Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Entry Level

During the 2013 General Assembly there was quite a bit of legislation surrounding the educational system in Iowa and as a result there are a number of new laws that are set to go into effect. The centerpiece of the education reform bill is the 'Teacher Leadership and Compensation' model which is an effort to increase teacher pay in Iowa by providing educators with leadership opportunities without needing to leave the ranks 'teacher' to become 'administrator'. Up to this point, advancement and promotion as a teacher was very limited. If you wanted the opportunity to advance, you had to get on an administrator track. To become an administrator requires advanced degrees, and in many cases a need to move. The Teacher Leadership and Compensation model provides opportunities to advance one's career while still maintaining close ties to the classroom.

Included during this debate was a discussion of the minimum salary of teachers in Iowa. Current Iowa law states that the minimum salary for beginning teachers can be no less than $28,000. The original (proposed) legislation attempted to boost the minimum to $35,000, but ultimately a compromise was struck and the new minimum salary for educators will be $33,500 when (and if) school districts elect to participate in the new 'Teacher Leadership and Compensation Model'. The question then becomes, is that minimum sufficient enough to attract teachers to the profession, and will they stay? It is something that I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on during the past several days.

My daughter-in-law went to school to do something other than teaching, earned a BA in science and promptly went to work upon graduation. Her salary exceeded the aforementioned numbers from the paragraph above, but after doing that job for a few years decided that she wanted to be a teacher. The decision required additional schooling, which she was happy to do in order to earn her credential. With schooling complete and credential in hand, she was lucky enough to find a job as a science teacher. She just completed her first year and enjoyed teaching high school science.

Next year she will teach a few additional courses, and as a result is required to obtain an additional endorsement. So this summer she started working on that endorsement and has had to take 9 additional credits. It has been a challenging summer to say the least. Nine credits are quite a bit, not too many people attempt such a rigorous course load over the summer.

She's not alone either. During the course of this summer I spent quite a bit of time at the Schindler Education Center a UNI, and each day the classrooms were full of teachers taking classes for continuing education, either to satisfy requirements for another endorsement or to renew their teacher license.

I hope that these new teachers like my daughter-in-law and others like her buck the trend: 46% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Now, I am not suggesting that starting teacher pay is the primary reason for this attrition rate, there are numerous other variables that play a significant factor. Nonetheless, we should at the very least consider the fact that teacher pay does play a role.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Board Sets Legislative Priorities for the 2014 General Assembly

Each year local school districts work in collaboration with the (IASB) Iowa Association of School boards to develop a legislative platform for the coming General Assembly. IASB provides approximately 35-40 position statements that are drawn from previous platforms or other educational issues that have come up during the course of the legislative session, and presents those position statements to local boards for discussion and debate. Through our discussion, we select five of the positions to forward on to the IASB for consideration. During the annual meeting [of IASB] held in November, a Delegate Assembly  is convened and the collective membership will vote, and again debate the issues. This process is used to develop a legislative platform that provides focus and context for the legislative session.

During the regular board meeting held on July 22, the Board evaluated the platform and discussed the issues. What follows are the five priorities of the Hudson Board of Directors that have been forwarded on to IASB  in rank order and a brief discussion of their merits and why they were selected.

