Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Our Secret Formula

We sometimes will receive an email or phone call from a school district somewhere in Iowa that wants to come and learn from us. With the guidance department being a regular presenter at the annual ACT conference in Ames, and recently presenting at the National Dropout Prevention Conference in Louisville, Kentucky it is no surprise. Many people want to hear about the homework policy (see Student/Parent Handbook page 46) and are looking to replicate our results. The number of students who fail courses is very  low and the percentage of students graduating is very high. The homework policy is based on a very simple principle: doing homework isn't an option. In addition to this, academic achievement of Hudson students consistently exceeds expected growth in math and reading in almost all metrics. Further, 78% of the Class of 2014 took the ACT with a composite of 23.6  compared to a state composite of 22, and a national composite of 21. A recent caller shared that he "heard a rumor that no one was ineligible for extra-curricular activities last semester in the high school". Not a rumor--a fact.

It is always our pleasure to visit with colleagues in other school districts! At the conclusion of these visits I am usually invited to share a perspective from the district level. I typically offer the opinion that words are easy--in fact anyone can say that homework isn't an option. It is the execution of the policy that is very difficult, and requires a commitment on the part of everyone: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and board members. Admittedly I wasn't around during the inception of the policy, but have been honored to be the custodian and beneficiary of this hard work. The expectation that homework isn't optional is firmly rooted and pretty much a non-issue at this point, some twelve years or so later. Sure, there are some minor 'dust-ups' every now and again, but for the most part the system is functioning well and has become an embedded part of our culture.

Yet our story extends beyond the homework policy or the multitude of other practices that make up our little slice of Iowa. It is in the people who work here every day that hold not only the students accountable, but one another. It is about our attention to the environment and the fact that we take reported incidents of bullying and harassment very seriously. It is about backing our words up with actions. We are very careful to 'say what we mean' and 'mean what we say'. It is not by mere happenstance that our rate of founded cases of bullying and harassment are very low. It is because of a laser-like focus on the finding the truth and applying the appropriate policy when it does happen.

The other night between basketball games I had a chance to engage in a casual conversation with one of our patrons who also just happens to have quite a bit of school experience. This wizened fellow has the pleasure of interacting with students on a regular basis in our district and in many districts in the area. He shared that he really enjoys coming to Hudson and that our students are always very respectful and well behaved. That conversation wasn't out of the norm! Just a few days ago, I received a nice note from a parent who was visiting with a friend from another district. That friend went out of her way to comment on how nice and respectful our young people were.

Then there were the visitors a few weeks back that wanted to know how we did it. So we asked them, what was it that drove you to pick up the phone and call Hudson? Did you hear someone speak at a conference? Were you referred by a neighboring school district?

It was none of these. The individual stated that one of our athletic teams had recently visited their school:
"Upon entering the gym, your team noticed one of our employees moving some boxes and equipment around the gym to get ready for the game. Without being asked, your athletes simply set their bags down and began helping. I don't believe our kids would have responded in the same way. I was impressed". 
So then, after sharing the requisite policies and procedures it is important to talk about the individuals that make up the organization. For starters, without a commitment to the system the initiative or policy is doomed to fail. This type of hard work requires caring individuals with a focus to make sure everyone is held accountable for the success of our students. Success comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, and means many different things. Certainly we can point to the academic successes that we have. But equally important is that when our young people leave Hudson they leave as good people. I am proud of all their accomplishments, but nothing makes prouder than hearing stories like those described above!

I argue that the culture of our district is a large part of the success we have. Culture is tough, and it takes a very long time to mold the culture of a school. It can't happen overnight. Our culture is borne and lived out every day in our Core Purpose: To Create Effective Learning Environments That Result in Success for All Students. Our employees take that responsibility very seriously.

So what's in that 'Secret Sauce'? I would say that a lot of it has to do with our people (students and teachers alike). They are amazing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

If You Don't Participate Now You'll Regret it Later

Listen up students, because this week I am talking directly to you. I have some important words of advice for you, and it starts with this: If I had only known then what I know now.

There are many activities that I could have participated in as a high school student. I was pretty involved, but that involvement was limited mainly to music activities. At the time the excuse was that I was too busy. But with the passage of time I realize that I wasn't all that busy. Lazy perhaps, but busy--not so much.

While athletics, music, and drama give many adults in our community a sense of pride and a jolt of exciting entertainment on any given night, that is really not the point of these programs. The point of these programs is to provide opportunities for you--our students and children. We believe participation in these activities will teach you many things beyond the skills that you learn on the field or stage. Your involvement in high school extra-curricular programs will provide a valuable linkage and connection to your school, a sense of pride, and enrich your educational experience. Twenty years from now when your own children are playing, I hope you have fond memories of your high school experience.

