The Legislative Assembly shall provide by law for the establishment of a uniform, and general system of Common schools. -- Constitution of Oregon, Article VIII, Section 3

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gay teachers and role models

In this morning's Oregonian, metro columnist Anna Griffin writes about a disturbing incident here in Beaverton.  Apparently, a student teacher (one still studying for an education degree at Lewis and Clark), when asked by a student why he was not married, gave an honest answer--he is gay, and same sex marriage is not legal in Oregon.  A parent complained, and the Beaverton School District requested that the student teacher (one Seth Stambaugh) be re-assigned to another district.

As a Beaverton parent, I'm outraged.... that the school district would discriminate in this fashion.  (Often times, the words "as a parent" precede a steaming pile of bigoted nonsense, as though the well-intentioned desire to protect one's children from harm justifies any loathsome thought that might cross one's mind).  Were this a credentialed teacher, I suspect he would not be treated in this way (if for no other reason than the union might object)--but student teachers don't enjoy such protections.   Beaverton School District officials don't, as a rule, engage in witch-hunts against faculty who are sexual minorities, and frequently attempt to promote equality and diversity.  Yet in this case, they seem inclined to throw the student teacher in question under the bus.

I'm also a bit puzzled by Griffin's column, which takes Stambaugh to task for his words.  Griffin makes it clear that she has no issues with gay teachers coming out of the closet--and furthermore, suggests that they have a moral duty to do so (she invokes the case of Tyler Clementi, the New Jersey teen who recently committed suicide after a sexual encounter with another man was transmitted over the Internet).  Yet she faults Stambaugh for apparently going to far with his response to the student.  And BSD officials give the same reason for their dismissal of Stambaugh--he stepped out of line.


Were Stambaugh's response to be sexually explicit (whether gay, straight, or otherwise), that would certainly be crossing over the border of what is acceptable conduct.  But has far as I can tell, there was no sexual content to the remarks at all, other than an admission of his orientation.  By that standard, teachers who discuss their heterosexual partners ("my wife", "my boyfriend") ought to be sanctioned as well, and we obviously don't go there.  There are quite a few teachers at my children's school who are rather obviously "shacking up" with a partner--yet this doesn't generate any outrage. A teacher I know is, at this very moment, nine months pregnant (and due to deliver any day).  Nobody seems concerned that this might "expose" her elementary students to the topic of sexuality (though in years past, it might have).  Not only that, but the teacher in question was only  married over the past summer--yet there doesn't seem to be any outrage about this either.  Nor should there be--it's none of our damn business.  I certainly don't care; and only mention this to demonstrate the vast amount of hypocrisy which remains on this issue of public school teachers and their private lives.

Yet those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality view any discussion of the topic at all as tantamount to pornography, it seems--to many, there's little difference between a declaration of "I'm gay" and graphic descriptions of sex acts.  Others seem to think that such conversations are only appropriate with older students--that for a teacher to admit being gay in an elementary classroom--even if just an offhand reference to "my boyfriend" coming from a man--is somehow inappropriate.  Which, of course, puts gay teachers in a no-win situation; either they have to lie about their personal life, put up a big front of "its none of your business", or take the risk that any detail about their life outside of the classroom, no matter how insignificant, will cost them their job.  Which is why the closet is frequently so painful.

The other piece of Stambaugh's words--an apparent endorsement of same-sex marriage--might instead be what got him in trouble.  Again, I have a hard time agreeing with the district.  Teachers obviously ought not be using the classroom as a forum for political activism (though this rule is frequently only deployed against unpopular opinions), but what if a student asks a teacher his opinion on the issues of the day?  Here, Stambaugh volunteered a political opinion that was unsolicited--the student didn't explicitly ask about gay marriage--but the opinion was relevant to the topic.  When I was growing up, my teachers offered opinions on issues all the time (and a few of them "crossed the line" into advocacy), but I'm not aware of any of them being disciplined for this  But here's a few questions to think about:  What if the student asked the teacher why he doesn't eat meat, and the teacher responded that killing animals is immoral?  Or upon being asked about Afghanistan, questioned the patriotism of war protesters?  Or stated a refusal to cross a picket line somewhere?  Or expressed a belief that homosexuality is immoral?  Where do we draw the line between legitimate conversation, and illegitimate prostletyzing or indoctrination?