  1. Strike age requirement language in Section 279.46 Code of Iowa regarding retirement fund incentives (SF 220). Special note: This particular issue is not included on the IASB platform, but is a proposed piece of legislation that the board has been working on for a couple of years. During the 2013 General Assembly, the legislation did pass out of committee and was voted on and subsequently passed by the Senate. Unfortunately the House did not take up the issue. While we did not fully succeed, great progress was made during this last session. Why this is important: First, you need to understand the context of this law. This law states that school districts may provide incentives to staff in an effort to retire early, and to pay those incentives out of the Management Fund. We often times provide these incentives as a way to encourage turnover of staff. While a difficult decision because this means that our most experienced teachers are encouraged to retire, we counterbalance this with the realization that this type of incentive has the net effect of reducing General Fund expenditures. By utilizing the Management Fund to pay for these incentives, it does exactly that. The problem is that this incentive can only be paid out of the Management Fund for employees between the ages of 55-65. The original intent of this law was to encourage early retirement. The problem is Board Policy cannot legally be crafted in a way to fit those parameters. When a retirement incentive is offered, it must be for all employees (with at least 20 years of experience in the district), regardless of age. While employees between the ages of 55-65 can be compensated out of the Management Fund, employees over the age of 65 must be compensated from the General Fund. Remember: we have to offer the incentive to all employees in that job classification that have at least twenty years of experience. I would argue that it is counterproductive to offer a retirement incentive for the purposes of reducing General Fund expenses if you can't pay for that compensation out of the Management Fund. I would even go so far as to state that 279.46 is discriminatory in it's language.
  2. Supports flexibility in the use of modified allowable growth for dropout prevention and the expansion of the definition of at-risk to also include low socioeconomic status as a factor in determining a student's at-risk status. Why this is important: In recent years, the flexibility afforded this program has become very restricted. Expenses that previously were permitted to be coded as part of the dropout prevention program are no longer acceptable. Because of restrictions to this fund, some positions had to be scaled back. In addition, the requirements for qualifying students have become much too narrow and inflexible for the purposes of this type of programming. Now, at-risk programming is determined solely through an attendance threshold, whether or not the student has a connection with the school, behind in credits for graduation, or behind in student achievement. We believe that there are additional factors in addition to those aforementioned when making a determination of at-risk status, and would argue that socioeconomic status is an indicator and one that is overwhelmingly supported by current educational research. Furthermore, as a district that boasts one of the most successful at-risk and dropout prevention programs in the state, restrictions on local control of this programming have at times hamstrung programming options for students deemed at-risk.
  3. Supports a school foundation formula that adequately, and in a timely manner, funds changes in demographics, including declining and increasing enrollment challenges. Why this is important: This causes a problem in funding because school budgets are formula driven, and the most important variable in the formula is school enrollment. The enrollment is calculated using a number we commonly refer to as Certified Enrollment, which is due on October 15th each year. To put it into it's simplest terms, that number is multiplied by the DCPP (District Cost Per Pupil) and becomes one of the primary drivers when developing the budget. The problem is [that currently], when you couple declining enrollment with little or no allowable growth, it makes it very difficult to adequately address instructional needs of students. 
  4. Supports the use of (PPEL) Physical Plant and Equipment Levy funds for the maintenance and repair of equipment or infrastructure that can be purchased or financed with PPEL funds. Why this is important: The key in this issue is to reduce General Fund expenses. There are many indicators of financial health in a school district, from financial solvency ratio, to investment income ratio; and the unspent balance ratio. All of these are prime indicators of the overall financial health of a school district. I would argue that the unspent balance ratio is the most important indicator of financial health, and unspent balance is a function of the General Fund. Anything we can do reduce General Fund expenditures is a way to increase unspent balance. The important word in this issue is maintenance. Because of the way our RPS (Revenue Purpose Statement) is worded, most repair functions can be paid for out of the PPEL or SAVE (Secure an Advanced Vision for Education) Fund. If general maintenance was a permitted PPEL expense, we could not only increase our unspent balance ratio, but reinvest some of those General Fund dollars back into instruction. Let me give you one quick example that is applicable to the Hudson Community School District. A year ago, we had the transmission go out on one of our activity buses. To replace that transmission, it would have been a General Fund expense. However, if I replace the bus, it becomes a PPEL expense. Does that sound a little silly to you?
  5. Opposes and seeks to repeal unfunded mandates. Why this is important: During the 2013 legislative session, a new law was enacted that requires background checks of all employees on a five year cycle. We are supportive of background checks and believe they provide valuable employment information to determine continued employment status. There have been multiple cases in Iowa alone where had a background check cycle been instituted, it would have deemed some ineligible for employment. So, this law was written. The only trouble is that no appropriation was provided to carry out this function. In Hudson, we do background checks on everyone, but not on a cycle. Consider this: in the 2010-2011 school year background checks were $1,104; in 2011-2012, $1,440; in 2012-2013, $2,880. Those were all background checks on candidates for employment. What will the cost be when we factor in current employees?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Preparing Your Kindergartener for the Start of the School Year

During this time of year we occasionally get phone calls from parents of incoming kindergarten students with a lot of questions about how much their youngster should know by the time they get to school. They will sometimes hear about a neighbor's child who is reading already, able to write their name, they know all the letters and numbers plus the sounds they make, etc. Perhaps at this time they have a brief moment of panic, thinking, "My kid can write their name sort of and knows about half their letters and sounds. Maybe they aren't ready?" It is about that time the phone starts ringing. 

