Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What Does Your Future Look Like?

Our seniors, and to some extent our juniors, are carefully considering their options when they get out of high school. Certainly time is much more critical for our seniors, but if those of you that are in the 11th grade haven't started this process yet, I would encourage you to start giving your future some serious consideration. 

Regardless of the path you choose, in order for you to find success in life you are going to need some post-secondary training. For many of you this will mean a four year college degree. Others will pursue a two year degree, a special certification, or may even go into the military. No matter what, you will need to choose one of those options because the chances of graduating high school and landing a high paying job that will satisfy your quest for a lifetime of happiness is slim. However, to automatically assume that your dream job is going to require a four year college degree is also patently false. Unfortunately, we have not done a good job of properly articulating this point and as a result, many young people have gone on to earn Bachelor degrees they simply don't need. Compound that with the fact that some young adults then take a lower paying job with a large debt load, it becomes clear that we may have done a disservice to not only our youth, but to society as a whole. I'll get to that in a moment. 

When I went to college I majored in music. Many young people don't have a realistic grasp on the world, particularly when it comes to understanding what the job market is going to look like for them. As a young person I  was no different and tended to look at life through rose colored glasses. So as a 'performance major', I assumed that I would get my Bachelor Degree, move to the big city and become a recording artist. I actually said that. To people. With a straight face.

This is really no different than the young high school football player who thinks they are going to end up playing in the NFL. According to the NCAA, approximately $1.1 Million boys play high school football. Of that, only 6.5% end up playing at the collegiate level. And of that 6,5%? Only 1.6% are drafted by the NFL. Pretty long odds if you ask me, but we can all dream, right?

It was clear to everyone except me that I didn't have the chops to be the next Garth Brooks. But I was lucky to have adults in my life that cared enough about me and my future. They helped me to realize that I had a passion for education and that when I talked about the impact that my teachers had on me, it became clear that education was a much better and more realistic fit for my future. Truth be told, I believe now that had I moved to Nashville or Manhattan after college I might be living under a bridge right now!

So when choosing that path to the future whatever it might be, it is worth doing extensive research. Because even with what may have at one time have been considered the 'Gold Standard' of credentialing, the Bachelor Degree, you may not be on the path to prosperity that you think. Unfortunately there are a number of college graduates who are underemployed and working in what are known as 'gray collar jobs' (in other words their chosen career doesn't match their training or the debt load they now carry). I had plenty of friends in college who were living in their own version of fantasy land. I remember one guy who was majoring in philosophy. When asked what he was going to do with a philosophy major, he told me, "Well I am going to be a Philosopher of course". What does that pay again?

The point is that it really pays to do your homework before making some pretty substantial decisions that are going to impact your life in a very significant and long term way. That is where I would strongly encourage you to spend some time with Mrs. Baltz if you haven't already done so. Part of her job is steering you in the right direction with regard to possible careers and the training that you will need. Also, if you haven't checked out the video above, please do so. One of the most striking claims made in this post is that of the 60% of high school students who enroll in a four year institution, only one quarter actually graduate!

You should also take notice of what is described as the 1:2:7 ratio. For every position that requires a MA or PhD, there are two jobs for someone with a BA, and of those, each is backed by an additional seven jobs that require a one year certificate or a two year degree--and these jobs are considered high skilled and high pay jobs! What is more interesting is that while as a society we have been beating the drum of 'college for all', the statistics don't bear this out. This 1:2:7 ratio is the same today as it was in 1950 and as it is expected to be in 2030! A study by Harvard University suggests that in 2018, 33% of jobs will require a four year degree while 57% will be known as 'high skill jobs'. 

I mentioned above this not only impacts our youth, but society in general. Consider the decrease in the buying power of our economy if students are underemployed and burdened with debt. What if instead of becoming a homeowner, you become a student loan owner? 

How about the fact that many high skilled jobs in our own community are going unfilled? Many of these jobs, right here in Hudson are good paying jobs. Further, there is the false belief that in order to land that high paying job the only way to do so is to move away to a big city. While this may be true in many cases particularly when looking at averages, it doesn't tell the whole story. 

Think about that for a  minute. The average salary for someone in business management is $105,000 and the average salary for an electrician is $51,000. A business manager credential requires a Bachelor Degree while an electrician is a highly skilled job requiring a certificate and an apprenticeship. When examining the averages, it clearly suggests the person that is a business manager will make a lot more money. But what if the electrician is above average and the business manager is below average? Have you looked at the video above yet? If you  haven't I think it is time--you will be amazed at the results. Oh, and you need to consider the training that is required for both positions. If you are a below average person in business, you certainly aren't going to make that large salary--but you will have the cost and debt to pay for that credential.