We are here to cheer you on and want you to succeed; we feel good about those successes and proud that your hard work has paid off. It doesn't get  much better than seeing you win a close game with a shot as the clock is running out or when you win the Grand Championship trophy at the show choir competition. But we feel even better when we know that you have become involved with that team and have learned more than just the playing a zone defense in basketball. 

This has been a special year for many of you and it has been a lot of fun to watch. I have especially enjoyed watching those of you that may have taken that chance for the first time this school year to get involved. It takes a great deal of courage to decide in the fourth quarter of your high school career to try something new.

So, if you haven't been involved please act before it's too late. Don't be afraid to try something new. There are plenty of reasons to sign up, I can't think of one not too.

And who knows, you might just get that chance to score a bucket as your classmates cheer you on! That students, is something that you will remember for a lifetime! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

1985 is Still Calling--But No One is Answering the Phone!

There is no mistaking the fact that the General Assembly has a lot on their plate this session. Notwithstanding the fact that some of the work load is self-inflicted. Missing a deadline for setting supplemental state aid for example doesn't do anything to make their jobs any easier. The consequences for this extend beyond the budgetary quibble in which we currently find ourselves. This tends to delay the accomplishment of other important legislative work that we are counting on in schools. It would be a shame if some of these important decisions were pushed into the next session. The outcome would no doubt put school districts in a position of 'changing the tires while the car is moving down the road'. Although we are becoming quite used to it by now!

Yet I am still urging the legislature to take action on the Assessment Task Force's recommendation to adopt the Smarter Balance Assessments in time for the 2016-2017 school year. We should honor the work this dedicated group of Iowans embarked on and seriously consider what they have endorsed to become Iowa's next accountability test that will in part measure our efforts at implementing the Iowa Core. Currently, no legislation has been introduced in either chamber to take up this issue.

The Iowa Assessments are the current measure of student achievement used in our state to ensure accountability for the purpose of both state and federal mandates. With the passage of House File 215, the legislature set the stage to select the successor to the Iowa Assessment with the formation of this task force. Beginning in October of 2013, this task force met for over a year before finally delivering a recommendation in time for the 2015 General Assembly. Their report can be read here.

If you are a regular consumer of this blog, then you hopefully understand the urgency of this decision. The Iowa Assessments are the repackaged version of the tests we all took growing up as students and products of Iowa schools. At that time we called them Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in the elementary and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development in the high school. I can vividly remember many aspects of taking those tests in 1985. For example, the ritual of making sure we all had our sharpened number two pencils is one that I can still recall (with plenty of backups in case the lead broke on one in the middle of the exam). And that long line of students stretching to the back of the room, patiently waiting our turn at the hand crank pencil sharpener. Or the monotone delivery of the instructions from my teacher saying "You will have 20 minutes to complete this test. You may!" Then all our little heads would bow down to our bubble sheets and test booklets. And then, finally finishing the test with a big sigh of relief and looking carefully around the room to see if anyone else was done, wondering if I had finished too quickly, or if the 'smart' kids in the room were already finished.

I'll bet there are a lot of parents out there right now that can reminisce about their experience with the ITBS as well! You might even be sitting there right now nodding your heads and saying, 'Yep. That's it exactly!' I sometimes run across one or two people who will tell me they used the ITBS as an opportunity to hone their skills as an artist by making intricate designs on the bubble sheet. (I know of at least one that currently works for me--don't worry--your secret is safe!)

Unfortunately this right of passage for our young people has not a changed much since you and I took these tests. The format is exactly the same with the bubble sheets, booklets, and your twenty minutes to complete the math computation test. Heck, there are still questions on the test that ask students to use a paper map to figure out directions on how to get somewhere. This is 2015. Who uses a paper map anymore? I know, some of these skills that are transferable, but come on! Consider this: before calculators math was taught with a slide ruler and abacus. Who wants to go back there?

Set aside the antiquated nature of the exam, the multiple choice 'recall' format; this test does a decent job of measuring 20th Century Skills,  but a woefully inadequate job of measuring 21st Century Skills. Perhaps these points are symptomatic of much greater malaise: the alignment of these tests with what we are supposed to be teaching in our classrooms. The fact that the Iowa Assessments don't align very well to the Iowa Core has been well documented and studied extensively. You will recall the arguments I made about this very disconnect in my December blog post: A Smarter Way to Assess the Iowa Core.