I agree with Griffin that teachers ought to serve as role models (regardless of sexuality), but I also think that first and foremost they ought to be educators.  Activities which interfere with the classroom should obviously be curtailed.  But activities which don't--such as a reasonable and honest response to a question posed by a student--should not be.  Assuming there aren't other facts which haven't been made public, The Beaverton School District should be ashamed of itself.  And Griffin, insofar as she is interested in gay rights issues, ought to rethink her position on this--the closet won't be fully opened so long as certain otherwise-legitimate political topics remain taboo when homosexuality is involved.

[edited to remove some identifying details]

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Conor on teacher pay and tests

Conor Friedersdorf, guest-blogging at The Daily Dish, said a bunch I basically agree with:

I think America's teachers should be paid more in money and prestige, that the discretion of principals is a better way to determine relative compensation than test scores, seniority, or masters degrees, that programs like Teach for America demonstrate the need for reform in the credentialing process, and that a necessary tradeoff as teachers are paid more in a merit based system is less job security.
Teachers are educated professionals.  They should be compensated like professionals.  And they should be managed like professionals; not like factory workers or fruit pickers or fry cooks.  As professionals, their work product is one which is complex and difficult to evaluate, and a fair evaluation of such takes time.   Simple metrics such as test scores are not likely to produce fair evaluations of  teachers, any more than simple metrics like lines of code delivered or defect rate are not a good basis to evaluate computer programmers (my profession).  These things are important factors to consider, but are only part of the story.  And metrics which are too heavily relied on are often easily manipulated; "teaching to the test" is a well-known example of this.  (That said, much teaching-to-the-test is done at the behest of principals and administrators; not individual classroom teachers).

For private-sector salaried professionals (those who have a boss; not those in private practice), evaluation of the performance of professionals is the job of managers (in the educational context, principals).  A key part of the job of my boss is knowing whether or not I and my peers are doing a good job, identifying things that might need improvement, and making it happen.   The tools he has at his disposal include the usual artifacts of supervisory authority--the ability to assign and delegate work, to arrange for training, to manage pay, to promote/demote, and to hire and fire.

Yet many in the educational profession react with horror at the though of giving principals greater discretion to promote/demote, manage pay, and fire easily.  The stated reason:  concern that a principal might abuse his/her professional discretion to discipline someone "unfairly"--for reasons unrelated to job performance.  Is this a legitimate concern?  Yes.  Yet the private sector manages to cope with this--unfair bosses exist in the private sector, and life goes on.  I've had a few--and I've seen more than one talented engineer drummed out of a job due to a personality conflict with the boss.  However, these talented engineers had no trouble finding work elsewhere.   And legal protections against employment discrimination and harassment (and the remedies available thereunder) ought to apply with full force to teachers under any management regimen.

Conor continues:
Teachers ought to understand this better than most people since every week they read student assignments and use their fallible judgment to assign a letter grade, often based on opaque, somewhat arbitrary standards. This process culminates in a report card sent home at the end of every semester. It typically assesses achievement on an A to F scale that presumably doesn't capture every nuance of student mastery over a subject. High school teachers who give out these grades do so knowing that for many students they'll one day be scrutinized by college admissions officers, who'll admit or deny applicants largely based on the average of these somewhat arbitrary grades that don't capture every nuance of a student's academic abilities.
Evaluation of complex work products for quality is a key part of what professionals do--whether or not the work product is a technician's lab report, a paralegal's brief, a student's essay, a business's accounts, a teacher's teaching, a programmer's designs, or an executive's managerial skill.  As stated above, teachers are professionals.  So we trust them with the responsibility.

However, and this is important--principals are professionals too.  Evaluating teachers ought to be part of their job.  That said, giving principals (and superintendents) greater authority must imply that they too are held to higher standards of accountability.  Just as my boss is responsible for the successful performance of the design team he supervises, and his boss is responsible for the business making money, principals and district-level administrators must be held accountable for the performance of their schools and districts. 