You might be surprised to know that you probably don't have to look too far away from our own community to see some pretty lucrative opportunities. Have an interest in being an automotive technician? A position like this starts in the range of $17/hour, which equates to roughly $35,000 annually. On top of that you can expect to receive benefits. And the more certifications you get under your belt the more you can earn. In case you are wondering, those wages are comparable to a starting teacher. Since we already covered electricians in our example above, how about a plumber, HVAC technician, or a heavy equipment operator? These jobs also start in the range of $18-$25/hour with benefits. By mid career, if you are a hard worker that is good at your craft, it is not out of reach to earn between $60,000-$80,000 annually in any of these above mentioned vocations! Now to be fair, you aren't going to graduate from high school and roll up to Mr. Colwell or Mr. Petersen and get a job. You are going to need some additional training and a certification. But want to know another little secret about that? In some of these cases firms will pay for your training and apprenticeship--if you have the aptitude of course. 

Now, if you are convinced that you are going to be the next winner of American Idol, starting quarterback for the Vikings, or if you want to be a philosopher, then that is your choice. I will cheer for you and support you. But please, know exactly what you are signing up for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Balance of Power

Back on October 9th I received an email from a colleague that the Department of Revenue was proposing a change to one of the rules regarding the application of sales tax in Iowa. After sorting through some of the misinformation that we had received, it was discovered that some items that had previously been subject to sales tax would become exempt under this rule change. As consumers, we all know that some of the goods that we purchase are sales tax exempt. For example, most items that we buy at the grocery store are not taxed. What this rule would do is expand the number of items that are sales tax exempt. Hold on though--the rule is not intended to grow the list of items for the consumer, it is designed to broaden the list for manufacturers. In practice, it will increase the list to include items used in the manufacture of goods. I would give you an example, but I am not exactly sure what those might be. 

Stadium lighting funded through
Capital Project fund.
Summer, 2015.
To remind everyone, sales tax revenue for school districts is used exclusively for capital improvement projects and the purchase of equipment and hardware for schools. In conjunction with our Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL), we use our sales tax revenue to purchase such items as computers for students, school buses, and desks for classrooms. These funds are also used for the improvement of our facilities. Specifically such projects as the construction of parking lots at Hudson, the installation of football field lights, the purchase of real estate, and the construction of the greenhouse have all been funded with sales tax or PPEL. Expanding the list of exemptions will have a negative impact on school funding. 

The current school sales tax is scheduled to sunset in 2029, and economists estimate a loss of $98 Million to $196 Million over the life of the sales tax statewide if this rule change goes into effect. If we put that in our local perspective, that suggests a loss in revenue for Hudson schools somewhere between $135,957 and $256,065. This means that some future project probably won't get done.

This change comes about in response to a petition from the Iowa Taxpayers Association. In that petition, they ask for this rule change. Many people believe that issues of taxation and this type of policy making is reserved for the legislature and that this rule making shifts the balance of power. The fact is, this bill has been proposed several times and has not garnered the support necessary for legislative approval. The balance of power issue is raised because the Department of Revenue is under the authority of the executive branch. 

Elementary restroom renovation funded through Capital
Project fund. Summer, 2015.
Unfortunately this isn't the first time the question of balance of power has been raised--again to the detriment of local school districts. A similar petition was presented to the Department of Education and State Board of Education (again, under the authority of the executive branch) a few years ago from the Iowa Tourism Industry asking for a change to the school start date. The State Board, rightly so in this case, ruled that they were unable to circumvent the legislative process. Regrettably that was a victory short lived, because the governor issued a statement in December of last year that set in motion the calendars that all school districts in Iowa now live by. True, this was resolved through legislative process; however there was no real alternative. 

The Administrative Rules Committee, which is made up of 10 legislators (five from each chamber and five from each party) met to consider the rule change last week. The committee voted to reject the rule change, but the motion failed on a 5:5 vote. This means the rule will go into effect on July 1, 2016 unless the legislature and governor change it with legislation. The chances of this happening are slim. 

Real estate acquisition (hotel property) funded through
Capital Project fund. Summer, 2015.
This couldn't come at a worse time for Iowa schools! Coupled with six years of the lowest levels of state supplemental aid since the inception of the school foundation formula, this only adds to the challenges of meeting the needs of local school districts. In addition to this rule change, when we consider the fact it comes on the heels of a $55.6 Million veto of school funding it really makes people wonder.

Are schools and education in Iowa considered an investment in our future or a burden on society?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Expanding Connected Learning

Earlier in the calendar year the Board of Directors asked the administration to re-examine our connected learning initiative. There was interest in advancing our timeline for expansion. Specifically, enthusiasm was evident to include the seventh and eighth grade in the one to one project. In addition, questions were posed about the next step for technology infusion in the elementary school. What might that look like?

