Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Foundations in Education

Is this Washington D.C.? Nope, it's Iowa.

Pardon my play on the quote made famous in the 1989 film 'Field of Dreams'. In that movie, Shoeless Joe Jackson, (Ray Liotta) asks Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) "Is this Heaven"? To which Kinsella replies, "No, its Iowa". Like many of you, I am proud to be a lifelong Iowan and can't imagine living anywhere else. Whenever my wife and I vacation, we are always happy when we return home. While we enjoy visiting other states, there really is no place like Iowa. Sometimes those of us living here forget the beauty of our state. Anyway, I can remember when that movie was made, and how excited we all were that Iowa was being showcased in a major Hollywood movie! We wanted to let everyone know what a great place Iowa was (and is)! Not only that, we have a reputation of being a relaxed citizenry that treats folks with respect. You have probably even heard the phrase that we are 'Iowa Nice'.

So why the Washington, D.C. reference? Because our state legislature is behaving like Congress. I don't know if you have checked lately, but Congress has an approval rating of about 15%. They can't seem to get anything done. Kind of like our state legislature. We are deep into the legislative session, well past the first funnel deadline and still have some pretty significant unfinished business. Business that left undone and delayed quite simply puts school districts in a bind. Just like Congress, our General Assembly can't seem to accomplish the most basic of tasks. Further, Iowa has long valued education and has a history of putting it first. In fact, our state quarter proclaims that our Foundations are in Education. I am not certain we are still in a position to make this proclamation.

We are over a year late in determining state supplemental aid for the school year that is set to begin on July 1st 2015, and going on six weeks late in determining state supplemental aid for the school year that is set to begin on July 1st, 2016. Our budget for the next fiscal year was recently certified by the school board without knowing supplemental state aid. Unlike the state legislature we have to follow the law. As you know, the big hangup right now is the amount that the state cost per pupil is set to grow. There are currently two proposals that are stuck in a conference committee that is gridlocked: 1.25% or 4.00%. Please be reminded, these two numbers do not represent the amount that a school budget will grow, but rather the percentage that the state cost per pupil will increase. Basic school funding is calculated by multiplying the number of students by the cost per pupil. So budget growth is directly tied to supplemental state aid and enrollment. At 1.25%, Hudson's budget growth will be .59% or $25,895; while at 4.00%, Hudson's budget growth will be at .70% or $30,592. So for us we had a pretty good idea of budget growth, and it is not sufficient. By the way, we called for supplemental state aid of 6%, which translates to 2.58% of actual budget growth or $113,396. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. But yet for us, the tricky part in this whole mess is that supplemental state aid has a direct impact on you, the taxpayer. Interestingly, the higher state supplemental aid is, the lower your property tax rate! This is because of a complicated mechanism in Iowa School Finance known as the budget guarantee (I'll explain how that works in a future post).

Meanwhile, when does school start next year? That is the other million dollar question to which we don't have an answer. In a normal year, I introduce calendar options to the board in January after receiving feedback from parents, teachers, and anyone else who cares to give an opinion. At that January meeting, the board has the final say and gives me direction on which calendar option they like the best. We set a hearing for February and subsequently finalize the calendar at that meeting. None of that has been decided yet. Because the Department of Education decided they would be changing they way in which waivers were granted, it kind up upset the apple cart! Now, we are waiting to see how the legislature responds. Again we have two competing bills--one that sets the earliest start date to include the week of August 23rd, while the other calls for a complete repeal of the 1985 law, returning the authority of setting the school calendar solely to the school board where it belongs. Until we know for certain the board can't really take any action. Sure, we have started to get some phone calls on this--people wanting to know when school is going to start. All I can really say is that we are either going to start on August 24th or August 31st.

There you have it. Two big issues that need to be resolved sooner rather than later. Come on Iowa! Let's be nice and make us all proud of that Iowa quarter! We need our General Assembly to work together! Let's remember, this isn't Washington, D.C.! It's Iowa!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Music Programs Round Out the Educational Experience

The last two weeks have been filled with outstanding music performances by both our vocal and instrumental music programs here at Hudson. Last week we were treated to the annual 'Fill the Aud' concert where our award winning jazz bands and show choirs performed. This week we enjoyed the 'Parade of Bands', a wonderful showcase of the concert bands that our school district has to offer. Both were absolutely amazing evenings of entertainment! I thoroughly enjoy seeing the growth these young people make over the course of their formative music education years! To see our students as novice musicians in 5th or 6th grade, and how they improve over the course of 5 years is utterly astounding! I sure hope these youngsters are able to look at their peers in the high school and know that all that hard work will ultimately pay off! 

