Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Fingernails on the Chalkboard

I've been watching the Chalkboard Project take shape for some time now.

I'll admit right up front that I was skeptical from the beginning. The structure of the project seemed to me to pre-ordain that it would be co-opted by the education establishment, and that they would successfully water down any true reform proposals that came out of the project, and turn the bulk of its efforts into yet another push for more money for schools.

It's still pretty early. Most of the reform proposals have yet to take shape, but I think it is fair to say, from the direction it has taken in the last year or so, that my initial skepticism was well-founded.

My first concern about Chalkboard has to do with the organizing principles of the project. In my view any reform effort has to be based on sound principles. If they are flawed, then the effort simply builds on a structurally unsound foundation.

For instance, an example of a structurally flawed reform effort is the so-called "Quality Education Model," which was then-Speaker Lynn Lundquist's idea to have experts decide the optimal school model, then figure out how much it would cost to make every school in Oregon look like the model.

This idea is structurally bankrupt in many ways. First, there IS no "optimal school model." To suggest that there is implicitly assumes that the existing structure is the correct structure, and all we need to do is add inputs until we have it optimized. Things such as collective bargaining, school district monopolies, seniority pay scales, teacher licensure - all are assumed as an irrevocable part of the system, and continue to exist in the "Quality Education Model."

Second, the QEM is completely an "input model." They make the claim that funding schools to the level called for in the QEM will result in 90% of students reaching standards, but they offer no (none, zero, zip, nada) evidence to back up this claim.

Third, who is in charge of determining the optimal model? That is right - representatives from the special interest groups whose incentive is to make sure that whatever group they represent is serviced by the end product. And that is exactly what happened. The QEM boldly proposed such threatening reforms as lowering class sizes, making sure there were librarians and music teachers and counselors in every school, and that sort of thing.

So, the QEM is not a reform project. It is a special interest wish list that perpetuates, rather than seeks to change, the status quo.

So, the question is: How about Chalkboard? Will it have the same fate?

Unlike the QEM, which from start to finish was nothing more than a hack politician's sop to the teachers unions and other education status quo protectionist groups, I think the people involved in Chalkboard are seriously trying to come up with reform proposals that will improve Oregon's schools.

Their problem, in my view, is one of organizing principles. Chalkboard's organizing principle is that a public outreach effort that traverses the state asking people what they want from their schools and how schools should be reformed, will result in a basket of proposals that will be coherent, workable, and effective.

I remain skeptical. First, ask ten people what they want from the schools and you'll get twenty different answers. Ask ten people what schools should do differently, and you'll get a hundred answers.

I don't see how using public opinions as the basis for determining a basket of reform proposals will result in anything other than a cacophony of voices. This may sound elitist, but as I told Sue Hildick when we met to discuss the project, and I still think it applies: I don't believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.

Not that every individual who has an opinion about what schools can and should do is ignorant, but everyone does have an opinion, and just having an opinion doesn't mean that it is correct, valid, or even based in fact. So why would we pretend that simply asking everybody what they think will result in some better understanding of truth?

Second, this kind of process of public input always runs the risk of being dominated by the same old interest groups who run the place already. Who has the most incentive to show up at the public forums that Chalkboard held all over the state? Those people with an economic stake in the outcome, that is who. Oh sure, you'll get the more motivated parents, and the activist citizens here and there, but their participation I am certain paled in comparison to the union, who can send out a memo to hundreds of teachers.

So, Chalkboard holds its public forums and hears hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas, proposals, and suggestions, many of which are certainly contradictory. How exactly does it take all this and in an unbiased manner translate it into a basket of coherent policy proposals?

The truth is, it can't be done. And that is the central flaw in Chalkboard. Chalkboard states that it is an independent and unbiased voice, simply an organ through which the people of Oregon can get their voices heard and the reforms they want from the schools.

But the fact is that because what they will hear in their forums is a Tower of Babel, it is up to Chalkboard to pick and choose from what they hear, and bundle it into their reform package.

Which means they rely upon their own judgment as to which reforms are valid and which are not. Which of course necessarily means that whoever makes the call uses their own opinions, views and biases to decide. Which means that they aren't, after all, objective vessels for the public to make its wishes known.

Let me give an example. A friend of mine attended one of the forums, where Chalkboard presented some of the results from its surveys in a slide show. All the usual stuff was in the show - the need for more money, lower class sizes, more discipline, less waste, etc.

My friend asked a question: "Didn't you hear anything about CIM and CAM in your surveys?"

Sue Hildick answered that yes, they had heard quite a bit about how bad CIM and CAM were. But there was nothing in the slide show even mentioning it. They had apparently chosen to exclude it from their presentation of results. Why?

Actually the question of why is not all that important. What is important is that the fact that they did exclude it proves the point that Chalkboard is not (and cannot be) a neutral vessel through which Oregonians get their voices heard. They make their own judgment calls all the time on what they say the major issues are, and what the best reform suggestions are, and those judgments are based every bit as much on political factors as any other political organization's.

