Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Gift of Time and the 2015-2016 Academic Year

It may surprise many of you to know that as superintendent, I make very few decisions on a day to day basis. Understandably, the decisions that are made from my office are oftentimes far reaching and have wide ranging implications. For those reasons, I am fortunate to have the gift of time when reaching those decisions. With this time, I am able to carefully consider all the options, ask for input and advice from others, and gather more data and information to use in the decision making process.

The administrators in the district along with the faculty and staff are used to asking a question and then me saying something like, 'let me think about that'. I believe that rushed decisions can often turn out to be the wrong decision. The bigger the decision, more time is usually necessary to ensure the right decision is made. This same principle holds true for the Board of Directors. It is a rare occurrence when issues (other than items of routine business) come to the Board with an expectation that a decision be made right then at the table. Many times, these issues are discussed and debated for months before the vote is finally cast. When pressed for an immediate decision, I will often say, 'I can give you an answer right now, but you are probably not going to like what I decide'. That's not to say that you won't like my ultimate decision, but I will have had the opportunity to carefully think through the implications!

For those reasons, it would be wise for our state policymakers to use the gift of time themselves, and remember that we need this gift of time in order to ensure that the decisions made in our local districts are properly vetted with input from multiple perspectives. Let me give you an example where local school districts are being rushed to make decisions they may not otherwise make.

The recent (rushed) decision by the Department of Education to change the way that early start waivers are granted in regard to each districts academic calendar is problematic on multiple fronts. It is the middle of December, and we just learned that this is changing! If school districts haven't already made decisions on the start of the 2015-2016 school year, then they are most likely already working on their calendar. Just to be clear, the Hudson Board of Directors has not seen any drafts of our academic calendar for the 2015-2016 school year, but we have already started those discussions. Over a two week period, I asked for input from our faculty, staff, and administrators for the 2015-2016 school year. Using that input, I crafted 4 different calendar scenarios for the 2015-2016 school year. All will require an early start waiver, yet with the announcement that came on December 12 will prove to be an exercise in futility and an incredible waste of time. Apparently that input from stakeholders and the work already put in doesn't seem to matter. Normally, those draft calendars would be presented to the Board for input and discussion in January. After receiving direction and input, a public hearing would be set for February where final action would be taken. All of that will be on hold until at least January when additional guidance comes out from the Department that identifies what constitutes a 'significant negative educational impact'.

Even though this will result in a loss of precious time, we are probably not as frustrated as some. Think about those school districts who have completed the process! Those who have already adopted calendars for the 2015-2016 school year will now have to start over completely from scratch! Talk about an incredible time waster!

If it is necessary to re-examine how early start waivers are granted, why not delay this until the 2016-2017 school year? Not only would this honor the time that local districts have already invested in calendar development for the 2015-2016 school year, it would also allow the Department of Education to use the gift of time and gather input from local school districts on how best to grant these waivers. Usually when a new administrative rule is proposed, local schools are given the opportunity to provide input into that rule making process. Remember what I opined above about the importance of taking time to make decisions, thus ensuring the decision that is made is properly vetted with input from various stakeholders?

To me, this most certainly seems like a rushed decision.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I Can!

For the past two years, our academic calendar has included a two hour early release on Wednesday afternoon. When we went to this configuration during the 2013-2014 school year great effort was taken to ensure that time was wisely spent. Due to the success we had with this professional development schedule, the 2014-2015 calendar was developed in the same way. As one of only 39 school districts in the entire state implementing a teacher leadership system this year, we have been able to leverage this two hour early release in even more powerful ways! This is due in no small part to the work of our teacher leadership team and our insistence on transparency and accountability. The 2015-2016 academic calendar is currently under development, and we anticipate this feature of our calendar will once again be included.

Each Wednesday afternoon, our teachers spend one hour of their time working in collaborative teams know as 'Professional Learning Communities'. This is meant to satisfy in part a legal requirement that teachers be afforded 36 hours of collaboration annually. These PLCs are organized by grade level in the K-6 and content area in grades 7-12. The purpose of these collaborative groups is complex and multi-faceted, designed to answer four critical questions about the instruction of students in the classroom. By answering these questions, we are able to ensure that all students in Hudson are exposed to a guaranteed and viable curriculum regardless of which teacher is assigned.

The first of those critical questions for our teachers is to design and develop essential learning outcomes for their students within the context of the Iowa Core Content Standards. Basically we are determining what it is our students should know and be able to do as a result of the classroom instruction. What is it we want our students to learn?

In grades K-6, essential learning outcomes are framed in what are known as 'I Can' statements from the students point of view. For example, in kindergarten an 'I Can' Statement might be 'I can count to twenty'. In grades 7-12, we don't use the term 'I Can' but rather learner objectives. Again they are framed in language appropriate for the high school learner.

When building principals are observing classroom instruction during 'walk-through's', one of their 'look for's' is to see clearly articulated learner objectives posted in the classroom. In addition to that, hopefully they see instruction or learning that is tied back to that 'I Can' statement. Finally, the principal should be able to ask the student: what is it that you are learning about? If all three are evident, that is a good day! This is part of what gives us a viable curriculum. Where it becomes guaranteed is when the principal goes next door and sees the same learner objective posted and instruction tied back to that objective. While curriculum might be the same, the instructional strategy may differ based on the needs of students in the class. 

Last week we had a team of educators visit our schools from the AEA as part of the principals network of professional practice. They were asked to visit classrooms and in a 3-5 minute observation, notice if learner objectives were present, if instruction was tied to the objective, and if students could articulate what they were learning. That team was impressed with what they saw! In the majority of the classes they visited, all three were present!

So now I have a favor to ask you! When your child gets home from school tonight, ask them what they learned in school today. Now, I have no doubt that some of the answers you will get are 'I don't know', or 'I don't remember', or even 'nothing'. Don't let them off the hook so easily! We have been asking them all day long!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Smarter Way to Assess the Iowa Core

Last week I had a conversation with one of our teacher leaders about the Iowa Core, MAP Testing, and the Iowa Assessment. Among their many tasks, teacher leaders have been engaged with classroom practitioners working toward implementation of the Iowa Core with fidelity. Each week they meet with teachers in Professional Learning Communities and during common planning time to help with instructional strategies, formative assessments, and planning. A question was raised by a teacher in a recent meeting about how the Iowa Core, MAP Testing, and the Iowa Assessment all tied together. In an ideal educational setting, content would be delivered and then educators would assess the students on the attainment of this content. Based on how the students did on the test, teachers would be able to determine if their instruction was effective. In this era of 'No Child Left Behind' and increased accountability, it also serves as a litmus to determine whether or not a school is labeled as 'In Need of Assistance', and if so labeled can ultimately lead to sanctions.

The short answer is the nexus of the Iowa Core and the Iowa Assessments is that they don't tie together very well at all. What we have is an Iowa Core curriculum that is mandated, and the Iowa Assessment (designed to measure the Iowa Core) that is also mandated.

This should be concerning to us. You see, we are required by law to implement the Iowa Core in our schools. Just to be clear, I continue to support this work and believe there is much value in ensuring that our students have a clear set of expectations and standards in our schools that are transferable and rigorous. Please see my article from September 30th titled, "We Use the Iowa Core--Which is Not Exactly the Same as the Common Core" for an explanation on the development of the Iowa Core and how it relates to it's sometimes infamous cousin the Common Core. 

Saying you are implementing the Iowa Core and knowing you are implementing the Iowa Core are two different things. The way we know we are implementing the Core is by assessing it. The Legislature has given some direction on the assessment that we are to use by requiring the Iowa Assessment. The problem is that the Iowa Assessment doesn't measure the Iowa Core. This misalignment is well documented and studied by numerous entities. You can read the study commissioned by the Iowa Department of Education right here. This should also be concerning to us.

Let's pause and think about this for a second: We are required to implement the Iowa Core and assess it with an instrument that doesn't actually measure the Iowa Core.

