Archive for Thursday, October 20, 2005

Chat transcript with Bill Wagnon, Kansas State Board of Education member

October 20, 2005

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Welcome to our online chat with Bill Wagnon, Kansas State Board of Education member.

The chat took place on Thursday, October 20, at 1:30 PM and is now closed, but you can read the full transcript on this page.

Moderator: Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Newsmaker Chat with Bill Wagnon, who represents the 4th District on the Kansas State Board of Education, which includes western Douglas County.

I'm Dave Toplikar, World Online editor, and I'll be the moderator of today's chat.

We have a lot of questions in the hopper already, so we'll get started. Feel free to submit a question during the chat and we'll try to get to it if there's time .

Bill Wagnon: Dave, I'm delighted to participate. Knowing what questions constituents have about education make for better representation. So fire away.

Moderator: Sorry, we had a server delay.

Cal, Lawrence: As a non-christian, I am deeply saddened and afraid of the "Intellectual Design" agenda that is being threatened to be placed in our school systems. I know that other board members say that it won't infringe on other's rights, but I know that the intelligent design, if implemented, will be from the stand-point of christianity. Muslims have a differing view of intelligent design. The Jews have a different view. The buddhists have a different view. The Japanese have a different view, etc. Doesn't this violate the separation of state and religion if ID is passed? Or are they planning to cover ID from the view-point of hundreds of different beliefs?

Bill Wagnon: Cal, as a Christian, I too am saddened by the confusion of science and religion. Intelligent Design is just the latest in a long history of attempts to prove the existence of God, which offends my sense of faith. As proposed in changing the science curriculum standards, teachers are supposed to teach the controversy, but that it in itself is a fraud. Within science there is no generally accepted agreement that evolution is inadequate. Rather there is an overwhelming consensus that Darwinian evolution explains in important ways the development of species. Indeed, students ought to know about Darwin's ideas because they are a dramatic illustration of how the scientific process works--collect data, draw a hypothesis, collect more data, propose a theory. The concept has been under attack since its introduction in 1859, and the evidence favoring it grows each year. Since ID introduces a new concept that Darwin didn't address, namely origins science, it raises a real question of whether science can address this. Certainly religion has done so, but as you point out there are multiple theories of origins of life. As those have religious biases, they don't belong in a classroom.

Kansas State Board of Education member Bill Wagnon answers readers' questions online.

Kansas State Board of Education member Bill Wagnon answers readers' questions online.

Mike - Tonganoxie: What is the problem with questions and concerns about the hoaxes and falsification of evolution evidence being presented to students (Lucy)? Put simply-- why can not all evidence both for and against this explanation of origins-- be allowed to be presented in an open academic setting. After all--education is about presenting all viewpoints and evidence? I am constantly amazed that the liberal faction on the State Board wants a muzzle put on information and the conservative faction wants all evidence presented! Politics sure does reverse things!

Bill Wagnon: Mike, this gets at the heart of the current debate, namely the extent that schools should be encouraging critical thought. I think this ought to be a central feature of contemporary public education, but we need to recognize the effective boundaries of knowledge. Science is science as conventionally defined among professional scientists as limited to natural phenomenon, whereas religion gets to another arena, the supernatural. As I indicated earlier, evolution as a key concept of science, ought to be studies carefully by age appropriate students because it is an outstanding example of the scientific process in action. Not only is it a good example, but it as a concept has informed many other aspects of learning, such as archeology, sociology, astronomy and the like. So as far as science goes, it is a fundamental concept/

Eunice, Overbrook, Kansas: Mr. Wagnon,

Do you believe that God created the universe and everything in it?

Respectfully submitted

Bill Wagnon: Eunice, yes.

Cheryl, Hays: As parents, how can we make sure our schools continue to teach good, strong science to our kids?

Bill Wagnon: Cheryl, parents are children's first and most important teacher. They should be working collaboratively with teachers to make sure they understand what schools expect students to learn, and they should reinforce those. If they have reservations, they should work with teachers, principals and the superintendent to reach an agreement about expectations for students. What I'm saying here is that where there is an alignment between parents, teachers and the community, about what ought to be learned, kids learn. I guess it all reduces to the notion that concerned parents must be civically involved in schools from the room level, to the building, to the district and board. If you want good, strong science, make your views known up and down the system.

Aaron, Lawrence: It seems to me that we should teach, in science classes, that which real scientists do: science. There are no ID science labs or anything. ID hasn't given us insight into avian flu or anything. Why would we teach, as science, something scientists don't actually do?

Bill Wagnon: Aaron, I agree. Since science is defined by professional scientists, that is what should be included in the science curriculum for Kansas schools. If folks want religion taught, then it ought to be offered in a social studies class.