No one can argue with the success of our music program. Week after week our show choir competes at very high levels, consistently bringing home championship trophies. This past weekend our jazz band once again secured a spot in the state jazz championships that will be held in Des Moines later in the month. At state contest, our groups consistently secure division one ratings year after year. This has become our expectation, and has helped us build a reputation of excellence.

As audience members, what we are treated to is a finished product. Believe me when I say this, it takes a tremendous amount of hard work and practice to get a musical performance ready for what we hear on concert night! While the skill level of our teachers and musicians certainly make it look easy and seamless, they are only able to arrive at this high level of performance through hard work and perseverance. We were not present during the early morning rehearsals when our musicians were tackling a particularly difficult phrase. We were also not there during the dance rehearsal, and when the students thought they just couldn't do anymore heard the director say 'One more time, please.' Or the time the director said, 'Close, but let's try it again--but this time with more staccato'. We didn't see the constant strive to perfection, and knowing that no matter what---it will remain just beyond reach. That is the beauty of music!

Music teaches much more than what is obvious. Indeed it teaches the love of the art, the passion of a composition, and the skill of learning a musical instrument or mastering a rich vocal technique with a stable vibrato. Set aside for a moment the deep research base that draws a correlation between the study of music and the benefits to student achievement, particularly as they relate to reading and math. Music brings meaning to life! It instructs our young people about teamwork, fellowship, and the value of hard work. It shows young people that perseverance has tremendous dividends!

The month of March is one where we typically try to celebrate music programs in schools. I contend that we shouldn't just recognize the value of music during the month of March, but all through the school year. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Perspective on the FAST Assessment

Guest Blog by Mr. Schlatter

As part of the Early Literacy Act, the State of Iowa has required school districts to start screening their students in grades K-3 for indications of reading struggles. To do this, the Hudson School district has chosen to use the state approved FAST (Formative Assessment System for Teachers) test. This screening tool is a battery of tests which measure different early literacy skills/ abilities at different grade levels. The battery includes…

At Kindergarten – Letter Naming, Letter Sounds, Onset Sounds, Sight Words, Concepts about Print, Word Segmenting, and Nonsense Words
At First Grade- Sight Words, Word Segmenting, Nonsense Words, Sentence Reading, CBM Reading and aReading
At Second & Third Grades – CBM Reading and aReading

The concept of screening students for indicators of reading success is not something new to Hudson. For years, we have used the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy Success) and DIBELS Next tools. Data collected from these screeners has been collected and shared with students/parents. Within the school, data collected from these tools has been used to guide instruction and measure student growth.
                So, you might be asking “What’s new then?” What is new is that the legislation now requires school districts to notify parents/guardians of non-proficient students and let them know that their child is “substantially discrepant” within the area of reading. When parents and I hear that term, it makes us shudder! For parents, it implies a message that says my child is way behind and can’t read. For me, it implies that schools/teachers are not doing their job. And in either case, I don’t believe those messages to be true!
To justify this, let’s look at a few things. First, data shows that student literacy growth is occurring. Many of our students, who were classified as being substantially discrepant, have made great growth since the first testing period. Unfortunately, this growth isn’t what gets all the attention. Instead, we focus on the only term supported by the state (substantially discrepant). And, that’s sad. I recognize that the State is sending a message to everyone that reading counts; and I fully agree and support that. The part that I struggle with is that fact that the one benchmark score is used as the one ultimate indicator from which we declare a student “substantially discrepant”.  The second thing I would like to focus on is the effort that schools/teachers are putting towards meeting the literacy needs of our students. In my years of education, I have never been part of a time when teachers are working harder, and yet feeling so deflated on the public front. For example, this year we have asked our teachers to implement a new English/Language Arts curriculum which brings a new philosophy and a variety of new resources with it. Therefore, year one of implementation has been a year of exploration and survival all at the same time. Because of this, teachers have had to spend a vast amount of time and energy figuring out what to do and how to do it within the new Wonders Program. By itself, this has been a daunting task. Now, add the new FAST tool and all its nuisances of it on top and you can see why many teachers feel a little overwhelmed. Yet, they come with hearts dedicated to doing their best and giving all they can so that their students/your children grow and learn. 
Growing and learning is what schools are all about, and with that I have no debate. At Hudson, we are committed to building an educational system that works. This means we will continue to look at our resources (time, people, curriculum, partnerships with UNI and with families, etc.) and evaluate how we are using them. Meeting the new expectations behind the ELA legislation is challenging, but not unattainable. There are some parts of the new Early Literacy Law that don’t make sense to us who are in the trenches. But this won’t prevent us from giving it our best to attain the lofty expectations that it places on us. So please join forces with us in this journey. Your children are growing and it is our hope that no one ever gets saddled with the label “substantially discrepant”.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Teacher Leadership Benefits Students

