Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Education Reform in Iowa: Creating a Laser-Like Focus and Rallying Point for All

Two weeks ago I published an entry exposing the ludicrousness of the multiple reform efforts that are being studied and dissected by numerous task forces right now. My hypothesis remains the same: the issues that we are grappling with are far too contentious to have any hope of survival once the Legislature convenes in January. You need to look no further than the strike of the Chicago Public Teachers Union to see how contentious some of these issues are. It appears teacher evaluation is one of the major sticking points in the new contract, something that is currently being discussed in Iowa. How do you think that is going to go over in our state, I mean really? Unless we have single party control in state government, I wouldn't hold my breath that anything substantial is going to be decided on that particular issue.

So anyway, I have an idea, or a thought. Let's stop the spinning plates and create that laser-like focus. How about an idea that we can all get behind and support? I actually have one. Let's start by clearly defining and articulating what it is we are supposed to be teaching in our schools, and develop an assessment system that measures it. You probably think we already have that, don't you? You would say something like this, "We have the Iowa Core Curriculum (which is now the Common Core). Isn't that what you are supposed to teach?" Then you would say something like this, "The measurement that is used is the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (which is now called the Iowa Assessment).

Well, we do have both of those things. The problem is they are not even close to what we need. Let's take the Common Core first. Studies suggests that in order for schools to adequately cover all the standards we would need an educational system that was twenty-three years in length. Consider that for a minute: we currently have an education system that is thirteen years in length (K-12). It is safe to say that it is not feasible to cover material in the Common Core in any way that ensures mastery.

How about that assessment then, you know the ITBS? Well, let's have that discussion. First, tell me what you know about Box and Whisker plots? If you are like me, probably not a lot. I so know a little bit more than I did a week ago. You see, I am finishing my doctorate and am taking a class on quantitative research methodology right now. Last week in class we were looking over a statistical analysis website and low and behold, I saw my first real life reference to the Box and Whisker graph! Why is this important? Because there are questions about Box and Whiskers on the 5th grade Iowa Assessment! Do our kids need to know this? I would argue that they do not.

The other HUGE problem with the Iowa Assessment is that is it a norm referenced test. This means that it doesn't measure whether or not the test taker knows the material, but how well they compare to a sample of their peers. I know, in this country we want to know our ranking, and if we rank higher than our neighbor or the student that sits across from us in science class. Would you rather your child knows how to do a specific task, or would you rather know their ranking? I would argue that what we really need is a criterion referenced test which measures whether or not students know the material.

So at Hudson, we have embraced the PLC at Work Model. That is the Professional Learning Communities. We are committed to clearly articulating what it is our students need to know and be able to do. This is called identifying our Essential Learning's. After that, we are developing formative assessments to help our teachers determine if the students have learned the material.

If we were able to do these two things statewide, and I mean do them well, I think we would be well positioned to tackle some of these tougher issues. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Measure of a Man

I remember a few years back when Tim Tebow was a senior at Florida preparing for the NFL draft. There was quite a bit of discussion about whether he had the skill set to be an NFL quarterback. He ended up drafted to Denver, and this past off-season was traded to the Jets. Tim's biggest athletic criticism is how he releases the ball and his tendency to be flushed from the pocket too soon. Since the NFL is known to be a passing league these days, those may be fair criticisms. Now, I am a pretty big football fan, and this time of year if the television set is on, it is probably tuned to a football game. You may also see me roaming the sidelines on Friday night here at Hudson. That being said, I am by no means an expert and don't pretend to know all the strategies and nuances of the game. As mentioned above, those may be fair criticisms of Tim, but that is for him to work out with his coaches. All I know is when he does step on the field, it is pretty exciting to watch.

What isn't fair is the criticism to his value system. This young man takes a lot of grief because he is a good guy. Now, please don't mistake the point I am trying to make here. This isn't an endorsement of Tim's faith or anything remotely related to his specific beliefs. I do believe that Tim is genuine in what he says and how he acts. Does it seem a little backward to you that he is criticized for this?

In an era where our youngsters emulate professional athletes as role models, isn't Tim Tebow just the kind of athlete you would like your child to look up to? Instead, we hold up as role models athletes who have had all sorts of legal problems ranging from adultery, armed robbery, assault, domestic abuse, and even dog fighting.

Stay with me folks, I am going somewhere here. 

Certainly it is argued that some of our fallen athletes are admired for their athletic prowess on the field or court. Perhaps that is fair considering our own commitment to high school athletics across our country. High school sports are an important part of what we do [and who we are] in our schools. Not only is it an ingrained component of school culture, sports teach many things that can't be taught within the walls of the classroom. 