There are many reasons for this misalignment, but perhaps it boils down to the fact that the assessment came before the Iowa Core. Look, this is really the same test that I took as a student in school, except we used to call it the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. I am going to date myself a little bit here, but I was taking these tests in 1980! The biggest difference now appears to be that some of the graphics contained in the tests are in color!

If this seems a little bit backward to you then you are not alone. The process should have included the development of what we want our kids to know and be able to do as the first order of business, then we should have figured out how we were going to assess it. Instead, the exact opposite happened!

We are about to see a very interesting debate unfold in our state when the 2015 General Assembly convenes in January. I'm going to call it "The Great Assessment Debate". The legislature had previously directed the Iowa Department of Education to form a commission to study the assessment system in Iowa and make a recommendation as to what assessment we should use to measure the Iowa Core. They have now completed that work and are prepared to move forward with a recommendation that we use the Smarter Balance Assessment. Additionally the commission points out that the administration of the Smarter Balance Assessment is more expensive than the Iowa Assessment and further recommends an appropriation to cover this increased cost. I understand the State Board of Education is also expected to weigh in on this assessment before it ultimately ends up with the legislature. I am unsure of what they will decide but have to believe they will make a decision that is based on which assessment best measures the Iowa Core.

According to this commission, the Smarter Balance does a much better job of measuring the implementation of the Iowa Core. To be sure, moving away from the Iowa Assessment will represent the departure of a long held Iowa school tradition. 

Tradition or not, we need an instrument that properly measures what we are teaching in our schools.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Value of the High School Musical

During the month of October and very beginning of November we are in the midst of finishing up many reports that are required by the Iowa Department of Education. Every year it seems as though additional information is needed and it takes a little bit longer to complete these reports. This fall was especially busy as I tried to wrap up a few extra items related to some personal goals (more on that another time). Anyway at the conclusion of this data reporting period, it was a good time to get away for a little vacation! When my wife and I were planning our destination, there was only one stipulation: I had to be home in time to see the musical. Well, we made it and I am so glad that I was able to see this amazing show!

It's no secret that this annual event has become a favorite of mine. Each year I look forward to hearing what show Mrs. Anderson has in mind, and when she shares here plans I get excited to see her vision come to life! She has such a passion and creative energy--I think you all would agree with me that we are very fortunate to have Mrs. Anderson as a member of our faculty! She has the ability to bring together a multitude of people across various academic disciplines--and as such created a production that delighted our community the entire run of the show.

Of course, there is no mistaking the fact that Mrs. Anderson couldn't accomplish this feat without the help of some other pretty amazing folks! I think first we have to take note of the phenomenal talent that we have at our disposal. Year after year, we continue to have musicians in our school that are so incredibly talented. While many schools might only be able to pull off a musical of this magnitude once every three or four years, we are able to do so with consistency year after year. Not only are we able to sustain a high caliber program like this, we are able to set the bar higher each year! It's almost as if we say, "If you like what we did this time, just wait until you see what we do next." Congratulations to the outstanding actors and actresses who worked so hard and put in the time to make this show a success!

I argue there is perhaps no other high school activity that crosses curricular boundaries in the same manner as the high school musical. The biggest and most obvious is the music and vocal technique that is required to put on a show. Has anyone noticed the growth of these musicians over the last several years? I have, and this kind of academic growth doesn't take place without hard work, tons of practice, and learning by doing. There were undoubtedly long evenings of rehearsal, more rehearsal, and doing it 'just one more time' because it wasn't quite the way it was envisioned. The practice to learn the notes, the lines, and the blocking schemes are all what have enabled our young people to become Quality Producers, and to create something that they are quite proud of!

There are many other academic disciplines at work in the production of a stage show. For example, you may wonder: Is physical education involved in the production of a high school musical? Well, if you took note of the choreography and complex dance routines that were part of this production you could make a pretty convincing argument that P.E. is a big part of putting on a show like this. You can also bet that there were numerous discussions about healthy living and taking care of yourself while this show was in production. The last thing that we would want to have happen is for our actors and actresses to become ill right before show time! These are certainly many of the same type of topics that are regularly covered in physical education and health class! Being a Knowledgeable Person requires our students to have a depth of knowledge that is well rounded and and steeped in content across a vast array of curricular areas.

Gaston explains to Belle what a great 'catch' he is!
Certainly you noticed the colorful sets and intricate backdrops, not to mention the costumes that would put many professional grade productions to shame! These important components of putting on a high school musical are made possible through a network of parent volunteers, teacher volunteers, and students who wanted to be part of something special. This musical truly is a testament to the concept of interdependent accountability and being a Collaborative Worker. Each person that was involved in this show had to rely on someone else doing their part in order to present the successful evening of entertainment that we all enjoyed. I was pleased to see a special nod in in the acknowledgements to the shop classes at Hudson High School. These students added a lot to the show with construction of set pieces that helped transform us all to that land so far away where Belle and Company reside!

There is no doubt that our young people learned a lot about what it takes to put on a high school musical the last several months. But I contend they learned much more than meets the eye. They learned about the value of commitment and hard work. They learned that nothing comes easy, and that there is no greater reward than seeing your hard work work pay off. These lessons will stay with them and will be some of the greatest memories they have of their high school experience. Indeed, they have built up their Internal Assets by being part of this show.

Congratulations again to the cast, crew, parents and volunteers for all you did to make this musical a successful and education event for our students. I am so very proud of you!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

It's Time for a Little Respect

I don't know about you, but I am pretty happy this election is finally over! We have been inundated by advertising the last several months that was harsh, disrespectful, and at times offensive. While we might want to blame one political action committee or the other for being worse, it seems to me that both major parties are equally culpable. This election seemed to be less about the strengths that a particular candidate would bring to the office and more about the weaknesses of the person they were running against.

Instead of messages about ideas, more often than not the message of these political ads has been, vote for candidate 'X', because the alternative truly is the 'boogeyman'. Unfortunately, the history of political campaigns in this country has long since showed us that this strategy works. I can remember studying the concept of 'mudslinging' when I was a student in high school. In the election of 1796, John Adams proclaimed that Thomas Jefferson's election would result in a civil war and that he was an atheist. Of course, many of have probably seen the very famous Daisy Girl ad, where Lyndon Johnson suggested that the election of Barry Goldwater as president would likely lead to thermonuclear war.

I wonder what our students think of all the negativity in political campaigns. One of our Hudson 'Keys of Success' is to Live with Integrity. Do you think that our students wonder about the integrity of political campaigns? We teach our young people to treat one another with respect. We want our students to be proud of who they are and to act honorably. Embarrassing someone for personal benefit doesn't sound like a very honorable act to me. Distorting the viewpoints of a peer for our own gain does not sound like the act of someone with a lot of integrity. Our district has held anti-bullying campaigns and enacted strict policies for dealing with students who don't show respect for their classmates, and those behaviors are met with swift consequences.

In the elementary school, we hold regular assemblies where we celebrate our students and their accomplishments. In guidance class, Mr. Driscol often teaches our young people strategies on how to deal with conflicts. On the playground, a group of our students moderate conflicts between peers.

Now that the election is over (and thankfully the ads), we should all take solace in the fact that we are most certainly not left with a fresh slate of horrible politicians to govern. I choose to believe that all politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike have chosen to serve with pure intentions. They truly want to make our state and country a better place to live, work, and raise our families. Undoubtedly they will have different ideas and philosophies on how to make that happen--but they all do have the same (and at times idealistic) goal in mind: make our country better!

Whether or not you candidate won or lost last night, those who won deserve our respect. I choose to respect our Governor not because he is a Republican, but because he is our Governor. I choose to respect our President not because he is a Democrat, but because he is our President.  

