Friday, September 27, 2013

Federal Accountability and AYP

Early this week we sent out a letter to the parents of each student in the school district that has not met Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the 2001 'No Child Left Behind Law'. If you happened to read the Courier on Wednesday you probably saw that this coincided with the release of the State Report card. This also was followed up with a statement from Dr. Brad Buck, the Director of the Iowa Department of Education outlining the fact that these results show a need for a new federal accountability framework. We have fielded a few questions ranging from concern of parents to questions about whether or not this is something new we are doing in the district. It is something new, and it was designed in an effort to do several things.

First, it was meant to provide you with valuable information regarding the academic progress of your child. While we send the results of the Iowa Assessments home every year, they are not the easiest to interpret. When evaluating the results of the test, unless one has an understanding of statistical modeling and standard deviation the results can be difficult to understand and interpret.

Second, it is important to note that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires that all students be proficient by 2014. This law does not differentiate between general education students, special education students, or any other subgroup of students. And, 2014 is almost here so this becomes even more timely.

This brings me to the next point, which is the flawed nature of NCLB. Aside from the fact that it is mathematically impossible to use a norm referenced test (when students are ranked, someone will be at the bottom) to achieve 100% proficiency, we agree with Dr. Buck's assessment that a 'one size fits all' federal accountability model is unfair and fails to recognize the growth that our students make. Consider this: 869 of 1,361 schools in Iowa missed federal guidelines for the 2012-2013 school year. 

All that being said, we still take student achievement very seriously and want to do everything we can to ensure the success of all children in the district--regardless of any mitigating factors (that get in the way). In order to do this, we truly value your input and partnership.

So as parents, what are you to do? First, we are happy to know that this letter serves as a catalyst for discussion among families and we welcome the conversations this will generate. If you have questions about instructional strategies or your child's individual achievement, please contact your child's teacher! If you have questions about interpreting the child's achievement data, please contact your child's principal. Finally, I would encourage you to contact members of Congress and tell them that the time for action to re-authorize the NCLB Act is now! It is time to stop with these punitive and arbitrary accountability measures and instead begin to focus on a research based student growth model. You can find out how to contact members of Congress right here.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Teacher Leadership and Compensation

I have take quite a bit of interest lately in the new education reform legislation that was signed into law by the Governor at the end of this last session. Of particular note is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation portion of House File 215 included in Division VII. This particular section has the potential to have a profound impact on student learning in Iowa. In addition, there is the possibility that it could serve as a model to be emulated nationwide.

Some key features of the legislation include an increase to the base pay of teachers to $33,500 (the current minimum salary is $28,000) and to create pathways for teachers to assume leadership roles in their buildings. This is notable because the primary way teachers are promoted in schools now is to become a building principal or other administrator. Obviously, not all teachers have aspirations to become administrators!

The Teacher Leadership and Compensation Model provides avenues to promote teachers into leadership roles without relinquishing their primary vocation: teaching. I am sure you are probably wondering, what on earth will these so called 'teacher leaders' be responsible for? And this: 'isn't that the job of the principal?' I think first if you look at the overall context and goal of the legislation it will help. It is all grounded in strengthening instruction in the classroom. We all know that the key to increasing student achievement in classrooms is ensuring that students are exposed to a quality instructor in every classroom. We also know that like all other professions, teachers need continual training in the newest techniques and strategies that are research based (proven to work) in order to continue to meet the demands of an every changing student demographic (see Developing Strong Teaching).

Over the last decade or so, the role of the building principal has evolved. A position that was grounded primarily in the work of management and organization of the school building looks a lot different that it did when you and I were students. While the day to day operation remain an important and paramount task of the principal, we now have added the responsibility of 'Instructional Leader' to the job description. That means a lot of things, and depending who you ask, the answer may be different. But what you won't find argument about, is that the building principal is responsible in ensuring that quality instruction grounded in sound research is occurring in the classroom, and that students' academic achievement is on the rise. If that isn't happening, the principal is responsible for leveraging resources and strategies to 'move the ball down the field' so to speak.