As one of the early adopters of a teacher leadership system in Iowa, we have had the unique opportunity to build something that has never been attempted at this scale. We are honored to share with others what we have learned, and the results so far are quite promising. If we go back a few years when the idea of teacher leadership was first conceptualized as a vehicle to drive student outcomes, we didn't quite have the same level of support. In fact there were many that didn't believe this was the right course for Iowa schools. I was among the skeptical and voiced my reservations. Now I can clearly see the brain power that has been unleashed when we put teachers in leadership positions. It's too bad we didn't do this earlier.

Many suggested that it might be a wiser investment if we instead used these dollars to increase the length of the school year. Some opined that an infusion of capital to add days (or hours) to the school calendar might be a better option. In reality it is not much of a stretch to make this argument when considering the time commitment necessary to implement the Iowa Core with fidelity. However, our study of the Core suggests that depth is perhaps more important than mere coverage. Having longer or more days of instruction will probably not be the complete answer if giving our student the ability to think deeply and critically, solve problems, and work collaboratively is the preferred outcome. If instead, we think it is more beneficial to regurgitate facts and figures without context, and simply 'cover content' then perhaps a different argument should be made. I don't believe that to be the case. Nonetheless this argument is moot considering the fact that any attempts to lengthen the school year would be met with fierce resistance from our friends in the tourism industry.

In the traditional paradigm, when a young person isn't successful in the classroom our intervention would be simply to reteach the material. Teachers would go back to their toolkit of strategies and deploy another technique. Indeed a simple concept, and if it worked--good for us. However, data suggests this does not always work. If it did we wouldn't be having this conversation now, would we? The question then becomes, what happens when the teacher runs out of strategies to try or deploy? What happens when they come across a particularly difficult problem of practice that has never been seen before? Who shall they turn to? Well, we fall back on what we know. This might include trying those same strategies again, that we already know don't work--but the twist this time might be to do them a little slower and louder (pardon me, I am being a bit tongue and cheek here)!

We can all agree that is absurd. It would be like trying to communicate with someone who speaks Portuguese as their native language in English really loud and slow!  

The same is true for education. If an instructional strategy isn't producing the desired results for a subset of learners, it makes little sense to repeat that strategy an infinite number of times and expect the results to be any different. That is where the power of teacher leadership is really beginning to show promise, not only here at Hudson, but at the other 38 school districts that are also implementing these systems as part of the first wave.

Our system is anchored by a team of 3 instructional coaches who work with a cadre of model teachers. Their primary mission is to support the work of teachers in the classroom and to develop the skills of those teachers. For example, they are bringing new and research based instructional strategies to the classroom that will address that problem of practice! Imagine a scenario where a subset of students isn't successfully grasping the concept of fractions, and the strategies that have been tried by the classroom teacher just aren't working. By the way, this isn't a fault of the teacher or the students--it is a fault of the strategy! Now, let's give the strategy a break too, because it still may be effective in some instances, but just not this problem of practice. Teacher leadership provides a mechanism where the instructional coach can work in concert with the model teacher and classroom practitioner to design and deploy an effective strategy to that subset of students!

That, my friends is the purpose of teacher leadership!