Sunday, March 05, 2006

Portland Public Schools...

There's an article on the Portland Public Schools at OregonLive: Middle class losing faith in schools, city .

I am reminded of Ernest Rutherford, "We don't have money, so we must think".

I have lived in Portland for 8 years and had a few questions related to the article. For those that aren't aware, about 3 years ago there was a huge budget shortfall for the public school system (recall, this was a shortfall in being able to give them the increase they wanted). In order to fully fund the budget, they asked the shareholders of the city, its citizens, to approve a temporary 3 year 1% income tax (no, none of us believed it would be temporary). As a group we approved this 'temporary' measure and it was decided that the tax increase would go through. This would give them breathing room to determine what to do next, which is what they claimed they would do with this time.

And now, as a shareholder of this city, I'd like to ask a few questions, and propose a couple of ideas for any further budget increases:

[1] How have you, during this time, decreased the amount of administrative positions, relative to the student population? Relative to the number of faculty directly involved in teaching students?

[2] What have you done in terms of decreasing costs of infrastructure? For example, closing down inefficient buildings, outsourcing non-core functions like janitorial staff?

[3] How have you provided an increase of value for the amount of money you have been given?

[4] What is the cost per student and how has it gone down? How are we doing relative to other school systems? If we are doing poorly, why are we doing poorly, and how can we continue to bring these costs down (what paperwork is in the way)? Could technology be leveraged to help bring these costs down? What is your record compared to other school systems?

As shareholders in this community, we have a right to expect continuous improvement. As employees, if you are doing an excellent job at enhancing shareholder value I believe you deserve an increase in your standard of living. If you are not, you should either be replaced or reconsider your role in leadership.

As a member of this community I would appreciate that any further incentives be tied directly to improvements rather than just given away. We have failed, as citizens, to make you directly accountable for your compensation, and now we as citizens need to fix our mistake. I am not critical of any one person in particular, but we are all to blame for this mess. One thing we should all come to terms with is that any public school system is financially constrained, and everyone wants their budget increased, but you don't the budget you want, you get the budget you have, and must find a way to do a great job with it. I know the teachers care passionately about their students and quite frankly, 10 days of free work is enough and unacceptable to ask them for more than they already have given.

Stop gap solutions are not the way, we must plan for a future that does not require tin cupping to the taxpayers when things go awry. Another temporary tax increase will encourage irresponsible financial behavior (tell your children there are no consequences to putting their hand in the cookie jar, but tell them not to eat any cookies, see what happens). The best way to strengthen our schools is to encourage the middle class who enjoy the quality of life and values of the Portland community to migrate to our beautiful city. Another is to continue to encourage young single urbanites to continue their migration and let nature take its course, they too will soon become middle class urbanites interested in great quality educational infrastructure. I also believe we, as a state, should encourage tourism (jointly with Washington and Idaho) and use funds from this industry for enhancing our natural resource base as well as strengthening our citizens via educational and job opportunities throughout the northwest. These simple ideas can provide significant return on invested capital. Finally, we should leverage our technology industry infrastructure via low cost or free wireless broadband within the city. All city organizations can use the infrastructure for cost, citizens pay a reasonable fee, libraries have free terminals for everyone. This acts as a credible conduit for future growth and utlization of technology to liberate the creative genius of our community.

As a taxpayer, I would be delighted to reward positive results in the community with my tax dollars, but I am unclear, due to my ignorance of the answers to the questions above, that the money we have already invested has been used as I was told it would be. Can you please provide some insight?

I have lost faith not in Portland public schools, but in the school infrastructure as it has existed for decades in our country. This century needs an educational infrastructure appropriate to the times, rote memorization mechanisms and rigid communistic student/teacher roles need revisited to explore avenues for a more enlightened approach. The role of public school as babysitter needs to evolve. In the long term, compensation should be merit based, graded by employer feedback (parents and students). No system of employee evaluation is perfect, they are all approximations, and the rest of the community has their pay based on how well they do, why should there be an exception for educators?

Let Portland Public Schools be a beacon to the rest of the world as to how to educate for the 21st Century, and not a relic of the past. Let us show how a community of diverse and educated citizenry can create a socially lucrative community.


Anonymous said...

Hey Adam! I hope you are fully enjoying your time away and hope we can reconnect when you return!

Aric passed on the address to your blog which I have really enjoyed reading. I am incredibly envious!

I can’t help but comment on your observations regarding public schools. Knowing that I am oversimplifying here (and playing devil’s advocate to your points), children are not widgets that we produce and so models of other industries simply cannot be applied. If we simply look at cost per student and ask how can we reduce those costs, we leave out the element of quality of education per student.

So, how do you measure the quality of an education? Do you test students on reading, writing, and arithmetic? Are those the indicators of success? I hardly think the 3 Rs make for a good finished product. How do you measure the importance of a music program or an art program? The positive impact of those programs as well as all other extracurricular programs simply cannot be calculated. Should educators have to choose between math and music? Can you really say that one subject deserves more attention than the others?

One percent of nothing equals nothing. What I mean is that using percentages rather than real dollar figures does make for difficult budgeting, especially when no relationship exists between the two (1 taxpayer, 1 student at a given grade level). If that 1% didn’t add up to estimates built into the budget how do you make up the difference?

In the end, I agree that we need to make the business of educating our business, but I think accountability is difficult and unique to education. What bits of your own education do you look back upon as the biggest influence to who you are today? Was it the coursework to that score you received on an exam or something less tangible?

Darrin Beek

adam lake said...

Hey there Darrin, good to hear from you! I've thought about a few different responses here, some short, some quite lengthy. I'll stick with the shorter response for the comments here, perhaps we can chat about it at greater length in the near future.

Questions 1, 3, and 4 are related to quality. Perhaps I wasn't clear in how they are worded, but that was their intent. As far as widgets/children analogy, we agree completely here. However, we are looking for quantitative metrics to assess performance in a value added business (object goes into one end, is bent, molded and shaped, comes out at other end with a value higher than the cost), and we can use whatever modeling tool most simply allows us to assess the situation. I am just looking for metrics to use, I do not have a complete list of my questions in the post, this is a subset, a starting point, of questions I felt were most important and related to the issues of spending on the business we are engaged in: enhancing the value of the human capital of the community.

I also agree with your second point. While quality is indicated from questions 1, 3, and 4 it is not assured. More thorough analysis is needed. My major points in the questions is to understand the adminstrations changes, particularly to the financials. Not in understanding the teachers, teaching, etc. which I agree are extremely important. I agree with all your points here.

kim said...

Speaking of portland public schools, you never replied to my email from Angela Dickey about covering the preso I did to her middle school classes last year.

Think you'll be back in time?

I have feedback on this post that will have to wait; the short version though is this: It is difficult to force a particular balance of socialist/individualist (selfish/community etc) values upon people. However, you need to do so if they are going to measure/grade the teachers. e.g. Is a teacher that got 29-of-30 kids test scores up at the expense of completely ignoring one problem child that would have been high-time-for-low-yield effort, a good teacher? Not for the parent of the one child. Not for some parents that beleive in balance and community. Yes for those that are selfish. So what's teh right approach? You could have this same debate about anything. What about a teacher that inspires passion & creative thinking vs focusing on grades on tests.

More over beers sometime when you are back and come to seattle for a visit.