The disconnect that sometimes occurs is a failure to realize that building principals are not experts in all content areas. While administrators were all teachers at some point in their career, they are very likely not 'masters of all' when it comes to instructional strategies. For example, once upon a time I was a music teacher. It wouldn't make a lot of sense for me to proclaim and model expertise in the most up to date strategies for teaching reading. It is much more likely (and practical) for a teacher to ask a trusted colleague or expert in the content (e.g. the reading teacher) for suggestions and strategies when they might be stuck with a particular group of students or skill. Heck, if you need help with vocal technique or choral conducting strategies, I am your guy. If you need help with reading strategies--not so much. BUT, I can give you ten other people in the district that can be your go to person. The role of the building principal as instructional leader in this regard is to leverage these resources and connect the dots (generally speaking).

That is what makes the prospect of Teacher Leadership and Compensation so promising! It provides us with a model and vehicle in which to make this happen. Such things have been proposed before, but as a state we have never been able to get them off the ground. Why? Because there has never been a mechanism to fund such a model. That funding was put into place with HF 215. Over the next three years, $50 Million has been appropriated to ramp up these systems. When fully implemented, this will create an investment of $150 Million annually. 

Here at Hudson, I believe we need to take full advantage of this. Providing opportunities to increase student achievement by strengthening instruction is critical to fulfilling our vision of 'Creating Effective Learning Environments That Result in Success For All Students'. We have taken the first step by completing an application to the Department of Education for a planning grant. This grant will fund our efforts to create a model that best suits the Hudson Community School District. If you are interested in helping with the planning process, please contact my office.

Next week I will share with you more details about the three options for Teacher Leadership and Compensation that the state has endorsed. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reflections from the Retiring Board

When Board Directors Julie Marsch and Jeff Cory decided not to seek a new term, I spoke with them about their time on the board and asked them to reflect on the service they provided to the Hudson Community School District and to share some of the things they are most proud of. I also would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their service to the school district. A few accomplishments that stand out in my mind are the improved financial condition of the school district, the adoption of a rigorous research based math curriculum aligned to the Common Core, facilities improvements including the high school parking lot, elementary electrical upgrades, and purchase of the hotel property; and finally the decision to implement the Hudson 1 to 1 Project which we believe to be the biggest educational decision for this generation of Hudson Students! If you see these Emeritus board members around town, please thank them for all they have done!

Retiring Board Members Jeff Cory and Julie Marsch

Jeff Cory

How long have you served?  

I was on the board for 9 years.

What did you expect board service to look like, and how did it differ in your time on the board? 

I thought it would be about more day to day operations. After the first couple of board meeting I realized that we have a great staff to handle day to day operations.

What was your greatest achievement, or what were you most proud of during your time on the board? 

Improving the working relationship with the union to get the best for all with limited funds. We didn't always have the kind of relationship that we now do. The first year I was on the board we had to cut staff because of lack of funds, and the head of the local union said let those people go so the rest of us would get more money. This was a real gut check.

What is the most surprising aspect of serving on the board? 

The students coming in front of the board to show us what and how they are learning, and going into classrooms to see what and how things work.

What advice would you offer the next board? 

Don't come in with a axe to grind, listen to what goes on! You might have a personal agenda but it changes when you see the big picture. Don't be afraid to ask questions, that is the best way to learn how the board works.

What will you miss? 

The people that I was able to work with, and getting phone calls from individuals that had questions. Sometimes people didn't understand why a decision was made, so explaining the real reasons behind that decision, or the other side of the story was really helpful to them. The staff and all the kids that make this school the best one that it can be.

How will you stay involved or what are your plans now that you are no longer serving on the board? 

I will continue to show up at board meeting and ask questions when needed, spend more time with my wife, kids and grand kids. Also I would like to thank everyone that supported me during the years I spent as a Hudson School Board Member.

