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.