for three different races and has only campaigned for transit board.
An in Zone 2, the only actually contested race, one of the two candidates is your LOVESalem HQ editor, who suggests these two pieces as important food for thought on the state and direction of our schools: "Dear Secretary Duncan" and "The Testing Machine," a vital warning about what happens when standardized "achievement" tests dominate thinking about school performance.
The local paper's endorsement (and link to the one-hour joint interview) is here.
A gloss on the contested races here.
Last month, the Chamber of Commerce asked candidates a series of written interview questions and promised that the questions and answers would run in the local business monthly. Oddly enough, with no warning, that didn't happen for some reason. So I am publishing the questions and my responses here:
1) Very specifically, what do you feel is the greatest barrier to the school district helping students achieve their full academic potential?
Our greatest achievement barrier is our failure to specify and publish detailed learning and measurable intermediate and final performance objectives for all K-12 subjects and our failure to link annual student progress and ultimate grad standards to meeting those objectives rather than to endurance of classroom hours.
Failing to provide detailed learning objectives and performance standards makes it hard for students and families to check their own progress through the curriculum; it also makes students depend on teachers rather than allowing motivated students to progress through the curriculum at a pace that maintains interest. It also makes it hard for students and families to create and implement an individual education plan tailored for each specific student.
But with those learning goals published, parents and teachers can meet annually (joined by the student when older) and agree on their child’s specific goals for the year, targeting the specific objectives to be tackled that year. The job of the district is then to help the family choose and then provide the optimal instruction methods and experiences for the agreed learning, given the student’s learning style, the family willingness to take responsibility for helping the student, and the specific goals selected.
2) How would you create a system to reward high performing teachers for their positive impact on student success?
Students are not widgets. Teachers cannot be ranked like factory workers applying a uniform coating to widgets.
The costly, wasteful, and ineffective fixation on standardized testing is driven by the misconception that you can get better results by ranking individual teachers, giving greater rewards to some and punishing others, as if teachers just don’t care to do a good job now.
Reality: ultimate student success at graduation (or dropping out) appears largely determined before school begins, probably before age three. Teachers whose students enjoy the necessary success attributes in life win awards; the same teachers, with too many students lacking the success assets, will struggle heroically against these deficits, but be labeled failures.
We need measurement not of teachers but of the district. We need long-term monitoring tools to tell us how well we helped families prepare their students for healthy, successful lives. It will be hard to learn to do, but we need to get and use as much data as we can on these real-world outcomes, so we can continually improve our results. Hard, but not impossible, and a crude measure of something important is better than a precise measure of something irrelevant, like standardized test scores.
3) How can you give parents a voice in helping quantify the performance of teachers?
By instituting a system of annual individual education plans for all students, where parents and teachers (and the older students) jointly plan and commit to the goals for the upcoming year, we create the opportunity for accountability, not just for teachers but for all the parties essential for educational success.
Letting parents play a bigger role in selecting learning objectives each year will enhance opportunities for and the commitment to parental involvement and support for the agreed learning program. Critically, an agreed set of specific learning and performance objectives for each student each year lets parents monitor the school and the student both, assessing student learning and identifying specific problems and weaknesses.
Then, as part of the planning for the following year, the parents and the district review the student’s performance against the agreed goals, including how well the parents thought the student did, how well the teachers thought the student did in mastering the learning, and the reason for any discrepancies. Where results have fallen short of expectations, the most important question is whether the school let the partner student and parents know early enough to respond or not.