Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Evolution or Revolution?

Yesterday after school we had the staff roll out of the new Mac books for our high school staff. With this activity, we moved one step closer to the student roll out of the 1-1 project for students in grades 9-12 in January. As the faculty was opening up their computers and going through the steps of setting up their computers with network access, email, and other personal preferences I was impressed with how 'high tech' we had become. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Murray have provided key leadership in the process and demonstrated with ease some of the features of the new technology, including the servers that have been purchased to manage the devices (with the click of a mouse), the monitoring capabilities, and the abilities they had to install software remotely. All the while, Mr. Dieken was lobbying me for the next piece of software or hardware that would improve the ability of the teachers to flip instruction and ultimately have positive effects on the students' learning experience. I was impressed.

This really got me to thinking about how far we have come in education. I thought about how much has changed in just these last three years, and then I got to thinking about how much has changed since my career began. Then that morphed into what I can remember from my own school experience. Where we are now compared to where we were when I was a student is pretty mind boggling!

So, I had to begin by relying on memories that were some 30 plus years ago. It is a little fuzzy but I think the year was around 1981, which would have put me in about 4th grade. Our school had just made an investment in our very first computer. It was an early Apple model and was located in the school library. I really can't remember what it was used for, but do remember that as students we were able to use it on a limited basis. For what I can't even remember. Around the same time, the public library also got a computer. We could reserve time on the computer in half hour increments, and I can remember playing very rudimentary and archaic versions of 'video games'. Most of them consisted of responding to a line of text with a another line of text. Graphics didn't really exist yet, and if they did they were rudimentary. Our current students would find those early computers quite humorous, and in fact probably wouldn't even consider them computers at all. Basically, the computers we had access to in 1981 were more novelty than anything.

By the time I got to high school in 1986, you would think that computers had proliferated the environment. That was certainly not the case. In fact, I learned how to keyboard in high school on an electric typewriter. It kind of looked like this (same color and everything):

Yeah, that was quite the experience. A whole room of students learning to load the paper into the machine and type like crazy; click, click, click, click, DING! click, click, click, click, click DING!

If I remember correctly, our high school got it's first computer lab sometime before I graduated. Since this was well before the time where schools employed technology coordinators or computer teachers, much of what was occurring was experimental, 'flying by the seat of our pants' type of instruction. There may have been some rudimentary computer programming classes, but they weren't something that interested me all that much so can't really remember a lot about it. 

The early 1990s the world really began to change for me when I went to college. At my college, typewriters were finally replaced with computer labs. This is still before the time of Internet so we didn't know that we were on the precipice of a huge change. I remember how excited I was to be able to type and not have to worry about changing paper and the margins getting messed up. Oh, and no more changing the ribbons in the typewriters! Huge advances in technology for the college student of my day. Never mind that the printing quality was horrible and it took a very long time to print out a paper, but hey we were really moving forward! Around my junior year a buddy was able to buy a computer so my days of using the computer lab were in the rear view mirror. I remember staying up late during finals week to type up a final paper, save it to a floppy disc and then run it over to the computer lab for printing. By the time I graduated from college in 1995, computers were becoming more and more mainstream. The Internet was still pretty new, and email was used primarily people with a higher pay grade than me. 

I entered the world of work in 1995 and was one of the lucky ones to have a teaching job lined up by the time I graduated. In that first job, we had a computer on a cart that was shared with all the teachers in my hallway. There were a total of 6 of us in that wing with one computer. To me it wasn't that big of a deal because I didn't have a lot of use for a computer at that point. The school had a computer lab that had recently been installed but the school wasn't wired for the Internet. I do remember that the school board was having discussions about that, but it wouldn't come before I left for greener pastures.

That was in 1998. In my new position I had my very own computer, and every teacher in the school had their very own email account! This is when communication between parents and teachers really started to take off. I can remember getting a few emails a day and thinking this was a pretty efficient way of communicating with people. The Internet was starting to hit its stride too, I can remember some of the very early iterations of websites--which was well before the time of web video, flash, and E-Commerce was pretty new.

My first assignment in school administration was in 2004, and I was assigned my first laptop computer. Wireless technology was just becoming popular (and more predictable), so that was a huge step forward. We didn't have a wireless network in the school, so I was tethered to a network cable for a couple of years before getting a small wireless router set up in the outer office. I can remember how convenient it was to be able to work in my office and then pack up to go home and be able to continue my work seamlessly. The board also thought it was important to have a cellphone, so I had one of those too. Again, I thought that was pretty cool, but it was before Smart phones became popular. I could text, but it was very cumbersome. At the time it sure didn't seem to be that cumbersome. Toward the end of my tenure wireless technology really started to stabilize so one of my final projects before leaving was to have the wireless network installed. 