Well, the phone hasn't started ringing yet, but last weekend while attending a family gathering I was quizzed about whether or not I believed my niece was ready to start kindergarten this fall. She can do this, this, this, this, and this; but she can't do this, this or this (so I was told). But the neighbor kid, well they can....

After several minutes of this discussion I was asked for my 'expert' opinion. Do I think Charlotte is ready for kindergarten?

I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms and sighed in my most academic voice. 'The answer," I said,"depends." There are a lot of different benchmarks that seem to be common for kindergarten readiness. For example, it is not uncommon for them to be able to write their name, recognize multiple letters, and know the sounds that many letters make. They can often count on their fingers. Many can speak in sentences of 5-8 words and have little trouble with oral communication. Now, if your child can't do that (or can do that and more) it is no reason to: a.) panic, or b.) take your foot off the gas and coast to August. At the end of the day you have to be on the one to make the decision. I am pretty sure you are going to get it right. In fact I haven't met anyone that has blown it yet!

Now then, a little bit about kindergarten. In many cases it will be your child's first experience with formal schooling. Even if they went to preschool (which is a great start by the way), now that they are in kindergarten it is going to be quite a bit different. They will experience a lot of 'firsts' this year. Riding the school bus, going through the lunch line, music, PE, and art. Your little one is going to be in school all day long, and they are going to be very tired at the end of the day! One of the reasons we start school on a Thursday is because of this. The first two days are about all they can handle. By the time they have the first full week of school under their belt, I can assure you they will be pretty much wiped out! 

So, as I alluded to above, kindergarten is going to be your child's first experience with formal education, and thus is about learning a lot of routines. In addition to learning how to read, write, and complete basic math problems, a big part of this school year is learning about the routine of schooling and how to interact with peers. Learning how to share, play by the rules, and lose gracefully are all important skills of kindergarten!

Those are few things to think about as you prepare to send your youngster off to school for the first time. In your final preparation for kindergarten a couple of other considerations worth mentioning: 
  1. Have fun. This summer is quickly winding down!
  2. Start working on that school schedule by putting your child to bed a little earlier and insist they are up in the morning and ready for the day!
  3. Read to your child!
We look forward to seeing you for the first day of school on August 15th! If you have any more questions about preparing your child for kindergarten, I would encourage you to contact your child's principal, Mr. Schlatter at You are also encouraged to keep an open line of communication with the kindergarten teachers.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Developing Strong Teaching

It's all about the training.

Most of us have jobs, and almost all of those jobs require some sort of continuing education. Can you think of one that doesn't? I really can't. How about an auto mechanic? I am pretty sure they have a rigorous training program and have to learn new techniques every year when a new line of cars is launched. What about the person who runs the cash register at the gas station? They probably have to go through training as well. As quickly as technology changes and software updates are released, there is probably more training than one might think. How about the carpenter, the plumber, or the electrician? Yes, I am quite certain they have to learn new skills and procedures for completing their jobs as well. I wonder about the good folks from the city who plow the snow, pick up the trash, or mow the right of way? I am sure they have training regimens as well. After all, OSHA regulations are constantly changing, MSDS sheets need to be updated, and they probably get new equipment that requires specialized certification before operating. 

I'll bet when you consider jobs that required continuing education you thought of doctors right away! What would you think if you went to a doctor that hadn't had any additional training since medical school and they graduated from medical school 20 years ago! Yikes, that person wouldn't be my doctor for very long! Now how about teachers? I sometimes hear people say that, "That was the way I was taught in school and I turned out alright." I am quite sure most of us would take exception with anyone providing us with a service or product 20 years old. 

