Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Board Service

School districts are complex organizations with many moving parts. We have custodians and building engineers that are tasked with making sure the facilities look sharp and are safe for children, the teachers who ensure your child learns the multitude of skills and concepts that are necessary for a productive member of society, and the cooks make sure that there are healthy and nutritious meals for lunch. Then there are the para-professionals who provide valuable service to the teachers and work with students who need extra help, and the bus drivers who make sure your child gets to work safely each day. Coaches are on staff to teach our young student athletes strategies and techniques in sports.  I suppose the list wouldn't be complete if we didn't at least mention the administrators tasked with the coordination and management of this very complex organization.

We could stop right there, and still say that school are complex. But the list of dedicated employees mentioned above would be incomplete. There are numerous volunteers that play a huge role in the life of school districts, from PTO members, to boosters and classroom volunteers. In this list however, I think that there is one group that is sometimes an afterthought. That is the service of members of the school board!

Were you aware that school board service is the only elected official that by statute receives no compensation in the State of Iowa? School board service is completely voluntary, and is one of the most difficult and rewarding of civic duties. I believe that school board service is perhaps the truest form of a democratic  government. 'Taxation Without Representation. was one of the primary grievances that led to the the American Revolution. Your local school board is elected from the citizenry and one of its functions is to be good stewards of taxpayer resources. They annually adopt a budget that does just that. Choices are made that not only impact the education that your children are receiving in the classroom, but impact the community in general. School board service is a noble cause indeed. I suppose that some may believe that to be a member of the local school board is merely a commitment to show up to a meeting every month and to do whatever the superintendent tells them to do. That certainly isn't the case, and I wouldn't want them to!

To be a board member means that you agree to study and learn about educational issues in Iowa in depth. It means to understand complex financial metrics in a way that can easily be explained to the general public. Ah, yes! I said study. Being a board member means much more than just showing up. Board members are required to study between 50-75 pages of documents prior to coming to the meeting, and sometimes there are many more pages than that! And about that meeting-sure we have one scheduled each month, but it is not uncommon to have two, and there have even been times with even more. Each with its own required readings. The meetings begin at 6:00, and on a good night we will conclude by 9:00. More often than not the meeting will last until 10:00.

There is no doubt about it, the meetings are long. But the discussion is rich and the deliberation before making decisions is thoughtful. Hopefully I have painted an accurate picture of what it means to serve on the school board. With all that hard work, you must be wondering, what is the payoff? Long hours with no pay?Phone calls from angry constituents? Discipline hearings with unhappy endings? Budget cuts and layoffs?

Yes, it is all of those things, and more.

It is the ability to make a difference.

It is the love of your community and school.

It is the adoption of a new curriculum.

It is providing new and exciting resources for their children and yours.

It is the building improvements and enhancements.

It is balancing the budget.

It is the 1:1 initiative.

It is knowing that you have had courage to make the tough decision.

I am proud of the Hudson Community School District and the work of our school board. If you have an opportunity, please thank them for their service. They don't hear that a lot.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Superintendents MessageTo The Class of 2013: Be Happy!

Candidates for graduation:  Congratulations!  One of my greatest pleasures of being superintendent is graduation day.  With the Administration and members of the Board of Directors, I will have the honor in a few minutes to present you with a diploma from Hudson High School.  In the past three years I have had the great privilege of getting to know you and watching you mature. Indeed I have grown quite fond of you, and your presence will certainly be missed this fall.

My remarks to the graduating class are typically meant to remind you of the responsibility that you now bear to become a productive member of society, to be successful, and to make us all proud. I offer those same words of advice this afternoon but with the simple caveat: Be happy.

A few weeks ago I was out of the district taking care of a few errands when I happened to run into one of your parents. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about some of the more mundane topics of the day—the weather, a sports season that had just ended, and some of the projects that we were planning around the school. After a few minutes our attention turned to another topic of common interest to both of us: You.

