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.