Blog anniversary season

For some reason, we seem to like starting new blogs in February in my household. Wacky Mommy started her blogging back in February of 2005, and started hitting on school politics right off the bat.

A year later, I started my own blog. But it wasn’t until February 2007 that I started ranting (anonymously) about school politics there (warning: salty language).

As school politics gradually took over my blog — and big chunks of my free time — my kids were growing up. My eldest started bugging me about writing mostly school stuff on a blog called “More Hockey Less War.”

So in February 2008, I started this blog. I had no idea what to expect. Two years hence, it’s become much more than my personal soap box.

I didn’t initially aspire to reinvent journalism. But somewhere along the way it became clear that I was doing work on this Web site that mainstream commercial media were increasingly neglecting. It’s not that I’m doing something better than the pros. It’s that nobody’s paying the pros to do what they should be doing. I think it’s fair to say we’ve been covering a story that The Oregonian has consistently missed — or chosen to ignore — for two decades.

I also never aspired to be a celebrity spokesmodel for school equity, or a public figure of any kind.

But I live by an informal creed: If I see injustice and do not speak, am I not complicit?

I’ve been speaking out, for the sake of my children as much as for the greater common good. But when I’m spending time researching, interviewing, writing, fact checking and editing instead of reading with my kids or playing music, there’s a fundamental disconnect in my values, or at least an imbalance. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Lost time is not found again.”

This is all a long way of saying: expect changes around here in the coming year. I want to keep PPS Equity around, but I also want to take a step back from its day-to-day operations. I believe Portland needs an independent, critical voice covering this beat, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible here.

There are a few options I’m exploring for the future, but none are definite. One thing is for certain: readers contribute more to this site than me. So I have no doubt that it will continue in some form or another.

Stay tuned, and stay in touch.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Non-educators derail contract talks

They have not played nice in the sand box from the beginning. Early on they would cancel and delay negotiations regularly. About November, we were very close to a settlement and out of the blue, they switched negotiators, essentially starting the entire process over.

At one point Superintendent Carole Smith was participating in the negotiations. Evidently she was too earnest in getting a settlement. The next session, after a particularly productive session, Smith was not there, but she was ‘available’ if needed. The session after that, Smith was neither present nor available. We think they “threw her under a bus” or something. Maybe they should have had her park her car somewhere else.

I’m no negotiator myself, but it doesn’t take much to know that a good negotiator will try to get the other side to express intentions regarding the issue being discussed. When the district would finally articulate to the PAT their intentions and desired outcome of a given article being discussed, the PAT would then write up the understood outcome in contract lingo. The district would then say, ‘Oh that’s not what we meant’! And around they’d go again.

After one of the PAT’s rallies, the district ‘magically’ came up with a way to cut $11 million to avoid the 5 furlough days. Now, after the passage of 66 and 67, they deny having a spare $11 million. This begs the question – did they really need the furlough days they were asking for? Or, was it all a ploy to pressure teachers into making concessions on the contract in order to avoid the furlough days?

Where is the district’s increased expense forcing them to trim their budget, especially now that 66 & 67 have passed? It’s certainly not health care. Their health insurance expense for teachers is going up only 80 cents per teacher per month. Wow. I know people whose insurance is going up 25%! On a side note, The Trust, the district’s health care organization, does an incredible job, as this is an unheard of low increase. (The Trust is a board of both district personnel and PAT members managing the health care products they offer to PAT members).

District folks are not educators and do not understand what being a teacher means. They don’t ‘get’ how schools function and the role that teachers play. The PAT negotiators had to explain to them what “student contact time” is. The district wants a longer day for middle school teachers but were googly-eyed when it was explained to them that that would mean those teachers wouldn’t be able to go to staff meetings or attend after-school IEP meetings (two things held precious to administrators). If those teachers had to teach until 4:30 and then attend meetings, their work day would end at 6:30!

Currently, teachers have the first 15 minutes of their work day to get ready for the day – make copies, set up curricular materials for the day, etc. They also have the last 30 minutes of the day to call parents, see students, grade papers, etc. The district wants that time to be instructional time. It had to be explained to them that to require teachers to start their teaching day the minute their working day started and ended, they would not be available to students for questions or help on homework, contacting parents, or even entering the day’s attendance into the eSis database. Again, district officials were googly-eyed when this was explained to them.

This is just a sampling of how things have gone. We’re still trying to negotiate a contract that would expire this June. It seems clear these are people who are out to bust a union.


Board set to approve $320,000 military recruiting contract

The Portland Public Schools board of education is set to approve a contract with the U.S. military to take $320,000 in exchange for access to elementary school children.

The Starbase program, funded from the US Department of Defense recruiting budget, has been raising parent hackles since at least 2006. It is up for re-authorization at tonight’s school board meeting, in the midst of two shooting wars and the “Global War on Terror.”

Parents opposed to the program issued a press release this morning urging the board to vote down this contract. They are also calling on parents to contact the school board about this program.

“We oppose the militarization of our children through a science curriculum,” said Jessica Applegate, mother of two PPS students.

“Students of color are disproportionately represented in their program,” writes parent Carrie Adams on her blog, Cheating in Class.

Nancy Rawley, PPS Equity co-publisher, notes that the $320,000 could pay for “a whole lot of microscopes and science supplies.” She wrote about Starbase here last month.

Update, 3:45 pm: sources tell PPS Equity that the resolution has been pulled from the agenda for today’s meeting, and will appear again soon.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Teacher contract talks at ‘impasse’

In an e-mail to the community, school board presiding co-chair Trudy Sargent writes that the district has informed state mediators that negotiations for a teacher contract have reached an impasse, 583 days after the last contract expired.

