School for the School Board

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What is the primary duty of local school boards?

I recently asked this question of a seven-year Texas school board trustee.  She answered:  1) to maximize student learning achievement, 2) to hire and supervise the superintendent, and 3) to set and manage the district budget.  She followed up by emphasizing, “In that order,” because, she noted, “ nothing is as important as student learning.”

While these may sound like obvious goals, many school boards spend an inordinate amount of time on everything but student achievement, and often during a confusing array of closed and open meetings that may last an excruciating eight hours or more. Former TEA official, Kara Belew, now senior education policy advisor at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, notes that she spent nearly a year observing one board that never once addressed student achievement issues.  School boards across the state may be touting spectacular sports stadiums and water parks, or worse, crafting “legislative agendas,” (for which the district often spends taxpayer dollars to lobby the state for more taxpayer dollars), but few boards are even talking about whether district students are learning reading and math.

One solution is to send school boards back to school.

Under current law, elected school board trustees must undergo training, but the state has permitted a number of outside groups to provide these trainings; the most prominent provider being the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).  Now, under Commissioner Mike Morath, the Texas Education Agency is offering an optional board training and certification through “Lone Star Governance,” a program that directs focus on one primary objective:  Improving Student Outcomes.

Why is this important?

While there has been some good news for Texas students, such as the drop in the number of low-performing schools and increase in SAT/ACT pass rates, there’s still plenty of troubling news.  At a recent education policy summit in Austin, Commissioner Morath shared that while there has been improvement, only about 43% of third-graders are meeting grade level in reading and math,  around 50% of 8th graders are on target, and less than 20% of Texas students are attaining college-ready scores on the SAT/ACT.  Clearly, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

As always, there is the perennial call for more spending, but state education funding has increased from $43.1 billion in 2007 to $60.6 billion in 2017.  Also, at $11,349 in per-pupil spending, Texas hovers around the national average and still with better results than big spenders like New York and California.

In light of these hard numbers, many taxpayers and parents are calling for greater efficiency and purpose in education spending, including a focus on the issue that really matters: student learning.

Enter the TEA’s Lone Star Governance program.

During LSG’s two-day training, elected school board trustees and superintendents are taught to set an achievable number of publicly-stated goals and constraints that focus on improving student outcomes.  Attendees learn to track progress, properly empower and constrain the superintendent, and to conduct regular evaluations of both the superintendent and the board itself.  Boards are also encouraged to adopt policies that prevent conflicts of interest and promote transparency.   And, to the great rejoicing of ISD observers everywhere, boards are given time-tracking tools, taught to minimize “closed” session meetings, and limit regular and public meetings to three times a month and two hours each.

The Lone Star Governance program is not the silver bullet that will fix everything in public education, but I do see cause for cautious optimism. Under the previously mentioned TASB trainings, newly-elected trustees are taught that the superintendent is the “quarterback,” who directs the activities of the board.  This dynamic is alarmingly at odds with the original democratic structure in which school boards are answerable to both the voters and the state (since the state is the entity constitutionally responsible for a system of public education).  In a properly aligned district, the superintendent is an empowered employee of the elected board, but not the ultimate authority.  By equipping boards to find the happy medium between micromanaging and giving superintendent’s carte blanche, the LSG program restores an appropriately constitutional governing mindset.

Also, although TASB purports to share the same goals, trainers been known to convey a contemptuous attitude towards reformers, parents, and taxpayers, and to encourage boards to engage in lobbying the state legislature to protect the status quo and oppose reforms.  Lone Star Governance actually mentions “empowering parents,” and seeks to return board focus to the students, or as Commissioner Morath calls them, the “5.5 million souls” in the Texas education system, and whether or not they are learning.  Of the boards that have adopted student achievement as the primary goal, there seems to be an increased willingness to allow innovations such as in-district charters and parental choice programs that have been so successful in other parts of the country.