I am sure you know this already, but your parents are awful proud of you. Well, we all are! We talked about the success you have had during this—your senior year. We shared a few memories and highlights of the school year and without really saying it, I think we were both kind of surprised that it was all coming to an end. It is amazing at how quickly the time goes by!

Finally I asked what your plans were for next year. ‘College’ was the answer, and it was shared that you had it narrowed down to two choices. One of the choices would permit you to continue to participate in some of the activities that had brought you so much joy, success, and happiness in high school. The other was a much bigger school where you would probably not have the same opportunities to participate in the same activities as you had in high school, but rather experience new, exciting opportunities and activities. In my opinion, both are solid schools with great reputations and both would permit you to realize your dreams and aspirations.

Well, the next obvious question was, “What is the major going to be?” When I heard what you wanted to do, it was impressive. That is no doubt a major that will lead to a prestigious career where you will have much financial success in life. I thought immediately that you have proven yourself in the classroom, your grades are solid, and that you would be successful.

I kind of wondered though where you had come up with that as a career choice. So I asked, “Why did your child choose that as a career aspiration?” I found out something very interesting—your parent used to do that very thing. You know there are studies that suggest often times young people go into a career that is similar to what their parents do. I thought ‘Wow’, but then in the back of my mind I was immediately wondering why your parent wasn't doing that anymore. So I asked a few questions.

I learned that this parent of yours was successful in this career and had done quite well financially. They were able to provide many, many things for your family. Life was good. The only trouble was the demands of the job. You see, mom or dad wasn’t home very much. They had to work long hours and weren’t able to spend much time with the family. However, the thought was that everything would balance itself out by being able to provide for the family everything they could imagine.

After a while it was realized that all the money in the world was not going to make a person successful and happy—so they got out of the profession. Your parent does something else now and if I had to guess, (well, I don’t have to guess—I could see it in their eyes and the way they lit up when talking about you and the family) they are more successful now than ever—even if no longer in that high powered career.

So then I asked their thoughts about your career choice. Your parent looked me straight in the eye and said, “It doesn’t really matter to me what my child does—I just want them to be happy.”

My advice to you then is the advice that I heard from your parent that day. We want you to be successful, but more than anything else, we want you to be happy.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Words of Encouragement to the Class of 2013 From the Board of Directors

Hello and Good Afternoon everyone. 

Welcome to our Faculty, Administrators, staff, Parents, Families and of course to the Graduating Students.  Thank you for supporting our students at this year's commencement ceremony.   I am proud and honored today to represent the Hudson School Board of Education in celebrating our Graduates and offering some encouraging words as you look to your future.  This is a celebration of a great accomplishment!

I am encouraged by the future of our youth as I look out at your faces full of hopes, dreams and aspirations, eager for the next chapter of your life to begin.  This is the first chapter in your Journey of Life, a milestone to be celebrated.  You have spent the past four years achieving the Learner Performance Goals and developing the Keys to Success.  Each and every one of you has incurred some obstacles and barriers along the way, from overcoming Academic challenges to personal challenges. Some of those challenges may have been small and some may have been large but you overcame each one through persistence and determination to arrive at this day.  We are grateful for your many contributions that make our school shine in the community including: Academics, Athletics, Performing Arts, FFA, Yearbook, Newspaper and the many other extra-curricular programs that benefited from your talents.

I am reminded of a phrase that my Grandfather always said when we complained about the demands of school.  He would tell us “Get an education – it is the one thing they can’t take away from you”.  I didn’t quite understand what he meant until much later in life, but those words always guided me when faced with some obstacle.  

You see my Grandfather came to this country with nothing but a Dream.  He sold his homemade Mexican food from a stand on a street corner in New Orleans beginning in the early 1930’s. He taught himself English and studied to become a US Citizen.  He earned enough money to purchase a ½ acre of land in a thriving city to build a home and raise his family.  He encouraged all of his children and grandchildren to get an education. He knew that an education was the Ticket to leveling the playing field and making one competitive in the job market.  