The problems that need to be solved are very complex. If they were easy, then they would have been solved by now. The possible solutions are too numerous to count, which most certainly exacerbates the issues and makes them more difficult to solve. What I have chosen to pay the most attention to in this election cycle is a candidate's willingness to listen to their constituents, and their ability to work with people in the opposing party who may have ideologies in direct contrast to their own. 

Thankfully the election is over and the ads have now stopped. Now is the time for our politicians to show our young people how to govern and to prove that they can get along with one another. It is time to demonstrate where we all share a common vision, that we can work together to make our state and country better for everyone!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Don't Miss Out on This Important Conversation

I am posting early this week to remind you about parent teacher conferences that will be occurring the next two days. Traditionally we have had really good participation, and I am hopeful that this trend will continue. To remind everyone, conferences will be held today and tomorrow from 3:30-7:30. 

It is our hope that with Hudson being well into the second quarter of the school year, you have already had the chance to visit with you child's teacher prior to conferences. Perhaps you have communicated with an email exchange, a phone call, or another meeting. We value the input that you are able to bring to bear and truly hope that you take advantage of conferences tonight or tomorrow night.

While we hope parent teacher conferences aren't the first interaction you have had with you child's teacher this year, the parent teacher conference is a twice in a school year opportunity to engage your child's teacher in a private dialogue about their learning. Few 'built in' chances exist that formalize this type of conversation. Often times you can provide valuable information about your child's learning habits or provide specific strategies that can prove useful to the child's teacher. 

In addition to this, teachers can often provide insight into the academic progress that your child is making in school. They might be able to provide you with additional tips and advice into the types of instructional strategies that are being employed in the classroom and suggest ways in which to help your child further their learning. 

Parent teacher conferences should be viewed as a partnership! Use this conference as a chance to ask questions about your student's progress. You can count on teachers asking questions about your child in an effort to get to know them better and to further their learning. We understand that conferences can be at times stressful for all parties involved, but I assure you this shouldn't be viewed as a 'gotcha' moment. If there are uncomfortable issues that arise during the course of your conversation, we certainly hope this isn't the first time that you hear about them. Our goal is the same as your goal--student success in school!

Here are a few tips of advice provided by Mr. Schlatter that should help you to have a successful and enjoyable conference experience:
  1. Be honest and open.
  2. Focus on the student's strengths, yet address areas of concern.
  3. Be as specific as you can in your comments.
  4. Ask for and listen for opinions and suggestions (from both the parents perspective and the teachers perspective).
  5. As the conference ends, summarize and review any specific actions that you have decided to take. If necessary, schedule a follow up meeting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The High School Mulligan

High school should be a time that permits students to explore and experience the multitude of opportunities a school system has to offer. We have long celebrated all that is 'the high school experience' as a truly unique aspect of the American education system. In part, we recognize the idea that not all education takes place within the four walls of the classroom and that there are many valuable lessons and life skills that can be learned through a diverse and rich inter-scholastic and extra/co-curricular program of offerings.

Once this very short time period is over, many will never again have the chance to participate in a team sport, sing in the choir, or be part of a student government organization. Decades have passed since I was a high school student, and while I have no desire to return to my adolescence, I sometimes wish that I might have taken advantage of one more opportunity. But, there are no do-overs in high school, and you can't un-ring the schoolhouse bell.

As we come to the end of the first quarter of instruction (I know, crazy right?) I am reminded of the plethora of activities that are available to our students. Not only that, I am impressed with the amount of participation that we have in these outstanding activities! (No doubt, in part due to the fantastic staff of coaches and moderators we have.) Last week was an amazing week filled with student activity and I was overjoyed to see so many students participating in multiple events! From the volleyball game Tuesday night, to the concert Thursday night, and the football game on Friday night, I kept seeing many of the same faces. But yet, I would like to see even more participation. In fact, I would love to see some of our students who might not be involved in any activities take a chance and try something new. It would be a shame if 20 years from now you looked back and stated, "I sure wish I would have joined the band when I was in high school."

For those of you that are involved in so many activities, keep it up! Your involvement in these activities will form memories that will last a lifetime. I am impressed with your stamina, dedication, and willingness to try new things! A senior recently told me that this was their last year to try some new things, and he is certainly taking advantage!

We also have youngsters right now who are deeply engaged in highly competitive scholastic activities such as the Lego League, Robotics, and FFA. These activities provide our students with access to the very highly competitive and much needed STEM fields where we know the jobs of the future will reside. I am thrilled that we have so many students finding a place in our school that will nurture these interests.

As stated above, it has been decades since I have been in high school. While I have no desire to return, I do sometimes think, "If I only knew then what I know now". There most certainly are activities, events, and clubs that I wish I had been involved in. Unfortunately there aren't any mulligans in high school. So students, please make the best of your experience. I highly doubt that someday you will say you, "Boy, I wish I never would have decided to be in the musical".

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hudson 2020: Where Are We Now?

During the 2012-2013 school year, the school board commissioned the School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) to conduct a visioning study. The purpose of this study was to create a strategic plan that would guide the work of the school district through the 2020 school year. This strategic plan was to include aspirations for academic programming, the preparation of students for a 21st Century learning environment, and a list of priorities regarding the improvement of facilities. Over the course of a year, the process included gathering input and data from multiple stakeholders that included parents, teachers, students, and community members. The final report was adopted by the Board of Education on July 22nd, 2013. In the final approval, the Board adopted the plan with an expectation that it retain flexibility in it's implementation. You can read a copy of the Hudson 2020 plan right here.

Six key themes and recommendations were included in the final report. Included below are those recommendations and the current status of our progress as a school district on those priorities.
  1. Before making any significant expenditure in capital outlay, it will be important to consider the outcome of the PPEL issue that will be on the ballot in September of 2013.
    Update: The PPEL issues was successfully renewed during the 2013 election cycle. The voters of the Hudson Community School District renewed the PPEL with a 79% voter approval.
  2. Support is evident for technology infusion and expansion in the district. While the district has made initial decisions to implement a 1-1 computer initiative in the winter of 2014, future expansion of the program should be considered in the lower grades. As a first step, the district may wish to consider 21st Century technology enhancements to classroom spaces that would include SMART board technology. It may also be appropriate to consider tablet technology for lower grade levels.
    Update: SMART board technology no longer seems to be appropriate and is considered by many to be outdated. Much of the functionality of SMART boards can now be replicated with other devices. Tablet technology was introduced to the elementary school during the 2014-2015 school year with bundled packages of IPADS. Each regular elementary school classroom was issued a bundle of six IPAD devices. When issuing these devices, it was important to ensure that there was a clearly articulated purpose for these devices. The identified purpose was to help with the implementation of new literacy and math curriculum.
  3. Concern about class size was a predominant theme throughout the study. The district may wish to explore ways in which they can provide additional faculty resources, particularly at the elementary school level.
    Update: The district continues to closely monitor class sizes, particularly in the lower elementary. A concerted effort is made to ensure class sizes remain small and manageable. What constitutes small class sizes continues to be subjective, and there is no agreement in the scholarly research as to what this number should be that is a scalable solution. While we continue to resist quota sizes, at kindergarten we have as a benchmark (at least for the 2014-2015 school year) 51 as a target number to add a third section of kindergarten. A decision was made late in the hiring season (summer of 2014) to hire an additional elementary teacher. This made way for smaller sections of kindergarten. While this has helped alleviate those class sizes in the interim, there is growing concern over the size of some of the upper elementary classes, particularly in grade 5.
  4. There are a number of building projects to be addressed in the district and strong support for 21st Century classrooms and an investment in updating the elementary school. The district may wish to prioritize work to the elementary school building.
    Update: The 2014-2015 school year will be a year where we will begin to see a focus on the elementary school. The Hudson 2020 plan did not articulate specifically what actions would be taken to update the elementary school; but rather allocated funds for this project. This year, identifying and prioritizing these projects will take center stage as the SIAC begins to work on identifying exactly what those priorities may look like.
  5. Constituents are in support of post-secondary enrollment options, particularly courses that can be taken as concurrent enrollment options and AP. It is recommended the district employ hiring practices that prioritize the hiring of faculty that is certified to teach these courses.
    Update: The 2013-2014 school year found us with the largest expenditure in concurrent and PSEO courses in the last five years. This indicates that more of our high school students were eligible to take these courses, which is a great thing. However, costing models proposed by local institutes of higher education is beginning to make some of these courses cost prohibitive. In an effort to maintain college level courses for our students, in the 2014-2015 school year, we will begin to rely more on AP courses. This will accomplish two goals for us: 1.) Reduce expenses while at the same time maintaining a robust offering of college level courses, and 2.) Deploy our human resources in a more efficient and cost effective manner. It is important also to note that at this time we are experiencing the lowest numbers of enrollment in the high school that we have seen in some time. This drop in enrollment is expected to continue for the next two years. This will cause challenges in the high school in terms of specialized course offerings.
  6. In keeping with the spirit of the plan, all recommendations should be implemented by the year 2020. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Checking In With Teacher Leadership