You pretty much know the story from that point forward. Printing is becoming less frequent. In a couple of minutes I will click 'publish' and this will go out to you on the Internet. Some of you will get this as an email, others may see it on my blog, and others will get it from our school website. There is even a population that will read it in the newspaper. In 1990, that probably would have been quite a feet to circulate this publication through so many venues. Now, in 2013 once I publish it goes out simultaneously to all the aforementioned media, and is available worldwide.

I still have a computer on my desk and a laptop to lug back and forth between office and home, but I wonder how much longer that will be the case. These days I am able to answer email and respond to questions with my Smart phone. I can search the Internet, call up a document from my computer, or respond to a Tweet from a student all from the same device.

The 1-1 project launch for students is just a few months away. I have likened the decision to implement this initiative into our district as the most important decision we will make for this generation of students. Others have compared to being as revolutionary to schools as the chalkboard once was. As quickly as things are moving these days, I wonder if in ten years we will look back on this time with a slight smile and shake of the head and think, "I can't believe how far we have come since the 1-1 project was such a big deal."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Where Shall They Go?

A couple of months ago you probably saw the news story or read in the newspaper that Castle Hill School was closing in Waterloo. Since it doesn't affect most of you, I imagine the news came and went without much of a second thought. Castle Hill is one of three schools in the Cedar Valley that Hudson and many districts in the area use for the delivery of special education services that can't be delivered efficiently by the resident district. Other schools in the Cedar Valley that are used by area districts include River Hills and Bremwood. Hudson currently has students served in all three schools. With the closing of Castle Hill the question becomes, 'Where will we educate those students?' It now becomes the responsibility of each resident district to determine where they will best be served.

Castle Hill serves students in grades K-8 who have special behavior needs.

Students of compulsory age are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). This was outlined in public law 94-142, originally passed by Congress in 1975. That has become the basis for our educational system in America. What makes 94-142 unique is the protections it has in place for students with special needs. It essentially states that public school districts must provide a free and appropriate education to all students, regardless of disability. Special education programs are more expensive to operate. Typically they are staffed with much lower student to teacher ratios and have other required features that tend to drive up the cost of operation.

Those students identified as needing special education services are provided with an individualized educational plan (IEP) that spells out exactly what services they are supposed to receive, areas that they are receiving services in, and specific academic or behavioral goals. Because of FAPE and the IEP these students have (yeah, I know-more acronyms), the funding for special education services is different. IEPs are legally binding documents and whatever services are outlined by the IEP, we must provide. So, special education funding does not adversely effect the general fund. Whatever it costs to run the program, the district is able to recover in spending authority.

The funding comes in several different ways. A general education student is weighted at 1.0, which is equivalent to  roughly $6,000 in funding. Depending on the level of services the special education student needs, they are weighted as either a 1.72, 2.21, or 3.74. In addition, the district receives federal funding for the special education program through what is known as Part B. Another important revenue source for special education is Medicaid. If those funding sources are not sufficient to cover the cost, it ultimately is passed back to the local taxpayers after receiving approval from the SBRC (School Budget Review Committee) in Des Moines. This is known as recovering the special education deficit. It is common for school districts in Iowa to have a special education deficit. Ours last year was $62,837, all of which was recovered through SBRC. It is important to remember that no matter what is in the IEP, we are required by federal law to provide those services.

In Hudson, we have an outstanding special education program that works diligently to identify students for services, work with those students to overcome their learning deficiencies, and move them back into the general education setting. The services that we offer in our district serve primarily students who are in level one (1.72) or level two (2.21) programs. That is not to say that we don't have students in level three programs (3.74) because we do. Since we don't have a level three program in our district, we have elected to 'tuition out' those students to other schools. Those students attend school at either Bremwood, River Hills, or Castle Hill.

Now with the closing of Castle Hill we, along with the other area districts in the area are trying to figure out where these students will best be served. Ironically (and uncharacteristically), we currently do  not have any students who are served in the Castle Hill behavior program. However, there are currently somewhere between 3-14 students from area districts that will need placement for the 2013-2014 school year.