Through his persistence, overcoming obstacles, along the way he found success, even during the Great Depression, all because of his determination to achieve his American Dream of a better life.
Getting a High School Education today is just as important as it was many years ago.  It truly is the Ticket to leveling the playing field.  Once you walk across the stage today, you will ALL be High School Graduates regardless of your background or status.  You have developed a great foundation and have acquired the keys to success to begin the next chapter in life.

I challenge you to continue to “Get an Education” whether you step directly into the workforce, enlist the military service or pursue Higher Education.  With an education you have choice – Learning from every situation you encounter.

As I stated earlier, I didn’t quite understand what my grandfather meant until experiences witnessed  much later in life, for instance: You can be laid-off, downsized, have to move from your home or any number of unexpected life events but you still have your education.   I never wondered what I would do or where I would work because I had an Education – that gave me choice, freedom and security as well as a chance to give back to my community.

Now because of your persistence and determination along with the encouragement of your parents, teachers, family and friends, you have the same opportunity to build upon your educational foundation acquiring choice, freedom, security and community engagement along the way.

Today as you leave the stage the field is level –You earned your Ticket!

What is your DREAM?
What will you do with it? Where will you go? How will you continue to engage your community?
Use your Ticket Wisely and be amazed at the places you will go and the fun you can have!
On Behalf of the Board of Education, Congratulations to each one of you– Enjoy your Journey!   

Karyn Finn
Hudson School Board Director

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

If it Hadn't Been for...

The other day I met with my high school student advisory group for the last time this year. Our conversation was typical and they offered insight into a whole host of issues that I promised to follow up on soon. During these conversations I encourage them to ask me questions about what is going on in the school and anything else that may be of interest to them. One of the questions had to do with staffing for next year and if we had hired everyone that we needed. Then the conversation began to drift into hiring practices and wage differentials between educators and those in the private sector. The students didn't seem to be at all surprised that teachers are compensated less than those who work in the private sector. 

I told them that teachers realize when they choose education as a vocation that they are not going to become wealthy.  They are doing this work for a different reason. If you ask them [teachers], they will tell you that they became teachers because they want to help kids realize their potential. But what does 'help kids' mean or look like? I think I have an answer to that question.

Once upon a time there was a kid that grew up in a pretty rural part of a pretty rural state. Upon compulsory attendance age, his parents sent him off to school. The lad wasn't all that interested in school, and was much more interested in having recess and participating in gym class. The idea of learning his letters or his math facts was not at all attractive, and even less so when the sun was shining. When the concept of finding the sum of three numbers was taught, he truly became lost and interest in school really began to wane. Luckily though, he had a teacher that was able to coax, teach, and encourage. Ultimately he crossed the finish line that year.

Like many young people, he was always excited to start school in the fall, and thankful when it was over in the spring. On those dark winter days he would pray for school to be canceled and be elated when it was. Indeed, the school year always began with good intentions--all the homework would be submitted correctly and on time, and hitting the books would be a priority. But by early fall those good intentions were replaced by something else. The homework wouldn't get done and the grades would begin to suffer because of those choices. Somewhere around the 4th grade the students were required to take a course to learn about the history of their state. The culminating activity was a project (today we would refer to the project as an authentic learning experience) that the young 4th grader unfortunately chose not to complete. That decision cost him dearly, because on his report card he had earned a big fat 'F'. But again, the teacher chose to work with and encourage him, thus he crossed the finish line of 4th grade.

By the time junior high had arrived there were many other things that were way more important than school work. He spent much of his time focused on those things rather than on his school work. The grades suffered and he started to pay visits to the principals office. The warnings were always dire, "You better shape up young man, because when you get to high school it is really going to count. If you don't get good grades in high school, you won't be able to get into college." The kid didn't really care because he had no plans of going to college. 