Originally, our vision suggested adding these two grade levels during a reboot of computers in the high school. At that point, the 'old' machines that the high school students were using would be redeployed to the elementary school, and the new inventory would be expanded to include 7-12 grade. Roughly, this timeline would have been in another year and a half. But then the Board asked, "How about January of 2016?" Bold!

At first we thought there would be no possible way. After all, we hadn't done all the legwork and research that would be necessary to expand this project. On the surface, this seemed to be a massive undertaking with multiple moving parts in a very short time frame. How would we do the roll out? Would the students be able to take the machines home? Probably most important from my standpoint, could we support this financially?

Then this fall, we began to take very serious stock of where we were. The fact is, all of our seventh and eighth grade faculty have the same training as the high school faculty. Further, the majority of that staff also teach classes in the high school.  When you consider this from a training point of view, it wasn't really that much of a stretch. Teachers in the high school began to intimate that when they taught their classes in the middle school, there seemed to be a disconnect. The extra inventory that we had was being requested by these teachers for use in the middle school. 

An important consideration was the inventory and financial implications of making this leap. We crunched the numbers and quickly realized that we weren't too far off from where we needed to be. It is beginning to look very much like we will be able to make this happen. On Friday this week, the technology team and I will meet to finalize a recommendation for the Board's consideration at the regular meeting scheduled on October 19th. This recommendation could suggest that we begin the deployment in January of 2016 to include grades 7-12, hopefully in alignment with the start of the second semester.

That only answers part of the question because if you recall, further questions were posed about what our plans might be for the elementary school. Those plans are still under development, but it is apparent that whatever that might look like will be part of a grander scheme for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Here is what we agree on right now: we do not see a 1-1 option for the elementary. There are too many tasks that are done in the elementary that don't necessarily lend themselves to this type of environment. However, we are having serious discussion about adding multiple iPad mobile carts to grades K-4. Right now we are contemplating testing the ubiquitous deployment of iPads in the elementary by having a group of teachers test the system this spring and act as a resource for teachers in advance of a much larger roll out in the fall. Again, this doesn't mean a direct 1-1 deployment of these devices, and they certainly will not be going home with our young learners!

You may have took note that there was no mention of 5th and 6th grade. We are still working on that, but there appears to be support for moving those grade levels to laptops as well. This would likely be part of the final roll out scheduled for the 2016-2017 school year.

In our final analysis one of the most important variables to consider is the faculty. We have to move forward, but we have to do so in a deliberate manner that ensures our teachers are ready. In my discussions, I have reminded them that a move like this will not be easy. In many cases it will be harder and will require some risk taking. They will not have all the answers and, while we can provide a rigorous training regimen, they will still be left with additional questions.

In the coming months we are eager to continue this dialogue with our faculty and develop a plan that makes sense for our young learners. We need to make sure all learners are ready for the world they are entering!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Cars and Tractors are not People

The goal is admirable but the application is a bit misguided. I think everyone can agree that knowing how to read is one of the most fundamental skills necessary to participate in society.

Beginning in 2017, any third grade student that is not a proficient reader (or is substantially deficient as defined by the Iowa Code) will either repeat the third grade or attend a summer school program that focuses on intensive reading instruction. This is a state law that was part of the education reform legislation passed in 2012. The first group of students that will be impacted by this law are currently in 2nd grade. If your child is struggling with reading you will want to pay close attention and ask a lot of questions!

Elementary schools have always included a strong emphasis on reading instruction. The fact is, I believe that teaching kids to read is the most important subject we cover in elementary school. If you take a look at the typical instructional schedule of an elementary classroom, you will clearly see that priority in the amount of time that is devoted to reading. Naturally however, as students progress through their formative years, the amount of time devoted to reading instruction begins to diminish as other content areas are introduced to the schedule. A shift begins to happen around the fourth grade where instead of learning how to read, we use reading as a tool to learn. For example, students begin to use textbooks as a source of content. An assignment for instance might include reading a chapter in a science book and drawing conclusions based on that content. Students who have not developed strong reading skills in advance of that shift to 'reading to learn' are going to begin to struggle more, not only in reading but in other content areas as well.   

There are some concerns about this arbitrary approach to retention. For starters, there is an assumption that schools can somehow get all students to reach this benchmark at a predetermined point in time. To accept this premise would, I believe remove the individuality and humanness of the students we work with daily in our schools. Consider this: in a factory or manufacturing industry we can set quotas for production. Certainly General Motors has a certain number of cars that are expected to come off the assembly line in a given day. John Deere most likely utilizes a quota system to produce a certain amount of tractors. This system works well for manufacturing industries because cars and tractors are not people. Those industries are dealing with a raw material that is fixed, stable, uniform, rigid, and orderly. This enables those assembly lines to operate in a systematic and efficient manner. What happens when that raw material isn't uniform? It's imperfection makes it unusable and therefore it is discarded (hence the quality control department).

