Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Allowable Growth (Supplemental State Aid): Stalemate

We are a little more than a week and a half into the legislative session and are already at an impasse in regard to education funding. Allowable growth, or supplemental state aid as it is now called, is the amount that the state cost per pupil  increases from one year to the next. This year, the state cost per pupil is $6,121 and next year it is scheduled to increase by 4% to $6,366. The unknown is the rate for the following year. It may seem like quite a long time off, but the legislature needs to act now. This way, when schools begin the budgeting process for the following school year, decisions are based on anticipated revenue.

If they don't make this decision now they will be forced to make it when they reconvene in January of 2015. While that may not seem like too big of a deal it really is. First, school districts will begin to budget for that fiscal year in January (2015) and have statutory benchmarks that must be met with regard to budgeting deadlines. Second, while we can anticipate certain increases in expenditures, that only accounts for half of the picture necessary for sound budgeting practices. Knowing revenue is equally important. It has also been opined that 'certainly the legislature can determine school aid early in the session', which was the argument made last year. Except that didn't happen. School aid was not determined until the very end of the session, shortly before the next fiscal year began. And finally, even if it were determined as the first order of business in the new legislative session it would provide a mere 6 months to put together sound fiscal policy that has far reaching implications for educational programming. This makes it incredibly difficult to make projections and programming decisions. Case in point: the State of Iowa has insisted on a two year budget cycle because they see the value of forecasting, and predicting.

Ever hear that saying about building a plane while you are flying it?

Governor Branstad has been consistent in his remarks that supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015 (Fiscal Year 2016) will not be determined this legislative session. His reasoning is that we shouldn't make the decision on supplemental state aid until we have a better idea of what revenue will be. The result of not setting supplemental state aid during this fiscal year will no doubt mean that school districts will be put in the situation of deciding their own spending plans without knowing what revenue will be. Seems paradoxical, doesn't it?

If you recall, that is what happened last legislative session. Schools began the budgeting process for Fiscal Year 2014 (which began on July 1, 2013) last January. During that budgeting cycle, school districts did not know the school funding level. Hudson, along with a majority of school districts in Iowa were forced to assume that there would not be an increase in school funding. In many school districts this delay in the funding algorithm resulted in cuts to programming or layoffs of teachers. Luckily the allowable growth rate was set before the end of the legislative session that provided answers to school funding levels for Fiscal Year 2014 (which we are currently in) and Fiscal Year 2015 (which we are now planning for--and is set to begin on July 1, 2014). The trouble was, funding levels were set so late that school budgets had already been approved. If districts previously had this knowledge, programming decisions would have been different.

So to properly frame the debate it is first important to realize that funding levels currently being discussed are approximately 18 months in the future. Sure, it seems like a long time away and it probably is, but if the legislature doesn't set the school aid rates this session, they won't be revisited again until next January. At that point, we are only 6 months out from the start of the fiscal year. That is why the Code of Iowa, 257.8 requires the legislature set the rate of growth for the subsequent budget year within 30 days of the submission of the Governor's budget. That puts the 30 day deadline at February 13th. What happens if they miss the deadline? Well, I guess they have broken the law, which probably doesn't really mean anything since the same thing happened last year. The net effect is that it shifts uncertainty to local school districts. 

Meanwhile, the Senate is moving forward with a spending proposal to increase supplemental state aid by 6 percent. Once the bill clears the Senate, (which I am sure it probably will) it will be sent to the House for consideration. Don't get too excited, that doesn't really mean anything. The House likely won't do anything to move the bill, they have already indicated that they are with the Governor on this.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Connected Learning

As our school district has prepared for the launch of our 1:1 computer initiative, the focus has been on the device students would be using. Consider how we referenced the project: "The Hudson 1:1 Initiative". The name in and of itself implies that the device was the most important variable in this equation. During this last year, I believe that our focus on the device [was in fact] appropriate. There were numerous logistical hurdles that needed to be overcome and professional training that had to be provided for our staff. Since last January, we have been focused on the device and rightly so--it is a tremendous investment in resources. Our professional learning continues as teachers implement this technology into the classroom. But now our shift has focused. It is no longer about the device, but what our students and teachers are able to do with the device. For those of us who grew up learning in a more traditional model of education, we were probably used to going to school and having instruction delivered by a teacher at the front of the classroom with the desks in neat rows. The teacher was considered the sole provider and, expert (or master if you will) of the content.

