Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Debating the Calendar

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have avoided comment on the issue of the school start date in Iowa since I have previously written on this topic. However with the recent media attention that includes the request for a change in Administrative Rules from Gary Slater (Iowa State Fair), and Governor Branstad's support for a later school start date, I thought it prudent to offer additional insight. Mr. Slater argues in his petition that because the majority of school districts in Iowa are granted the waiver, the statutory date has become effectively meaningless. I would argue instead that because the majority of schools in Iowa are granted a waiver-the law is flawed and thus should be repealed. You can read a copy of the petition here

Contrary to what some may believe, the school start law is being followed by school districts in Iowa. The law, enacted in 1983 allows for a school district to apply for, and be granted a waiver if the statutory date causes 'significant negative educational impact' to the school district. Mr. Slater's argument is that the term 'significant negative educational impact' has never been defined. He requests that definition in his petition. The trouble I have is that the definition he has proposed is, in my opinion too narrow. It would only permit a waiver in the event that the average number of snow days over a five year period exceed 7 days. 

The Des Moines Register has been replete with opinion pieces over the last couple of weeks regarding this issue. The online forums following the main story have offered a multitude of perspectives, some in favor of a rules change while others have been against. Personally, I believe that the issue should be decided by each local school district. This is the broken record part that I alluded to in my opening statement: each year the Hudson Community School District holds a public hearing to discuss the calendar and the school start date. Not once has anyone objected to when we start school. I do not believe that the Tourism Industry should have the authority to dictate a schools start date and further believe that arguments about kids or families being unable to attend the fair are without merit. Arguments about the youth workforce being unable to work the last couple weeks of summer seem at least on their face to run counter to the first point about not being able to attend the fair. 

But the attempt by non-educators to define what constitutes a 'significant negative educational impact' is where I felt it was really necessary to comment. Do you really think the Tourism Industry is qualified to answer that question for 348 school districts in Iowa? Heck, do you think they are qualified to make that decision for even 1 school district in Iowa?

What does 'significant negative educational impact' look like in Hudson? First it means a big change in professional development for teachers. The argument has been made that the calendar can be designed to either front load or end load teacher professional development. By having all teacher inservice days at the beginning or end of the school year it would enable students to obtain their required 180 of days (or hours as is now the option) in a manner that permits them to start late and end early. True, except for one tiny little problem: The Iowa Professional Development Model. According to research, job embedded training that includes theory, demonstration, practice, and coaching is critical to quality professional development that becomes implemented with fidelity into the practice of teaching. To cram an entire professional development plan into a two or three day workshop at the beginning or end of the school year and expect it to become an integral part of practice without any follow-up or feedback is absurd. Furthermore in Hudson we have invested heavily in PLCs (Professional Learning Communities). Our faculty is engaged in robust training that occurs in the early part of the summer. If we start late, then undoubtedly we will end late-putting the PLC training regimen in jeopardy. So when the argument is made that there is no correlation between the start of the school year and student achievement I would take issue with that. The whole point of professional development is to increase student achievement.

Second, we must consider our partnerships with both Hawkeye Community College and the University of Norther Iowa. Our calendars are aligned not just as a convenience for the purpose of vacations! There is a real practicality to this arrangement! Students at Hudson High School (and in high schools all across the state) are able to concurrently enroll in courses at local institutions of higher education enabling them to earn dual credit, which gives many of these youngsters an advantage when they leave high school for post-secondary education. Altering the start of the school year puts those opportunities in danger. The creation of a master instructional schedule is a challenging evolution in and of itself, but to add a change like this to the equation creates a logistical nightmare that will undoubtedly lead to high schools curbing their offering of these courses.

I guess the question now becomes, what is 'significant negative educational impact' and who has the authority to decide. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Will NCLB Become SAS?

A few weeks back I received an email from Senator Harkin's office announcing that he was introducing the Strengthening America's Schools Act, which is designed in essence to replace the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Senator Harkin chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) that is responsible for federal policy. Most people are familiar with the focus on the accountability measures that accompany the NCLB legislation which mandates 100% proficiency by 2014. After the legislation was enacted in 2001, a benchmark proficiency level was established and each subsequent year that benchmark was raised until ultimately reaching 100%-which is on the horizon and will be the requirement for this next academic year. Schools that do not meet the benchmark for two consecutive years are placed on "The List" and designated as Schools in Need of Assistance (SINA). Once this designation is assigned, the school has to develop a plan to get off "The List". 