One cause for concern in the LSG materials is the heavy emphasis on board unity and teamwork. Not that unity and teamwork are bad things, but one problem with many school boards is that misguided notions of “unity” have sometimes stifled the kind of debate that leads to better outcomes. No trustee who questions the efficacy or cost of proposed policy should be labeled “rogue” or “maverick” as TASB has done.

School boards should focus on the real purpose of public education, which is not to maintain institutions or provide jobs, but to educate children.  Real children, or as Commissioner Morath describes them, “souls.”  That distinction makes all the difference in the world.

In Defense of November

 

In which I stand athwart November yelling, “Stop!”

The day after Halloween I was horrified to discover some of my social media friends announcing that it was time to start playing “Christmas” music.  Some of these friends are even putting up a tree, baking cookies, and enjoying hot chocolate.  Sure enough, on November 1st some stores began blaring the musical news that “Santa Claus is coming to town,” and rushed to deck the retail halls with boughs of imitation holly.

Bah, humbug.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not really a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas.  I love the season as much as anyone else.  But here I raise my Ebenezer: in order to really keep Christmas, we need November.

In the years before Halloween became a multi-billion dollar industry, November 1st was the day most Americans packed away costumes and sent the jack’ o’ lanterns to their eternal rest on the compost heap.  Some of the less-desirable candy may have lingered for a few days, but for the most part, we moved into the next season, which was not Christmas.

But it was more than “not Christmas.”  Although I grew up in central Florida, which features little, if any, seasonal change, our school teachers punctually changed the bulletin board decor on November 1st to reflect the natural beauty occurring in more northern regions.  Out were pumpkins, bats, and ghosts, and in were colorful leaves, turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans.   We learned about our history, both good and bad, and prepared to celebrate an official day of thanks-giving.

In addition to Thanksgiving celebrations, in some years November general elections bring at least a temporary reprieve from political campaigning (unless you live in Broward County, Florida), and we pause to remember our service men and women on Veteran’s or Remembrance Day.  The month seems to be filled with opportunities for reflection on less material values.

We might consider November as a kind of fast.  Although fasting has a negative connotation, it has many benefits.  Scientists have learned that fasting from food improves health, and when I’m fasting from social media and ‘screens’ I’m very productive in other ways.  Without the smart phone in hand, I experience quality time with real live humans, read good books, and think out my next article.  When we fast, or set something aside, we do not enter a void.  Rather we replace one thing with another; fasting can lead to deeper contemplation, insightful prayer, greater appreciation of nature, and cultivation of our relationships.

And when our fast is completed, our celebration is so much richer and genuine.  The Christmas celebration is for the birth of a savior.  But unless we recognize our need for a savior, perhaps through remembrance, contemplation, or metaphorical time in the wilderness, the Christ-mass is reduced to a meaningless, materialist celebration of consumption.  If you want to really understand Christmas, you need to set aside a November.

Properly observed, November allows for a more thoughtful, reflective, and thankful season; a much-needed pause between the excitement of Halloween and Christmas.  Please don’t Christmas our November; November is a rich and beautiful time of year filled with its own observances and customs.  And if we keep Christmas in its rightful place, we can truly keep Christmas in our hearts.

Making an Informed Decision About 210 Candidates

How on Earth do we make an informed decision about 210 candidates?

In case you haven’t heard, there’s an election next month.  I don’t know how you could miss it since we are being bombarded with television and radio ads, mailers, emails, and now even unsolicited text messages.

What you may not know, is that there’s probably a lot more on your ballot than what those folks in the ads are talking about.  Here in Texas, where judges are elected, you may have multiple races for courts of law, county commissioners, school board trustees, and tax-payer funded bond proposals.

The Harris County (Houston-area) ballot is, I’m told, the longest in the nation.  In preparation for voting, I printed my sample ballot for review, and I count a total of 93, that’s ninety-three, different contests.

I take my responsibilities as a U.S. citizen seriously, and always try to learn as much as I can before heading to the polls.  But how does one really dig down into the details of 93 different contests?

