Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Common Confusion

Forty-five states including Iowa have adopted the Common Core standards. Strike that, I mean forty-four states have adopted the Common Core. Earlier last week, Indiana became the first state to back out of the Common Core. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what the Common Core is and what the Common Core is not. The first myth that needs to be addressed is this idea that the Common Core is a curriculum movement designed to eliminate local control of school boards and to limit the selection of curriculum material for schools. The Common Core is not a curriculum and does no such thing.

The Common Core is an internationally benchmarked set of standards that articulate what students should be able to do at each grade level. Is a 4th grader in Seattle for example, exposed to the same standards as a 4th grader in Des Moines? Is a Senior in high school from Hudson as prepared for college as a Senior in a high school in Peoria? I know these are questions that we want answers to, because we are constantly comparing our students to students in other states and in other countries using tools like the NAEP and PISA! I have written about those very comparisons right here in this article! The trouble is, unless we identify what it means to be a 4th grader or Senior in high school, we can't really answer those underlying questions can we?

Furthermore, teachers expect that students will enter their classrooms with a certain amount of background knowledge. Standards ensure that background knowledge and material has been covered, and an assessment was administered to the pupils that demonstrates their level of mastery. If no one has an idea of what that background knowledge is or it is different from school to school or state to state, how can the teacher be expected to craft instruction to meet the needs of students in an efficient manner?

Assume the 4th grade student in Iowa learns how to multiple fractions whereas the 4th grade student in Seattle isn't exposed to that skill until the 5th grade. Then assume we test both groups of students using the NAEP and the 4th graders from Iowa outscore their counterparts in Seattle. The reason? The students in Seattle haven't been exposed to that content yet! That most certainly does not suggest one group of students are more intelligent than the other. You can apply that same logic and scenario to any grade level in any state in the country or even internationally.

So the point should be very clear that the Common Core is not a curriculum, but is a set of standards with an assessment component which accurately measures the learning of students based on those standards. Curriculum decisions remain under the purview and decision making ability of the local school board. We can drive this point home with two very clear examples. Last spring the Hudson Board adopted a new math curriculum, and the faculty is currently in the process of studying an ELA curriculum that will be recommended for adoption by the Board of Education yet this spring.

For the sake of argument, we could say that school districts can go ahead and set their own standards and benchmarks--which would be the antithesis of the Common Core. But that would make it impossible to compare how our 4th graders were doing compared to students in Waterloo or Cedar Falls, let alone Seattle! It is also important to note that is how we kind of got into this mess to begin with. Before the Iowa Core (of which the Common Core is a part of), each school district did just that. While similar in nature, they were not standardized, which caused a patchwork of inequity in our education system that made it impossible to provide a guaranteed and viable curriculum to the students of Iowa. To further compound this very unclear picture of student learning in Iowa, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills were selected as the assessment instrument to measure student progress. This assessment was not aligned to the standards--but how could it be if every district is doing something different in terms of standards?

The other myth about the Common Core is this idea that it is a Federal intrusion into a local issue. This is not true! The Common Core was not conceptualized by the U.S. Department of Education. It came from the National Governor's Association along with the Council of Chief State School Officers:
"The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State school Officers (CCSSO). State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life." (

So in closing, let's just say that if we think it is important to measure how our students stack up against students in other states or countries--let's at lease make sure we are measuring them all on the same thing!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stops and Starts at the Statehouse

It's been a few weeks since we talked about the status of the legislature, so I thought it would be appropriate at this time to revisit what is new in Des Moines. Last Friday was the second funnel day, meaning that in order for a bill to stay alive it must have passed at least one full chamber and sub-committee in the opposite chamber. However, bills that have an appropriation tied to them are funnel proof. The goal of the legislature remains ending early--you have to remember that this is a campaign season and our lawmakers would like to get home early to begin campaigning. The entire House is up for reelection, half the Senate, and the Governor is running for his 6th term. 

We all took government class in high school as a requirement for graduation, so I am pretty sure we all understand the basics of how laws get passed. Remember that old Schoolhouse Rock song: "I am a bill, yes I'm only a bill, and I'm stuck up here on Capitol Hill" I think that I may have just dated myself there...pretty sure none of our current students have any idea what I am talking about! Nonetheless, this catchy little tune would lead us to believe the process by which a bill becomes a law is a well oiled machine, with proposed legislation moving efficiently from one chamber to the other to be voted on and turned to law. No one I know is naive enough to believe that is how it happens. Legislation is subject to multiple starts and stops, political maneuvering, lobbying from special interest groups, and funnel deadlines. Most of the time it is not very much fun to watch, and the finished product often looks very different from how it started out. Sometimes it takes the work of several legislative sessions and constant persistence to move a bill from conception to law. That has been the case of SF 220, which has been a cause the Hudson Board of Education has been championing for years now. This bill is in the final stages of becoming law.