Students on the other hand are human. Unique. Individual. Interesting. Even your doppelganger or twin is different!

The Iowa law is based on similar legislation that was enacted in Florida many years ago. The results of that law were mixed and certainly not definitive. For example, the Florida results suggested that reading results of fourth grade students increased as a result of this law. Think about that for a moment. Why wouldn't they? If you have retained the struggling readers and they are still in the third grade, it stands to reason the scores of fourth grade students are going to be higher!

Further, the retention law seems contrary to decades of research into holding kids back. The 'benefits' of retention are only temporary and usually wear off within five years. In fact, after five years students who were retained are more likely to be behind their peers and have a much greater statistical likelihood of dropping out of school. 

There are instances where retention may be necessary and the right choice. However, I believe those decisions are best left to those who have the most intimate knowledge of the situation: the parents, classroom teacher, and principal. To legislate retention based on an arbitrary measure does not seem like the right approach. Our task and goal in Hudson will be to focus on the intervention and remediation aspects of the law, hopefully minimizing the likelihood that children will be held back. 

Teaching students to read isn't going to work with a one size fits all model of instruction or an assembly line approach to education. These are kids, not widgets in a widget factory.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Special Education Programming

Two weeks ago I wrote an article revisiting the concept of categorical funding. Within that article, I shared that our special education expenses for the year that just ended were in excess of $1.5 Million. Considering that total general fund expenditures for this year were $7.4 Million, that is a significant percentage of our total (20%). However, students served in special education programs are not tied to the same per pupil limitations ($6,541 in Hudson this year), and therefore the normal cap of spending authority for Iowa public schools does not apply. Depending on the student served in the program and their specific needs, students are weighted from 1-3. For example, a student with minimal needs may be weighted at 1.72. A student with moderate learning needs may be weighted at 2.21, and a student with significant educational needs is weighted at the maximum of 3.74. This means that a student with a 3.74 weighting wouldn't generate $6,541, but would instead generate $24,463.34. That is a lot for one student, but believe it or not that often isn't enough for the neediest of our students! We'll discuss why that is in a minute.

But first, why aren't special education programs limited by normal spending authority limitations? Because special education law is governed by the federal statute known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In this law, a students education is guided by what is known as an individualized educational plan (IEP). This educational plan is designed and developed by a team of people that include the teachers working with the student, consultants from the AEA, the building principal, and the parents. From time to time additional team members may be added as the need arises. When appropriate, the student also participates in the discussion. The IEP outlines what educational services will be provided, by whom, and any other factors that are of pertinent value. The plan also specifies what the learning difficulty is and how instruction will be designed to meet the specific and individual needs of that student.

As you have probably already surmised, special education programming is more expensive than general education programming. There are multiple reasons for this, but for starters it is important to note that special education classes are much smaller than general education classes. The specific size of the class is determined by the teachers case load and they never reach the capacity of a typical general education classroom. The higher the weighting of the student, the smaller the class size. Further, some of our students may require the assistance of an adult one on one during the day, and as a result have a paraprofessional that is assigned to them. In the majority of cases, our students are served right here in Hudson. However, for some of our students we either don't have the capacity to meet their specific needs or we don't offer the very specialized programming that will best meet the needs of that individual. We are very lucky to have some excellent options in our area to serve these students!

The process to identify students for specialized education is quite lengthy and very involved. It includes the collection of a vast data set over an extended period of time, many meetings with a team of educators and the principal, and having the classroom teacher try and test multiple teaching strategies to see if there are other factors that might be impacting the child's education that fall outside the realm of special education. While this is oftentimes frustrating for the parents, student, and even classroom teacher it is important the process is followed. At the end of the process, we must ensure that we are serving those who truly qualify for services. Because we are so committed to getting this right, we have to take our time. Also, since this is governed by IDEA and funded in part with federal money, we have to ensure that we are not over identifying students. As a general guideline, special education populations in schools should not exceed 10%. In Hudson, we are oftentimes above that, most recently we were hovering right around 12%, The good news here is that as we identify our students in the elementary, by the time they reach the higher grades they begin to 'age out' of the programming. That is a testament to the hard work of our educators and the effectiveness of our programming. The goal is always to get students to a point where they don't need special education.

Finally, if you believe your child is experiencing difficulty in learning, please contact your child's teacher or principal.