Josh Anderson, Lawrence: Vouchers seem to be a big issue in education these days. If the state adopted a voucher program that subsidized the cost of a private education for some students, wouldn't the students already enrolled in private school be eligible for these funds. More importantly, can the state afford to add several thousand students across the state to its already crippled budget?

Bill Wagnon: Josh, Vouchers are a symptom of dissatisfaction with our public schools. They really gained ground in areas where there are large scale failed public school systems. We don't have any such problems in Kansas and I think that Vouchers are inappropriate to Kansas. Rather I think that concerned folks should be focusing their energies in making sure that our public schools have the resources they need to education any that are being left behind. We in Kansas do an outstanding job of education 7 out of 10 students, with them getting an education that enables them to move on to whatever opportunity they want to take advantage of. But for some, we need to provide additional support, more time to learn, different teaching strategies, and the like. That all takes additional resources, which the Supreme Court addressed this summer. Vouchers are simply out of place in Kansas.

Greg, Lawrence: Bill, Thank you for your efforts to promote a rational agenda for the Board of Education. I was astonished at the choice for the new education commissioner given that he has no professional experience in the field of education. Is there no 'job description' for this position that would require a certain amount of experience in the area he is expected to administer on behalf of the state?

Bill Wagnon: Greg, six votes on the State Board gets you whatever Job Description you want.

Dorothy: Why doesn't Bob Corkin have to pass the test of "highly qualified" required by NCLB? Can't the legislature require this?

Bill Wagnon: Dorothy, the only qualification that Mr Corkins had to pass was the majority of board members ideas. The only way the legislature could impact this decision is to change the Kansas constitution. I suspect that will be discussed come January in the Capitol. The real resolution of this is to change the composition of the state board at the upcoming election in November 2006.

Shannon, Kansas CIty: What would be required to get rid of Bob Corkins? Could a newly elected state board of education fire him and replace him? I am shocked and appalled that someone with so little experience and such questionable credentials could be chosen to fill this integral spot!

Bill Wagnon: Shannon, Mr Corkins is an at-will employee of the state board. He has no contract. If a new majority is elected at the next election, and it chose, he would be looking for unemployment compensation.

Marty, Lawrence: I have been told that the new education commissioner has told the staff that he is monitoring their emails and that they are not to speak to the"outside" concerning their jobs. If this is true, is this a standard practice that should be condoned, or an indication of his paranoia?

Bill Wagnon: Marty, I have no knowledge of this. However, I will look into it.

Bob, Lawrence: Dr. Alexa Posny has now been passed over twice for the job of commissioner, and although was "technically" given a promotion, she must feel a little slighted. Do you believe she is going to continue working for KSDE and what would be the impacts if she left?

Bill Wagnon: Bob, she probably does feel slighted, but in conversations with her, I have come to understand that she is professionally committed to school improvement in Kansas and wants to see it continued. I certainly hope that she stays on the job and continues to do the outstanding job that she has done to move school improvement along. I continue to have absolute confidence in her.

Greg - Lawrence: Do you believe that the KSBE should be appointed by the Governor, rather than an elected position? If this changes, how do you foresee the issues of finance and evolution changing for the State of Kansas?

Bill Wagnon: Greg, I favor an elected board with continued constitutional "self-executing powers". Disappointment with the current board can be rectified in the next election. I think that is where the solution belongs. We need a board in Kansas that is exclusively devoted to education, since it is so important to the state. The board's real powers lie in engaging the public in a conversation about schools, what the do and how they do it. Changing the way the board is selected would dilute that benefit that has in the past resulted in a premier public education system.

Ryan, Lawrence: Mr. Wagnon, how can the medical centers & schools here in Kansas continue their vital research if evolution is de-emphasized? Thank you.

Bill Wagnon: Ryan, this bothers me, but no less than putting restrictions on stem cell research as a limit to our bioscience initiative.

Scott, Lawrence: Hello Bill. I think it is safe to say that the Lawrence community in general is in opposition to the recent direction of the Board of Education. To what extent can a local school board and district dissent with the State Board of Education? Thanks for your continued hard work.

Bill Wagnon: Scott, you are very kind. Local dissatisfaction with the state board can best be registered by continuing to educate the Lawrence kids in the best manner possible, regardless of what the state board does. Also make sure that it supports rational public officials, both on the state board but for the legislature and governor as well. Much will rest with the choices we make next fall.

Ryan, Lawrence: Mr. Wagnon, can you please tell me what steps are being taken by the board to improve education here in Kansas with regard to No Child Left Behind? Thank you.

