Monday, January 23, 2006

Blog Review: Diane Wier on Education

In keeiping with my blogger New Year's Resolutions, This is the third installment of my "weekly" series of blog reviews/interviews.

The Edusphere is repleat with all kinds of viewpoints, from parents and students to teachers, administrators, superintendants and even people like me with a big mouth and fast fingers for typing my tripe. But in all the hubbub, I have not found many blogs by the elected members of the education community, the school boards--except for Diane Weir. Diane Weir on Education is a blog by a member of the Westford (MA) School Committee and is a wonderful place for some insights into what goes on at the school board level of policy-making. (If any one knows of other School Board Member Blogs, I would love to know--leave a note in the comments.)

With topics ranging from local to national issues, Diane does a great job of bringing the larger national issues home and taking the local issues national as examples of what is happening in our schools. A former teacher, Diane now works in the technology field and has been a member of the School Board since May 3, 2005. Diane presented some practical thoughts about school issues during the campaign, particularly in this post on school budgeting.

I decided to interview Diane because hers is the first blog I have encountered that discusses education from the school board perspective. In addition, she regularly posts her voting record, as well as information about what happened during the Board's public deliberations. The only piece of criticism I would make about Diane's site is that she has an opportunity, not seized often enough, to inform her constituents and the large public, about the political, economic and other restraints a school board operates under. While we think of the school board as a maker of policy, often times they are relegated to only small matters because they are pre-empted by state and, increasingly, federal law. This ties their hands a great deal, putting the school board in the unenviable position of being the person at the bottom of the hill as the policy boulder rolls down from on high. And, to mix metaphors, puts the school board in the line of fire for every disgruntled parent, teacher or administrator, whether the greivance is due to the school board's actions or not.

This does not mean that I am asking Diane to make excuses for her, and her colleagues' actions (not that I have any reason to believe they would), but if more people understood how educational policy is made, we as consumers of education would understand who to take our complaints to.

So go check out Diane's site, it is informative and provides a very different perspective. On to the interview.

1. In 25 words or less, what is your blog about?
My blog covers issues in public education at the local, state and national levels.
2. What prompted you to begin blogging?
While running for School Committee, I started blogging as a way to introduce myself to voters.
3. Is there a particular posting you have made in the past three months of which you are particularly proud? If so, please provide a link.
This year we voted on a new teacher contract. I found that it was difficult for someone to understand my position to someone if they weren't familiar with the salary structure. So, I wrote a two-part series on the teacher contract.The first part described “steps and ladders” which is the salary structure most commonly used throughout the country. In the second part I gave my reasons for voting against ratification.
4. (here is what has become the requisite three part question)You use your blog as a means of communication about your school board activities. Do find that constituents read the blog? Is it a valuable means of keeping your constituents updated on your and the school board’s activities? Do you publicize the blog to your constituents?
Constituents not only read the blog, they make comments and suggest topics! That’s where I see the real value. It encourages participation and responsiveness. How great is that?

I don’t put too much effort in publicizing the blog. I’ve added the URL to my electronic signature which I use in email and when posting on a local online forum. I printed up business cards, but I can’t say that I’ve passed many out. In a small town, word of mouth is sufficient publicity. For now, my focus is on getting content up on the website and answering comments from readers.
5. As a former teacher and now a school board member, do you find your previous experience as a teacher helps or hinders or has no effect on your performance as a board member?
It certainly influences the decisions I make and the expectations I have. I left ed school an idealist, and I left teaching a pragmatist. As a board member, I try to strike a balance so that we can set lofty goals and actually reach them.
6. What are the three biggest challenges facing your school district and would you say it would be fair to extrapolate those issues to the state and even the nation?
The most immediate challenge is ensuring that our schools are safe. This year three teachers have either resigned or been dismissed. Two of them are facing criminal charges. Background checks should be handled at the state level as part of the certification process. It should be much more difficult to remain certified once you've resigned or been fired for disciplinary reasons.

We're also looking at the annual budget challenges. It's an odd dance of requesting more than you can reasonably expect to receive and then publicly lamenting the resulting cuts. I'm not a fan of this approach because it emphasizes political posturing and undervalues the management aspects of local governance.

Lastly, as a district whose students typically perform very well on state tests, the challenge for us is moving beyond this minimum level of proficiency. How do we define and measure excellence? If we don't take it upon ourselves to make these decisions, the state and federal government will do it for us.
7. Having experience education now from three at least three different angles, that is as a student, a teacher and now as a policymaker (I don’t know if you have children and if you do, as a parent), what advice would you give to all the parents/teachers/students out there about dealing with the educational system when they experience frustration?
I get asked this a lot. I ought to write a blog entry about it because there are a basic series of steps one should follow. Start by finding out what policies exists for raising complaints. There should be a well-defined process and "chain of command" to follow. Remember that part of finding a solution requires some degree of flexibility on your part. Be open to trying out suggestions from school staff.

If problems persist, be prepared to bring your concerns to the next level. Be specific in what action or response you're looking for and agree on a time line. Keep a written record of your meetings with staff. Remain persistent, congenial and focused on the solution as you bring your complaints up to the next level.

Should it get to the point where you need to go to the school board, find out if there are other parents/teachers/students who share your concern and work together. As school boards don't typically get involved in the day to day operations, find any policies that are applicable to your issue. At the very least, the board should either direct the superintendent to take specification or publically state that they will not address the issue.

If you're not satisfied with your board's response, consider running for a seat!
8. You post your voting record online (which I think is great). As a believer in choice, I noted that you were the lone dissent on a school choice vote, where the board decided against participating in the school choice program for FY06. I was hoping you can share some information about the School Choice program that was considered, its features and why you think it was defeated in the vote.
Thank you. You've reminded me that I've got to update my voting record page!

The School Choice law in Massachusetts is weak, outdated, and has been allowed to quietly fade away. Basically, each district has the option of opening up a designated number of slots at a particular grade each year. For example, you could open 10 slots in grades 9-12 and 8 slots in grade 4. Or, a district can decide not to participate in the choice program. This decision is made annually.

Students are accepted on a lottery basis. Once a student is accepted through the choice program, they must be allowed finish their entire K-12 schooling in the district, regardless of whether the district continues to participate in the choice program. Each receiving district is paid 75% of their normal per pupil expenditures, up to $5,000.

Some of the arguments made against participating in the School Choice program were that we don't have enough room in the schools, that the students who come in have had serious discipline problems, and that the district loses money because it costs more than $5,000 to educate a student. Even if these claims are true, shouldn't we, as one of the best districts in the state, be able to handle these challenges? If not, then we have no business lamenting the fact that urban districts get more funding.
9. With the caveat that as the editor of my own blog and I choose the interviewees, is there a blog that you like which you would like to see interviewed in this space? Please provide a link to the blog and an email if you know one (email addresses are not published unless the address is already on the blog page).
I'd like to recommend Kitchen Table Math. Theirs is a blog with a mission: Our goals in starting this collaborative weblog are, in order of importance: to have fun, to share ways of teaching kids math, and to support people who want to help kids learn math. A great reference for anyone frustrated with fuzzy math!

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