Wednesday, January 28, 2015

World Class Schools?

Each year it is inevitable that an article like this is going to be posted to my blog. In fact, I am almost certain that a number of you out there have been wondering exactly when this article would appear. Despite that, I had always hoped and held on to some optimism that adequate funding would come through, and in a timely manner. Yet here we are again.

In his recent Condition of the State address, Governor Branstad recommended what equates to a 1.25% increase in supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015 (FY16), and a 2.45% increase for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016 (FY17). Upon his return to office in 2011, the Governor set a bold agenda for Iowa schools and released a blueprint titled, "One Unshakeable Vision; World Class Schools for Iowa". In that blueprint, the following statement is made:
Iowans have long shared a deep commitment to giving our children the best education possible. We recognize young people today must meet higher expectations than ever to thrive in this global, knowledge-based economy. For the sake of our children and our state, it is vitally important that we build on our tradition of excellence to improve our schools. Iowa’s house of education still has a strong foundation, but it is also in need of a major remodel to be ready for the days ahead.
That claim and the paltry increase to school funding are in direct contrast to one another. It takes much more than this statement to give our children the best education possible. To put it frankly, it costs money to run schools. We will be unable to build on that tradition of excellence and meet those higher expectations without adequate resources. Instead, we may very well see an erosion of that very foundation.  

The fact is there are real consequences for not setting adequate and timely state aid for schools. Notwithstanding the 'strong foundation' that forms this 'house of education', what we may well be headed to without adequate resources is instead a house of cards that one good stiff wind will topple. Many have grown weary of these doom and gloom predictions and believe that school districts are crying wolf and that it is absurd to think, 'The Big Bad Wolf will huff and puff and blow our house down.'  A look at recent history would suggest this is happening all across our state.

We can look at our own recent example and see the consequences. It was the 2010-2011 school year, many of you remember it well. That was the year Hudson made major and significant budget cuts. While no doubt there were areas in which the district was 'long' in staffing, there were other areas that were cut further than we may have liked. To this day some of those areas remain below staffing levels I would prefer. Because of these cuts and sound fiscal practices in the intervening years we have been able to right that ship. Our financial footing is much firmer than it was five years ago and we have made tremendous progress. However, this year I am predicting a decrease in our unspent balance which means that we will deficit spend. This certainly isn't the crisis it was five years ago because we can absorb short term deficit spending--that is what the unspent balance is designed to do. But with a pattern of under funding coupled with a drop in enrollment, if we aren't careful we can very quickly see our reserves depleted by compounding years of inadequate funding levels. Every one of you out there know that it is not a wise practice to spend our savings on recurring costs.

To put this into real numbers for you, the 1.25% the Governor is proposing equates to $25,895 in real dollars for the Hudson Community School District. In reality this equates to budget growth of .59%. The cost to advance teachers on the salary schedule is $40,976, which is before we even begin to negotiate the contract for the 2015-2016 school year. Then there are other increases in the budget that we also can't control, such as energy and curriculum supplies.

Unfortunately our story isn't all that unique, or to many of my colleagues even interesting. It is, however symptomatic of a much larger and graver problem. We made some tough decisions and have been able to recover. I am confident that with discipline and thoughtful deliberations we will continue to thrive and survive for years to come--provided we are given adequate resources in which to operate.

When I became superintendent of schools in 2010 there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 359 school districts in Iowa. Five years later, we are down to 338. Last year it seemed that a week didn't go by where the top story on the news was a school district that was making significant budget cuts. The myth that cuts are isolated to smaller school districts is also simply untrue. The reality was that cuts were happening all around us and were in some of the largest school districts in the state. I can think of one school district that had to cut $3.5 Million last year, and is slated to cut that much again this year!

In our own neighborhood, school districts are making cuts to their budgets that may forever alter the makeup of communities. You know this because we all have friends that are directly impacted! One school not too far from us is cutting close to $1 Million, while another is considering the closure of a school building. At our recent superintendent meeting we took the time to go around the table and share what the new funding proposals would mean for our school districts. I can tell you that everyone of the sixteen superintendents around the table that day do not see anything good coming from these numbers.