One method is to consult some of the many available voter guides.  Of course, such guides are inherently biased, and sometimes oriented to a single issue.  Even if the provider claims to be neutral and non-partisan, there will be discernible bias.  A smart voter must make sure he/she understands what each group values in candidates.

A well-meaning and intelligent friend suggests that rather than rely on voter guides or “straight ticket” votes, each citizen should do his or her own research.

Which brings me back to that Harris County ballot; dispersed among the 93 contests are some 210 candidates.  How on Earth does the average citizen, perhaps one with a full-time job and a family, have time to research 210 different candidates?

While I’m not as politically involved as I have been in the past, I think I’m more informed than average, and I find this ballot daunting.  I attended a few meet-and-greet events earlier this year, but candidates far outnumbered non-candidates in attendance, and each candidate only had 2 minutes to speak.

Even worse may be what’s not on this ballot; there are numerous other boards consisting of both elected and appointed officials that have jurisdiction over myself, my family, and my property.  These boards are not necessarily required to hold elections at the biennial general election.  I’ve spent hours trying to track down even the most basic information about the governance structure of the ten different entities taxing my home with very little success.

We’ve come a long way since Tocqueville praised the structures of local government as a key component of representative democracy.  Unlike citizens in the early 19th century, I not only do not know and interact with my locally elected officials; sometimes I don’t even know they exist, much less who they are, and what they do.

But back to that Harris County ballot with 93 contests and 210 candidates.  What’s a citizen to do?

While I’m not a fan of unquestioning party loyalty, one of the few things I can do is consider party-affiliation.  In my case, I agree with much of the Republican and little of the Democrat Party platform. I’m not naïve enough to think every nominal Republican or Democrat adheres to party platform, but it is one tool for gaining insight.  I do look at voter guides from groups with which I largely agree, and sometimes those with which I do not.

There’s an election next month. Your ballot may be a mess, and it may take some time and effort to understand it.  But citizen participation is what makes our system work.  It’s not perfect, but pretty good overall.  Of course, always remember that government is ultimately comprised of flawed human beings, not angels.  Keep your perspective and reserve your real faith for a perfect and holy God.

There’s an election next month.  Be informed; be a voter.

Here are some of the voter guides/scorecards I use:

Texas Values
Heritage Action 
Texans for Fiscal Responsibility
Texas Home School Coalition (not just for home school, for parental rights)

Texas Right to Life and Texas Alliance for Life.  (These two are sometimes at odds, especially in primaries, so you really have to consider the specific tools used to determine endorsements.  When I step back to consider broader fiscal, judicial, educational, and constitutional liberty issues, I’m usually more in agreement with TRL, but not always.)

Here in Harris County, there are 75 contests for various courts, including everything from the Texas Supreme Court down to the Justice of the Peace.  Not an endorsement guide per se, the Houston Judicial Preference Poll is very interesting this year.  Although a left-leaning group of attorneys, they have mostly preferred the GOP judges.  I’m told the GOP judges are far more knowledgeable, efficient, and fair. 

The Harris County GOP has provided this resource on those judges as well: Republican Judges

There’s quite a few competing “Conservative” groups in Harris County that often disagree in primary endorsements, but are united in the general elections.  Harris County Conservative Coalition has a guide for school district and Lone Star College races.

(Header image:  Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau.)

Girl, Read a Great Book

How do we learn to live well?

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility:
humility is endless.”  -T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

One of the best-selling books of the past year is, Girl, Wash Your Face, in which Christian author Rachel Hollis tells her female audience to “stop believing the lies about who you are.”  I am not a fan of these kinds of self-help books; most could be condensed into a magazine-length article without losing one iota of solid content. Furthermore, these popular books often promote some questionable psychology and untenable, self-centered views of reality.

Widely read, Girl, Wash Your Face has dominated the non-fiction best-sellers list for several weeks now.  But sadly, Hollis’ advice is woefully inadequate for those who really want to live well: wisely and with humility.