Today we had the privilege of hosting several visitors from the Governor's Office, Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Area Education Agency. The purpose was to share with these guests our early perceptions, successes, and challenges of teacher leadership in the Hudson Community School District. Having that many 'heavy hitters' in the district was a bit stressful, but the conversation we participated in was excellent and we were happy to be included. We hope that other school districts can learn much from us as they work to implement teacher leadership systems in the next couple of years. We are also hopeful the policymakers that took time to visit Hudson today are able to take what they learned from us and leverage it to craft sound policy that improves K-12 public school system in Iowa. 

To be honest there was a moment of unease when I took that phone call. Imagine the scene: I am sitting in my office and Anne buzzes me to share that someone from the Governor's office is on the phone and wants to talk. I took that call from Linda Fandel back on August 18th, and we had only been in school for two days at that point. The purpose of that call was to set up the meeting that happened this morning. The visit today was designed for policymakers to learn from those of us who are implementing teacher leadership systems during this first year. Our state is investing a lot of capital into this system, over $150 Million annually when fully implemented. We must ensure that it is working as planned, and where it is not provide additional supports and guidance. 

During that first phone call, I was clear that we were very early into this implementation and still learning. Even though we are now roughly two months into teacher leadership it is still early! But there are many things that we have learned.

One of the key takeaways is that it has become abundantly clear teacher leadership is needed now more than ever in our educational institutions! Schools have become incredibly complex systems that must continually adapt to a diverse array of variables. Such mandates as implementing the Iowa Core Academic Standards, providing instructional leadership, quality professional development, meeting the needs of our special population of learners, and understanding the variances in formative assessment data are just a few of the tasks those in leadership positions must grapple with on a daily basis. Because of these complexities it is critically important that we flatten our leadership structure as much as possible and drive decisions to where we are most likely to see the greatest impact: at the intersection of the teacher and student. By distributing leadership throughout the organization it reduces the chance of error by ensuring that multiple individuals are involved in the decision making process.

To be quite frank I think we are getting it right at Hudson, and it all starts with those teacher leaders. Last week I spent some time visiting with our leaders and watching them in action. The knowledge and passion they bring to their work is inspiring. It also reminded me how complex this vocation and system truly is. While visiting with one of our instructional coaches, it really drove this point home. They patiently answered my questions about instruction, scaffolding strategies, and analyzing student assessment data. They shared their philosophy on the attributes of a successful reading program and the pros and cons of utilizing non-fiction and fiction reading selections to improve comprehension. This is exactly the type of skill set necessary to serve as a teacher leader in our system, and is exactly the type of person that we need to make decisions about reading instruction in our school district!

Certainly you would much rather be in a system where practitioners with special expertise in specific content areas are in the drivers seat when it comes to the type of strategy, resources, and professional development that are going to be utilized in practice, as opposed to a system where these decisions are driven from the top down. Before teacher leadership systems were in place, many of these decisions were left to the discretion of the administration. While in the past teachers were certainly included in this decision making, they were not engaged at the level that they are now. When it comes to matters of instruction, the teachers in the field are best equipped to make many of these decisions, not me! As a practitioner in the classroom, I was the music guy. This means that I am not the right person to inform teachers which reading strategy is going to be most effective if we want to improve phonemic awareness. The good news is that we have an expert on staff who is well equipped to answer those questions!

The biggest challenge that we face right now is the speed at which we can implement and bring our system fully online. It will not be until our system is scaled up and all of our teacher leaders are trained that we will truly see the power of a flattened leadership structure that empowers our leaders to drive instructional change. We all can see the vision of where we want to go! Our challenge will be not to rush the process, but instead being thoughtful and deliberate as we continue to implement teacher leadership in Hudson in a way that strengthens instruction through embedded professional development!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We Use the Iowa Core--Which is Not Exactly the Same as the Common Core

A component the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education At (No Child Left Behind) required states to adopt rigorous content standards, and a system in which to measure progress against those standards. Every state in the country scrambled to meet this new mandate except one: Iowa. With a strong history of local control, state leaders believed those were decisions best left to each local school district. The only component Iowa policy makers weighed in on at the time was the assessment that would be used. We know that to be the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which is now referred to as the Iowa Assessment.

So local school districts set about this work. It turned out to be grueling, and as a result many school districts formed consortium's that could collaborate and come to a common understanding about what skills and content should be taught to Iowa children. There is value in working together, and it is important to ensure that all students, no matter what school they attend, are exposed to content that enables them to be career or college ready upon graduation. As a practical matter, it also made sense that students at varying grade levels are taught the same skills so if they moved from one district to another they could expect to receive a comparable education without gaps. Because of this collaborative effort, the standards and benchmarks from one local school district to another tended to be quite similar.

All the while, the federal government continued to give Iowa poor marks because there was no uniform set of statewide content standards. Many school districts in Iowa continued the struggle of developing local standards and benchmarks for students. And it was a struggle. 

Finally, in 2005 with the passage of Senate File 245 work began on the Iowa Core. Building on the work that local school districts were already engaged in, the directive from the legislature was to develop a set of core academic standards in Iowa high schools in the areas of math, literacy, and science. The work was further expanded in 2007 with the passage of Senate File 588 which called for the development of social studies and 21st Century learning standards along with extending the scope to grades K-8. A key distinction in this work is that the content standards are developed for Iowa students by Iowa educators. The results of this work was presented to the State Board of Education. 

As the development of the Iowa Core Academic Standards was wrapping up and school districts were beginning the implementation of the Iowa Core, the Common Core State Standards initiative was launched in 2009. It is important to be reminded once again, that the Common Core movement is not a federal initiative or requirement, but rather is borne out of the work of the National Governor's Association. Nonetheless, it continues to be viewed as a federal intrusion over states rights by some groups.

The Iowa Department of Education completed an alignment study of the Iowa Core Academic Standards and the Common Core standards in 2010. They found that 93% of the Common Core was matched by at least one Iowa Core literacy concept and that 84% of the Iowa Core essential skills were also present in the Common Core. The results of math were also quite telling: 99% of the Common Core were matched by at least on Iowa Core math concept, and 88% of the Iowa Core essential skills were also present in the Common Core. Remember, the Iowa Core was developed by Iowans for Iowa students, and was completed before the Common Core was adopted. You can check out the results of the study right here.

Following this calibration, Iowa adopted the Common Core within the parameters of the already established Iowa Core Academic Standards. Now there is a nationwide movement to rollback the Common Core. There have been arguments that some of the content standards aren't developmentally appropriate. Which ones? One also has to remember that the actual curriculum and resources that are used remain a local decision. This decision is one that I can assure you our Board of Education takes very seriously. In the past two years, the Hudson Board of Directors has adopted two comprehensive curriculum(s) in the areas of math and literacy only after our own teachers fully vetted both sets of materials. 