Bill Wagnon: Ryan, Kansas has been committed to the ideas of NCLB since adopting Quality Performance Accreditation in the early 1990s. What NCLB has done is increase the testing burden and required that we become aware of those children who aren't mastering required standards. We've had to look more deeply into the high averages of kids performance to identify those who are not getting what they need to learn. When NCLB came out, the state board redesigned its accreditation system for schools to incorporate the testing and disaggregation of student performance date. By doing so, Kansas has focused on making sure that every child is learning. The results demonstrate that we are doing a better job of this. The NAEP scores just released indicate that we've improved on our school improvement programs.

What we need to remember is that over the past 25 years, we seen a paradigm shift in schools, from measuring inputs--what was being taught--to outcomes--what is being learned. This requires a considerable retooling for teachers and building leaders and we've seen great strides in this.

I would hope to see NCLB modified by Congress soon to abandon the Adequate Yearly Progress measure and replace them with a student growth model. We really ought to hold buildings accountable for how they improve student mastery, not some artificial percentage target.

Allen, Lawrence: Does the Board ever engage in roundtable discussions....and if so, do you and the few others that seem to have a more sensible way at looking at education, highlight the fact that because of these controversies, Kansas public education is quickly becoming the laughing stock. Coming to Lawrence from Georgia several years ago, I now receive e-mails from friends in Atlanta (where we had their own controversy) poking fun, saying that we might as well have moved to Mississippi!

Bill Wagnon: Allen, yes the board does have these discussions. After each election to include new board members, the board has a planning retreat and adopts goals and objectives. The latest were produced last February. You can go on line to the State Department to see those, which are admirable by any measure. The rub is that we disagree pretty fundamentally on how to achieve these goals, which we all share.

To the extent that the state is being ridiculed because of board actions, we should understand that the issues facing the Kansas Board aren't limited to Kansas, but nationwide. For instance in Pennsylvania there is an important court case on Intelligent design going on in Harrisburg.

What does bother me is a sense that board divisions reflect the culture wars that have been raging across the nation for the past couple of decades. To the extent that the conservatives are trying to drive moderate thinking out of the public discourse, they are trying to impose an artificial consensus that reflects their personal morality. Kansas is too diverse a state to be tarred by the antics of a minority which currently had control of the state board.

James, Linwood: After recent decisions made by the conservative majority, what do you anticipate will be the next major controversial decisions, (other than science) made by the majority of the state board ?

Bill Wagnon: James, evolution was just a warm up for choice of commissioner which is just a warm up for a wholesale assault on curriculum standards. The issue of funding education as directed by the Supreme Court will lead to all sorts of movement that attempt to limit the legislature's liability for funding schools. Defining suitable is the next big issue.

Lisa, Lawrence: As someone who sees evolution as valid scientific theory, I find it hard to understand the position of those who seek to minimize it, beyond its obvious contrast with a literal reading of the Bible (or other creation myths). It seems to me that the ongoing discussion of this issue needs to address why this theory, in particular, is so threatening to its opponents. Why aren't they seeking to minimize other "irreducibly complex" concepts such as the Big Bang theory? I have my own opinions on this point, of course, but I would be interested to hear yours.

Thank you for defending the education of Kansas' children.

Bill Wagnon: Lise, you're welcome.

The conflict over evolution, without there being comparable conflicts over other scientific theories, demonstrates for me the religious bias of the criticism that claims to be scientific.

Tony Lawrence: Thanks you for taking the time to respond. I am concerned at least locally, The district's school administrative offices have become an abyss that consumes much of the money ear marked for and appropriated for education in Lawrence. The organization seems top heavy and support wasted spending while at the same time promoting support for increase monies to education. IN short I believe the money is NOT going to the students or classrooms. Is there any method of holding this local board accountable for it's spending???

Bill Wagnon: Tony, when you really think about it, all money goes to the classroom. No teacher in a classroom can be expected to succeed with students in isolation. The food service workers preparing meals contributes to learning, just as having a clean classroom contributes to learning. The building principal is the keystone in any building for learning, where learning leadership is critical for individual children's achievement. The same for the fiscal office, in making sure that the district bills are paid, that the electricity is on, the water runs and the snow is removed. I think that all funds that go into a district are enhancements for classroom. It is artificial to say that 65% or any percentage is to go into classrooms.

We have local boards that are particularly responsible for setting the budge that reflects the community's needs and each community is different. That is why we have local responsibility, not state mandated education.

Nick ,Lawrence: Why do we pay admin. so much more than the teachers?

Bill Wagnon: Nick, I suspect it reflects the scope of responsibilities. It also reflects market levels. We certainly don't pay our teachers what they are worth in terms of the jobs they do, but we need to be sure that we also compensate our administrators sufficiently to be sure that district leadership is the best we can get. After all they make what classroom teachers do possible.