"This 20 year old fuse panel worked great for me, I am sure it will work just fine for you as well", says the electrician as he puts in your 'new' home electrical system.

Do you ever wonder about that training? When does it happen? Does it happen during the normal course of the work day, or does it happen at night, or on the weekend? In the vast majority of the examples that I provided above, the training occurs on the job. After all you probably can't become certified on the new fork lift at work if you are not at work. You probably can't learn the new surgical technique without trying it out under the supervision of a mentor surgeon. 

But yet in education there is sometimes a perception that teachers aren't working unless they have a classroom full of kids in front of them. If a teacher isn't teaching then they must be on break, right? Teachers don't need professional development; after all they went to college and got a degree. They know how do it, don't they? I am being sarcastic here, because I know for a fact that developing a strong teaching force requires a robust professional development program with ongoing and embedded job training. School is not the same as it was when you and I attended. It's different. The outcomes have changed, the technology has changed, the demographics of our students have changed, and the way we communicate, collect and analyze information has changed. Just like you wouldn't want a doctor operating on you with 20 year old surgical techniques, you shouldn't want your child in a classroom under the instruction of a teacher with 20 year old teaching strategies.

In countries with the highest student achievement, teachers only spend 60% of their work day actually teaching. The other 40% of the time, those teachers are engaged in professional development activities ranging from collaborative work, learning new teaching strategies, or mentoring other teachers. By comparison in the United States, teachers spend 80% of their time teaching and only 20% of their time on activities characterized as professional development.

So what does that mean for professional development? Well, it definitely suggests a correlation between professional development and student achievement. That is one of the reasons why we are putting such a strong emphasis on our own professional development program at Hudson. We recognize that the key to improving student achievement in our district is ensuring that we have effective teachers working with your children daily. That is why we have a calendar that schedules a 1:30 weekly early dismissal for our students.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


It is that time of year: Barbecue's, family picnics, and fireworks! I am looking forward to taking in a baseball game and fireworks with my family during the holiday. However, it is important to reflect on what July 4th truly is and what it really represents. To me it means much more than just a nice fireworks show and a hot dog from the grill. It it having the privilege to live in this great country and the freedom to write these words without fear from a tyrannical government. It is the ability to disagree without fear of reprisal. It is the right to choose those who lead and represent us in matters of the State. On days like today I am reminded and thankful for the blessings that have been bestowed on us as American citizens. One doesn't have to look far to see that we have tremendous freedoms.

Don't we live in a wonderful country? I watch the news in the evening and see what is going on in countries like Egypt and Syria and am grateful to be an American. In Egypt, they are once again on the brink of revolution, and in Syria they have been engaged in civil war for quite some time now. Those are just a couple of examples where civil unrest is building against an oppressive regime.

It seems as though these countries all want what our ancestors fought for in 1776: Freedom and the right to govern ourselves. In our Declaration of Independence it says, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed". This means quite simply that we have the right to govern ourselves and that right comes from our collective will. In our Declaration of Independence we were revoking [that right] of the British Crown to govern our colonies. Included were a whole list of grievances, but among the listing of grievances we had with the King was this, "For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent". 

One may wonder if those words have as much meaning today as they did in 1776. I would argue that they do, and that we continue to live by those same principles in 2013. In fact, as you know I continue to be of the opinion that nowhere are these ideas more prevalent than at the local level. There is a saying that "all politics are local".

I am encouraged by those who have taken out papers to run for seats on the school board. These potential candidates have been called to civic duty, and if so elected will represent you in a very important position! The filing window opens on July 8th, and as these Affidavit's of Candidacy are filed with my office I will be eager to share their names and qualifications with you!

Included on that ballot in September will be a renewal of the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL). This is a continuation of a levy that the district has had in place for more than a decade. However in keeping with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and those grievances filed with the Crown so long ago, you have the right and responsibility to consent to this levy. In the coming weeks we will be sharing with you in great detail what the PPEL is, what it is used for, and the important role it plays in the District's ability to provide the resources and equipment necessary for the education of our youth.

Happy Independence Day! Election day is September 10th. Please remember to vote.