Here comes the point that I have once again taken so long to get to! The Board along with the administration and special education staff are deliberating whether or not Hudson should agree to host the behavior program from Castle Hill. In doing so, we would be making quite a commitment! Financially, the cost would be passed back to the resident district. Hudson would only be responsible for the cost of educating our own resident students. Again, at this point we do not have any resident students attending the program, but that is uncommon. In agreeing to host the program, we would take on the responsibility of hiring the staff, setting up classrooms, and administering the program.

You must be wondering, why Hudson? Well, geographically it makes sense because we are centrally located. At this time, we also have space to host the program.

The board has spent several hours discussing and debating the issue, and I am quite proud of the work they have done on this issue. During the discussion they have kept the Core Purpose front and center of the debate, "We Create Effective Learning Environments That Result in Success for All Students'. After all the debate, decision time is coming. But before they make the final decision they want input. Next Monday, on April 22nd, I will be visiting with the SIAC group to discuss the option. We would also love to hear your input.

So the Board and I would love to hear what you have to say about this and answer any questions that you may have before making a decision. The board is scheduled to take final action on this topic at the May 20th board meeting. If you  have questions or comments, please don't hesitate to give me a call.

Friday, April 5, 2013

7 More in School Talk Extra

I had the opportunity to be a guest this morning on School Talk during the KWWL morning show. Jason and I could have talked for hours, but there was other news that had to be covered! As a follow up and part of a an extension of School Talk, they are starting and extended segment. Jason sent me a few follow up questions which are listed below. You can also access them at

What is the deadline for the legislature to decide on the percentage of allowable growth?  Why is this year different?
By law, the legislature is required to set allowable growth 18 months in advance and within 30 days of the Governor releasing his budget targets. Under normal circumstances, the legislature would have set allowable growth for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2014 during this legislative session and the allowable growth for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2013 would have been set during the last session. The reason it is different this year is because the Governor has indicated that education reform must be taken care of before allowable growth. This becomes a little bit more complicated because the Governor wants to change the way allowable growth is calculated, and this adds to the process. As you know, another priority of the Governor is property tax reform, and school districts are a taxing authority. The formula is rather complicated, but allowable growth is a blend of property taxes and state aide. The Governor would like to eliminate the property tax portion of allowable growth and instead have allowable growth (state aide supplement is the term he has coined for the revenue) be funded entirely by state aide.

Do schools have to decide to raise or lower taxes before the legislature makes up their mind on allowable growth as the schools' budget deadlines gets closer?
Yes, school districts must decide on property tax rates before the legislature makes up their mind on allowable growth. School district must certify their budgets to the County Auditory by April 15th. It is also important to note that school districts must publish their budgets in a locally circulated newspaper no sooner than 10 days prior to the hearing and not more than 20 days prior to the hearing. That means that most school districts have published their budgets at this point. Our budget has been published at Hudson and the board will take action on April 8th. Once the budget is published and subsequently adopted by the Board of Directors, they cannot raise the rates—but they can lower them. The only way that rates will increase after publication is through legislative action (i.e. the ultimate resolution of allowable growth). The Iowa Department of Management has the statutory authority to make these adjustments.

So, this is causing school districts in many cases to make strategic decisions regarding property tax rates and allowable growth. It is almost like a guessing game! Because of the  unknown variables, many districts are publishing budgets assuming allowable growth rates of anywhere from 0%-4% and setting higher tax rates assuming they will be able to lower them once the legislative process is resolved. In Hudson, we published a budget assuming 0% allowable growth because that is the current law. We also proposed a decrease in our tax rate of approximately .74. Our situation is a bit unique because of the fact that we experienced an enrollment bump this year. That certainly has helped out! That being said, we are in a holding pattern just like everyone else. Until we know more we can’t make hiring decisions or settle the contract with our collective bargaining unit.

What part of "reform" is in the education "reform" package still alive in either house?
Both legislative chambers have passed education reform bills and sent them back to the opposite chamber for action. The bills use the framework that was proposed by the Governor and include 5 separate divisions: online learning initiatives, training and employment of teachers, Iowa promise diploma seal program, teacher and administrator development system, and the big one that we have all heard a lot about is teacher career and compensation. Some of the legislation has been struck, like the diploma seal program is no longer part of the bill, and several of the other items have been modified.

