Wednesday, December 23, 2015

All is Calm

I have been blessed to witness and participate in 'Day Before Christmas Break' activities for decades now. In fact, I can't think of a time in my life when I didn't either participate in or have a front row seat to this annual ritual. There is an excitement in the air that is unmatched during any other time of the school year. Even the last day of school isn't as exciting--and I mean that for students and teachers alike!

4th grade students hard at work the day before break
Yesterday was no different. I visited multiple classrooms in both the elementary and high school buildings and the atmosphere was, well delightful. That is not to say that a great deal of attention was being paid to the learning atmosphere, because there was certainly a lot of that going on as well. Students were finishing up letters to Santa, reading letters aloud from a favorite elf, or finishing up a project that would serve as a gift for a parent or grandparent. In one room, I took noticed students were reciting a popular seasonal poem in Readers Theatre format. These students were working to build fluency in advance of the FAST assessment that will be administered soon after they return to school in January. Many were eager to share with me their holiday plans and look forward to seeing grandparents and extended family over the break. Others longed for a little snow to really set the stage for some holiday spirit--although I would testify there was plenty of that to go around! 

Today however, our hallways are empty. Everyone has gone home and is enjoying that which they so looked forward to yesterday. I like these quiet days in the office, they provide an atmosphere where quiet reflection can occur and some of the projects that really need to be completed during a long uninterrupted block of time can be finished. That will be my afternoon!

Mrs. Schulz assists a student with her project
This will be my final post of the year. Next week, while I plan to be in the office during normal work hours, I have decided to take a very brief respite before starting fresh in 2016. Don't fret, we have much to discuss with the new year! The legislative session begins shortly after we return, and that always provides ample writing material! As a bit of a preview, I look forward to sharing with you the nationwide status of school funding since we have recovered from the 2008 recession. Also, you might be aware that the No Child Left Behind law has finally been left behind, replaced by the new Every Student Succeed Act. In the new year we will dive into that and discuss what it means for Hudson schools.

For now though, lets take a break. It's quiet in our school now. All is Calm, and you know what? 2016 looks very bright!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Iowa Report Card-Hudson Schools

Iowa House File 215, which was passed during the 2013 legislative session is the bill that most have come to associate with the teacher leadership and compensation system. Yet there are many other segments of that bill that are now beginning to mature and become part of our educational landscape and conversation. For example, the component that requires third grade students to be proficient readers by 2017 or face retention was also included in HF 215, along with a study of the evaluation standards that are used for principals and teachers. It is interesting that each component of this landmark legislation evokes different emotions. When considering the teacher leadership and compensation system, we applaud these efforts and believe systems like these are great for student outcomes. On the other hand, when the discussion of retaining non-proficient third grade students is brought up, most universally oppose such an extreme measure. Then again, changing the assessment that Iowa uses to measure student accountability is such a polarizing issue that it remains to be seen if this will even be addressed or simply be cast aside as too costly to implement. Today the Iowa Department of Education rolls out another of these reform components that was included as part of House File 215: The Attendance Center Ranking. 

Titled the Iowa School Report Card, this system is designed to show how each public school in Iowa is performing on certain educational measures. Schools receive a score on each measure, and then the scores are combined into one single score. Each school building is then assigned a rating based on a statistical normal curve. Those ratings are: Exceptional, High-Performing, Commendable, Acceptable, Needs Improvement, and Priority. 

At this time, eight measures are used to calculate the rating. Two additional educational measures, parent involvement and community activities/involvement, will be added in the future. It is important to note that 80% of the data used to calculate the school rating on the Iowa Report Card is based on the results from the Iowa Assessments. The measures that are currently used to calculate the rating are:
  1. Proficiency: The percentage of students scoring proficient or better on reading and mathematics assessments.
  2. Closing Achievement Gap: A measure that reflects a statewide goal of narrowing the gap in achievement for students with disabilities, students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, and English Language Learners.
  3. College and Career-Ready Growth: The percentage of students who are making the year to year growth necessary to be ready for college and career training by the end of high school.
  4. Annual Expected Growth: The percentage of students making a year of academic growth in a year's time on reading or mathematics assessments.
  5. College and Career Readiness: The percentage of students who score at or above a level of performance in reading and mathematics that predicts a higher probability of post-secondary success. (Middle/high school only.)
  6. Graduation Rate: The percentage of ninth-grade students who finished high school within five years. (High school only.)
  7. Attendance: The average daily attendance of students, which is the total number of days students were enrolled and present divided by the total number of possible days.
  8. Staff Retention: The percentage of teachers, school administrators and other licensed staff members who remained employed in a school over consecutive school years.