Well, high school finally came and it wasn't a whole lot better for this (now) young man. He got a drivers license at the prescribed age and proceeded to destroy somewhere around a half a dozen automobiles before graduating. As the years waned on the pressure of what to do after high school began to mount. Classmates were beginning to make decisions about their future, what they wanted to do with their life, and where they wanted to go to college. Since this young man had no college aspirations and his grades were average to below average at best, it didn't seem like college was in his future. He decided he would go to work at the local factory--until learning they weren't hiring. 

Thankfully this young trouble maker had a few teachers that took a keen interest in him. One was a high school social studies teacher that really seemed to be interested in his future. The two hit it off and the kid ultimately ended up taking every class this teacher taught in the high school. The young man began to think, "Maybe I could do this"? There were also two other teachers that for some reason took an interest in this youngster's future. Interestingly enough they were a husband and wife team. He taught the band, she taught the choir. The young man enjoyed music and his teachers discovered he was pretty good at it.

The bad news was by the time senior year arrived, it appeared that it was too late. His options were pretty limited and it was looking more and more like college was out of the question. Then those three teachers intervened. They coached, taught, encouraged, and counseled. Over and over again they said 'You can do this'. The road was hard, and he still managed to exercise a fair amount of poor judgement that landed him in hot water. But those three teachers picked him up and dusted him off. They scolded him for his poor choices and said yet again, 'You can do this'. Well, he finally did it. He crossed the finish line and graduated from high school. I wonder whatever happened to that kid? 

The last I heard was that he went off and became a superintendent of schools somewhere. If it hadn't been for those teachers....

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Teacher Evaluation and Student Achievement

A couple of years ago the legislature drug on until literally the last moment. Final resolution came on June 30th, the final day of the fiscal year. It could probably be argued that the only reason agreement was finally reached was because the next day (July 1) would have resulted in a partial state government shutdown. Unfortunately I see no reason why the exact same thing won't happen this year. I anticipate regular updates on the status of the legislature and this lingering session through the middle of the summer. Deep divisions remain not only on education reform, but on a whole host of issues. At this point there doesn't seem to be much urgency. The fact is that we have blown by every single [school funding] deadline date without so much as a blink. Allowable growth deadline: missed. Budget certification deadline: missed. Date in which to notify staff members of reduction in force: missed. Final date of daily expenses for the Iowa Legislature: missed. The next real deadline is June 30th; I wouldn't be too surprised if we used every day of the next 60 or so to keep up the suspense. Gives all of us something to write about anyway.

The disagreements are plentiful, but since this is an educational blog I will keep my comments tailored to that topic. The major disagreement on education reform is the role that student achievement either should or should not play in regard to teacher evaluation. The House bill has been firm that student achievement should play a role while the Senate version says not. We have all read numerous articles published that examine the merits of both proposals.

Why should we use student achievement data to evaluate teachers? Some have argued that we need a quantifiable metric that measures the effectiveness of the classroom teachers. It has been opined by many that the process in which we use to evaluate teachers is too subjective and not frequent enough. They argue that teachers should have greater ownership in the achievement of the students entrusted to them. Finally, and probably the biggest argument for using student achievement data is that in order for Iowa to receive a waiver from the punitive sanctions of No Child Left Behind, student achievement data must be part of the evaluation equation for teachers.

Why shouldn't we use student achievement data to evaluate teachers? First it is important to deal with this concept of a waiver from NCLB. The whole idea of No Child Left Behind is to ensure student proficiency by the 2013-2014 school year. Schools that have not achieved 100% proficiency are put on the SINA list (School in Need of Assistance) and are subject to sanctions. Proficiency is measured by looking at standardized student achievement data. One could probably suggest that if we shouldn't use standardized student achievement to measure as school's effectiveness then why use it to measure a teacher's effectiveness? In addition, in states where student achievement data is used as part of the evaluation, there have been reports of inconsistent teacher rankings. One year a teacher may be rated as a top performer, and the very next year be rated as an ineffective teacher.