I won’t reiterate the sticky theological pitfalls offered in Girl, Wash Your Face; Alisa Childers has already offered some sound analysis (here) identifying the book’s promotion of an egocentric and universalist worldview (all religions are true-just pick one!).

Rather, I would offer an antidote in the form of Karen Swallow Prior’s new book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

Karen Swallow Prior, an English Professor who has written for the Atlantic, Christianity Today, First Things, and Vox, encourages readers to take up the “great books;” that is, works that have stood the test of time and which give readers a path to the understanding of humanity, reality, and what it means to truly live well.

She does not suggest we read for mere pleasure; many of the books she recommends are certainly delightful, but some, like Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence, are profoundly haunting and challenging.  But Prior argues that by reading both promiscuously and thoughtfully, we can learn not what to think, but how to think, and in so doing, live well.

Each chapter explores a ‘great book’ in order to elucidate the nature and application of one of twelve virtues.  Readers could easily find a one-sentence definition for each virtue, but Prior argues that thoughtful reading of great literature “invites readers to participate in the experience aesthetically, not merely intellectually.”  She notes that such reading is “formative, not merely informative,” and can lead us into a fuller understanding of what it means to actually practice virtues like patience or kindness.

For example, Dr. Prior uses George Saunders’ Tenth of December to teach that the virtue of kindness should not be confused with “niceness.”  Rather, the word kindness is related to the word kin, and refers to the way we treat family members.  In the shared closeness of a family, there are times when we must speak truth, or “lovingly correct.”  But she warns us that real kindness is neither “natural nor nice,” and must inherently link to truth.  And she is not referring to postmodern notions of “her truth” or “my truth,” but real truth — painful as it may be.

This is in sharp contrast with books like Girl, Wash Your Face, which, while couched in tough love terminology, actually encourage a kind of relativistic view of truth, and often offer just really bad advice.  Whereas Hollis tells her audience to never, ever, give up on your dreams (no matter what), in an exploration of patience, Prior offers a much wiser, mature, and realistic approach to personal dreams:

“Slow down.  Don’t be in a hurry.  Life is long.  Work hard, and the rewards will come. The dreams you have —some of them — will come true; those that don’t will be replaced by others, maybe even better ones.” (Emphasis mine.)

Every chapter of On Reading Well offers a rich and thoughtful analysis of great use to anyone seeking to live well and wisely.  The books Prior highlights range from the overtly Christian (Pilgrim’s Progress) to the modern secular (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.)  The chapters need not be read in order, and even if one has not read the referenced literature, the explanations help us to discover the nuanced application of each virtue.  (Although I think you will want to read every book listed after  studying Prior’s explanations).

While not a self-help book per se, I’d suggest readers would derive much greater value from On Reading Well than Girl, Wash Your Face, or much else in the self-help genre for that matter.  Prior’s book does seem to be gaining traction, and I’m hopeful that more leaders and educators will return to the great books as a tool for developing character, understanding, and wisdom.  Prior appropriately ends her book with an exploration of the virtue of humility, for, as she quotes Flannery O’Connor:

“To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks.  It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.  The first product of self-knowledge is humility.”

Prior concludes with this profound sentence: “The good life begins and ends with humility.”  Indeed.  Read well, and live well.

On Reading Well

*Although I am connected to Karen Swallow Prior on social media, I did not seek her approval to contrast her approach with that of Rachel Hollis.  If this comparison gives offense, the blame is mine alone.

Looking for Biblical Answers re: Kavanaugh

This has been an excruciating week.  The entire nation has been roiled by accusations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and it has often been difficult to know what to believe.  How can we ever determine the truth?

As a Christian, I have been taught to seek truth through prayer and study of God’s word, so for the past few days I’ve been thinking about what Bible stories might apply to this situation.  On reflection, I’ve found several that may have implications for Christians regarding the conundrum before us.