At the end of the day what happens if the Common Core goes away? I would contend not much. After all, we subscribe to the Iowa Core Academic Standards.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Elementary and Secondary Education Act Needs to be Reauthorized

Last week the Iowa Department of Education released the results of the federal accountability law known as 'No Child Left Behind'. It should come as no surprise that more schools and districts have been labeled as 'in need of assistance'. According to the Department of Education website, 852/1,288 schools, or 66.1% missed meeting the targets known as Adequate Yearly Progress.

Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, is based on student proficiency as measured by the Iowa Assessments and participation rates. If a school does not test at least 95% of their students in all subgroup areas it is considered to have missed AYP. Regarding proficiency, since 2001 the targets have steadily climbed: in 2011-2012 they were 80%; then in 2012-2013 they were at 94%; and finally in 2013-2014 they reached 100% proficiency. The law requires that schools meet these proficiency targets for the overall student population along with demographic subgroups such as socio-economic status, limited English proficiency, race/minority, and special education. While there is a component of growth factored into the equation, it doesn't go far enough. 

Proficiency is a measure based on a specified benchmark on the test that students must obtain. The Iowa Assessments are a norm referenced test, meaning that pupils are ranked against one another. For example, if there were 100 students that took the test they would be ordered from 1-100. The net effect of this statistic is that children are ranked against one another instead of what they actually know. A student that had a score of 30 would equate to a percentile rank of 30, which means that 70 students performed better on the test. The end result of course is that you will have a certain number of students who never meet the proficiency benchmarks. A better measure of student progress would be a criterion referenced test, or one that actually does measure the knowledge that a student has gained. It would be more useful to know if a student understands his or her math facts as opposed to knowing more math facts than other students. 

Yet, we shouldn't be lulled into a sense of false security or promise that we can fix the problem by merely changing the instrument. While a criterion referenced test would be a significant improvement over a norm referenced test, there might still be a small percentage of students unable to meet the benchmark. The best possible outcome could be to measure the amount of growth that a student is able to make over the course of the year, or in the case of the Iowa Assessments from one testing cycle to another. In this case, student learning outcomes can be designed in a way to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Students who are served by special education programs or who have limited English proficiency have a different starting point than those served by the general educational program. But even with these type of instruments in place, there may still be students who fall short of meeting goals. 

So then, you are probably wondering how Hudson stacked up on the federal accountability requirements. As a district, we met all the goals for participation up and down the line: as a district, as an elementary, middle, and high school. And as a district, we also met AYP in terms of the targets. In the high school, all targets were met for both participation and achievement. Our middle school students are on delay status for reading (which means they met the goal for this year but missed it last year), and on the SINA (school in need of assistance) for math. Finally, in the elementary school we are on the Watch list for reading and met the target for math. Here is where it gets a bit perplexing.

Recall that we are on the SINA list for math. Let's take a look at those scores in terms of a growth factor. If you look at the table to the left, notice that students from grades 5-6 grew on average 24 points. The expected growth rate for this group of students was only 13 (based on a median percentile rank of 50). So not only did they meet expected growth, statistically speaking, they grew in excess of one year! The same holds true between 6-7 grade: expected, 12; realized 21. Grades 7-8: expected 11 realized 17. Granted, that is the entire population and not segregated by subgroup. When you look at the subgroup data, you would notice that the column to the far right, labeled PR suggests as a subgroup, the students are not proficient. An example of such is included below.

This is for one of our subgroups. (I am purposely not naming the group at this point). You should note that between grades 6-7, as a subgroup they are only scoring at the 25th percentile, which is not proficient. However, if you look at the expected growth rate for this subgroup based on the percentile rank, they are expected to grow 8 points. In this particular group, they actually grew by 24 points. In order to meet proficiency, a student needs to exceed the expected growth. This is known as closing the gap. I don't know about you, but this most certainly does not look like a school that should be on the SINA list.

Most industry does not place these kind of arbitrary standards on the products they are sending out the factory door, and then imposing punitive penalties when falling short of that goal. For that reason, it is imperative that Congress act to re-authorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While it is indeed a noble goal to strive for perfection out of our students and schools, we must also be realistic and provide fair measures. As the data shared here clearly illustrates, there is much more to student achievement than a percentile ranking. By the way, schools are not opposed to data and are just fine with accountability. We use data all the time to shape instruction. What schools are leery of are unfair measures that don't look at the entire scope of student achievement or data sets that aren't evaluated in the proper context.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


It's homecoming week at Hudson. This is no doubt an exciting time for our students! There are special dress up days this week, a big game, and a dance on Saturday night. While the focus is usually on the students and the events that are taking place at school, it is also important to remember that this is an important event for the entire community, and especially our Hudson alumni. We are really looking forward to seeing former students this week-from those who have been away for a few years; to those who graced our halls just a few short months ago. As our newest graduates have begun to spread their wings and learn about the world at large, we are hoping that they also find the time to stop by and say hello. This is your homecoming too!

Indeed, the idea of homecoming is to welcome home those who have moved on to college, career, or military. We certainly want to extend warm wishes and hospitality to each of you returning to your Alma-Mater this week. It is important that you know [and hear from us] how proud we are of your accomplishments, and we would love the opportunity to catch up! We are also interested in knowing how well our school prepared you as you took the next step in your life journey.

I hope you have the chance to take in some of the improvements we have made in our schools as well! We are quite proud of the many projects that we have been able to accomplish over the course of the last several months! These improvements are a shining example of how proud the entire community of Hudson is in it's school system, and part of what truly makes our homecoming celebration a community event. One needs to look no further than the school facilities to quickly understand and appreciate the pride we have in our schools. 

So to all those individuals who helped with the projects this summer, thank you! Whether you were a volunteer or contractor, your efforts have been much appreciated. You worked with a very unforgiving timeline and knew that everything had to be completed without delay. That diligence has certainly paid off. The district facilities look great and I think that we can all agree that the improvements that were made have been well worth it! 

And to those who are seeing these improvements for the very first time, welcome home!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Early Success With Teacher Leadership

Many schools across Iowa are preparing their teacher leadership grants for submission to the Iowa Department of Education later in October. They are hoping to be included in wave two of the teacher leadership and compensation system for the 2015-2016 school year. As a wave one school, we have a duty to help these school districts by acting as a resource and sharing the wisdom we gained from our own planning process. Now as our implementation is unfolding, we are honored to share what we are learning about teacher leadership. I have visited with numerous schools in our own conference and around the state who want to learn from us. We are happy to oblige. 

Just the other day we were joined by a school district in Northeast Iowa that is of similar size and preparing their grant. They wanted to come to Hudson and visit with us about our system of teacher leadership. In addition to that, the Department of Education along with representatives from the Governor's Office and state Board of Education have scheduled a visit for early October to see how our implementation is going.

When I first started taking these phone calls, my initial thought was, really? I mean we are happy to help out and talk with folks about planning, but we are just getting started. The implementation is early, and we are still figuring it out ourselves. What could we possible report at this point?

As it turns out, we have quite a bit to report. 

For starters, our teacher leadership system began on August 4th, a full week before the remainder of the faculty arrived. It began with a completely redesigned teacher induction program. Any teacher that was brand new to the profession had this full week of additional in-service. Our intention was to provide these new teachers with the skills and training that they needed in order to be successful at Hudson. Our university and college teacher preparation programs do an outstanding job of preparing practitioners for the field, but the turnover rate of teachers in Iowa schools remains high with many leaving the profession within five years. This plan is designed to improve those rates. We were given the chance to work with our new teachers at length, discussing numerous topics with them ranging from the initiatives that are currently underway in our schools to the managerial processes that we have in place in the district. In addition to that, our new teachers had time built into their schedule to work exclusively with a mentor teacher that was assigned to them. At the conclusion of the week, we all felt that this was a vast improvement over the process that we previously had in place at Hudson. 