That is no longer the case. Instead of a model that requires teachers to be at the front of the classroom imparting wisdom, they are now sitting side by side with their students. Our vision is this:

Faculty members constructing and guiding students in the creation and uncovering of knowledge. Students connecting their own learning to life experiences and real world problems. This is sometimes referred to as a 'Flipped Classroom' environment. One of the leading scholars on technology integration in schools, Dr. Scott McLeod, suggests that our students and teachers will go through several stages of technology integration as our implementation blossoms and unfolds in the coming months and years.

Stages of integration (from Dr. Scott McLeod):

  • Stage 1, Technology Literacy, teachers focus on the tool itself. They ask questions like, “What do I click on?” and “How do I do this with it?” In this stage, they’re not focused on learning and teaching with students. They’re just familiarizing themselves with the various options and functions available within the tool itself.
  • Stage 2, Replacement, teachers use digital tools to replicate what they did in analog learning environments. For instance, they use expensive interactive whiteboards in the same transmission-oriented ways that they used chalkboards and dry erase boards. They replace multiple-choice paper worksheets with student response systems (aka ‘clickers’). Instead of passively viewing teacher-selected DVDs or VHS tapes, students passively view teacher-selected YouTube videos. And so on.
  • Stage 3, Amplification, teachers use technology to make the learning work of themselves and their students more efficient and productive. They begin experimenting with new forms of learning and teaching. Significant changes in student learning tasks may not be seen yet, but teachers are on their way toward more transformative practices.
  • Stage 4, Transformation, teachers use digital learning tools to substantially change student learning processes, content and their own classroom instruction. New opportunities become not just possible but real. Learning and teaching environments look significantly different than what came before.
In just the few short weeks we have been implementing our Connected Learning Initiative, we have seen powerful examples of student learning in all four stages of integration. Indeed as our initiative gains momentum and we continue our journey, more and more of the learning experiences that we have in our classrooms will be in stage 4: Transformation!

Even though our students now have these powerful tools at their disposal and all the work it took to get to this point is now a fading memory, it is important to note that our journey is just in its infancy. Our professional development to this point has focused on preparation for the device. We have now shifted our focus to integration and moving our learning into a transformative stage. It will not happen overnight!

Finally, as I was preparing for this blog entry, Dr. McLeod suggested this blog post as a great resource. I would also encourage you to follow his blog Dangerously Irrelevant, it is a great source of information!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Screwdriver and the Pencil

There is no mistaking the fact that the computer device our students now have access to daily and at home is an incredibly important and powerful tool. The school issued laptop will enable our students to create innovative projects and participate in learning opportunities that were only imagined prior to the launch of our initiative. Mr. Lewis was accurate in his description of the device as 'just another tool' that students now have in their toolbox. His analogy of a screwdriver and the limitations this tool has over an electric screwdriver paint a picture that I hope we don't soon forget. That screwdriver (or pencil as he described) is still important. We must be sure that we still honor and sharpen those skills. "Don't throw away your pencils," he said.

I considered the story about that deck he was rebuilding and it makes quite a bit of sense. Knowing how to build a deck is a skill that is independent of whether or not you use a hand tool like a screwdriver, manual cross cut saw, or a power drill and electric circular saw. The finished product is basically going to be the same, the difference is in the speed and ease with which the task is completed. I could be wrong, but I don't think too many of us would build a deck these days with hand tools. It just isn't very efficient or a good use of time.

The tools we use in education should be given the same consideration. I can distinctly remember many, many years ago working on a thesis and spending long hours scouring the 'stacks' in the library for scholarly resources to use in my paper. At that time one could go to the library and do a computer search for a reference (which was a big advancement from my undergraduate work when we still had a card catalog), but then you had to go searching through the stacks to find the journal. Sometimes you couldn't find it because someone else was using it, it was misfiled, or the pages that you were looking for were no where to be found. These days it is quite a bit different. I am able to log on to the library, do a search and query the article from my computer, wherever I happen to be. The article is always there, or if I need to borrow it with an inter-library loan I can typically have it in a few hours.

