Sunday, November 1, 2015

What kind of help does the school board need?

School board members in Iowa—unpaid volunteers who often serve while holding down full-time jobs and trying to raise kids—inevitably have to depend to some extent on information provided to them by others. That’s part of what our paid administrators do: gather information and make recommendations to the board about school issues. The board also sometimes creates committees or task forces to make proposals on particular issues; at our last meeting, for example, we voted to create a task force that would look into possible changes in the district’s bell schedule.

Nonetheless, the final decision on many matters is the board’s. How can administrators and task forces best help the board make its decisions? I’m worried that our board’s approach to that question sometimes delegates too much of its role to these other groups.

The problem is that the help the board gets is often in the form of advocacy for a particular conclusion. I would rather hear a more objective analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of a particular course of action, including discussion of possible alternatives. A bottom-line recommendation can be helpful, but, on issues where there is a potential for differing value judgments, the best thing the administration can do for the board is to give the board enough information that it can reach its own independent conclusion.

An example is the discussion at our last meeting of the ThoughtExchange proposal. The central administration recommended that we adopt the proposal—and again, I appreciate receiving a recommendation. The administration, though, apparently saw its role more as advocating for its recommendation than as providing an objective assessment of the pros and cons. The only material it provided, other than the $170,000 price quote, was . . . promotional material created by ThoughtExchange. Then, at our meeting, the ThoughtExchange vendor was given the floor for over forty minutes to make a video presentation advocating for the proposal and to take questions from the board.

Whatever you think of the merits of the proposal, hearing only from advocates on one side of an issue is never the best way to make a decision. As every law student quickly learns, a good brief is usually very convincing until you read the opposing brief.

One of the things I liked about Director Lori Roetlin’s proposal to create a task force on the bell schedule is that the task force will generate multiple options and that there will be a period of public comment on those options. In other words, the model is less focused on advocacy and more on providing the board with multiple perspectives.

What board members need is good information. What they shouldn’t delegate is important value judgments. A system that relies too heavily on one-sided advocacy makes it hard to draw that line.


pooter said...

If you look at the "Results" page of a school that uses this stuff, it's a couple pages of Power Point bullets. I looked at Walla Walla off of Google. I would be happy to contribute to the research on this company but it seems like a kind of "Supes Academy" ethos where they charge school districts exorbitant fees because the higher they price it the higher the perceived value. While they rake in profit. I am not a fan of how administrators higher themselves and their friends at expensive "consulting" fees for simple talks and visits that don't warrant them.

pooter said...

I looked at a couple of their videos. I fail to see what their software does that basic, free, open source message board or forum software does that has star ratings or vote up or down enabled.

pooter said...

It appears to be built upon the popular WordPress blogging or CMS (Content Management Software). I think someone should do an analysis of free or cheap alternatives which are out there. Sorry for so many posts.

Amy Charles said...

Well, yes -- I mean you've got the Yes, Minister problem here. Of course the admin is advocating -- they see you as an obstacle to doing whatever it was they wanted to do in the first place, and you can count on slanted info from them. They're also not accustomed to having to provide Appleby-level steering, maybe not since Lauren left the board. And given central admin's recent history in steering via brochure, metaphorical or otherwise, I think we're in considerable need of more thoughtful analysis.

In a town like this I'd think you should certainly be able to acquire thoughtful, thorough volunteer task forces with some measure of authority on whatever he subject is. You'd have to advertise and develop expert pools and ask people to serve, and I think to some extent it would make the admin crazy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Because you'd get some solid reports, and they wouldn't line up with admin or teacher desires, and you'd say well what's wrong with the reports, and you'd get non-answers and vague protest along the lines of "outsiders/university types have no idea how education works". But I think they ought to have to do better than that. I would also resist admin demands that each group have at least one ICCSD employee on it. Admin can respond once a genuinely independent report is made, it doesn't need to be in there trying to steer or subvert a report.

I can already see the responses, btw, particularly to approaches that don't involve buying recommended ed products/services:

- We don't have the manpower.
- Implementation of the committee's report would take some time because it would require (something that would take a long time, so very very long)
- Our buddies at dubious ed consortium say that's a road to low test scores, we recommend this thing their friends are flogging instead
- It would be so tremendously onerous that it'd cost more in employee hours than it would to buy the thing we want you to buy

Etc. A very small example: Many years ago, when I served on the JoCo Empowerment Board, we were looking at funding a preschool program; ICCSD admin was already freaking about test scores, and wanted to start preschool programs particularly to help ELL and very low-income kids. I'm very much in favor of state-funded preschool, but I wasn't so sure about the ed magic admin believed would happen; they were relying on one study of a dissimilar distrrict and a very small number of program participants. So I said, well, we're lucky here, we actually have a control group. There'll be a waiting list of kids who don't get in, and demographically they'll be quite similar to those who do get in. Obviously we'll have some attrition with kids moving out of district, but let's track this cohort's grades through, say, middle school and see how they do, kids who had the program and kids who didn't. Admin flatly refused. It't take too much time, they said. Which was of course ridiculous; it'd take almost no time. You're collecting the info anyway, and you're talking about dozens of kids, not hundreds or thousands. But they really didn't want the program scrutiny.