Many of us hope that we can cover through attrition, which means not hiring replacement teaches when someone departs. That has the unfortunate side effect of driving up class sizes. Those that don't will make cuts where they can and budget adjustments where appropriate; anything that we can in order to ensure that we are providing a quality educational experience that rises to the level of World Class Schools!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Power of Collaboration

While your child has one official teacher of record in grades K-6, and one math or science teacher in grades 7-12, their circle of educational influence is much broader than that! Indeed a student in the first grade has access to the collective wisdom and experience of all the first grade teachers, while the English teachers in the high school have the ability to share ideas, strategies, and student achievement data with one another. 

We know that moving the needle on student achievement is a complex task and that there is not any one teacher who has all the answers to the questions that come up during the course of instruction in a classroom. When we are able to leverage the collective expertise of our teachers to solve problems of practice in the classroom, it has a compounding effect that is much more powerful than an individual teacher working alone. In theory this may sound like a rather elementary concept, but in practice it takes deliberate effort on the part of all stakeholders to ensure success. You see, the normal paradigm in which educators operate is one of isolation. Think about your own experience in school for a moment. As a student, you had a different teacher that worked with you year after year. Rarely did those teachers work together either in collaboration or team teaching a unit.

In Hudson, we have been working very hard to break down those walls of isolation and tap into the vast reserves of knowledge that our faculty has. By doing so, we raise the level of instruction for all students while improving the practice of our educators. We have made great strides in this work with the implementation of the PLC over the past several years and more recently with the introduction of a teacher leadership system to our district.

You have heard me say this many times in this blog: Our teachers are outstanding--but they still need access to quality professional development in order to continually sharpen and refine their skills as practitioners. Once again I will use the analogy of the doctor who graduates from medical school who doesn't stay up to date on the latest treatment options or research in the field. This is a doctor that you or I wouldn't visit! Teaching is really no different. The strategies that are most effective to teach literacy and math aren't the same as they were when you and I went to school. The tools that teachers use are vastly different from when you and I went to school!

So as we continue to debate calendar options for the 2015-2016 academic year I think it is important that we keep the power of collaboration and necessity of professional development at the forefront of our deliberations. These two items are why I think the calendar model that includes early dismissals is so vitally important. 

Teachers need consistent time built into the schedule that permits them time to collaborate. As you are aware, our collaboration time follows a strict protocol that centers on four very important questions: 1.) What is it we want our students to know and be able to do; 2.) How will we know if they are able to do it; 3.) What will we do for those students who have not yet mastered the content; 4.) What will we do to enrich those students who have mastered the content. By having this dedicated time to meet every week it ensures teachers have the opportunity to adjust instruction as it is occurring. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to compare data sets with colleagues and make collaborative decisions on instructional strategies that are proven to work! 

Scholarly research is also very clear that professional development that is embedded into instruction has a much higher likelihood of becoming part of routine practice. The Iowa Professional Development Model embodies this base of study: a theory of practice is presented, that strategy is demonstrated to practitioners who then put it into practice. Through peer coaching, the strategy is refined and improved upon thus improving student outcomes.

Eliminating early dismissals from our calendar would force professional development to be scheduled at the beginning or end of the school year, making it impossible to complete the cycle of the Iowa Professional Development Model and would relegate collaborative efforts to happenstance meetings that may or may not occur at the bookends of the school day. 

While something we could certainly do, there is no mistaking the fact this would at the very least violate the spirit of the Iowa Professional Development Model, derail our PLC efforts, and create unnecessary barriers for our teacher leadership system.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Matter of Perspective

I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to complete our survey regarding the academic calendar for the 2015-2016 school year. The perspective that you shared has been helpful! It is very clear the divergence of opinion on when school and should start and end will make it virtually impossible to create a calendar that everyone is pleased with. I wanted to take a few minutes to clarify a few things and share some insights.

Each year when we begin formulating the calendar a few families will comment that they wish we would start school after the state fair because of all the work their children have put in to prepare an exhibit. My response has inevitably always been, "No problem, your child can go to the fair. There will be no penalty for missing the first few days of school. They will be excused". This past year, I had one parent say, "Thanks, but you really don't get it. My child doesn't want to miss the first day of school either. They like school. They also enjoy the learning that goes with the state fair and deserve to have the opportunity to compete in this event." 

Good point. Yet that balancing act creates quite a challenge when planning the calendar.

This year when I first started to look at the academic calendar for the 2015-2016 school year, I realized that if we followed the same formulaic template as the past we would be starting school on August 13th. This of course just happens to be the first day of the state fair. I began to wonder if there were other options that could or should be considered. Some were mentioned in the survey that many of you completed. 