Three instructional coaches serve as the anchor role in our leadership system in the areas of math, literacy, and technology. When first appointed, they had many questions about the mechanics of how they were to organize their work. We fielded such questions as, "What will my day look like", and "What am I supposed to do"? My response was probably a bit nebulous, "You will go where the work takes you". Understand how new this is to our teacher leaders! As classroom practitioners they were used to having their entire day scripted--down to the minute. The schedule that they have operated under for years has been designed in a way to maximize student learning time and work in tandem with the needs of 400+ students. Suddenly, these teacher leaders are finding a bit more freedom in movement. They are going where the work takes them, and every day leads to a new challenge. That is the excitement of leadership! 

But the question then becomes, well what are they doing? There are really two categories of tasks that our teacher leaders are performing, supportive and developmental. Supportive tasks are those generally designed to support the work of the teacher in the classroom, This includes managing curriculum materials, coordinating assessments, and piloting resources. With the recent adoption of major curriculum (Envision Math and Wonders ELA), our practitioners are finding the help they need when questions arise about curriculum material. In addition to this, with the new emphasis on literacy and a change in assessment, there has been a lot of time spent getting our systems set up to administer this new screening tool.

Developmental tasks are those designed to develop the effectiveness of educators. It is from this type of task that we can draw a straight line to our overriding vision of teacher leadership: strengthening instruction through embedded professional development. Essentially, our teacher leaders are doing things that are designed to make teachers better. This might include designing activities and lessons, answering content questions, modeling team teaching, and facilitating professional development. To see this being played out in real time, we can look no further than the connected learning initiative. A huge paradigm shift for our educators, this type of learning is designed to put students in the drivers seat by giving them access to powerful tools. With this type of learning, professional development for our teachers is critical! That is where the technology coach is able to demonstrate and facilitate teacher learning that enables them to leverage and maximize these learning devices for our students.

We have just recently identified the next level of teacher leadership positions in our district, those being model teachers. In the coming weeks they are sure to have a huge impact on student learning. It will be exciting to see how our teacher leadership system develops this school year. Only a month in and we are already seeing these teacher leaders make such a positive impact!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

PPEL Fund and Maintenance

For the past several weeks, we have been discussing the various legislative priorities that the Board has identified for the next General Assembly which is set to begin in January of 2014. To recap where we have been, I would encourage you to read the posts related to the importance of the legislature setting supplemental state aid in a timely manner, support for the continued development of rigorous content standards, early intervention in reading literacy (specific to the block grant), quality professional development, and last week we discussed the idea that socioeconomic status should be used as an identifier for At Risk funding. Today we finally come to the end of this series explaining the legislative platform for the next general session with a discussion surrounding the uses of PPEL funding. 

PPEL is an acronym for the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy and was re-authorized by the voters of the Hudson Community School District during the September 2013 school board election. It is also a categorical funding stream, which means that it can only be used for specified purposes. School district budgets are comprised of many different types of categorical funding, some categorical funding is part of the general fund and becomes part of spending authority, while others are funds unto themselves, like the PPEL. The good thing about categorical funds is that they are limited in their function, and are done so in an effort to protect the integrity of what the funds are designed for. One great example of this can be found in a categorical fund known as the Teacher Salary Supplement. As the name implies, this fund can only be used for teacher salaries. 

The bad thing about categorical funds are that they are often times inflexible. One such example are appropriate uses of the PPEL fund. Generally speaking, this fund is designed to pay for the replacement and emergency repair of equipment. It can also be used to purchase equipment such as automobiles, school buses, desks and chairs for classrooms, computers, new roofs for school buildings, remodeling classrooms, and a whole host of other things. You might be scratching your head right now thinking, categorical? That is quite a list of items that certainly doesn't sound inflexible. 

Here is where it gets a little interesting. Last winter one of our school buses blew an engine on the way to a middle school athletic event. To replace the engine would have cost somewhere in the vicinity of $20,000. Sounds like an emergency repair that would be PPEL eligible wouldn't it? Well, its not. In this case, the new engine for a bus does not qualify as a PPEL expenditure. Now, we could have paid for the engine out of the General Fund-but Iowa School Finance 101 tells us it is foolhardy to pay for these types of expenditures from this fund because of our commitment to protecting spending authority. 

What could we have done with our PPEL fund in this case? Well, we could have bought a new bus. A new bus of that design would have cost roughly $65,000. So the question really asks us what makes more economic sense. To replace an engine at $20,000 (the rest of the bus was in perfectly good shape), or buy a new bus at $65,000. If we could have purchased the engine from the PPEL fund, it would have been an easy decision. I'll let you guess what that decision would have been!

For that reason, we support legislation that permits the use of PPEL funds for the maintenance and repair of transportation equipment.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


There is no mistaking the fact that Hudson has an At-Risk program that is the envy of school districts all across the state. We are constantly fielding requests from districts that would like to replicate the programming that we have in place. In fact, our At-Risk program has recently gotten the attention of a national audience, and we are making plans right now for the National Dropout Prevention Conference this November in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, At-Risk of what? Glad you asked. Essentially we are talking about students that are at risk of failure in school that will ultimately lead to dropping out of school. I have written extensively about the importance of a high school diploma and the fact that this piece of paper is a gateway to higher lifetime earnings. Research and statistics show that individuals without a high school diploma will earn much less than those with a high school degree. Without a high school diploma, a dropout is significantly limited to the type of jobs they will be able (and qualified) to hold, and most of those jobs aren't going to pay real well. This leads to poverty, health issues, an inability to 'make ends meet', and frankly, a very hard life. Want to live the American Dream? You can start by finishing high school. It is for these reasons that we work so hard to ensure that students graduate from high school. This is also why you sometimes hear about school districts in big cities embarking on door knocking campaigns to get young people who have previously dropped out back in the school building.

At Hudson, we have a very robust system of interventions and programming available to meet the needs of these students. Some, are like the homework policy most of you have heard of (and may have experienced) at some point. The idea behind this policy is simple: you must do your homework no mater what. If you don't get it done, plan on staying after school until it is done. We are interested in the learning that occurs through the completion of the homework rather than the punitive measures that we can hand out for not completing an assignment. While the policy has its detractors from time to time, you certainly can't argue with the results. The after school program goes hand in hand with the homework policy, as does the 2.0 rule. In addition to those services, we boast a counseling staff that is trained and certified in mental health and family counseling.

Funding for At-Risk programming is tied directly to the number of students that meet at least two markers identifying them as such. At Hudson, those markers include students with a poor attendance record (either chronic absenteeism or tardiness). This is pretty obvious isn't it? If students aren't in school, then they are going to miss out on valuable instruction, that can lead to the next marker: credit accrual and progress in school. Specific to this marker, we pay close attention to students who are failing any class or were retained in school. If students have failed a course, then obviously they will not earn the credit toward graduation, which will put them behind their peers when it comes to meeting graduation requirements. The next item of consideration when determining a students' at-risk status is their connection to school. Students who do not participate in extra-curricular activities, express feelings of not belonging (limited number of friends), or have a  history of disciplinary sanctions are are certainly at-risk! Finally, we look at those who have low achievement scores in reading or math. These two content areas are among the most important skills that young people need not only to graduate from high school, but to function in society!

What is missing from our list of potential markers for at-risk students is poverty. This is because the state doesn't recognize the inclusion of socio-economic status as a factor in determining a student's at-risk status. The interesting point to be made here is that of all the factors listed, the effect size of poverty is far greater than all of the others. When we desegregate our student achievement data, this becomes very obvious. That is the primary reason that we support the inclusion of socio-economic status as a factor in determining the funding algorithm for dropout prevention programming in the next legislative session.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Support Funding for Professional Development

Imagine what it would be like in a world without professional development for doctors! Allow me to paint a picture. Late this summer, my wife Ann and I took a trip to Gettysburg, PA. I have wanted to go there for quite some time and an interest in history has always been a passion. In fact, had I not become a music teacher I would have become a history teacher. Anyway, in addition to visiting the battlefield and the numerous museums around town, there were a lot of artifacts and displays dedicated to civil war medicine. There were thousands of casualties during Gettysburg and medicine was very primitive. Field hospitals were literally set up everywhere, from farmhouse barns to tents adjacent to the battlefield. You know what the most common treatment for battlefield injury was? Amputation. Look how far we have come! 