Now that an impasse has been declared, both sides have seven days to publish final offers, after which there is a 30-day cooling off period. That means a teacher lockout or strike is possible as early as mid-March.

Update: Portland Association of Teachers president Rebecca Levison e-mailed us this statement in response to the district’s PR blitz:

Portland Teachers have continually sacrificed for their students. They have taken salary freezes, they have reduced their health benefits, they have eliminated benefits and they even worked ten days without pay to keep all students in school. No others made that sacrifice, not even the highest paid employees.

The truth is, the District’s proposal would increase workload, eliminate teacher rights, and result in perhaps the lowest beginning teacher salary of the entire Metro 14 school districts. At the same time, many upper level management employees received up to $15,000 this year in pay increases.

Upper management continues to demonstrate weak leadership and poor judgment from the K- 8 and high school redesign to teacher negotiations and relationships.

PAT will continue to work for a fair settlement for Portland teachers.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


In the news: HS focus options questioned

Parent Rob Boime questions the emphasis on focus options in Portland Public Schools high school redesign plans in an op-ed in today’s Portland Tribune. Boime worries that plans to have upwards of 35 percent of students attend focus option schools would worsen inequities, and he urges planners put emphasis on community high schools first.

Boime’s commentary references an earlier news story by Jennifer Anderson, which examines Beaverton’s success with both focus options and neighborhood comprehensive schools.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Jobs with Justice calls for show of support for teachers

As Portland teachers approach two years without a contract, Portland Jobs with Justice is calling on parents to join the fight for a fair resolution. Come find out how you can help.

  • 6-7 p.m. tonight, February 4
  • PAT office, 345 NE 8th Ave.
  • Dinner and child care provided
  • RSVP to Margaret, 503-236-5573 or

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Chalkboard on the Wrong Road

Someone ought to tell the leaders of the Chalkboard Project that no one uses a chalkboard anymore.

And someone should also tell them that schools are about educating kids not teachers. There is a great confusion in educational circles that the major problems in the schools can be solved by better educating or evaluating teachers. Yep, we need more realistic education in our university teacher-training programs, and mentoring young teachers is a good idea. But spending millions of dollars and stealing time from children’s education in the form of half days and stealing hours and hours of time from teacher classroom preparation to do in-service to make teachers incrementally better, and sometimes worse is an educational travesty.

Most education takes place in the classroom and within schools. Improving education should focus on these two things. How do we make the school run better? How do we make the classroom work better so kids can learn more? These are not questions which will be solved in Washington D.C. with Race to the Top bribes or by school reform based on suspect, supposed educational research.

School problems need to be directly addressed by the staff in that school working together in an open manner which focuses on the problems particular to that school. Sure, the staff can ask for help upstairs in the administration office (which might include such requests as we need a librarian), and sure this can include training the staff thinks they might need. But, training in the latest educational trends, mostly designed to cover the backsides of administrators, is not particularly helpful. (This doesn’t mean an administrator can’t write down ideas and give them to his or her teachers to consider.)

Same goes in the classroom. Each classroom is different. Each is a little world unto itself with an infinite number of interactions and nuances. Spending hours on imparting national trendy reforms isn’t really much help. But that is what we do. Instead we should create an atmosphere which allows real communication between staff, including administrators, about ideas which teachers might find useful, including ideas specific to that particular classroom or the teaching of that subject. This doesn’t mean evaluating more, it means encouraging and supporting more.

My fervent hope is that PPS and the State of Oregon will figure it out. The Chalkboard project isn’t helping.

Steve Buel has taught in public schools for 41 years. He served on the PPS school board (1979-1983) and co-authored the 1980 School Desegregation Plan. He has followed PPS politics since 1975.


Run, Run as Fast as You Can

Recently, The Oregonian has published a few articles about the new “Race to the Top” grant that Portland Public Schools has signed on for, along with many other Oregon school districts.  The grant stipulates that a student’s test scores will follow teachers, and be part of a teacher’s professional file.  Indeed, a teacher will be evaluated based on a student’s standardized test scores. The state’s willingness to sign on smacks of desperation and ignorance.

Besides the obvious, that “one test does not a good teacher make”, there are numerous other reasons why this clause in the grant is ludicrous.  One is that not all grade levels are tested.  Indeed 3rd-8th and 10th grades are tested consistently in math and reading.  If you teach K-2nd grade, or 9th, 11th, or 12th grades, you just may have dodged a bullet.  In addition, if a teacher teaches subjects such as art, P.E., or social studies, which are not currently tested, then the testing does not apply to them. I would hesitate to bring this up to the state, however, as their answer might very well be to test in every single subject, every, single, year.

I know fabulous teachers who teach at schools that have not traditionally done well on standardized tests.  I happen to teach in a cluster in PPS that typically has low test scores.  I could teach in another cluster, but I choose not to.  Does a teacher magically become a better teacher if he or she moves to a school with higher test scores?  Apparently the state of Oregon thinks so.  I  cut one of the Oregonian articles out to pass around to the staff at my school.  Many teachers said that they would like to consider withholding their dues to the OEA, as our state teacher’s union has signed on with this as well.

There are many, many influences in a child’s life.  A teacher is just one of them.  This heinous grant asserts that a teacher’s sole purpose is to get a child to pass some contrived, intrusive test that has little to do with what he or she does on a daily basis, while also asserting that a teacher is the only one responsible if said child passes or fails.   I’m sorry, but “No Child Left Behind” is starting to look like a picnic.  We need to run far away from “Race to the Top.”

Sheila Wilcox is a PPS parent and K8 teacher.


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