Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Trouble With Iowa's 'F'

I was sitting in my office last Monday when I got a call from KWWL wanting to know if I would be willing to talk with them about the report card that had been released that day from Students First.  For those of you that aren't familiar, they gave Iowa an 'F'. I would like to take a bit more time and go into greater detail about what this 'F' really means. First, I think the Courier got it right when they made the comment "This grading of states seems to be based simply on how closely they follow Students First's own platform." I Agree.

It is worth pointing out that the highest grades (B-) were given to only two states: Florida and Louisiana. Seven states were given a grade of 'C'. The balance of the states were given either a 'D' or 'F'. Eleven (or more than 20%, were given an 'F'). Don't take my word for it, you can check it out yourself right here. The report card grades each state in three categories: elevate teaching (F), empower parents (F), and spend wisely and govern well (C-).

In the first category, 'Elevate Teaching' one of the main arguments made for the 'F' grade had to do with the fact that Iowa doesn't link teacher evaluation to student achievement. They strengthen their argument by stating that teacher layoff is driven by seniority rather than performance. The document goes on to make the following statement, "Unfortunately, Iowa does not substantially assess educators." At first blush, it may appear that teachers and administrators fear accountability. We can argue about the mechanics of teacher evaluations, and I concede that student achievement is not part of the evaluation. Heck, I will even say that it should be part of the evaluation. In fact if you ask teachers, most would tell you that they are not afraid of accountability for student achievement. But while may be true that Iowa does not substantially assess educators, it is also true that Iowa does not substantially assess students.

Let's do a brief comparison. A teacher completes a formal comprehensive evaluation every three years. During that formal comprehensive evaluation teachers must demonstrate competency in eight teaching standards that include forty-seven criteria. It is important to note that the teacher demonstrates this competency not by completing a standardized test, but by presenting a body of evidence. Additionally there is an observation component where the principal completes an in depth analysis of the teacher in the classroom. Some people express concern that this process only happens every three years and assume that in years one and two there is no supervision of teachers. That could not be further from the truth! During those two 'off cycle' years, the teacher is subject to numerous drop in visits from the building principal and is continually receiving feedback and coaching from the principal. When the process works well, during the comprehensive evaluation the teacher and building principal identify an area that could use strengthening in relationship to one of the eight standards. This provides an opportunity for the teacher and principal to develop a career plan with the goal of increasing competency and knowledge in that area. Also during the years where the teacher is 'off cycle', they (with the assistance of the building principal) are expected to write annual improvement goals. Teachers and principals meet multiple times during the school year to monitor progress toward the goal. The principal (working is a supervisory role) provides assistance, coaching, and resources as necessary. When a teacher isn't meeting the expectations, the principal can immediately place them on a plan of assistance and intervention. For the purposes of this article I am not going to explain how this works because it is quite a lengthy process.

How do we assess students? They take a standardized test with a number two pencil once a year. In this test they are asked to answer a series of questions under a specified time limit. Most of the questions do not assess critical thinking skills, but in fact ask students to simply recall information that is accessible in about twenty seconds with our digital assistant 'Siri'. If the student isn't feeling well that day, missed breakfast that morning (or even supper the night before), was up late, stayed out too long playing, or no one was around to make sure they got homework done so they were properly prepared to regurgitate the material, it is going to have a significant impact on their ability to regurgitate the information with their number two pencil in the allotted time. I know, you think that certainly those circumstances are rare-but that is where you are wrong. We have a metric that proves otherwise.

Are there places where we could make improvements to the teacher evaluation system? Sure there are, we always have room for improvement. But even more important,  I think we need to make improvements to the student evaluation system.

In the category 'Empower Parents', the state also received very low marks. The centerpiece of this argument calls for an expansion of Iowa charter school laws and to give parents the option of moving their students from 'failing schools' to charter or private schools. As I see it there are a couple of problems with this proposal. First, we need to identify failing schools. How do we do that currently? See my points above about student achievement!

There also seems to be some sort of fantasy that charter or private schools are somehow better than the local public school. Charter and private schools typically do not have the same regulatory restrictions that traditional public schools have and will promote innovative practices. So my point is simple. If the purpose of the charter school is to remove restriction and promote innovate practices, why not just grant that autonomy to the local school district? It would seem then, that the real problem is with the regulatory oversight of the state and many of the cumbersome restrictions that are placed on districts.

Certainly you cannot make the argument that teachers in the charter or private school are any better than those in the local public school. Unless there is some sort of super secret university teacher preparation program out there that I don't know about, all of our teachers in Iowa basically come from the same place. My point simply is that regardless of whether or not you teach in Hudson, Waterloo, a private or charter school: we all get our teachers from the same place.

But yet when we use the measuring stick that we have all grown accustomed to, the standardized test, often times it appears on the surface that the charters and private schools perform better than the traditional public school. Here is where the argument falls completely apart: when you look at the sub-group data. Look folks, most of you probably know this already, but I spent fifteen years in the private school system, which was a wonderful experience that I will always treasure. Each year we would have very high student achievement scores on these tests and proudly puff out our chests at how well we did. What was left out of that data in most cases was subgroup data, subgroups that were so small that they have a negligible impact on overall achievement. At my assignment before coming to Hudson, we had a FRL (free and reduced lunch rate) of 6% or less. At Hudson, we have a FRL of almost 21%! Does this matter? Absolutely this matters! If you don't believe me, take a look at those subgroups. Another place where this matters is when you look at students served by IEP (Individualized Educational Plan-used for students served in special education). At most privates (at least the one that I served), we did not serve students who were served by educational IEPs. This is through no fault of these schools, they simply do not have the financial resources necessary to administer these programs. Look at what Iowa City Schools are attempting now: they are trying to equalize their subgroups across the district because they know it matters.

Ironically Iowa received its highest mark on the report card in the area of 'spend wisely and govern well'. If not spending at all is a good practice, then okay I get it. Here is the reality. There has been virtually no negligible investment in Iowa education since I became a superintendent. We have either seen education funding cut, no budget growth, or proposals to repurpose funding streams from existing effective programs that will result in larger class sizes. We talk loudly about the need to reform education in Iowa and then recommend funding packages that are laughable.

Well, I got kind of long winded this week. Sorry about that! If you stayed with me all the way to the end, thanks for hanging in there. Next week we are going to start taking a look at the Governor's education plan that was unveiled at the beginning of the General Assembly.

1 comment:

  1. You summed it up so eloquently! I used to be a public school teacher, and thought I would be for the rest of my life, but in the 11+ years since NCLB, the headaches of the system made me leave the profession, and pull my own child out to home school. I home schooled until my child was eligible to open-enroll at NU Middle School, where while still a public school, teachers and the school were afforded a rich, diverse curriculum, and autonomy to teach how they knew students learned best. My child is now back in the regular school system, and his love of school and learning is again being sucked right out of him.

    I want Iowa's Research and Development School back, but just as important, I want its best practices implemented in all public schools, so more children can benefit.