And that is the central flaw. Chalkboard pretends that it is neutral, but that is impossible. As soon as one of their reforms threatens an interest group, they are now taking a side. It cannot be avoided, and to pretend otherwise damages their own credibility because most people know better.

Case in point: just yesterday Chalkboard revealed a few of their "common sense" reforms. Top on the list is a reduction in class sizes for kindergarten and first grade classrooms down to 20 kids per class, which they claim will cost $40 million. (The $40 million is just the salaries for the new teachers that we would need. They fail to calculate the capital cost of the new classroom space this would require, which would be in the neighborhood of $175 million.)

But the larger point is: how did they decide that class size reduction was the direction we should go? Was it based on a careful review of the research about the cost effectiveness of class size reduction as a reform? It couldn't have been, because the research on class size pretty much shows that it is one of the most expensive ways to get increases in academic achievement, and unless you get down to about 14 kids per class, the effects are very small indeed.

But reducing class size is very popular with the unions, because it means more teachers (and therefore more dues.) Offering up class size reduction as a reform might even get the unions to go along with some other proposal that they don't like very much, such as merit pay or making it easier to fire bad teachers. So, as I said, it is no doubt political considerations that weigh heavily in which reforms become part of the package. Fine, but don't pretend otherwise.

I have seen this movie before. The status quo is very good at protecting themselves. Here's how it plays out: They get theirs up front, and the part they don't like is on the come, and they get to decide how and when it comes.

In Chalkboard, the interest groups got their class size proposal up front. It was the only significant element of the just-announced "common-sense reform" package.

Chalkboard also appointed a panel to "formulate[e] new standards for how to license teachers and principals, how to ensure their on-the-job training is effective and how to make it easier to get weak teachers to improve or be fired.

This is the distasteful pill the establishment has to figure out how to regurgitate. Note that they get the class size proposal up front, but the "new standards" are on the come. And who gets to decide on the standards? Why they themselves, of course! Chalkboard appointed "union leaders, teachers, principals and college of education leaders" on the panel.

The other big push by Chalkboard is to figure out how to get more money for K-12 education. Sue Hildick apparently has completely bought in to the notion that more money will fix the school spending problem. From the Oregonian story:

"More money is crucial to remake Oregon schools into among the best in the nation -- something Oregonians overwhelmingly say they want, she says."

This is disappointing, because the simple fact is that there is no way Oregon can allocate enough money to K-12 in order to fully fund its cost structure, which has about a 6% year over year increase in per-student costs. I personally explained this reality to the Board of the Chalkboard Project when I showed them a slide show I had prepared on the school funding issue back in August of 2003.

I've summaized the main points of the slide show in my May 12th post. If the state tried to give enough to K-12 to fully fund its cost structure, then K-12 would consume more than the entire general fund by the 2013-15 biennium.

When I showed them the numbers, there was visible shock around the table. One of the board members literally put his forehead on the table, raised it slowly, shook his head and said "We were under the operating assumption that there was a revenue solution to the school funding problem. If what Rob is telling us is true, then there isn't."

He revealed by the statement what I figured was the case - that the "operating assumption" was that Chalkboard was all about getting more money to the schools. As if we need another school funding advocacy group.

But I hoped that the epiphany he apparently had would make the project reassess its role. Obviously it didn't.

So who has Chalkboard chosen to figu
re out what to do about school funding? Jim Scherzinger, former Superintendent of the fiscally insolvent Portland School District. Hard to imagine a less reform-minded person. If you were truly looking for reform, wouldn't you look for a reformer?

Once again, the status quo prevails by co-opting anything that smacks of reform. That is how the game is played. Chalkboard looks like just another well meaning dupe, no match for the education establishment which has played this game for decades.


gus miller said...

Spot on Rob-

Chalkboard speaks of improved licensing standards for new teachers. They do not mention strategies forhiring the best new teachers. Portland's current contract (Article 10) requiress a 3-step process to fill classroom teacher openings that delays the hiring of new teachers until the month before the new school year starts.

Chalkboard is a closed process as the public is excluded from the process of drawing up meeting agendas. Chalkboard naively assumes the current public education infrastructure is best for the future.

As Einstein sai; "The thinking that brought the problem will not be adequate to solve the problem."

Anonymous said...


You didn't tell us how much money the CP spent spinning their wheels for the last couple of years.

Is it hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions?

Rob Kremer said...

I don't know precisely how much they spent. The Oregonian article said they had $2.7 million in support. That is probably what they have spent so far. It's not taxpayer money anyway.

Gary Neuschwanger said...

I agree completely. I am still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, however. I am disappointed that they: 1) did not address Oregon's collective bargaining laws which have severely impacted K-12 financing. 2) They gave very little comment on, "Salaries and benefits per full-time equivalent staff member are high relative to other states".(ECONorthwest,2005) This is quantified to between $300-500 million per year above the similar states of Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin among others. Oregon is enduring the 4th highest class sizes, curtailing programs and shortening school years at the expense of having the 8th highest compensated K-12 employees in the U.S. 3) Recognition that Oregon has fallen from 25th in "per capita income" in 1990 to our ranking of 34th in 2004.