Bruce, Lawrence: There seems to be a point of view expressed to limit funding for primary and secondary education.

Does the current school board make a connection between education today and economic growth for the state tomorrow?

Why can we not keep before the public this very important link, so the value of education can be weighed against the cost?

Bill Wagnon: Bruce, you have a good point. Schools are a vital agent of economic development for a community. This is why small communities are so loathed to close their schools. Any realtor worth her salt will sell a house based on the reputation of the neighborhood school. I'm saddened that our current state chamber of commerce has become hostile toward schools, which seems to me to be cutting off their noses to spite their face.

Rob Scheib, Superintendent USD 208: The legislature reduced low enrollment weighting and increased weighting for the 4th enrollment group in the formula. As a result many small declining districts saw no increase from the "new funding". What is your position on further erosion of funding for the 200 districts with under 1,600 enrollment for the benefit of the upper 100 districts? Our district is over 700 square miles and the only district in our county. Instead of being rewarded for our efficiency we are penalized for our property wealth. Like the marriage penalty is to income tax, the increased property wealth penalty is to consolidation. After a district is consolidated and the combined budget allowance ends, the property wealth penalty kicks in. Student programs will be harmed by further erosion of the low enrollment weighting and the consolidation property wealth penalty. What can the State Board do to hold harmless or restore low enrollment weighting cuts to these 200 Kansas districts?

Bill Wagnon: Rob, I don't think that there is anything that the state board can do to protect the low enrollment feature of school funding. As long as their are scarce resources available to the legislature without raising taxes, they are going to be looking for ways to hold the line on school spending and district consolidation is appealing to them. I anticipate that consolidation will be a big topic at the Capitol this January and our smaller districts will be at risk.

Aaron Siebenthall, Lawrence: How has your career as a history professor affected your decision making on the state board? And do you have our tests graded, just kidding.

Bill Wagnon: Aaron, your test next on my pile to grade.

As a college professor who teaches history, I am vitally interested in education. From my vantage in post secondary education, I see the importance of entering student having solid preparation and that means good schools for all students. My goal in seeking election to the state board has always been to make sure that all Kansas high school graduates are prepared to movie on to the next stage of their learning, whether it is as an employee, a student in a technical or vocational program, or as a college student without remediation. My work on the board has been focused on that. As an historian my sense of the past and my experience in interpreting the evidence of the past has prepared me to analyze school data and come up with recommended policies to improve schools.

Bill, Emporia: Could you comment on the research of Harvard economist Caroline M. Hoxby, who in one study concluded: "Using both methods, I find that reductions in class size have no effect on student achievement. The estimates are sufficiently precise that, if a 10 percent reduction in class size improved achievement by just 2 to 4 percent of a standard deviation, I would have found statistically significant effects in math, reading, and writing. I find no evidence that class size reductions are more efficacious in schools that contain high concentrations of low income students or African-American students."

Bill Wagnon: Bill, it seems to me that the key here is whether teachers can individualize instruction for particular children needs. Whether it is with more students who come generally prepared at the same level, or smaller numbers of more diverse students in their needs, the issue is making sure that teachers have what they need to meet diverse needs of their students. Class size could vary with comparable results, depending on the availability of those resources.

Ryan, Lawrence: How does this evolution controversy adversely affect our Medical Centers & schools? Thank you, Mr. Wagnon.

Bill Wagnon: Ryan, well it certainly generates a lot of press coverage on schools. If people stop at reading head lines then the effect is negative, but if people take to heart that they ought to be vitally engaged in what goes on in our schools and making choices about who represents them, then the controversy is positive. In the final analysis we get the schools we work for.

Kim, Lenexa: Why does this board present itself so negatively in the press? It seems at times that you all don't know the simple courtesy rules from kindergarten.

Bill Wagnon: Kim, lets be honest, education is a body contact sport. And it should be an issue that is close to the hearts of the public. People in Kansas care about their schools and people in Kansas are a diverse lot, so you'd expect a lot of conflict. It's no difference in views of President Bush.

Parker, Topeka: Thank you for being a sane member of the board. Do you know of any strong candidates considering challenges to the board members who supported the new commissioner?

Bill Wagnon: Parker, the current state board majority was selected for the most part in the Republican primary summer before last. The next board will be determined by who files in both the Republican and Democrat primaries for those districts up for election. My hope is that there are moderate candidates in each primary in each district.

Moderator: That will be our last question today.

Bill, I'd like to thank you for taking time to come down and participate in this online discussion.

And I'd also like to thank all of our readers for providing so many questions today.

Bill Wagnon: Dave, this has been a pleasure. The questions have been stimulating of thought as I hope have been my responses. Thank you for asking me to participate.

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