And here, testing may be useful.  An interesting management paradigm is that it's often easier to measure the performance of an organization than it is the performance of an individual within that organization; whereas test scores may exhibit too much classroom-to-classroom variation to be useful in evaluating teachers; the larger sample sizes involved make them more useful in evaluating the performance of schools or school districts.  

Saturday, August 28, 2010

your child's education is none of your business

No, I haven't heard any teacher, principal, or administrator actually say those words.

But many policies, at the local school, seem to imply this.

Before going further, let's back up a bit.  A common refrain in the political debates around education, is the importance of parental involvement.  There are numerous examples of entire school districts, or schools within a larger district, where one finds a large portion of children whose parents Just Don't Seem To Care.  In some cases, there's only one parent in the home, who has to balance a job (or two), the care of younger children, homemaking, etc.--and paying attention to Johnny's schoolwork is something there isn't time for.  In some cases, the parents are alcoholics, junkies, or otherwise unfit.  In some cases, Mom and Dad are too busy with careers, hobbies and lifestyle, or simply view education as the School's Problem.  In some cases, children are in foster care, living with other friends or relatives.  In some cases, children are hungry, homeless, abused, neglected, etc.

None of these things are conducive to a good education.  I agree 100%.

But my wife and I are not those parents; and our children are not those children.  We want to be involved.  We read to our kids, encourage them to participate in activities, and regularly discuss matters with our children's teachers.

But sometimes, it seems, the school doesn't want to listen.

the right kind of involvement

The local school district does actively solicit parental involvement in many ways.  Parents who can volunteer at school are welcome to do so.  Fundraising, of course, is a major area where parents are asked to help out.

But when the involvement consists of negative feedback--or suggestions on what ought to be taught and how--it suddenly seems less welcome.

My oldest has been attending public school for four years now.  He has many friends whose parents my wife and I have also become friends or acquaintances of.  And we compare notes.  Now that the younger kids are starting kindergarten--we've let the school know which teachers we like and which teachers we don't.  (And at our school--like most schools--you have a few burnouts, counting down the days to retirement; a few teachers who are happy to let the smarter kids coast; and a few teachers who are lots of fun, but seem to forget about the "teaching" part.  Per blog policy, no names shall be named).

And the school--tends to act a bit insulted by the suggestion.  Parental feedback on teachers?  Preposterous.  The teachers at X Elementary are credentialed professionals, the lot of 'em--the suggestion that one or more of them might not be effective at their jobs--intolerable.  If you make enough noise (and an important part of dealing with school bureaucracy is to make lots of noise, demand to talk to decision-makers, not office staff, if you have a dispute, and threaten to escalate matters if you don't get satisfaction), your wishes will probably, eventually be granted--but the wheel has to squeak quite a bit to get lubricated.  And even though your wishes are granted, is your feedback likely to be considered for teacher evaluation purposes? 

'Course not.

(And how are students assigned to teachers?  For the most part, randomly).

There are quite a few other examples of suggestions we've made that were not well received, or resulted in the runaround.  Suggestions concerning the specific needs of our kids (more challenging work, etc.).  Suggestions as to where they ought to be placed.  I am not an educational professional, and neither is my wife--if schools can come up with a good reason for why a particular decision was made, I'm happy to defer to the judgment of the people who are educational professionals.  (And I realize that schools are subject to lots of legal requirements from numerous levels of government, severe funding constraints, and an army of lawsuit-averse lawyers).  But I'm the expert when it comes to my kids, and I get annoyed when "policy" or other content-free excuses are cited as justification for decisions that from my point of view, look to be poorly made.

In short:  Parental involvement is important.  Many parents can't or won't provide it, but many of us can and will.  But when we do get involved, especially in ways which are not designed to benefit the school district, please--take us seriously.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Greetings, and welcome to the latest addition to the EngineerScotty blogging empire.  This blog is the unpolished apple.  The subject?  Education, in particular, public primary and secondary education--in the Portland metropolitan area, in the state of Oregon, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world.