If these points are not completely addressed in the "Quality" Work groups, I will believe that it is politics as usual, and Oregon will continue to "muddle along" for the next decade.

Anonymous said...

$2.7 million wasted. I don't care if it was private foundation dollars. How many charter schools could that money have helped to open?

Jack Roberts said...

Unfortunately, Rob, I'm afraid you have the Chalkboard Project pegged. Not because the people behind it aren't bright enough or well-intentioned, but because of the very approach you describe of trying to find a general consensus opinion rather than bold, new ideas about how to educate our kids.

Increasingly, I think that's what is lacking: a new approach or theory of education that catches the fancy of the educators as well as parents and political leaders, one that gets people enthused about education again. Whether it's really an improvement or not, we need something to shake up the system and restore some energy to it.

No offense, but debates over school vouchers and charter schools are really about process, governance and financing mechanisms. We really haven't had a national debate over what goes on in the classroom since the so-called "progressive education" movement sprang up a century ago.

More and more, I think John Maynard Keynes was right: "It is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

Rob Kremer said...

Interestingly, there has been a national debat of sorts over what goes on in the classroom, but it is in spite of the "progressive educators" who don't want the debate, since it reveals their methods as inferior.

The "math wars" and the whole language vs. phonics controversy continue to this day.

I wouldn't dismiss governance-related reforms as insignificant, however. I think governance is a key issue. Only if we shift authority over what goes on in the classroom away from distant bureaucracies and layers of government will we start to get decisions made based on what the kids need, rather than what interest groups want for the adults.

That is where charters can be a very powerful: they establish small laboratories where schools are autonomous and competing, and are governed at the most local possible level - the school.

I think that is critical. Charters will bring about the "national debate" on what goes on in the classroom by demonstrating methods that work.

If not for the charter school law, Chuck Arthur would have never been able to start his first Direct Instruction charter school ( which will eventually be a network of ten schools in the Portland area, all using the same research-proven teaching methods that the "progressive" educators find abhorrent.

So, I think governance is a key element of bringing about the debate you correctly see is necessary.

Thanks again for chiming in. Your views make this blog a better, more interesting place.

And I wish you would run for governor again!

gus miller said...


It strikes me that the Chalkboard Project has been hijacked by status-quo special interests before the process was able to proceed toward reaching consensus on bold changes in the public education delivery infrastructure.

Case in point: The $40 million dollar cost of additional teachers to reduce K-1 classrooms to 20 students. Was any consideration given to the possibility of establishing a more economical pay scale for K-1 teachers given the reduced workload? Do K-1 teachers require a Masters Degree?

Chalkboard would do well to cut its losses, analyze its mistakes and work toward a new process that will not allow the status-quo special interests to stifle the process of discussing and reaching consensus on critically needed changes in the public K-12 infrastructure.

Jack Roberts said...

Rob, I didn't mean to dismiss the importance of reforms related to governance. It's just that I see them as a means to an end. As you described, charter schools can be little laboratories to develop the larger reforms that, once proven, can be adopted more broadly.

Your point about the so-called progressive education folks is correct. They were the rebels, now they are the status quo. Without wishing to sound like a Marxist, there is something to be said for his analysis of the thesis (or status quo) being challenged by the antithesis (revolutionary idea), ultimating producing a synthesis which becomes the new thesis.

In education, I think we're still waiting for the status quo to be challenged by the next revolutionary idea.

Gus, I think you're probably right about what the Chalkboard Project would need to do to get back on track but I am not optimistic this will happen. Unfortunately, what we're seeing is what typically results when seemingly hard-headed business people decide to tackle a problem: They get the so-called "experts" around them, try to find a consensus and then take the conservative (in the dictionary, not ideological, sense) path of just trying to do better what you're already doing.

It is exactly the same reason that large, established businesses sooner or later get their butts kicked by innovative, entrepreneurial new start-up companies.

That's why its important that we have Rob and people like him acting as entrepreneurs in the educational field.

Steve Schopp said...

Jack said,
"In education, I think we're still waiting for the status quo to be challenged by the next revolutionary idea."

I have a hard time buying that Jack.

I think reality is more that there is no waiting. The stautus quo has become so politicized and entrenched that every challenge, earth shattering or not, has little chance of hindering any of the perpetual edu-meddling by our status-quoers.
The self preservation at all costs approach by those running our education system (and their political allies) has clearly sentenced our schools to another decade or so of floundering mediocrite. The professional posturing around the edges pretending to provide mixes of adaptation mearly sustains the who's in charge objectives.

Michael the Lib said...

Some years ago Theodore Sizer wrote the book "Horace's Compromise: the Dilemma of the American High School" and suggested, as I recall, that we abolish compulsory education for those over the age of twelve, or fourteen. From what I have seen and heard from teachers that would not be a bad idea. Then schools would have to come up with quality educational methods to retain their students.
Just a short comment on a big issue.

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