This original bill was designed to provide retirement incentives to employees from the ages of 55-65 to encourage turnover. This serves multiple purposes. First it honors the work and career of veteran teachers, and second it provides cost saving to the school district. How does it do this? When a veteran teacher retires, they are typically replaced by someone at a lower salary. Also, this law allows school districts to pay for the retirement incentive outside the general fund--which has the added benefit of preserving general fund budget authority. The main problem with the current law was that anyone who was above the age of 65 could still retire and have access to the incentive--but it had to be paid from the school general fund. This made it much more difficult to recognize cost savings, but the solution was simple: remove the top cap. We started out by discussing the idea with Senator Danielson years ago. Senator Danielson took up our cause and was able to move the bill to a committee hearing. The next year Senator Danielson was able to make even more progress, with the bill moving through the Senate and getting the file name SF 220. Unfortunately, upon reaching the House it was never taken up for debate. You will recall that last year the focus was on the education reform legislation that Hudson is now the proud beneficiary of! This year's General Assembly began with the the customary visits of both Senator Danielson and Representative Rogers to our school board. We knew that SF 220 existed in the halls of the House, we just needed to get it moving through the Iowa House. Representative Rogers stepped in and helped navigate the bill through the House. It was tentative at times, and I was not all that confident until this week. Representative Rogers gave me a call on Monday and told me that he was planning on running the bill the next day for debate on the House floor. It passed 100-0! There were two minor amendments to the bill, one was to change the date, and the other is to make it retroactive to last year. Both are great amendments, but do mean that it needs to go back to the full Senate for approval. I anticipate no trouble in the Senate. Once it clears the Senate, it is off to the Governor where he will have three days to sign it and make it law.

Although it has taken roughly three years to get the bill to this point, I will have to admit that the process has worked as it is supposed to. It should be difficult to change laws, and probably not something that should be done without careful deliberation and debate. I am also very heartened with the bi-partisan nature of this bill. It started with Democratic Senator Jeff Danielson moving and advocating for the bill through the Iowa Senate, and  Republican Representative Walt Rogers moving the bill through the Iowa House. SF 220 hasn't gotten a lot of press and probably won't, but it is an important bill that will help school districts control costs and provide fiduciary flexibility in a way that will ultimately enable us to provide top notch educational programs to students.

Now that we almost have that out of the way (we still have a few, very important stops to make this bill law), it sure would be nice if supplemental state aid was determined before everyone goes home to begin campaigning. The Senate has passed a 6% increase, that bill is sitting in the House waiting for movement.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Its Good to be a Pirate!

Just when we thought that the winter would never end! The days are getting longer (daylight saving time), the average daily temperature is on the rise (finally), and spring break is right around the corner. It really wasn't until the waning days of February that we were finally able to get a full week of school in. School days cancelled, late starts, and early dismissals seemed to be the norm from week to week, and for a while we just couldn't seem to catch a break. It was dark, it was cold, and there was a lot of snow on the ground. To add insult to injury, it was too cold for much of the winter for our young students to enjoy playing in the snow. But in spite of all that, we have found a remedy: #piratepower!

There is just so much to be excited about right now in our school that it makes it difficult to feel anything but happy and thrilled to be a part of something so special! Have you had a chance to see the art work that Mrs. McNeal is having her students complete and then share around the community? The Art It Forward project is an awesome way of giving our young people the opportunity to showcase and share their work with those beyond the classroom teacher and their own parents. These students recently had the opportunity to participate in an art show sponsored by St. Timothy's Church right here in Hudson. What a great experience for these burgeoning artists!

I am sure you are also aware of the fact that our elementary staff is hard at work in the first year of implementation of a brand new math curriculum. This reform based curriculum is beginning to pay great dividends as student outcomes are on the rise. Implementing a new curriculum was a pretty big shift for our faculty and required in many cases a change in instructional practice. The faculty has responded famously and are becoming more comfortable with the material daily. This same group is now in the process of studying and testing a comprehensive English/Language Arts curriculum with a goal of recommending an adoption for the 2014-2015 academic year. Did you realize that it has been well over a decade since the District underwent a major comprehensive curriculum adoption, and they are now in the process of completing two within two years?

How about the secondary level? We are only three short months into the implementation of a connected learning initiative and continue to improve learning opportunities daily. The idea of a connected learning initiative was conceived more than five years ago, and today it has become a reality. We are beginning to realize the power of a connected learning environment as students from all strata of our student body are given access to these amazing tools!

