Wednesday, August 27, 2014

At-Risk!

There is no mistaking the fact that Hudson has an At-Risk program that is the envy of school districts all across the state. We are constantly fielding requests from districts that would like to replicate the programming that we have in place. In fact, our At-Risk program has recently gotten the attention of a national audience, and we are making plans right now for the National Dropout Prevention Conference this November in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, At-Risk of what? Glad you asked. Essentially we are talking about students that are at risk of failure in school that will ultimately lead to dropping out of school. I have written extensively about the importance of a high school diploma and the fact that this piece of paper is a gateway to higher lifetime earnings. Research and statistics show that individuals without a high school diploma will earn much less than those with a high school degree. Without a high school diploma, a dropout is significantly limited to the type of jobs they will be able (and qualified) to hold, and most of those jobs aren't going to pay real well. This leads to poverty, health issues, an inability to 'make ends meet', and frankly, a very hard life. Want to live the American Dream? You can start by finishing high school. It is for these reasons that we work so hard to ensure that students graduate from high school. This is also why you sometimes hear about school districts in big cities embarking on door knocking campaigns to get young people who have previously dropped out back in the school building.

At Hudson, we have a very robust system of interventions and programming available to meet the needs of these students. Some, are like the homework policy most of you have heard of (and may have experienced) at some point. The idea behind this policy is simple: you must do your homework no mater what. If you don't get it done, plan on staying after school until it is done. We are interested in the learning that occurs through the completion of the homework rather than the punitive measures that we can hand out for not completing an assignment. While the policy has its detractors from time to time, you certainly can't argue with the results. The after school program goes hand in hand with the homework policy, as does the 2.0 rule. In addition to those services, we boast a counseling staff that is trained and certified in mental health and family counseling.

Funding for At-Risk programming is tied directly to the number of students that meet at least two markers identifying them as such. At Hudson, those markers include students with a poor attendance record (either chronic absenteeism or tardiness). This is pretty obvious isn't it? If students aren't in school, then they are going to miss out on valuable instruction, that can lead to the next marker: credit accrual and progress in school. Specific to this marker, we pay close attention to students who are failing any class or were retained in school. If students have failed a course, then obviously they will not earn the credit toward graduation, which will put them behind their peers when it comes to meeting graduation requirements. The next item of consideration when determining a students' at-risk status is their connection to school. Students who do not participate in extra-curricular activities, express feelings of not belonging (limited number of friends), or have a  history of disciplinary sanctions are are certainly at-risk! Finally, we look at those who have low achievement scores in reading or math. These two content areas are among the most important skills that young people need not only to graduate from high school, but to function in society!

What is missing from our list of potential markers for at-risk students is poverty. This is because the state doesn't recognize the inclusion of socio-economic status as a factor in determining a student's at-risk status. The interesting point to be made here is that of all the factors listed, the effect size of poverty is far greater than all of the others. When we desegregate our student achievement data, this becomes very obvious. That is the primary reason that we support the inclusion of socio-economic status as a factor in determining the funding algorithm for dropout prevention programming in the next legislative session.




Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Support Funding for Professional Development

Imagine what it would be like in a world without professional development for doctors! Allow me to paint a picture. Late this summer, my wife Ann and I took a trip to Gettysburg, PA. I have wanted to go there for quite some time and an interest in history has always been a passion. In fact, had I not become a music teacher I would have become a history teacher. Anyway, in addition to visiting the battlefield and the numerous museums around town, there were a lot of artifacts and displays dedicated to civil war medicine. There were thousands of casualties during Gettysburg and medicine was very primitive. Field hospitals were literally set up everywhere, from farmhouse barns to tents adjacent to the battlefield. You know what the most common treatment for battlefield injury was? Amputation. Look how far we have come! 

If you have followed this blog for a while, then you no doubt understand where I land on the importance of professional development. Like any other profession, teaching requires continual training in order for our practitioners to stay up to date on the latest trends in instructional strategies, learn new processes, and implement research based curriculum with fidelity. Teaching and learning is not the same as it was when you and I went to school. Gone are the days of rote learning where memorization was the key to a good grade in school (and ultimately a good paying job in the local factory). Instead we are focused more and more on understanding. Rather than memorize facts and regurgitate information on a multiple choice test, we are more interested in a students' critical thinking skills, and their ability to solve problems (because those are the types of jobs that our kids are going to have). Instead of giving simple answers to a question, we are interested in having students explain why they gave a particular answer. Teaching is evolving, with an expectation that practitioners be comfortable with a multitude of highly advanced technological devices. They must be comfortable analyzing and sorting data in a way that will enable them to adjust instruction on the fly, meeting the needs of an ever increasing population of diverse learners. Gone are chalkboards, overhead projectors, and two dimensional learning models. Today's classroom features advanced technology more powerful than we ever could have imagined, learning models that span the globe, and coursework in STEM fields that was never even dreamed of ten years ago. Does this sound like a complex field? It is, and I have only scratched the surface.

As Hudson has embarked on the implementation of a new and robust system of teacher leadership in our district, we have a guiding vision to strengthen instruction through embedded professional development that is designed, delivered, and dissected by our teacher leadership structure. Research shows that the most effective way in which to implement professional development [into] practice is to not only show the worth of the strategy, but give the opportunity to try it out and then be coached in an effort to fine tune the new learning. When selecting the learning for our faculty, we must first be concerned with why we think it will work. In other words, what is the theory behind the practice? After we have established that theory of practice, our teacher leaders are in a position where they can demonstrate that professional development to the remainder of the faculty. This gives the teachers the opportunity to see the strategy or learning in a laboratory or clinical setting (enter Model Teacher classrooms). Or perhaps this is during an inservice, webinar, and even in front of a live classroom. Following this demonstration, the practitioner is able to take the strategy back to their classroom and put it into practice. After trying the strategy out a few times, our teacher leaders will be able to see the strategy in action to determine whether or not it is working and to trouble shoot areas of difficulty the practitioner may be experiencing. It is through this coaching that we are truly able to see professional development become an engrained part of practice that can be taken to scale school or district wide. 

We know this system works! The ultimate winners in this type of system are the multiple student learners who are able to learn material at a much deeper and rigorous level. That is why we support full state funding that encourages local initiatives (such as the Hudson Teacher Leadership Plan) to fully comply with current professional development requirements. The Iowa Professional Development Model, which is described above is a program requirement for Iowa schools. Implementation of these models and requirements are not cheap. We are grateful for the funding that has been provided for the fiscal year that we are currently in, this will go a long way toward ensuring full and deep implementation. Those funds include:

  1. Student Achievement and Professional Development funding $56,791,351 (statewide) in Hudson used to fund PLC training.
  2. Iowa Reading Research Center $1,000,000 (statewide) a clearinghouse that develops and disseminates best practices in reading intervention and instruction.
  3. AEA Support for System of Teacher Leadership (statewide) This is critical for the 39 districts like Hudson that are implementing TLC programs this year. Funding will offset costs associated with training of principals and teacher leaders.
  4. Administrator Mentoring $1,000,000 (statewide)
We urge this practice to continue with sustainable funding for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1, 2015. Teaching will continue to evolve as it has for decades. Quality professional development is not cheap, and some day soon we just may be saying 'gone are the days of learning models like we had in 2014'. What will the future hold?