If you have followed this blog for a while, then you no doubt understand where I land on the importance of professional development. Like any other profession, teaching requires continual training in order for our practitioners to stay up to date on the latest trends in instructional strategies, learn new processes, and implement research based curriculum with fidelity. Teaching and learning is not the same as it was when you and I went to school. Gone are the days of rote learning where memorization was the key to a good grade in school (and ultimately a good paying job in the local factory). Instead we are focused more and more on understanding. Rather than memorize facts and regurgitate information on a multiple choice test, we are more interested in a students' critical thinking skills, and their ability to solve problems (because those are the types of jobs that our kids are going to have). Instead of giving simple answers to a question, we are interested in having students explain why they gave a particular answer. Teaching is evolving, with an expectation that practitioners be comfortable with a multitude of highly advanced technological devices. They must be comfortable analyzing and sorting data in a way that will enable them to adjust instruction on the fly, meeting the needs of an ever increasing population of diverse learners. Gone are chalkboards, overhead projectors, and two dimensional learning models. Today's classroom features advanced technology more powerful than we ever could have imagined, learning models that span the globe, and coursework in STEM fields that was never even dreamed of ten years ago. Does this sound like a complex field? It is, and I have only scratched the surface.

As Hudson has embarked on the implementation of a new and robust system of teacher leadership in our district, we have a guiding vision to strengthen instruction through embedded professional development that is designed, delivered, and dissected by our teacher leadership structure. Research shows that the most effective way in which to implement professional development [into] practice is to not only show the worth of the strategy, but give the opportunity to try it out and then be coached in an effort to fine tune the new learning. When selecting the learning for our faculty, we must first be concerned with why we think it will work. In other words, what is the theory behind the practice? After we have established that theory of practice, our teacher leaders are in a position where they can demonstrate that professional development to the remainder of the faculty. This gives the teachers the opportunity to see the strategy or learning in a laboratory or clinical setting (enter Model Teacher classrooms). Or perhaps this is during an inservice, webinar, and even in front of a live classroom. Following this demonstration, the practitioner is able to take the strategy back to their classroom and put it into practice. After trying the strategy out a few times, our teacher leaders will be able to see the strategy in action to determine whether or not it is working and to trouble shoot areas of difficulty the practitioner may be experiencing. It is through this coaching that we are truly able to see professional development become an engrained part of practice that can be taken to scale school or district wide. 

We know this system works! The ultimate winners in this type of system are the multiple student learners who are able to learn material at a much deeper and rigorous level. That is why we support full state funding that encourages local initiatives (such as the Hudson Teacher Leadership Plan) to fully comply with current professional development requirements. The Iowa Professional Development Model, which is described above is a program requirement for Iowa schools. Implementation of these models and requirements are not cheap. We are grateful for the funding that has been provided for the fiscal year that we are currently in, this will go a long way toward ensuring full and deep implementation. Those funds include:

  1. Student Achievement and Professional Development funding $56,791,351 (statewide) in Hudson used to fund PLC training.
  2. Iowa Reading Research Center $1,000,000 (statewide) a clearinghouse that develops and disseminates best practices in reading intervention and instruction.
  3. AEA Support for System of Teacher Leadership (statewide) This is critical for the 39 districts like Hudson that are implementing TLC programs this year. Funding will offset costs associated with training of principals and teacher leaders.
  4. Administrator Mentoring $1,000,000 (statewide)
We urge this practice to continue with sustainable funding for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1, 2015. Teaching will continue to evolve as it has for decades. Quality professional development is not cheap, and some day soon we just may be saying 'gone are the days of learning models like we had in 2014'. What will the future hold?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Legislative Priority #3: Support Continued Progress in the Development of Rigorous Content Standards

The other night we had an opportunity to share student achievement data with the school improvement committee. Our testing regimen at Hudson consists of a battery of tests that are designed to complement one another, verify our results, and [if formative] be used as a guidepost to shape instruction. The results that we most often share are those from our battery of summative assessments. They include the Iowa Assessments (formerly known as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) and the MAP tests (Measures of Academic Progress). Summative assessments are those given at the end of a unit or course and are most helpful to determine if the students learned the material that was covered in class. These type of tests are usually not very helpful when it comes to shaping instruction because by the time they are given, the instruction is over. Formative assessments on the other hand are very helpful in diagnosing problems in instruction because they are given during instruction. Their sole purpose is to determine what adjustments are needed to ensure student mastery of the content. They are not used to measure student progress. 

Summative assessments [then] are designed to determine student progress, and in Iowa's case [student] progress on the Iowa Core Curriculum. This is the material that is supposed to be covered in class, and as such our testing battery should measure the Iowa Core, right? The trouble is these tests do not align very well to the Iowa Core. Imagine if you were going to get a license to drive a school bus. In preparation for that test I told you that it was necessary to learn about air brakes, the difference between the amber and red flashing lights, and the components of the walk-around inspection. You would probably study pretty hard for that test and maybe even work with one of our drivers to make sure that you have the material well in hand. You are ready for the test, right? Now imagine going to take the test and having a bunch of questions on the operation of a motorcycle. It wouldn't be fair would it? There would be an alignment problem.

That is kind of what we have with the Iowa Assessment. The alignment is out of sync. There are several studies to back up this claim, but we need to look no further than our own testing regimen to see this played out. Remember above where I stated that the entire testing protocol is designed to complement and verify results? That is where we can really begin to see the misalignment. 

So at our meeting the other night, we shared the results from the MAP test--and we shared the results of the Iowa Assessments. Both tests are designed to measure the same thing and both claim that they are aligned to the Iowa Core. The trouble is that if I were to place results in front of you without the name of the school at the top, you would be convinced that you were looking at two different schools. The testing protocol(s) in no way resemble one another. To use one to verify the other's results is impossible. 

The main question we are trying to answer with these assessments is student growth or how much they have learned. How many students met targeted growth? Now in fairness, the administration of each instrument is a bit different (but the measurement is the same). The MAP test is given twice a year. Shortly after school starts (in fact by the time you are reading this we will already be starting MAP testing), the MAP test is given. This will give us a baseline number for each student, and based on that number we will be able to determine how much that particular student should grow over the course of the academic year. At the end of the year, we will take the measure, again and from that be able to determine how much each student has grown. This seems to work pretty well for us and provides adequate information.

The Iowa Assessment on the other hand is given annually. Each school in Iowa is afforded the option of giving the test in fall, winter, or spring. Traditionally, Hudson has always given the test mid-year. The same principles apply, we compare the standard scores from the test that the students take this year with the scores from last year, and from that we will be able to measure how much each student has grown. In a normal world, the results would be similar. If student 'A' showed 15 points of growth on one assessment, then a similar result should be suggested by the other. That is not at all the case. In some instances, student 'A' may show 15 points of growth, but on the other they may not show any growth, or even show a regression!

This brings us to our legislative priority #3: Support continued progress in the development of rigorous content standards and benchmarks consistent with the Iowa Core focused on improving student achievement --including the development of high quality summative and formative assessments, aligned to the skills students should know and be able to do to succeed globally and locally.

Here is another weakness in both the MAP and the Iowa Assessments: both are essentially a multiple choice instrument. For practicality and standardization purposes, the assessments can be scored very quickly and folded into a statistical model on a traditional bell curve. It is pretty difficult to produce a high quality rigorous instrument using a multiple choice option. What about writing skills? How about asking students why they selected a particular answer, or prove they are correct in their response? With norm referenced tests like this, it makes it difficult to determine what a student actually knows. What it does is rank and order students. This does not tell us whether or not the student has learned the material, but rather it tells us how they did compared to peers. So not only should the test be aligned to the Iowa Core, but it should be criterion referenced. After all, what is more important to you: whether your child can read proficiently, or if they can read better than the student in the next district over? 

