About this site

I was a Governing Board Member of the San Carlos School District, elected November 2007 and again in November 2011. This site was originally used for the purpose of communicating with school district constituents, however now it is used for surfacing ideas and expressing opinions on various subjects in education, politics, business, or otherwise.

Please note that any opinion express here is purely personal and does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of anyone else or any organization with which I am, or have been, associated.

I will not accept anonymous comments, and all persons who post comments must have a valid e-mail address. Note that I reserve the right to edit, reject, or delete posts based on spelling, grammar, readability, or my judgment of what is appropriate discourse.


December 2011
« Nov   Jan »

The Most Hopeful of Times?

Over the last few days, I attended the annual CSBA Annual Education Conference, which is the main event for school board members around the state. This year the event was in San Diego (but back in San Francisco for 2012). Like previous CSBA conferences, one of the more frustrating parts is not being able to attend all of the sessions you want (and I think the conference organizers schedule too much non-session time, and if they wanted, could find ways to schedule more “content”). However, it is still a great conference for the learning, the inspiration, and the connection to other trustees throughout the state.

Also like previous years, CSBA delivers excellent keynote speakers. (CSBA claims it will be posting recording of the keynotes and have them available until December 31, but as I write this they are not posted yet. I recommend taking the time to watch them — you will be inspired!). The first day’s keynote was from Jamie Vollmer, a public education advocate and origin of the famous “blueberry story” (I highly recommend reading this if you haven’t heard of it). Mr. Vollmer spoke both about how existing “reformers” are mostly off the mark and that blaming educators and school board members is both false and dismisses the obligation of the larger community in supporting our children. One of my favorite comments he made was that the further a policy maker is from the students he/she is making policy about, the stupider the decision is. This is very consistent with a growing trend of understanding that giving local school board more resources and more flexibility as actually a big part of the solution. He also spent some time explaining how society has crammed more requirements into our public schools over the last century while roughly not allowing us to change the way schools are run. This led to one of the big takeaways of his talk, which de facto became one of the themes of the entire conference:

  • Don’t make time the constant — Public education has been structured the same way Jefferson envisioned it, which was to “rake the genius from the rubbish.” Since that was the goal is the 18th and 19th centuries, schools weren’t designed to have every kid reach their potential. School was designed around a fixed time period, and achievement became the variable. Today we have a different mission, and the mission requires that we make achievement the fixed goal while making time the variable. But how do we do that given the structure that we’ve inherited?

This was a perfect segue to the following day’s keynote from Salman Khan, who most of you are already familiar with as the founder of the Khan Academy, which is essentially creating a free, online based curriculum already being used by students (and parents) around the country to supplement their learning. Although it would be impossible to do his talk justice in a blog post, he is effectively creating a curriculum that would potentially enable true differentiation and “inverted learning” — topics we’ve been discussing around “21st Century Learning.” Students could work at their own pace, ensuring that they master a subject before going on to next, and teachers (and other students) can “coach” them through the application of that knowledge and can track their results through real-time formative assessments. Taken to its logical extreme, it calls into question the whole notion of grades and individual classrooms. (To be clear, I am not necessarily advocating such an extreme change, but it’s a valuable intellectual exercise to understand how we think about reshaping the structure of public schools). It’s also crucial to discuss how can we create that time — since it would now be the variable — to support all kids as needed. The really good news here is that he is starting to understand how his content can integrate into a school’s curriculum and just not be a supplemental resource. He is developing the reporting and feedback systems needed for teachers, and he is aligning his content with the upcoming Common Core Standards. His pilot program in Los Altos by most measures appears to be very successful, and those of us from San Carlos at the conference were anxious to start working with Khan in a formal way. Besides doing a pilot program with a number of our teachers and classrooms, we can use Khan for student-led projects (maybe kids could use Khan as a resource for a ROPES project to learn a particular skill?) or maybe even use it as the foundation of a revised GATE program. Very exciting stuff, and the timing is perfect with our upcoming community conversations on 21st Century Learning.

As you can imagine, technology solutions played a prominent role at the conference. The emergence of the electronic textbook was being promoted both by the traditional publishers as well as the “disintermediators” like Khan. It is hard to predict how this will play out, but of course something we need to discuss this year. Also like last year, there were a number of sessions about alternative teacher evaluation and pay systems, a topic I am particularly interested in. We are now starting to see more concrete examples of such systems even in California, and I look forward to having these conversations. Lastly, another theme from the event was facilities — going green, sustainable buildings, etc. The trade show was full of vendors providing solar services, providing lower-cost, modular buildings, and other solutions for smarter facilities. Also perfect timing for us as we look to build a new school.

Notable absent from the event was the heavy focus on our continually dire financial situation. Maybe everyone has just accepted it as the “new normal,” and we’ve all taken the painful cuts. But maybe we’re all starting to realize how we can take control locally and make needed changes in spite of the horrible hand we’ve been dealt by the state. And there is some hope for new measures to fix the structural problems with our state education finance system. Jamie Vollmer called it education’s “most hopeful time,” and other speakers called it the “best of times.” Although the latter is perhaps an exaggeration, it really may be one of the more “hopeful” times because we’re at the confluence of the necessity and opportunity to finally address structural issues in our education system that have largely remained unchanged since the time of Jefferson. We can’t boil the ocean, but I am hopeful that the themes from this year’s CSBA conference will set the tone and drive the conversation for what concrete things we can accomplish in San Carlos over the next couple of years.

5 comments to The Most Hopeful of Times?

  • Nirupama

    Hello Seth
    Thanks for this post. I am a parent of a San Carlos student. I am curious how I as a parent can get involved in community conversations on 21st Century Learning.