Some of you have opined that the state fair shouldn't dictate when school starts, but also believe that we should start a little later. If we have the opportunity to apply for a waiver, I would be inclined to recommend to the Board that we do so. At this time I don't know if we will apply for a waiver or not. That is a question for the Board to answer. We also don't know if we will qualify for a waiver based on the premise of a significant negative educational impact. That is a question for the Department of Education to answer. (I believe that too should be a question for the Board to answer, but will save that discussion for another time.)

Therein lies the paradox. A school start date that requires a waiver may still seem a bit early to many, but in my opinion starting later creates a significant negative educational impact. I suppose that is why the Department of Education has now decided to define exactly what constitutes a significant negative educational impact. My opinion and your opinion might be different. I just wish they would have waited until the 2016-2017 school year so we didn't have to start over from scratch.

For Hudson, it all comes down to aligning our calendars with the local colleges, particularly the end of the semesters. If we start school after the colleges have started, many of our students wouldn't be able to participate in concurrent enrollment and Post Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) courses. This by the way is another reason we want to finish the semester by winter break. If students are still finishing first semester courses in January when the second semester begins at the college, we have just compounded the challenge of providing the aforementioned courses to our students. Then there is the AP conundrum. Students take the AP exam during the second week of May--all across the nation. This date isn't set by the school district and we must follow the prescribed curriculum. If our students aren't ready we simply can't move the test back two weeks. Starting later could mean at least two weeks less of instructional time for these students. With an AP course you can't skip a chapter or two if you get behind, because all of that material is going to be on the AP exam. These are among the most rigorous courses that we offer in our school!

Does this constitute a significant negative educational impact? Well, I suppose it depends a bit on your perspective. From my perspective I think it does.

Although we are now permitted to count our calendar in hours, we still rely on days of instruction. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, 1,080 isn't the benchmark we are trying to reach--180 is. Within the confines of a 180 day calendar we exceed  the minimum number of hours required by law. That is because the length of our day already exceeds what is required under the 180 day calendar and always has. If we decided to use 1,080 hours as the benchmark, we would actually have less contact time with students than we ever had before. Hopefully you will all agree that this would create a significant negative educational impact!

Further, I am not sure making the day any longer is a wise decision. Our young learners need much more rest than we do. They are exhausted by the end of the day, and those of you that have young children at home know what I mean. Again that is just my perspective!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The One Word: Grateful

My one word for 2014 was 'finish'. It worked great and served as an outstanding anchor and motivator for completing my doctorate. That one word encapsulated a major personal goal many years in the making. Month after month whenever I lacked motivation to write, research, collect data, or study I thought of that one word: 'finish'. On December 8th, 2014 I defended my dissertation.

Instead of the traditional New Year resolution, the 'one little word' project seemed to work well for me. I have never been a New Year's resolution kind of guy, but this idea resonated with me. I didn't have to come up with a resolution and then have to bear witness to seeing it fall apart in a few weeks or months. For those of you that know me understand that a resolution probably isn't going to motivate me to exercise or eat better. The 'one little word' is much cleaner and seems to work, at least for me. 

As this year began, I started to think about what my word should be for 2015. At first it was actually harder than I expected because I didn't have a goal to work toward. Unlike this past year, I wouldn't be able to proclaim on January 1, 2016: Mission Accomplished! I did it! Then I remembered that there is no right or wrong word, and it is not necessarily about a goal. The word is about me and about how I want to approach each day of 2015!

I finally settled on the word 'grateful'. There are so many things in my life for which I am incredibly grateful. Sometimes when the grind and grit of everyday life is happenings all around I tend to forget what wonderful gifts I have been given. At the top of the list is my family! They are my inspiration and give me the support necessary to stay grounded in all that I do. 

I am also incredibly grateful for all the wonderful people that I am privileged to work with day in and day out. The passion that our staff has for their vocation is inspiring! They work so hard everyday to ensure that the students in our schools are given a robust and exciting learning experience. The care they show for the children in their charge makes me proud to be superintendent at Hudson!

Now I close that chapter of my life that was 2014 and look forward to all the richness and excitement that comes with 2015, I resolve to be grateful and remember that even when the day isn't going so hot, there are still many things to be grateful for!

What will your word be?