The skills that are being used are the same in both instances. Knowing how to do a search query, reading, comprehending, and then synthesizing the information are all done in the same way. I suppose one could argue that since the search is so efficient it enables us to create a finished product that is much more thorough. Just think about that for a second. Instead of spending time looking for information, you spend time reading your information. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Roll Out!

Tonight we have our parent meetings for the roll out of our 1:1 computer initiative. This will be the last time you hear me refer to this as the "1:1 Project" or the "1:1 Computer Initiative". Moving forward we will be referring to this as the "Connected Learning Initiative". I will draw some distinctions between the two monikers next week. 

We have hung our hats on the idea that this is the biggest shift in education for this generation of students and continue to believe this to be the case. When discussing the multitude of reasons why our district believes this is the right time to embark on this type of engaged learning platform, we have been steadfast in our belief that our reasons have nothing to do with keeping up with districts around us. 

However, there is no mistaking the fact that there are many that have gone before us. Because the introduction of connected learning is so fluid and changes so rapidly the number of districts currently utilizing this type of environment is ever changing. The most current data estimates the number of districts at roughly 170, which accounts for almost half of all school districts in Iowa. The interactive map below will enable you to see what other districts in Iowa are doing in this regard.

Ironically, in the early days of this movement, those districts that made the switch were among the smallest in the state. There are a number of theories as to why this was, but prevailing wisdom suggests that many of the bigger schools simply didn't have the capacity to sustain something as logistically and financially cumbersome as computers for every student. The strain on network capabilities alone (and managing those devices) was enough to delay launch dates in some school districts. That is becoming less and less of an issue for school districts in Iowa, and with 170 districts launched, we are quickly reaching critical mass statewide. We are now seeing some of the larger schools come on board, in fact Cedar Falls is launching along with us this semester and I just read an article about plans for Dubuque. The primary reason that some schools are delaying at this point probably has more to do with a lack of bandwidth than it does anything else.

Additionally with the number of school districts that are currently connected in this way, you may wonder if we are late to the game. My answer to that would be that we are entering at just the right time. We have been talking about this night for years. Much work has been done behind the scenes by completing a lot of research and visiting with other schools to see how they went about getting their programs up and running. There were infrastructure issues that needed to be addressed, and hardware that needed to be updated and replaced. The device that the students are using is only one small piece of the overall big picture and the capabilities that we have with our connected environment. So our planning and launch were done in a very deliberate manner after consultation with numerous experts in the field. 

Are you nervous? Certainly there may be some trepidation out there as you prepare tonight (or in the coming weeks) for your child to have access to a school owned computer at home. If you have questions about our program, our capabilities, or how this all works I encourage you to send an email or stop one of us in the hall, at the game, or wherever you may see us out and about. We may not have the answer right now, but we have 170 + people that we can call and find out how they answered that same question.

You may have concerns that the computer will be damaged, lost, or stolen. We have taken steps to mitigate those fears, and Mr. Dieken will be explaining how our Cooperative Loss program works during our parent roll out meetings. As an aside on that issue, empirical evidence from a growing body of statewide research (170 + subjects and growing) suggests that while those issues do occur they are less frequent than you may think. You may have concerns that your child may find themselves accessing material that is unsuitable or inappropriate for our young people. Again, we have taken steps to minimize these instances but realize that a determined youth can defeat some of the most robust commercial and educational systems on the market today. Teaching our young people about Digital Citizenship may be the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal to protect and educate our youngsters about these pitfalls.

Finally I want to address those parents who have made the decision to not allow their child access to a computer at home, or have expressed concerns about the infiltration of technology into the classroom. We respect your views and appreciate your feedback. As a primary educator of your own child you absolutely have the right to make those decisions and we will honor your wishes to the best of our ability. However, I encourage you to continue those conversations with your child and with your building principal. If the map above is any indication, connected learning isn't going anywhere. The future is here.