Up until the last couple of years, "The List" was reserved for larger metropolitan school districts. Those districts often times ended up with an unfair stigma because on the surface it appeared that the smaller schools were outperforming them. You see, part of the reporting requirement is to carefully scrutinize subgroup data. In small schools much of the subgroup data is too small to be statistically relevant so is discounted when it comes to measuring Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which is the metric used to determine "The List". 

As the trajectory increases every year (for the 2012-2013 school year the benchmark is 94%) subgroup data begins to factor in more with the smaller schools just by the sheer fact that the benchmark has increased to the point where the subgroup is larger than the total percent of expected proficiency.

In Hudson we have not been on "The List", but have been on the watch list a couple of times. Now the main question that we are in the process of answering is will we be on "The List" this year? Well, we don't know the answer to that yet but here is what we do know. The benchmark will require 94% of students to be proficient. In Hudson, we currently identify approximately 10% of students for special education (it is actually a little higher than that, but let's keep the number simple). It is common for special education students not to have achieved proficiency. Let me give you one quick illustration. In one of our grades, 97.06% of students who are served in the general education classroom are proficient. That is compared to 25% proficiency for special education students served in that same grade.When you look at that grade in total, 89.47% are proficient. If you have ever heard of the term 'achievement gap' that is what we are talking about. So to combat those numbers and try to close that gap we provide intensive instruction to our special education students, develop RTI lessons, and offer other additional services that may even include summer school. And that is not the only place where an achievement gap is prevalent! We also look at the poverty rate, which hovers between 21-26%. Again in one of our metrics, that gap is 96.30% and 44.44% respectively.

There are a couple of other variables that must be considered such as whether or not the student was in the district for the Full Academic Year (FAY), but that gives a flavor of how "The List" is calculated. 

So this brings me full circle back to the opening with Senator Harkin's announcement that he has introduced the Strengthening America's Schools Act. The language in his announcement (and in all policymakers) has been unsympathetic to the shortcomings of NCLB, saying it "...ultimately led to lower standards, a more narrow curriculum, and an inflexible 'one size fits all' approach to school improvement.....placing unfair pressures on teachers to 'teach to the test', and a punitive model'. When there are 496 Iowa schools on "The List" during the 2012-2013 school year one cannot help but wonder if it is the schools that are falling short, or if it is the legislation that has fallen short.

Well, the update is that the legislation was passed through the committee last week so it would appear to be headed for a full hearing in the Senate. The challenge is that it was passed out of the committee on a straight party line vote. Without bipartisan support the legislation would appear to be doomed even though it stands a reasonable chance of making it out of the Senate and into the House. 

I wish they would hurry...2014 is only 6 months away.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Summer Projects

Summer has finally arrived! The last couple of weeks have felt like anything but! With all the wet, cool weather I was beginning to wonder if we would ever have a warm day. This week it seems like it is finally getting warm and we are in the full swing of summer time projects. The administrators have been very busy hiring new staff and we hope to have that finished by the end of the month. Our hiring season was a bit delayed due to the lengthy legislative session, but now that we have resolution on basic school funding it is full steam ahead. Our intention is to get everyone hired before the June board meeting. There will be a number of new faces in the district next year, more on that later!

I wanted to share with you some updates on a few projects that we have going on around the district. I am sure that you noticed when driving by the district the action occurring to the North of the middle school. We are in the process of a parking lot rebuilding project out there. If you have parked in that lot you are very aware that this parking lot is in desperate need of rebuilding. This summer our contractors are working on water retention and the tiling of the lot. The major construction will not happen until next summer when the lot is repaved. We should have this wrapped up well in advance of the school year.

After much discussion with multiple constituency groups, we are also working on significant upgrades to the security system for next year. When you return in the fall, you will notice that all the doors are locked all the time. All of our main entrances will be equipped with an intercom, camera, and buzzer system. In addition we intend to change all the interior locking mechanisms in the district so that teachers can quickly go into a lock down situation without the need to search for their keys. 

Those are the major projects that we have in the works right now. There are few more items that we are working on that I will be eager to share with you in a few weeks. For right now, please enjoy the summer that has finally arrived! Our office is open daily Monday through Friday.