  • Seth

    That is an excellent question. The district’s new Director of Curriculum and Technology, Dr. Tom Keating, will be organizing a series of community meetings, workshops, etc., to to do exactly this — get parents and other community members involved in the discussions. I suspect you’ll start seeing announcements in January about these meetings. I’m certain Dr. Baker will send out a district-wide e-mail with the dates, and I’ll certainly post them on this blog as well.

  • David Perkins


    In the past, I was a certified Scuba instructor. The classes to teach students to safely scuba dive required them to master a prescribed set of skills, and demonstrate understanding of information and knowledge needed to safely plan and to do scuba dives. There are many other examples of adult training where the endpoint is mastery, and there are no grades to indicate how long it took to reach mastery, and if you achieved higher than master. At TL there is an example of mastery, which is maroon trunks. To get the maroon trunks, you have to demonstrate a set of physical performances, such as running 1 mile in less than a prescribed time, doing at least a prescribed number of situps in 1 minute, etc. It doesn’t matter if you can meet all of the requirements on the first day of school, or your time in the mile is much lower than the prescribed time, etc. However, much of school doesn’t currently work this way.
    There is one important difference that I’d like to point out between adult training and a mastery based approach for students in elementary and high school. That difference is motivation. In the scuba classes I taught, the students were asked why they were taking the class. There were many reasons. However, with just a few exceptions, the students had to pay for the class and make time in their life to go to the classes. This demonstrated that they were highly self motivated. I’m not sure that most elementary and high school students will be self motivated without the school and school district providing a continuing program on motivation for the students and their parents. I believe that great teachers help their students to become self motivated, and so changing from a time-based approach to a mastery-based approach will not be the cure for education unless a motivation component is added to the mix.


  • David Perkins


    Your article contains the following:
    “One of my favorite comments he made was that the further a policy maker is from the students he/she is making policy about, the stupider the decision is. This is very consistent with a growing trend of understanding that giving local school board more resources and more flexibility as actually a big part of the solution.”
    I don’t, in general, agree with this assertion. I’ve heard it taken to the extreme by some teachers (even some in SCSD) that claim that they know better than anyone else how to teach “their students”. I call this the “God complex”. Of course taken to the other extreme where there is a top person (or group) that specifies all of the details also is an example of the “God complex”. I believe that the optimal outcome is achieved when the appropriate decision making is done by the group that has the best view of the problems and understanding and control over the resources that would be used to address the problems. So, I believe that making over simplifications doesn’t really make much progress in improving performance.
    Given your experience and interactions with other school boards and their members, I’m guessing that you have seen a wide range of competence.
    One of the issues in the Republican presidential debates is on terminating the department of education. I certainly don’t believe that the US department of ed should make all of the policies for every school in the US. However, I also don’t believe that each local school district should each individually create all components of their policies. Doing so would be a big duplication without the expertise, resources, broad-view, and time-outlook of a state or national organization.
    In summary, if the case is that too many of the details for policy have been made at high level, then yes those portions need to be pushed down to a lower level. But, in general, all portions of policies need to be made at different and appropriate levels to reduce duplication, afford the use experts, increase consistency so that staff and students can move from one district to another with little disruption.


  • Seth

    David — thanks for both of your comments, and in large part, I agree with your points. Let me add some color commentary, however.

    To the issue of time vs. mastery, this is meant to be an intellectual construct and not something to be taken too literally or to its extreme. There would be too many practical problems taking this to its logical extreme anyway (e.g. it would be hard to image the state paying us to teach students– and it would hard to imagine students wanting to stay — until they were in their teens or 20s if they hadn’t yet mastered a specific subject). But rather this construct is a good starting point to ask ourselves how have we been limiting the ability for students to learn because we have made time the primary limiting factor for everything. Even if we can’t do the exact opposite, how can we approximate the notion of making time a non-issue? That could relate to how we structure the school day, what aspects of “inverted learning” we adopt, and how we truly differentiate learning. I agree that motivation would be a big issue, but one can argue it’s already the biggest issue, as our current time-based teaching structure may be inherently de-motivating for many kids (the proverbial “watching the clock”), because the time alloted for a subject is often too little (frustration) or too much (boredom) depending on the child and the topic. For many (albeit not all) kids, self-directed projects may be more inherently motivating. But I certainly agree that a mastery-based approach required more “ownership” by both the student and his/her parents, which has both its opportunities and challenges and should cause us to think hard about how to implement any changes.

    As to the quote about the distance between policy makers and the student, note this was referring to elected officials and not meant to suggest that individual teachers should have free reign to teach whatever they want, whenever they want without any sort of standards, etc. The quote was about perspective and accountability in politics. One of the biggest lessons you learn as a school board member is that every community is so different and based on a wide variety of factors unique to that district (not the least of which is the student population itself, the parent population, as well as the nature of the broader community). I agree that there is a place for broader-based policy makers, but on net, there is so much less flexibility at the local level than there should be. Individual school districts should be able to approach learning in the way that works for their students, and then be accountable to both their individual community as well as a broader-policy making body that holds them accountable to a set of standards (and provides the appropriate support, etc.). Right now it is almost universally agreed that our system has far less flexibility in it than is needed while at the same time we are held to almost bizarre (and certainly outdated) standards (see my post on “The Most Important Unimportant Number”). This country has certainly had a history of “out of touch” decisions being made on a state and national scale (and I refer to both the Republican “No Child Left Behind” and the Democratic “Race To The Top” as examples). Our elected representatives at these levels of government have demonstrated a lack of true understanding of the issues and certainly there is no accountability to the people on the ground. In many ways, school board service is actually the purest form of our republic — just the fact that you’re able to comment on this blog (and I’m responding) is a perfect example of how a locally elected official can understand his/her job unlike any state or federally elected representative.