Public school resumes in less than two weeks, so this seemed to be a good time to start an education-themed blog.

Who am I?  I'm a software engineer, transportation nerd, and dad who lives in the Portland metro area.  I have three children now in the public school system (or will when school starts); one 4th grader, and two twins in kindergarten.  The oldest is a TAG student, and the twins are also quite bright.  And I have, along with my wife (and probably will continue to do so) butted heads several times with local school officials concerning the quality of the education my kids are receiving.
What is this blog about?  In a word, education.  Some of you reading this will have come here by following links from my other blog, the Dead Horse Times, which covers transportation issues in particular, with the occasional foray into more generic politics (and the occasional bit of snark).  This blog will be more focused, and probably updated less frequently.  The viewpoint of this blog is that of Morgan Freeman's final line in the film 7even:
The world is a wonderful place, and worth fighting for.  I believe the second part.
That is how I feel about our schools:  They are flawed, but important.  They need serious improvement, but doing so is a vital project.  They are like an unpolished apple--far from ideal, but still nourishing.

A few notes--while I will frequently discuss dealings with our local public school and school district, I will avoid naming names.  This is to a) protect my own privacy and that of my family, and b) to avoid making this blog about X elementary school or Y school district--it's not.

the great education debate

Public education has long been a source of acrimonious debate in the US, and during the current financial situation (which sees the size of the pie shrinking), the appropriate role and amount of funding for our schools is expected to become even more controversial.  There are many interesting ideas for how to improve public schools (or other sources of education, including private schools, home schooling, etc.); and I believe there is much to learn from abroad.

One of the biggest challenges facing public schools going forward is the existence of two hostile entrenched camps in our body politic.  One one side of the debate, you have a group which considers the public school system writ large to be a colossal failure, and advocate massive restructuring (or abolishment of public education altogether).   This group includes many who don't consider public education (as traditionally understood) important to begin with--libertarians opposed to public anything, folks who simply don't like paying taxes, religious fundamentalists (mainly Christians) opposed to secular education (or seeking public finance of religious instruction), and anti-labor forces seeking to bust teachers' unions.  This groups also includes many whose own educational experiences are with school districts which are incompetent and corrupt, and who think the educational apple, rather than being unpolished, is rotten to the core.

On the other side, you have the educational establishment--the NEA, the AFT, and other public employee unions, other parts of the educational industry, as well as many groups who don't benefit from the current system but consider robust public education of critical importance--and react to alleged right-wing attempts to throw the baby out with the bathwater (after drowning it first) by forming alliances with the establishment.  Many in this group act as though nothing is wrong, or the things that are wrong are all things which can be solved with more money.   The two groups each are aligned with one of the two major political parties in the US, and thoroughly distrust each other.  Discussions of educational reform frequently turn into shouting matches, as one group gets accused of wanting to destroy the public schools, and the other gets accused of having no interest in education other than purely selfish ones.

entering switzerland
Swiss flag image courtesy Wikipedia

In this war, I am Switzerland.  I am not in either camp.  In some ways, I may be in both.  I believe publicly funded education, including (though not necessarily limited to) public schools owned and operated by we the people, are of vital importance.  I do not carry water for the teachers' unions, and I do not carry water for religious groups, anti-tax organizations, or the private sector education industry.

I have family members in both camps.  One of my sisters is a public school teacher in Washington State, and a strong defender of the current system.  My wife, a Chinese immigrant, is frequently aghast at what she sees here--and like me, has no fealty to either group (though her political leanings are more conservative than mine).  I have other family members who are consider the public school system a Bolshevik plot.

What camp am I in?  I'm in the camp that wants my children, and my neighbor's children, and my children's children, to have a high quality education.  I'm in the camp that gets frustrated when dealing with educational bureaucracy and lazy teachers who view smart kids as one they don't have to teach--but gets annoyed when demagogue politicians propose simplistic solutions to complicated problems (and worse, when they enact them).  Given that, I will probably cause equal offense to the two groups mentioned above.

At any rate, welcome!  The bell is about to ring!