Quality assessments that are properly aligned will go a long way to creating world class schools in Iowa and will also provide valuable information to schools about the academic progress of students.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Legislative Priority #2: Early Intervention Block Grant

By the 2016-2017 school year, all students must be proficient readers.

It isn't just something that we are striving to achieve--or to make us feel good about our efforts at increasing reading proficiencies. It's the law. This was part of the massive education reform package that was passed during the 2012 General Assembly. Included in the Code of Iowa, section 256.7, paragraph one subsection 3 is the following:
Beginning May 1, 2017, unless the school district is granted a waiver pursuant to subsection 2 paragraph 'e', if the student's reading deficiency is not remedied by the end of grade three, as demonstrated by scoring on a locally determined or statewide assessment as provided in section 256.7 subsection 31, the school district shall notify the student's parent or guardian that the parent or guardian may enroll the student in an intensive summer reading program offered in accordance with subsection 2 paragraph 'e'. If the parent or guardian does not enroll the student in the intensive summer reading program and the student is ineligible for the good cause exemption under subsection 5, the student shall be retained in grade three pursuant to subsection 3.
If you read this, you may wonder what constitutes a waiver or exemption. Those waivers and exemptions are available for students who are served with an IEP or have another extenuating circumstance. The bottom line is that this legislation significantly raises the stakes for early readers.

When this bill was working its way through the process, there was quite a bit of debate about whether or not it was appropriate to mandate retention for students not reaching the benchmark. Interestingly, school leaders around the state were not in agreement about whether or not this was a good idea. But, for good or bad it no longer matters because it is the law.

My hope is that we are able to provide the appropriate remediation through the implementation of our PLC process in the school. If that is being implemented with fidelity, we should be able to appropriately answer the question, "What are we doing for those students who are not 'getting it'"? If that means intensive instruction outside of the normal reading class, then so be it. If it means additional resources, then absolutely. When those interventions are unsuccessful, we should implementing intensive summer reading programs (such as the UNI reading clinic). Obviously, retention should be used as a last resort.

The interesting point about this provision in the law was that the clock didn't start ticking until an appropriation was made. That appropriation was made during the 2013-2014 school year and was $8 Million. For Hudson, that was right around $17,372.48. Part of that funding is being used to implement our new early warning system known as FAST. For those of you that are parents of elementary students, you have probably heard your child's teacher talk about the DIBELS test. FAST replaces that tool. The remainder of that funding is being used to implement a new research based curriculum this year, known as Wonders. The price tag on this is in the neighborhood of $69,000+. So, it's safe to say that the $17,372 we received for last year, and roughly the same amount that we hope to receive this year will go a long way toward implementing this new curriculum. 

Following that implementation we will need to focus our efforts on strengthening our intensive reading program, providing robust and research based strategies for struggling readers, and in some cases even more intensive re-mediated instruction.

The bottom line here is that we support the continuation of programs currently funded by the early intervention block grant program with flexibility to use those funds for other K-3 literacy programs if approved by the board.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Legislative Priority #1: Supplemental State Aid

The amount that school districts' budgets are allowed to grow used to be referred to as 'Allowable Growth', but a change in legislation a couple of years back changed the terminology to 'Supplemental State Aid'. Both terms virtually accomplish the same goal and serve the same function. The exception being that supplemental state aid is funded entirely through state aid, while in the past it was funded through a blend of state aid and property tax. In theory, the funding change entirely to state aid should result in a decrease in property taxes.

Supplemental state aid [then] defines the amount that a school districts budget will be allowed to grow under Iowa law, or how much the state cost per pupil will increase from one year to the next. School districts operate under a principle known as spending authority, and regardless of the relative wealth of a taxing authority it is designed to provide equity to students across Iowa and keep property taxes in check. Because expenses for school districts increase year after year, it is natural to expect that the state cost per pupil will also increase each year.

Current law requires supplemental state aid it to be set for the following year within 30 days of the Governor releasing budget targets. This is typically done around the time the Condition of the State address is given, at the very beginning of the General Assembly. During the last legislative assembly (which began in January of 2014), we should have set supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015. That didn't happen.

When you think about it, that may seem like quite a long time off--after all it is almost a year. But, the next legislative session doesn't begin until January of 2015, at which point we will only be about 6 months from beginning the new fiscal year. A short timeline indeed, and that assumes supplemental state aid would be the number one priority of the new General Assembly. Recent history would suggest that not to be the case. Unfortunately, the decision regarding this important budgeting number has become a political bargaining chip. The last time we ran into this issue (that would have been two years ago), supplemental state aid was one of the final matters of law before adjournment--a session that ended up being delayed because compromise wasn't reached on many legislative priorities. By the time it was settled, school districts had already completed budgets for the fiscal year. Those budgets had to be created based on some important unknown factors. That made it difficult for schools to make plans for curriculum and set staffing levels. Our request then, is for the legislature to set an appropriate amount for supplemental state as soon as the new General Assembly gavels in this coming January.

A big part of the debate will center around how much the increase [should be] for supplemental state aid. There will be numerous debates about this number and other state priorities. After all, there is only so much revenue and we have multiple entities that rely on funding that is provided by the state budget. However, an argument can be made that school districts have been underfunded for the last several years and that while the introduction of funding for teacher leadership and compensation systems is a significant investment in capital, those funds are categorical in nature. That means they can only be used for specified purposes. Categorical funds cannot be used for general budgetary expenditures.

In the coming months we will discuss an appropriate number for supplemental state aid. You may hear numbers like: "4%, or 6%,". But what exactly does that mean? That percentage represents the amount that the state cost per pupil will increase for the next fiscal year. For example, the year that we are in right now, the state cost per pupil is $6,366. If supplemental state aid increases by 4%, it is calculated like this: $6,366 X 4% = $254. That would mean the state cost per pupil for the next fiscal year would be $6,621.

When you take the state cost per pupil and multiple it by the number of resident students that your district is serving, that provides schools with the base budget number, often times referred to the as the Regular Program District Cost. The challenge is that the number of students served isn't static from one year to another. If you have fewer students from one year to the next (the majority of schools in Iowa do), then you can actually see a decrease in school funding from one year to the next; especially if the percentage in which the increase in supplemental state aid doesn't offset the decrease in enrollment. Let me give you an example.

In this example, I have assumed that supplemental state aide has increased by 4% two years in a row. However, in the sample school district, you will note that the enrollment has decreased by 50 students. In spite of the fact that the supplemental state aid has increased by 4%, this sample school district would still realize a net loss of $79,447.68. Now there is a mechanism in the scenario described above called the 'budget guarantee', which provides growth of 1% but for one year only. This is one of the primary reasons I make the argument that school districts have been underfunded for the last several years.

In addition to employee costs, other items increase as well. Consider the cost of fuel. Remember how cold it was last winter? We spent $73,023 on heating costs this year; the year prior it was $53,172. That is a pretty substantial increase. The cost of electricity was up 3.45%, and I am sure you are all aware of the dramatic fluctuations in gasoline and diesel fuel! Simply stated, the increases in supplemental state aid have not kept up with fluctuations in enrollment or increases in other school district expenses.

A logical assumption would be that fewer students would require fewer teachers, thus the budget would not need to grow as much. If the decrease in enrollment all came from one grade level then that logic is true; one probably wouldn't need as many teachers. However, decreases in enrollment are typically spread out across the entire span of grades K-12, this makes it a little more challenging to respond to these types of changes!

For these reasons, the Board of Directors has identified this as the number one legislative priority for the next General Assembly. At the last board meeting, the Director's spent time discussing priorities for the upcoming legislative session. This is the first in a five part series of articles on the legislative priorities for the next session.