Saturday, October 30, 2010

Short Answers to Common Questions

Here are my short answers to some questions I am often asked on the campaign trail.

What's the biggest difference between you and your opponent?

It's a difference in our views of what a school board is, how it should operate, and what it means to represent the people. For more about this, see my recent blog post, "It's About Two Different Views of How a School Board Should Work."

Why does the district want to borrow $250 million more dollars?

The final decision on any proposed bond issue would be by the voters. As of now, the board has not made a decision to propose any bond issue to the voters. There has been no decision of what the amount will be, if we propose it. The short answer to the question why is that it may be the best and most sensible way to provide for the rapid growth we must accommodate, without raising property taxes. We need to build some new schools and replace a few failing ones.

Just so you know, the Alpine School District's bond rating is the best possible rating for a district with our size of tax base. The district is only at about one-third of the maximum amount it would be allowed to borrow, and even $250 million more, if that's what's proposed, wouldn't even get us close to the limit.

The questions the school board will have to answer soon are, Is a bond issue the best way to provide for growth this time? (It might be.) And have we reasonably limited the things for which we propose to bond -- if we do -- so that we're not borrowing for things we really don't need?

In the meantime, the difficult economic times have hit the Alpine School District fairly hard, but many schools and teachers have done a wonderful job not just doing the same with less money, but doing more with less.

It seems as if the only thing we ever hear about the public schools is that they need more money. How much would be enough?

Great question. I've been asking it for years, and I still don't have a firm answer. But I do believe that, if we are willing to rethink our ideas about how we teach and in what settings, and use some new approaches which are already working in parts of the Alpine School District and other places, we will eventually figure out how to do well with less money, not more.

Why should I care about a dumb old mission statement or the district's goals, vision, or values, as long as my child is learning and ends up getting a college scholarship?

I'll be the first to admit that what happens in the classroom matters a lot more than some document posted at the district's Web site. Eventually, though, some of these things do affect the classroom. That's what happened when the district imposed an ineffective math curriculum, which embodied its flawed educational philosophy, and then its flawed political philosophy made it unwilling to address the problem for years, even though many parents, teachers, and others could see that the curriculum wasn't working well. This damaged the math education of about half a generation of math students in the district, except the ones who parents felt the need to teach their children more math at home.

When you're in the vehicle that's moving, it can be hard to judge how fast you're moving. Sometimes we don't realize we've moved at all, or in which direction, until we're already at a place where we don't want to be. Where we are right now, still, is in a place where most students in the district are getting a good education, or better. But all those documents are an official expression of where the district wants to go, not where it is. We have to get them right, or we'll end up someplace we don't want to be.

The fact that a child is learning at all is not a good indicator of the quality of our schools. A better question might be, Is the child learning as much and as well as the child reasonably can? If not, someone is partially failing that child, and it might be the schools.

A college scholarship is wonderful, but it's not a great measure of the schools' quality, either. Let's see how our students perform in college and how much remedial work is required, if any. Let's see how they fare as adults in the job market and how competitive they help us to be as a nation. Let's see what kind of citizens them make, and how they help us preserve our freedoms. Let's see how committed and effective they are in making education a lifelong pursuit. Unfortunately, by the time we see all this, it's far too late to help that generation of students by going back and improving the schools which didn't serve them as well as they could have.

With the wrong educational and political philosophy, we're at greater risk of making decisions which will have negative consequences down the road, and of missing the early signs of trouble. I happen to love root beer, Hostess Chocolate Donettes, any kind of pizza, and chips and salsa with tons of sour cream. If I decide to make this my daily diet, the health effects might not be obvious right away, and I'll have a lot of fun eating for a while. Months or years down the road, when it is too late or nearly so, the consequences might be quite painful.

What do you think of home schooling, charter schools, and private schools?

I've been told that my job on the school board is to make the case, over and over again, for increased funding of the public schools -- but no one who thinks this can tell me how much funding would be enough. I see my job a little more broadly: advocating for high quality, affordable education for the public, whether in home, charter, or private schools. The Alpine School District supports home schooling by providing help with curriculum, among other things, and I definitely support that effort. Parents should decide which educational options are best for each child, and the public schools should do their best to help them succeed -- even if the chosen option is not full-time attendance at traditional public schools.

Did you really say the other night that you like No Child Left Behind?

I said something like that in a candidates meeting. I was trying to be sarcastic. It didn't work.

In theory, having standards, measuring outcomes, and having consequence for poor performance is a good thing. In practice, increased federal control of public education is a bad thing -- and NCLB does more bad than good.

What's wrong with the "balanced" math curriculum your opponent and the Alpine School District advocate and say we already have?

The math battles (among others) are over some big words that make normal people's eyes glaze over: constructivism, which says it's best to let children find their own way and discover things, and instructivism, which says it's important to do a lot of teaching, including drilling and memorization, among other things. We really do need to balance the two approaches. Discovery is important, and the best traditional teachers have encouraged it for generations. But the math a twenty-first century student needs to master in 13 years took some of the smartest people who ever lived thousands of years to discover and develop. There has to be a lot of instruction, drill, memorization and other traditional things, with some discovery mixed in. That would be a balanced program.

The opponents of this approach like to say they're the ones who are balanced, if they use a constructivist curriculum at school and then send the multiplication tables home for the parents to help with. They talk as if anyone who is dissatisfied with this approach wants nothing but drill and memorization. That would be foolish, and I have never met a single person in the Alpine School District who advocates that.

A properly balanced math curriculum produces students who are good at using math to help solve useful problems. It's not enough just to know a lot about math, feel really good about yourself, and point to the good math grades on your high school transcript. Every day, in my work in the aerospace industry, I see the need for more workers who are really good at doing math, and who can use it reliably in such fields as physics and engineering.

You've been an American Fork High School Marching Band Dad for six years. What do band dads do?

We don't actually march, and we don't play the instruments. As some of the other band dads proved at a band family event a few weeks ago, we don't dance very well, either.

When the band goes to competitions, we load the truck and trailers that haul instruments and other things. Then we unload them at the competition. Then we haul the some of the instruments and other equipment on and off the field for performance. Then we load up the truck again, and unload it when we get back to the high school.

We do whatever else we can to help. At the Mt. Timpanogos competition last Saturday, which the AFHS Marching Band hosted, we helped run the whole operation. I spent much of last Saturday on a four-wheeler, running two-way radios around to bands that were arriving, unloading, warming up, etc., so all 34 bands could stay on schedule. I'm spending part of today on the band's trip to a competition in Logan.

The band moms do a lot, too, including keeping the band well fed and looking sharp, among many other things.

It's real work, but we love it. We're proud of the band.

Sometimes we brag a little, too. Mostly about the band.

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