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.