Julie Marsch

How long have you served?  
I have been on the board 11 years.

What did you expect board service to look like, and how did it differ in your time on the board?  
I really don’t remember what I thought being on the board would be like. I knew it would be a job that would need my true dedication. I know I never imagined there would be as much learning involved. The policies, laws, and especially the budget and financial issues. There are still times when I have to have items explained to me. This is definitely a never ending “learning” position!

What was your greatest achievement, or what were you most proud of during your time on the board?  
I don’t think I can say I am most proud of something I did. What I can say is that I am proud of what the board did as a team. There has been a couple of times when the board and the district had to make some very difficult decisions in regard to cutting staff. As hard as the decisions were, I am very proud of our entire district for accepting these decisions and working through them. I am very proud of the decisions that we made as a team in order to increase our unspent balance. The hardest part of this position as a school board member is having to make the decisions that you know will upset many people. I am also very proud of our board for being able to continually work as a team. In all my years on the board and with the many board members I have had the privilege to work with, we were always able to work together with respect and we always had the same goal... What is best for our district.

What is the most surprising aspect of serving on the board?  
I think the most surprising thing for me was how complicated it is to run a district! The financial aspects are a never ending learning experience!

What advice would offer the next board?  
First and foremost, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more information to have the easier it is to make decisions.  Also, there will be times you will get down and frustrated.  This can be a very “thankless” job. Just remember that decisions you make are very important, and that you do make a difference. Lastly I would say, always be there to listen. Listen to your board, the district staff and most importantly, listen to your community! You are there for them.

What will you miss?  
Oh so many things!!! You do develop a special relationship with the board, I will definitely miss working a truly dedicated team. I will miss getting first hand information on what is going on in the classroom. I always enjoyed when students would come in and share what they were doing in class.  I will truly miss being an important part of a school district that, I can honestly say, really cares about it’s school. It has been a privilege to serve on the board! The administration, staff, students and the community, in general, has been amazing!

How will I stay involved or what are your plans now that you are no longer serving on the board?  
I will continue my position on the HEF board along with my involvement with the SIAC committee. I am hoping to get back to volunteering more in the school. Volunteers are always needed. I hope that if help is ever needed in the district, they will not hesitate to call!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Never, Ever Give Up

I don't know about you, but I was inspired on Labor Day when Diana Nyad became the first person to ever swim from Cuba to Florida. A journey that was 110 miles through the water is impressive, even more so for someone who is 64 years old! There was a documentary about Diana's quest on CNN where we learned that this has been a goal of hers for 35 years, and that she had previously made the attempt four times.Who would have thought that the fifth time would be the charm? If it were me I don't know if, after punishing my body the first time I would have the courage to go back and try it four more times! Just imagine being stung by jellyfish, being exhausted beyond belief, and hunted by sharks! Would you show the perseverance that Diana showed?

I do believe there is a message in Diana's endurance and 'no quit' attitude that we can all admire, and hopefully strive for. Now, I am by no means suggesting we all embark on a swim across the Florida Strait, or any type of endurance run-but Dianna does show us the power of goal setting and commitment to those goals.

The last couple of weeks we have been carefully looking at our student achievement data. While there is a lot of great news in the achievements of our students, there are areas that we need to refocus, recommit, and never, ever give up! We have made a concerted effort to ensure that those students who are not making the academic gains that we would like to see are provided with additional resources. There is no doubt that our student achievement is good, but there is always room for improvement!

Here at Hudson, that statement comes to life with our Core Purpose: 'We Create Effective Learning Environments That Result in Success For All Students'. The most important word in that sentence is 'All'.

It is an exciting time at Hudson as our curriculum becomes stronger and more in line with the Common Core. This enables us to measure the progress of our students against the Core and to create strategies that ensure they meet those standards. Naturally not all students meet those standards at the same time, so we must provide additional instruction for those youngsters. This is through a process know as RTI (Response to Intervention). When a student doesn't meet the standard, they are provided an intervention, often in the form of additional instruction with a different strategy. After this intervention, their progress is measured again. If they met the standard then they move to the next essential outcome. If they haven't, they are provided another intervention.