This is a very important and critical week for the legislative process. April 5th is the second funnel deadline and in order for legislation to stay alive, it must have passed through one chamber and a sub-committee in the opposite chamber. Since both chambers had previously passed varying versions of the education reform bill, they naturally wanted the opposing chamber to move on their proposal. A brief stalemate ensued until yesterday when the Senate Education subcommittee moved on the House version of education reform. They ‘amended’ the House bill by striking their entire version and replacing it with the Senate version. The bill passed out of subcommittee on a party line vote: 9-6. I would surmise that it will get passed out of the Senate again this week, probably on a party line vote. The bill is destined for a conference committee between both chambers, so I think we are still several weeks from resolution. It is also worthy of note that the allowable growth bill has been wrapped up in this, making it even more complicated.

 Are there any aspects to the reform packages other than starting teacher pay increase, increased pay for additional duties by teachers, and a grading system that are of interest to school districts?
I am probably going to come off as sounding evasive on this, but it really depends. There are several things that I don’t see as critical components—for example the Iowa Promise Diploma Seal Program. Since it looks like this is a dead issue, it is not necessary to debate the point. I would have to say that I am interested to see how this whole legislative process unfolds—there are definitely some things that I like more than others. Right now, I am very cautious and perhaps skeptical. See, here’s the deal. These are broad ideas that may sound good on paper, but once the details get fleshed out it may be a completely different story. I know it may sound like superintendents always say that, but in many cases the details are more important than the broad ideas.

The other issue is the funding. Some of these may be great ideas! The problem is that if they are not funded properly (or at all) it renders the initiative ineffective. You have to remember, when Tom Vilsack was Governor they created career ladders. The issue was that it was never funded, which is why we don’t have career ladders for teachers now. And when we consider funding it has to be long term. When fully scaled up,  the proposal is estimated to be $187 Million. That would be in addition to allowable growth (or state supplemental aide as the Governor calls it). The Senate version of allowable growth at 4% is around $160 Million, and remember the purpose of that funding stream is to take care of ongoing ‘cost of living’ increases. I think if we are going to invest an additional $187 Million on top of that we can really move our state educational system forward, but I am very skeptical that will be the case. Another point, the LSA (Legislative Services Agency) came out with a report that stated the cost of the reform package was underestimated, and this is a non-partisan agency.

The longer allowable growth and education reform is debated in Des Moines, will there come a time that it will overlap and possibly overshadow local school board races?
Actually I don’t think the allowable growth debate will have that large of an impact on local school board races. Allowable growth is a state issue that needs to be settled by the legislature. Where school boards become important in this process is as an advocate for their district. Our local board here at Hudson does an excellent job of communicating with our legislators, and in fact we host our legislators for a work session at a board meeting every fall. I am very proud of the fact that our Board of Directors is engaged politically and participates in lobbying events. We annually debate issues and develop our own local platform that is shared with the Iowa Association of School Boards and with our legislators. Our school district actually has a couple of pieces of legislation that we are working with our legislators to shepherd through the process right now!

What type of data has been collected to show the success or failure of 1-1 (computer/tablet) technology in the classroom?
Okay, shifting gears I see! This question must have to do with the fact that our district has recently decided to move to a 1-1 platform for our 9-12 students next year. I could literally write pages and pages of information on this one, but don’t want to lose anyone! The first thing we need to do is define success. If we define success by how students perform on standardized tests, then there are few studies that would suggest an increase in standardized test scores. Now, there are plenty of studies that show student engagement increases dramatically through a 1-1 initiative, and a plethora of evidence indicates that engagement in school is causal to student success.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Our decision was not based on how well a student does on a standardized test. While useful, that does not determine life success. We define success as what happens after students leave our schools. Whether they go to the world of college or the world of work, it is our duty to make sure students are ready for than next step. Empirically speaking there is no doubt that students need to have the skills that will enable them to be successful in a global community. The 1-1 does just that. We have to ask ourselves a couple of questions as adults. How often do we (or are we) required to complete a standardized test form in our daily lives or our daily work? When was the last time I filled out a scan-tron form? Sounds kind of silly, right? But how about this. When was the last time you had to use the Internet? When were you last required to type an email, prepare a power point, use social media? That’s right, it is ingrained in our lives and it is our duty to make certain our students are prepared for that world. Look, there was a time when we used paper and pencils in the classroom. There was also a time when we had chalkboards in the classroom. Those days are over.