Knowing where you are and where you want to go is a key part of growth and improvement. Our school regularly uses education data to tell us how our students are progressing and to adjust instruction for better results.

Each of the attendance centers for the Hudson Community School District has received a ranking under this new system. They are as follows:
  1. Hudson High School: High Performing
  2. Hudson Middle School: Commendable
  3. Hudson Elementary School: Acceptable

While we believe this information can add to conversations in our community about how we’re preparing our students for success, these measures are based on limited data. And, as we know from other accountability initiatives such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools are so much more than labels. Labels and ratings do not tell the whole story. While I encourage you to explore the information provided in the Iowa School Report Card, you are also urged to get to know the school behind the label. Ask questions about our improvement efforts, and ask what you can do to support our teachers and students.

You can locate our school’s results, as well as more information about the Iowa School Report Card, on the following website: For additional information about the Iowa School Report card, please see the enclosed guide.

It will be interesting to see what emotions the Iowa Report Card will evoke in all corners of the state. There is not doubt we often have trouble looking in the mirror! When looking at our data, I encourage you to drill deeply into these measures. In those areas where we shine, celebrate with us! In those areas where we can do better, I encourage you to ask us about our improvement efforts! I promise you, our teachers and administrators are working hard every single day to ensure that we create effective learning environments that enable all our students to be successful. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

We Don't Live in a Vacuum, So Let's Try Not to Lead From One Either

I was recently asked what the most important leadership lesson was that I have learned. Usually questions like that are very difficult for me because there are so many answers! If we are paying attention there are lessons that can be learned every day, and all are important! Hopefully we can learn from our work and use those experiences to shape how we approach the next day, week, month or year. However, in an effort to appease my interrogator I came up with one important leadership lesson, and while it may not be the most important it certainly ranks high on my list! That lesson: we don't live in a vacuum and as such shouldn't lead from one either.  

Here's the deal folks: school are incredibly complex organizations. The fact is they are far too complex to be left to the leadership whims of any one individual. Want to know a secret? I don't have all the answers! Because of this, I try to empower employees to make decisions at the level of greatest impact. For example, teachers are far closer to instruction than any administrator and have the daily interactions with students to prove it. Because of this, it stands to reason those are the individuals best equipped to make instructional decisions for students. By no means does this suggest leaders take a hands off approach to instructional decision making in the classroom. Quite the contrary! Leaders are highly engaged in these decisions by observing instruction, asking questions, and being otherwise attentive in the the study of strategies employed by schools. Distributing or sharing leadership should never be mistaken for a lack of accountability!

Take a look above at this tweet I posted on November 13th. I know that conferencing is a proven strategy--not because I said so, but because our teachers say so. Plus, they have the data to back up that claim. One of our district goals is to improve reading proficiency in our schools. The decision to use conferencing as a strategy to improve reading was developed through a collaborative approach with instructors and teacher leaders. We embrace this collaborative approach because multiple individuals working together on common problems are much more powerful than individuals working alone in isolation. It is only through a culture that fosters this collaboration and teamwork that we are able to impact positive change in student learning outcomes in our schools. 

The realization of teacher leadership in our school district has enabled this collaborative relationship to grow organically and in so many positive ways that were unseen at inception. For example, the teamwork approach that now exists between teacher leadership and building principals has become much more robust as a vehicle to strengthen instruction in the classroom. This system of collaboration and shared leadership has enabled building principals to re-frame and refocus their work as instructional leaders in new and exciting ways. The mere fact they now have content experts available to collaborate with has enhanced their leadership skills. 