I can see the passion our teachers bring to their craft daily! They are committed to the children entrusted to their care and will never, ever give up!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Observations from the Bridge

What image come to your mind when you think about school? If you are like most, you probably consider classrooms full of children, teachers, and buildings. I think sometimes we take for granted those other aspects of our school system that are vital to the overall operation and the success that we have in raising student achievement. Everyone involved in the operation of the school is vital to ensuring that we are successful in 'Creating Learning Environments That Result in Success for All Students'. As we have settled into the routine of school, I spent some time looking around our district to see how exactly this team works together to accomplish this vital mission, no matter their role.

At the beginning of each school year, I like to ride the school buses. It is a good idea for me to check the routes so that on those cold dark January mornings when checking roads for drifts and ice, I know where the buses are going to be. I also like to see firsthand the size of the route, the number of passengers, and of course to chat up the drivers. It was through this observation that we quickly realized that Bus #7 was not large enough to handle the load and we changed the route to Bus #9. (Indeed a good sign of increasing enrollment!) But during this last week, I had the chance to see just how hard the job of bus driver is, and how their vocation is critical to the overall mission of our school district. You remember last week, don't you? It was HOT! While our school buildings are air conditioned, the school buses are not. Our drivers took the time to make sure that all the windows were down in the buses and that they delivered their passengers as quickly and safely as possible. I also saw great care and compassion for their precious cargo, I was very impressed that the drivers know the names of each of their charge-young people who are only on the bus for an average of 20 minutes a day. 

"School buildings are air conditioned?", you say. Not so fast. One area of the school that is not air conditioned is the kitchen. Guess what? It was HOT in there too! During my walk-through of the buildings on those days, a pass by or through the kitchen was greeted with a blast of hot air. How many complaints do you think I got about how hot the kitchen was? None. That's right. The kitchen staff had smiles on their faces and mostly a spring in their step. They recognized the importance and the vital role that they play in ensuring that our young students have a nutritious meal to keep them going. Learning, after all is hard work and burns up calories.

Yep, our buildings are air conditioned-except when they are not. Ironically the building you would expect to give the least amount of trouble was actually the worst. It was a real struggle to keep the high school cooled due to a heat exchange plate that was on the fritz, and it mostly felt like we were fighting a losing battle. (Some would probably argue that we did lose that battle.) But nonetheless we hung in there and had help from Hudson Hardware Plumbing and Heating (who manually cooled the plates), and our maintenance staff pulling out all the stops to make sure that the lines of communication were always open and that we were truly doing everything that we could.

Speaking of maintenance and custodial staff-its a wonder they don't turn and walk the other way when they see me coming. I almost always have something else that I want to have cleaned or fixed (either right now or yesterday). But without fail, they are always up to the task at hand. Last week I asked for an air conditioner to be installed in one of the elementary classrooms, and almost before I had a chance to tell the teacher it was on the way it was already installed. This staff has a very tough job because everybody wants them to do something for them RIGHT NOW, and unfortunately that is just impossible. But they are efficient, effective, and extremely hard working. If it weren't for those efforts we would be in a world of hurt in a lot of areas!

Then there is the group of folks that keep the whole thing running smooth. This group makes sure that students are in class, that teachers have what they need, and are able to calm down an angry parent or sooth a frightened kindergartner on that first day of school. I am talking of course about the secretarial staff. Everyone in the district knows that if you want to get something done you take it to the building secretary.

In all, we have had an awesome start to the 2013-2014 school year, despite the very hot end to the month of August. We can attribute that start to the hard work of countless professionals-from those that work in the classrooms with the students to those that keep our buildings clean. Thank you all so much for your commitment and dedication to the Hudson Community School District!