Eighth Day of Christmas Resolutions

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I’ve been told that New Year’s resolutions are garbage, so I’m making some Eighth Day of Christmas resolutions to pursue during the next 365 days.  Hopefully these won’t be garbage.

Among the goals regarding my spiritual life and physical health, I have resolved to return to writing on a regular basis.  For a variety of reasons, I had taken a hiatus from public writing that was supposed to be a year, but stretched into nearly four.  Now I believe it is time to begin again.

My goal has always been to tell the truth.  Unfortunately, the truth does not always make people happy, and it certainly doesn’t engender affection for the speaker.  Like most humans, I do enjoy being approved and liked, but I also suffer from a strong inclination to question popular mantras and seek underlying reality.  Deconstructing a popular mantra makes one, well, unpopular.

The challenge of course is in presenting perspectives in a way that does not alienate and which might be persuasive.  While I am certain that photo-shopped memes and personal attacks do little to persuade the persuadable, even presentation of cold data can upset readers.  This problem has accelerated in the past few years, and as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in their 2018 book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” many young people see themselves as fragile and interpret any intellectual challenge as a literal, physical threat.  Not only do many of them expect to be kept “safe” from diversity of opinion, they perceive challengers as “evil” individuals who must be silenced by any means.

I would suggest that even before the trend described by Lukianoff and Haidt, many of us have been guilty of over-generalizations.  If we hear certain headlines or bumper-sticker-length mantras frequently enough, we begin to accept them as facts, even the “truth.”  We may not only believe in them, we actually invest in them on both an intellectual and literal level.  Therefore, a challenge may not just interrupt a mere perception, but an entire life-path.  Hence the animosity towards those who challenge our beliefs.

But I am resolved on this Eighth Day of Christmas to try to tell the truth anyway.  Sometimes, of course, I will get it wrong, and I can only beg for grace in those inevitable circumstances.  Sometimes my readers will disagree with my assessments, and I hope they will engage in non-personal, open-minded debate of any issue on the table.  Although it may be at times with fear and trepidation, I am resolved to write about what I have learned, and what I see.  To paraphrase Thomas Merton, if a writer is too cautious to write what may be criticized, he (or she) will never write anything that can be read.

If you want to help other people, you have got to make up your mind to write things some men will condemn.
Thomas Merton

My prospective readers will no doubt criticize, but hopefully find my offerings worth reading.

May your Eighth Day of Christmas be blessed.

 

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.

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.)

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.

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