Then there is the social media aspect of the 21st Century. When I was a principal I used to tell the young people that it is better to make our mistakes in life while they were in school, where it was a safe environment. The consequences at the time, while they may seem significant, pale in comparison to what they will be in ‘the real world’. That is no longer the case because of the advent of social media. What we post is eternal and can have consequences far into the future. That is what makes it even more important for us to teach young people how to use these powerful tools in a responsible manner. I could go on and on, but here is one final point: when a young person turns 16 we don’t just hand them the keys to the family car and tell them to go figure it out—why would this be any different?

How important is it for a school district to have a strong relationship with the community (specifically city or county leadership) to ensure joint success for both?
Schools and communities should be working in partnership and in tandem with one another. In most cases, neither the school or the city can stand on its own. Join cooperation is critical to the success of both bodies!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

I Know How You Feel

Last week I took a test and it was incredibly difficult. None of us [students] were surprised that it was tough because the class is very challenging. In fact, I would consider it to be one of the most difficult courses I have ever taken.The good folks at the University of Northern Iowa take great pride in the rigor of their classes and point out that 'these are doctorate level courses'-in other words, it is not supposed to be easy. They are the antithesis of easy! In fact, in one class I took last summer the professor began the course by reminding us that we were not in a remedial doctorate program, and that we were expected to do a lot of reading and writing--and do it well. Yesterday afternoon I met with the professor of the class I am taking right now to gather some feedback on a class project I am working on, and when I shared with him how difficult the course was he was giddy with excitement!

Anyway, back to that test. We were prepped for the exam by being told that it was in effect a 'stress test'. I didn't take that to mean that it was designed to stress us out (although it did), but rather a stress test to measure the strength of our understanding of the course content. Another way to look at it is a measure of the strength of the professor's instruction. Isn't that an interesting way to look at it?

Often times in education, the paradigm in which we view test taking is to measure knowledge gained by the students. While this provides useful information in regard to academic progress, it also provides data that can be useful to the instructor. If for example everyone gets the same question wrong, or pockets of students answer a question in a particular way it tells the instructor something, and not necessarily that students are cheating. Perhaps the teacher discovers that answers to questions surrounding a particular concept are weak across the spectrum of test takers. Imagine how valuable this information is to a teacher! A teacher may realize that the reason everyone got that item wrong was because the strategy they used in instruction didn't work. While the teacher may have surmised that all the students understood, the test provides clear proof that they did not. Then our teacher can look at that data realize they need to reteach the concept to that group or pocket of students this time using a different strategy or methodology.

When teachers use assessment data in this way, they are employing a technique called 'formative assessment'. This type of assessment is designed to form the instruction that is occurring in the classroom. If you recall our conversation from a few weeks ago, I talked about providing each student with a guaranteed and viable curriculum. In that discussion, we focused on ensuring that each and every student is exposed to the same curriculum (the term I used was essential learning concepts). That's great, but the next question has to be, how do we know the students have mastered the essential learning concepts?

Formative assessments help answer that question. If our formative assessments tell us that some students may not have learned the concepts, it forms (or shapes) what our teachers do next. Imagine going to the doctor because you have a bad cough or cold. The doctor is likely going to ask you some questions and perhaps run a few tests. If the cough is bad enough they may even do a chest X-ray. The data the doctor collects will be used to create a treatment plan. That is exactly the purpose of the formative assessment. It helps to form our instructional plan going forward!

This is very different from the other type of tests that we use in schools, namely assessments that are used as Summative instruments. These types of assessments are evaluative and occur at the conclusion of instruction or at the end of the unit. In essence, how much has the student learned? This is an opportunity for the student to prove what they have learned. Unfortunately we sometimes confuse ourselves by using Summative means of evaluation to form our instruction. 

Take for example the Iowa Assessments. That particular instrument (and most standardized instruments for that matter) are not designed to inform instruction. The instruction in this case is already over-it is too late to form instruction. Our standardized system of measurement is more valuable to use as longitudinal data and observe trends over time. We can form generalizations, but it would be inappropriate and untimely to try to use the assessment in this manner.

So, I loved the metaphor that my professor used for his assessment of us: It is a stress test to measure the strength of instruction, to see how the instruction that is being delivered in class is developing.

Finally I want to mention that in post-graduate studies there are not a whole lot of tests to begin with. Most assessments that we are exposed to are lengthy papers, deep reading, projects and presentations, and in class debate and discussion. So this was the first time in a lot of years that I had to sit down and study for a test, then go through and actually take the test. Students, it all came back to me and I feel your pain! 

Oh, and in case you are wondering, I did pass!