Potiphar’s Wife

With the onslaught of heart-rending “Me Too” stories this year from women who’ve been sexually exploited and abused by men, there is a growing movement to always believe a female accuser.  There is certainly no shortage of examples of men who’ve behaved very badly towards women, but unfortunately, there are also women who will falsely accuse.  Genesis 39 tells the story of Joseph, a slave in the home of Potiphar the Egyptian.  Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce Joseph, but when he ran from her, she accused him of attempted rape.  The mere accusation landed Joseph in prison.  The story doesn’t give us a general rule, but does illustrate that some women can, and will, lie about crimes of this nature.  “Believe women” is not a rule by which we can live justly.

Avenging Dinah

Dinah’s story is only one of several stories of rape in the Bible; in this case, her assailant Shechem and his family negotiated with her family to marry her.  According to Genesis 34, her brothers Simeon and Levi agree to a marriage contract, but instead proceed to slaughter every man in the community and plunder the city.   While we might agree that the crime against Dinah deserved justice, her brothers extended the punishment to innocent men, and were condemned by their father Jacob:  “Cursed be their anger for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel.”  (Gen 49:7, ESV)

As members of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we should resist the urge to punish the innocent along with the guilty, even in matters of rape.  It is dismaying to see a purportedly serious news outlet arguing that even if there’s no evidence against him, we must withdraw Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination so as to help “prevent rape” by making an example of him.  This “cruel wrath” towards the innocent (until proven guilty,) is unjust and will not satisfy the lust for revenge.

Two or Three Witnesses

And that brings us to the matter of proof.  Christine Blasey Ford has named three potential witnesses to support her accusation against Brett Kavanaugh.  None of the three corroborate her story, and even her own female friend stated under penalty of law that she had never met Kavanaugh.  If we look to scripture for guidance on witnesses, we find Deuteronomy 19:15:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed.  Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

As sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell stated after participating in last week’s hearing noted, there is not enough evidence in this case to file a charge, nor even to seek a search warrant.  At this juncture, there is not a single witness who can credibly corroborate these accusations.

I am a Christian who views the Bible as the inspired word of God, but I am not a theologian.  There may be individuals who would interpret these passages and stories differently.

My constant prayer over this matter is that the truth will be revealed, even if I am disappointed by it.  But I’m also praying for healing: for the victims of assault, for the unjustly accused, and for the fabric of our nation.

Do Not Let Alexa Read Your Child a Bedtime Story

“Alexa, read my child a bedtime story.”

Last week I heard a radio ad gushing about the option to have Amazon’s Alexa read children bedtime stories.  In the brief ad, the presumably exhausted mother is relieved to let Alexa take over this onerous duty so that she, the parent, can just relax.

Please don’t let Alexa read your child bedtime stories.

There’s no disputing the advantages of reading aloud to children.  Studies show that read-aloud sessions improve cognitive development, build language skills and vocabulary, increase concentration, and cultivate imagination and creativity.  Brain scans of young children listening to stories show vigorous brain activity, and scientists believe these reading sessions improve neuroconnectivity.  Certainly any parent who wants to improve their child’s chances for academic success should read to their offspring early and often.

But there’s more to those read-aloud sessions than pure academics.  Holding a baby or toddler on your lap while you read fulfills that essential human need for physical contact, and even older children may snuggle next to Mom or Dad while hearing a story.  Parents may subtly teach reading and language skills as a child “listens and looks” at books with both pictures and text, but also often interact in ways that promote bonding.  “Live” parent readings allow pauses for questions and discussion that further enhance understanding of the story as well as parent-child communication.  These are the elements of read-aloud time that Alexa simply cannot duplicate.