This is a critical point to remember when we talk about education reform in Iowa. A lot of comparisons have been made between American schools and our counterparts around the globe. Many of these school systems do not have sports as part of their curriculum (I use the word curriculum deliberately in this instance).

So what are we teaching our student-athletes? Hopefully we are teaching them that there are things in life way more important than winning. Now winning is important, but it is not the most important. What is important is teaching our young student-athletes to be a little bit more like Tim Tebow and a little less like Brett Favre.

The person or persons responsible for teaching that directive are our coaches. We can either have a coach like Fran McCaffery (you may remember Coach McCaffery's ride on the crazy train last December; you can check out my comments on his antics here) or we can have a coach like Barry Scott.

Are we doing that here? You be the judge. When Coach Scott interviewed for the head coaching job, he told Mr. Dieken and Mr. Wurzer that one of his goals was to teach 'these boys' to be men. Pretty profound statement, and one that may be hard to live up to with the pressures of winning.

So anyway, last Friday night Applington-Parkersburg came to town. AP is one tough opponent, and they had something to prove after getting beat pretty bad by Union the week before. You all know how the game ended, we got beat....handily. It seemed that we just couldn't really get anything going, and there was a lot to be frustrated by. 

However, there was a silver lining. After the game, the head referee stopped Mr. Dieken and myself at the locker room and said, "Your coach is a class act. Most wouldn't have responded to that the way he did." Now I know the team didn't hear this, and at the time didn't really care. In fact, Coach Scott wasn't all that interested in hearing about the silver lining of the game that night.

But here is the point, and be warned it is very cliche: "It isn't whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." We lost honorably. Our student athletes have a great role model to look up to, and yes to teach 'these boys' to be men.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Education Reform in Iowa: Spinning Plates & Groundhog Day

Ever see the movie "Groundhog Day" starring Billy Murray? You know the one I am talking about, right? He wakes up, it's Groundhog Day. In fact, everyday is Groundhog Day. By changing his daily routine,  he hopes to finally awaken to a new day, but try as he might-success just seems to be out of reach.

That is kind of how I feel about education reform in Iowa. We can't seem to get anywhere useful, but if we keep changing our routine, we hope to find success. The fact is that there are no shortage of ideas about how to fix all that is wrong [with our schools] and provide the students of Iowa what Governor Branstad calls a "World Class Education". There are so many potential solutions that you can't see the forest for the trees! Some are pretty good, others not so much. 

As I see it there are some significant flaws in these efforts. The problem is that a:) there is simply too much political division, b:) we lack focus, and c:) we have involved people in the process who have no business being involved (i.e. tourism lobby). Let me explain.

While the legislature was pretty ineffective in passing education reform last session, they were very effective at kicking the can down the road. Instead of enacting useful reform efforts they asked for a plethora of Task Forces to be established. Why? Because these are very tricky things that about 50% of the electorate would love to see enacted while the other 50% would not. So, how many task forces are there?

By my count there are five, but somewhere I read that there were actually six. This is what I could find:
  1. Instructional Time Task Force
  2. Task Force on Teacher Leadership and Compensation
  3. Early Childhood Assessment Task Force
  4. Competency Based Instruction Task Force
  5. Administrator Evaluation Task Force
  6. ???? (I am pretty sure this one is out there but can't for the life of me remember what it is)
Task force, task force, task force (tsk, tsk, tsk). Are you serious? Let's see if we can put one more spinning plate in the air. There is so much to focus on, we don't know where to focus. Our Director tells us that this is all critically important and that our kids deserve the very best. I agree. But  let's be honest. Our kids also deserve action. Most of these ideas are highly controversial, and they have almost zero chance of becoming anything more than a Utopian ideal. By the time they reach the floor of the legislature, they will be gutted. Oh sure you say, other states have done it. Maybe, but did they try to do everything at once? Did they try to cram controversial reform down the throats of the LEA, or did they build a coalition of support? Or, after they enacted those reforms, are they better off? Really?

Look, I don't mean to be a pessimist, but I have been to this rodeo. If we want this to work, and I mean really work, let's first stop with the spinning plates. How about a laser-like focus on one area that we think will really make an impact? A good place to start would be on something that we can all agree on so we can get the ball moving down the field. If we can build some momentum, then perhaps, just perhaps, we can begin to tackle some of these more controversial issues. Until then I guess we can just continue to do the same thing and hope when we wake up tomorrow morning it isn't still Groundhog Day.