It may surprise many to know that the majority of the work I do and decisions that I make are through collaboration or shared leadership. Truthfully, I have a hard time thinking of a decision that was made in complete isolation without the input or advice of others. Even the dreaded weather calls are made in consultation with others, be those colleagues who are wrestling with the same decision or people who are on the road and can report conditions. All that information and input is used when making those decisions.

Yet people sometimes scoff at the idea of shared leadership and wonder, is it really? This is particularly true when the decision made is contrary to the wishes of those who were involved in the decision. I can understand why this may be, and it is no wonder people don't want to be involved the next time they are asked to help with a decision.

However, as leaders we should be transparent about the role of those involved in the decision making in advance of beginning the process. For example, will the ultimate decision be based on consensus? How about majority rule, where everyone has an equal vote. Or will the decision making be based on an input model where those involved with the decision will offer an opinion and the decision maker will take that input into consideration but ultimately will make the decision.

So my advice, or lesson if you will, is to never go it alone. No one person can have all the answers and it is unrealistic to assume they should. We have good, professional people that we are fortunate to work with daily. They have good ideas, and we would be wise to seek their advice and counsel.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Was it That Einstein Once Said?

Several years ago I read the book 'Catching Up or Leading the Way' by Yong Zhao, who currently serves as the Director of Global and Online Education at the University of Oregon. Dr. Zhao was born in China and went through the Chinese educational system before coming to the United States in the 90s. Because of his unique experience in both the Chinese and American systems of education, it puts him in the rare position of being able to accurately compare the two. He argues in this book that while the United States is busy trying to reform our educational system to make it more like China, China is trying to reform their education and make it more like America. Huh? Yep, you heard me right! Now, I am certainly no expert on the Chinese educational system, but I have read a bit and talked to some folks who describe a system that is more regimented with a high focus on math and science. This compared to schools in our country where we take a much more holistic and comprehensive approach to education.

A net outcome of our American educational system continues to be a top patent registering country. In 2014 according to the U.S Patent Office, the United States registered 158,713 patents, compared to the next country in line (Japan) which registered 56,006. By contrast, China registered 7,921. If one were to look at creativity as it relates to student outcomes there is a possible correlation between these metrics. As in the fact that one might be able to suggest there is more value to a holistic and comprehensive educational system that focuses on critical thinking skills and creativity than a singular focus on math and science. 

Last spring we were approached by an individual who is a dual citizen of both China and the United States. He was representing citizens in China who were interested in attending an American high school and earning a diploma, in this case from Hudson High School. These families are eager for their children to have this type of education and are willing to pay top dollar. This shouldn't come as too big of a shock, after all many Chinese students are clamoring for spots in U.S. colleges and universities. His comments echoed those that Dr. Zhao describes in his book. It is their desire to have a more comprehensive approach to education. The argument Zhao makes is that a test-oriented education leads to less creativity (p. 91). Further, my visitor suggested that the American public school does a much better job of preparing students for the university than they do in China. So what then, does that 'American High School' experience exactly look like? Well, I think we can point to many activities and subjects that serve as a cultural reflection of our school that are very appealing which extend beyond the Core. And, numerous studies have shown that when students have a strong connection to their school, they perform better academically. Therefore, in many ways, we strengthen that connection through a comprehensive co and extra-curricular program. 

Furthermore, one of the indicators of whether or not a student is At-Risk of failing or dropping out in school is 'connection to school'. Because of this we work hard at ensuring students at Hudson have multiple opportunities to be involved in activities outside the walls of the traditional classroom. Be that in the numerous clubs in our high school, student government, arts, music, or athletics. The trouble here of course is that the ultimate impact these activities have on math and science tests is hard to quantify. That is too bad, because there has been a lot of talk this next legislative session is going to be more difficult than the last. This of course translates into fewer dollars invested in education, which means that many school districts will be forced to make difficult decisions, yet again. In some places these valuable programs that encapsulate the very culture of schools and communities may be jeopardized. In some places, the very programs that kept some students in school may be at risk. And yes, in some places, the very programs that ignited a creative idea that ultimately turns into a registered patent may be squashed.

Albert Einstein once said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted". It seems that other countries, like China for example have figured that out. It would serve us well if we didn't forget it.