To be fair, using Alexa to call up a professionally narrated audio book might be an option for older children and adults. While the thought of Alexa reading Goodnight Moon in her cold electronic voice sounds like something from dystopian sci-fiction, recordings featuring talented narrators can enhance a more complex story.  Our family has listened to at least 50 such audiobooks on road trips, and many are beyond delightful.  (If you’ve not heard Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol read by his great-great grandson, you’ve missed a spectacular treat.)  But for your younger children, nothing beats a live human reader and real human interactions.

As a family, some of our happiest shared memories include reading together.  Yes, sometimes we were tired out at the end of the day, and yes, on occasion we may have hidden our copy of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go so as to maintain our sanity.  But the benefits were well worth the effort; our kids learned to read at an early age, they still read often, and both are academically successful.

So at bedtime, turn off the electronics, snuggle with your little ones, and share a good story.  You’ll be building little brains, but more importantly, you’ll be creating memories and strengthening relationships that will long outlast Alexa.

Gut Instinct: Is it Real?

As I shook his hand, the hair on the back of my neck literally stood on end.

He was a respected member of the community: an elected school board trustee who had served intermittently for eight years.  He was visiting various civic groups to promote a school bond.  The wife of a city council member walked him through the crowded room and introduced him to an array of political activists where he seemed well-received.  In my growing sense of unease, I remarked to another woman, “There’s something creepy about that guy.”  She expressed surprise and said that he seemed nice enough.

A month or so later, the same man was arrested and charged with prostitution and trading legal services for sex.  He resigned from the school board in disgrace and soon disappeared from the public eye.

So what was it that made me dislike him so much at that first meeting?  Gut instinct?  Intuition?

Although an imperfect metric, the kinds of nonverbal cues we receive during a face-to-face meeting often can tell us much more than a resume or a campaign mailer.

According to some scientists, what we call intuition or gut instinct, can be explained by the presence of non-verbal clues.  We often subconsciously read body language, tone of voice, and even possibly biochemical odors that warn us about a situation or person.

Not everyone experiences these strong gut feelings, and studies indicate that women are more likely than men to report intuitive events.  Also, some researchers note that while intuition can alert us to danger, certain experiences can suppress our intuitive abilities.

“A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful parents or guardians can create excessive self-doubt, irrational fear, or a clouded thought process, making it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from actual gut intuition. Overwhelming stimuli can also make it difficult for a person to see the decision in front of them with clarity.”*

Unfortunately, some activists would like to intentionally suppress any reliance on intuition or gut instinct.  When an employment recruiter on a jobs-oriented social media site recently posted about how much she learns from in-person meetings with potential clients, a few discussion participants took issue with her for what they interpreted as bias, and one man wrote, “Intuition is driven by confirmation bias and isn’t real…”  (emphasis added.)

Some comments in the ensuing thread made valid points; nervousness in an interview could cause “quirky” behavior that does not necessarily predict success or failure in certain jobs.  Another observed that sometimes our gut instincts or first impressions can be wrong, and anyone responsible for hiring should rely heavily on hard data like resumes and references.  Of course a good human resource manager would have already screened potential candidates via hard data prior to any face-to face meeting.  And all employers should strenuously reject any tendencies towards racial or gender bias in hiring decisions.

Although an over-reliance on gut instinct can be problematic, complete rejection of intuition is a dangerous attitude.  In addition to scientific evidence regarding various non-verbal cues, the great metaphysical traditions refer to the power of “discernment,” an ability to differentiate between good and evil on a spiritual level.  Whether materially or metaphysically based, ignoring gut instincts could be detrimental to our safety, health, and well-being. So when evaluating another person either for hire or any other relationship where trust is paramount, our intuitive senses can be a useful tool in our decision-making toolbox.

While admittedly I have a preference for hard data and statistics, my experience with the aforementioned school board trustee taught me that sometimes our intuition has an urgent message that would be foolhardy to ignore.

 

*Olson, S. (2015, March 12). Your Gut Feeling Is Way More Than Just A Feeling: The Science Of Intuition. Retrieved March 15, 2018, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/your-gut-feeling-way-more-just-feeling-science-intuition-325338