Our academic accomplishments also speak for themselves! Take for example our fifth and sixth grade math bee competition under the guidance of Mrs. Christopher. This group recently placed five out of twenty-six in the math bee competition! To top that off, one student scored in the top ten of individual scores! It doesn't end there. As we speak, the middle school students are right in the middle of preparing for the National History Day competition, where we continue to compete year after year at the highest level. Did someone say dynasty? In the high school, we have two students who are National Merit scholar finalists, who scored at the highest levels on the ACT! These students are making plans to attend some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country! Also worthy of note is the fact that the Department of Education released the graduation and dropout rates for the 2012 and 2013 cohort groups. The 2013 (4) year cohort graduation rate for Hudson was 100%; and the 2012 (5) year graduation rate was 98.44%. The state rate was 89.7% for the 2013 (4) year cohort and 82.1% for the 2012 (5) year cohort. Crushed it!

Before I forget, you may be aware that the third quarter just came to an end. At the end of the third quarter in grades 5-12, we only had 1% of students who failed a course. In addition, the percentage of students who currently carry a grade point average of less than 2.0 is less than 1%--almost too small to count! This is a testament to the hard work of our students, teachers, and administrators who work hard every day to ensure that we create effective learning environments that result in success for all students!

Of course, and article like this wouldn't be complete if we didn't take a few minutes to give a shout out to our athletics and fine arts performers, now would it? First off, we have 2A State Champion wrestler with Luke Huber who amazed us with his ability and hard work this season. Way to go Luke! Our boys basketball team had a great season as well and were a ton of fun to watch! You gave us some great nail biters and came away with some very impressive victories. The girls basketball team was truly amazing this year. At the beginning of the season I suspected that this team was going to do something special, and they sure didn't disappoint with their best finish in school history! 

Fine arts at Hudson continue to be a dominant force on the state stage as well. The show choir finished in first place at the North Polk competition earlier in the month, and the jazz band won their 3rd straight NEIBA championship, qualifying them for their 3rd trip to the Iowa Jazz Championships on April 8th (there is that dynasty word again).

There is no doubt that this has been a very cold, dark, and long winter. But during all those cold days, there sure have been a lot of bright spots, haven't there? I don't think I would be alone in stating that it has been worth it. I am so proud of the accomplishments of our school district! Here's to spring, and it sure is Good to Be a Pirate!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Hudson Teacher Leadership and Compensation System Approved

I am very pleased to announce today that the Hudson Community School District is in the first group of Iowa school districts selected to launch teacher leadership systems next school year. Teacher leadership systems will allow teachers to work in greater collaboration with colleagues and school administrators to improve instruction and increase student achievement. Out of Iowa's 346 school districts, 146 applied to start teacher leadership systems in 2014-2015. Of those 146 districts, 39 were selected. The Hudson Community School District was one of three selected in AEA 267. 

Teacher leadership in Iowa is not only designed to elevate the teaching profession in Iowa, but will also strengthen instruction, which ultimately will have a profound effect on meeting our goal of ensuring a World Class Education for our students. I am exited not only by what this will do for our teachers locally, but the impact this will have on student achievement system wide.

Teacher leadership systems are the centerpiece of Iowa's historic 2013 education reform package. They stand to be the foundation for implementation of other state reforms, such as high academic standards. With higher expectations for all students today, it is critical to better support the complex work educators do.

These systems will be phase in over the next three years across Iowa, with the goal of all districts participating by 2016-2017, although whether to do so is a local decision. The Commission on Teacher Leadership and Compensation recommended which districts should be in the first group. Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck made the final decision.

The model employed by the Hudson Community School District will include a blend of instructional coaches, model teachers, and mentor teachers. A key ingredient to our planning process was ensuring a strong connection to current district initiatives. Instructional coaches will focus on the content areas of math, literacy, and technology integration. These instructional coaches will collaborate with all teachers to develop professional development and research based instructional strategies designed to meet the needs of multiple learners in the classroom. As a full time instructional coach, these teacher leaders will partner with model teachers to test and pilot new instructional strategies and embed professional development into practice. Those strategies that hold the most promise will be taken to scale district wide with the assistance of model teachers, who continue to serve full time as classroom teachers. Finally, mentor teachers describe teacher leaders whose primary focus is to work with and help those new to the profession. All teacher leaders will receive stipends in exchange for taking on extra responsibilities.

Districts were required to set a vision and goals for the teacher leadership. You can read our vision right here. Specific requirements of all plans included setting a minimum salary of $33,500 for full-time teachers, providing intensive mentoring for new teachers, and adopting a rigorous selection process of applicants for teacher leadership roles.

Hudson will receive about $309 per pupil in extra funding next school year to implement our teacher leadership system. The annual cost statewide is nearly $50 million in FY15, growing to about $150 million annually in the third year. After the initial year of district implementation, the funding of teacher leadership rolls into the Iowa school finance formula.

The next step for us is to begin selecting teacher leaders. Governor Brandstad's FY15 budget recommendations include $4 million for the Iowa Department of Education, working with the Area Education Agencies to provide technical assistance and leadership development for all districts in the first group implementing teacher leadership systems in 2014-2015.