Could it be that both arguments have merit? Look, everyone is pretty much in agreement that a waiver from No Child Left Behind is needed. It is a bad law that needs to be fixed, but there isn't a lot of hope that will happen anytime soon. Now, I am not sure achieving one goal at the expense of something else is necessarily right. But, if done correctly (and I have no idea what correctly even looks like), student achievement data could provide insight into teacher effectiveness. However, there would need to be a very clear understanding of what and how that data could be used. To base an entire evaluation on student achievement would be a serious overreach. I also think we would need to look at some of the problems that other states have had in implementing some of these programs and really evaluate their effectiveness.

In the final analysis I would argue that measuring the quality of schools or teachers based solely on proficiency as defined by a standardized test is inappropriate. Whether or not schools are on the SINA list is based on how well students do on the Iowa Assessments. That is one specific test, given on one or two days during the course of a school year. The fact is that during this current school year (2012-2013), in Iowa there are approximately 496 schools on the SINA list. Does this suggest to you that there are almost 500 schools in the state that are in need of assistance, or that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are taking the measurement? I don't believe proficiency should be calculated with a high stakes test given on a specific day. Proficiency should be measured using multiple data points taken throughout the school year and should be composed using a variety of assessment styles. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What Happened to Education Reform?

The legislative session that began in January held such promise! The Governor proposed a broad based education reform package and noted that this was his number one priority for this legislative session. Some of  his proposals I agreed with; many of which I disagree with strongly and continue to do so to this day. Nonetheless, a clear and focused agenda was presented and the promise of a collaborative process was embarked upon. I held out hope that we would resolve the funding issues quickly, the education reform proposals would be negotiated and crafted in a manner that was palatable to all stakeholders, and we would be able to set about the work of planning for the 2013-2014 school year in earnest. The Governor was clear in his intentions that before the issue of basic school aide was settled (allowable growth), the reform must come first. Both chambers set about their work.

In the House, the legislators began working through the proposals.

In the Senate, the legislators began working through allowable growth.

The Senate moved 4% allowable growth rather quickly, passing it along party lines and sending it to the House for action, where it landed without much ceremony and just sat there. Then the Senate began the task of working on the education reform bill. 

A modified and scaled back version of the House bill passed along party lines and was subsequently sent to the Senate, where it landed without much ceremony and just sat there. A few weeks later, a different version was passed in the Senate, again along party lines and was sent back to the House (where it landed without much ceremony and just sat there).

Along comes the second funnel date. In Iowa, for a bill to remain active, it must pass through one chamber and a subcommittee in the opposing chamber. For a few days it really looked like this was going to fall apart, until the Senate education committee decided to take up the House version of the bill. This committee ended up striking the entire language of the House bill and passed it (again along party lines) where it landed in the house...without much ceremony and just sat there.

Eventually the bill was assigned to a conference committee of equal parts House/Senate and Democrat/Republican. There task: negotiate a bi-partisan agreement. During the first few meetings of the committee they discussed the rules, appointed leadership, and the rational behind their proposals-but didn't really get to a whole lot of negotiating. 

Well, at this point there has been some negotiating which is really great news. The bad news is that there hasn't really been anything formal in quite some time. I would really be okay with that....if it were February. But here is the problem folks. The session is scheduled to end on Friday. That is 3 days from now. Now, we have all certified our budgets and have begun to make our plans for next year, but the problem is that there is only so much we can do.

We are pretty lucky here in Hudson this year because we didn't have to lay anyone off. I know a lot of school districts across the state that had to send out reduction notices yesterday because these issues aren't settled. Now, that doesn't mean that we are free and clear. We actually would like to do the opposite: hire some staff. The problem we have is the same thing: we can't until we know how much funding will be available to hire this staff. 

I am no longer hopeful that there will be quick resolution, and have resigned myself to the fact that there may not be resolution at all. This will undoubtedly mean that districts across the state will have to move forward with reductions in force. This means that we will have to delay our hiring plans and put our goal of reducing class sizes in the elementary school at jeopardy. 

Where do we go from here? I guess we will all just have to wait...without much ceremony and just sit here.