Through the course of their study, the Assessment Task Force recognized this and subsequently voted 20-1 to recommend the Smarter Balance Assessment as the new assessment for Iowa students beginning in the 2016-2017 school year. Let's get this done now! The phone is ringing!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What's Good for the Goose...

Recently a colleague posed the question: What would happen if we disregarded the December 12th memo proclaiming early start waivers would no longer be automatically granted and instead just started school when we had originally planned? After a moment of uncomfortable awkwardness, it was recommended my colleague not do that. It was further explained, "We are now talking about violating state law". The consequences of which might include a 1/180 deduction in state aid for every day (the school is in session) prior to the earliest start date permitted by Iowa law. That was enough to cause the crowd of superintendents from all across Iowa to shift uncomfortably in their chairs! No school district is in a position where they would risk a deduction of state aid in order to make a point about local control. 

This certainly suggests we take violations of state law seriously--unless of course it is the state legislature that is in violation of state law. Unfortunately there are no tools available to ensure accountability for our legislators like there are for school districts, particularly as it relates to the statutory deadline for setting supplemental state aid. (See Code of Iowa 257.8) I might suggest the pay of said legislators be docked at a per diem rate each day past the deadline?

Thus we are all aware of the debate going on right now regarding supplemental state aid for school districts in the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015. We should all be reminded that this debate should have concluded within 30 days of the Governor releasing his budget targets last year. Right now, the debate should be on the amount of supplemental state aid for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2016. We haven't even gotten to that yet, although the governor has recommended 2.45% for that fiscal year. 

My suspicion is that we will not have a final decision on state supplemental aid for either of these fiscal years within the 30 day window as required by law. The legislature is already in violation of this state law from last year and there were no consequences, so what difference does it make if the deadline is missed again?

Of course I can already hear the claims that a good faith effort was made to meet the deadline. The Iowa House will likely assert 'Mission Accomplished' with their passage last week of a 1.25% growth rate. With a straight face nonetheless. My colleagues and I will argue that it is disingenuous to suggest a deadline was met when the work completed was unsatisfactory. In school, teachers won't accept a student work product if it doesn't meet the basic requirements of the task. Just because a student pencil whips (slang) an assignment does not imply they met a deadline.

So we will have a claim that in fact supplemental state aid was set, at 1.25%, and within the prescribed timeline. Even though we have hard data that refutes any attempt made to suggest this is adequate. Nonetheless, that is where funding currently stands even though the Iowa economy is strong. The unemployment rate as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was 4.1% in December, below the national average. This is a drop from 4.5% in July, ergo more people which in turn means a broader tax base. In addition, the Revenue Estimating Conference in December revised their projections upward for both FY 2015 and FY 2016. These numbers suggest a spending limit of $7.5 Billion for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2015. The budget proposed by the Governor recommends around $7.3 Billion in spending. Iowa law coincidentally states that the General Fund budget cannot exceed 99% of available revenues. I could understand the Governor's self imposed spending limit if the State's cash reserves were not full--but they are. What happened to the other $200-$300 Million?

An often heard argument in setting supplemental state aid so low is to avoid committing more in expenses than is available in revenue. The legislature points to the 2010 across the board cut of 10% as an example of when this recently happened. While somewhat concerning, the important consideration in this case was that even though the funding was cut; districts retained the spending authority. As you have heard me say many times, in Iowa School Finance it all comes down to spending authority.

The legislature does not want to be in a position to spend reserves for recurring expenses. If you recall, I made this same argument last week but used our school district as the example. "Every one of you out there know that it is not a wise practice to spend our savings on recurring costs."

This is the case our legislature is making for setting a low state supplemental aid. Indeed a good point--if not pardoxal because this forces school districts into that position exactly. Or a good point if the spending plan exceeded the available revenue and forced the state to spend reserve funds (which this doesn't). School districts will, however, be forced to pay for recurring expenses from reserves (or one time money). Recall my comments about short term deficit spending?

Finally there seems to be a recognition (at least in the Governor's office) that day to day operational costs are increasing. We have said time and time again that just in the normal order of business we should expect costs to increase year over year. You can call it cost of living increases or rate of inflation, it doesn't matter to me. The fact is our cost of electricity alone is rising at about a rate of 3% annually.

The Governor understands that day to day operations are increasing. That is evidenced by his budget proposal to increase spending in the Office of the Governor by $200,000 (or 9.1%). 
So the key points to remember?
  1. Laws are meant to be broken: unless you are school district.
  2. We cannot use reserves for recurring expenses: unless you are a school district.
  3. Day to day operations are increasing: unless you are a school district.