If you guys can stay cool about admin resistance to such inquiry, I think you could do something quite nifty with advisory groups. All for it.

Chris said...

Thanks again, Amy and Pooter (and everyone!) for these great comments. Have been too swamped with work this week to keep up with the blog, but please do keep the comments coming.

EDJ said...

On Thought Exchange per se, I may be able to throw a couple of different takes on it your way (rather than simple advocacy) because I've changed my own mind on it a couple of times. Or maybe this will just be a muddle, but hopefully not.

My main concern has been that it may not really address the biggest communication hole in District outreach: lower income voters. Yes, we officially have a very high rate of "internet access" in this district, but for many of our lower income families, that access is thru a cell or smartphone, simply because that kind of device takes care of multiple communications needs & can be had on a payment plan/monthly lease/pay-as-you-use option. When Thought Exchange first came up, I didn't know that they had a mobile platform. Apparently they do, but even after the 40 minute presentation we don't know much about how well it would work. That could be a good area of inquiry.

We do know that it has some translation options, which I think could be a big plus for reaching families often excluded from district input. And I think that there was some talk last year about setting up stations in the schools for parents to come weigh in on topics of interest? If so, that's potentially promising. But, its also a question that needs answered.

I'm not much impressed with the notion that requiring email addresses will defeat the use of sock puppets. I have 3 email addresses I use pretty regularly, so if I know 10 people with the same, then we might be able to effect the perception of a given "thought." Still, its better than Mind Mixer, which made anonymous commenting easy, allowing not only for sock puppets, but also encouraging the kind of vitriol that comes with anonymous comments.

In general, I think that TE or a system like it would be really useful for getting outside of the circle of 100-200 people that are very active in District conversations. I think that it works better than phone surveys because you're not self-selecting only people with landlines or that choose to answer, and because you can reach many more people more quickly, and because you can do more to aggregate and measure the information you're getting, without having to transcribe it. Also, because its atemporal, people might spend more time on their answers than they would in a phone poll, and you can present more complex questions. It has similar advantages in scale and reach and timeliness over live meetings, and, unlike live meetings, intimidation by the crowd or by other speakers (or just shyness) isn't a problem. Of course live meetings, especially in underserved areas of the community, can reach people that this won't, and are vital and can't be supplanted.

So, I went into the last meeting thinking that, as long as it was clear that other outreach efforts targeted at low income citizens were also pursued, energetically, then Thought Exchange (or a system like it) was a net plus and worth pursuing. I think that there is a lot of promise there. But man, that presentation just about made me rethink this position. I'd still say yes, if you can get more concrete information about the mobile platform, the translation services, the possibility of setting up in-school access for parents, and perhaps some unvarnished reviews from other users that don't come through the company itself.

Chris said...

EDJ -- Thanks for the comments. Quick couple of thoughts on ThoughtExchange: As I understood it, the vendor said that there was no mobile app, but you could just go to the ThoughtExchange site on the browser on your phone. Like you, I still have doubts about how well it would reach low income residents. Another concern, for me, is that the vendor was promoting the site as a way to get data that's representative of the community -- he even used the word "polling" to describe it -- and there was no indication that anyone had ever seriously evaluated the site's ability to do that. Given the description, it didn't sound at all like valid sampling (you mention the sock puppet problem; and it appeared that anyone who spent more time on the site would get to rate more ideas, and that the actual number of eyeballs on any one idea would be relatively small, etc.). So I'm actually not convinced that it would be less effective than a well-done survey, which might at least use some statistical methods. I doubt there would even be a way to measure the margin of error for ThoughtExchange results, but if there were, I don't think it would be very encouraging.

I do think there's value in having some way for people to generate ideas and expose us to different perspectives, etc. -- not sure there couldn't be a less expensive way, though -- but as soon as this kind of thing starts to be seen as "data," I'd like to see some actual statistical analysis of its validity.

Mary M said...

Here's another thought about adding additional expenses to PPEL (e.g. ThoughtExchange) 1) There appears to be some PPEL eligible expenses now that are being paid for out of the general fund. 2) When the general fund pays for PPEL eligible expenses without an accompanying offsetting revenue to the general fund, this means there is less money to pay for expenses out of the general fund that directly and positively impact students (opportunity cost). 3) It is my understanding that at least some of transportation costs are paid for out of the general fund and that this includes some discretionary bussing. 4) Before any more non-necessary expenses are added to the PPEL fund, it might be beneficial to first make sure that PPEL eligible expenses are paid for by the PPEL fund and not by the general fund. 5) To not do this will result in less general fund monies being available for expenses like discretionary bussing.