Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Don't Forget About the Down Ballot Races This November

I hope everyone had a great time at Hudson Days last weekend! If you had a chance to see the parade, all the politicians and representatives from the two political parties were probably a great reminder that another election is upon us. As if you didn't need any further reminders, the Republican National Convention is this week in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention will be next week in Philadelphia. The political ads have started and will only intensify as we get closer to election day. It seems as if even the most novice of political 'junkies' have started to tune in to what has become a very entertaining election cycle. My hope is that as we get closer to election day and passions begin to flair everyone remains calm. Unfortunately we already have too many examples around the country where this hasn't been the case. Nevertheless I am optimistically certain of one point: As has been the case the last two hundred forty years we will have a peaceful transition of power come January. It is the American way!

Our collective attention right now is focused on what is happening with the presidential election. Iowa has always played a special part in the process with our first in the nation caucuses. Adding to the Iowa drama, the last couple of weeks we learned that Senator Joni Ernst was being considered as a vice-presidential candidate for Donald Trump (I believe she took herself out of the running), and now the rumors are circulating that Tom Vilsack is being vetted for a spot on Hillary Clinton's ticket. Senator Ernst didn't get a spot on the ticket, but she did earn a prime time slot for her speech at the convention. While what is happening on the national stage tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room, I don't want anyone to forget the down-ballot races. In my opinion, those who represent us in Des Moines have a far greater likelihood of impacting our daily lives than those in Washington, D. C. 

On Monday evening, the Board of Directors completed the annual exercise of selecting what legislative priorities we have for the General Assembly that will begin in January. Those legislative priorities will likely become part of the platform for our advocacy efforts when the delegate assembly meets at the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) convention in November. Over the next few weeks, I will be discussing these priorities, why they are important to our school, and to ask for your help in our advocacy efforts. There is no mistake, these issues impact your school in a significant way! Further, you have an opportunity to decide how these issues are addressed with your vote in November. 

In the coming weeks, you should notice a common theme woven throughout the priorities and narrative that we have identified: adequate financing for our schools. I have written extensively about this topic here, and unfortunately year after year we continue to be the recipients of unpredictable and inadequate basic state aid. Another legislative session has ended in violation of Iowa Code, which requires that supplemental state aid be set within 30 days of the governor releasing his budget. We do not yet know what state aid will be for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2017, and if our recent history is any indication it will be deep into the legislative session before that very important question is answered. State aid for the year that just started a mere 20 days ago was decided late as well, and when it finally was resolved it was not enough for some schools to fund their operations. Many of which ended up making some pretty significant budget cuts. This of course comes after the prior legislative session reached a deal late in the calendar, only to have it vetoed after the FY 2016 budget year began.

One oft heard argument during the annual debate over school aid is that we want to ensure schools have both predictable and sustainable school funding. Yet our funding has been anything but predictable the last six years. Truth be told, the only thing predictable about our funding the last half-decade is that it has been late. When our aid does come (to the tune of 1.25% in FY 2016 and 2.25% in FY 2017), it is woefully inadequate. Again, just look around the area at schools that have had to make cuts. Nevertheless, we are reminded that the funding needs to be sustainable. I suppose one could argue that if the bar is set low enough, then it makes it relatively easy to claim victory in the name of sustainability. It is generally at this point where funding models are trotted out that illustrate how revenue isn't meeting expectations.

So then, if you haven't met the candidates yet you probably will. When they come knocking on your door, I encourage you to ask them a couple of questions. What can they do to ensure state aid is settled on time? And even more important: Why do they think revenue isn't meeting expectations.

Then make sure you vote in November--all the way down the ballot.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What Does A Grade Really Mean?

Well, it's the middle of July so I think it is probably time to start thinking about school starting. Registration packets were mailed out this week and will start to filter in these next couple of weeks! Although many won't admit it, I think the students are starting to get anxious for the start of the school year. As we prepare for the start of the school year, I would like to revisit the concept of grading.You may recall my August 12, 2015 article when I posed the question, What Should a Grade Measure? 

In that post, I argued a grade that measures anything other than actual student learning dilutes the purpose of what that grade is actually supposed to tell us as educators and parents. Furthermore, including variables that have little correlation to learning do a poor job of measuring student progress or academic achievement. Yet in education many continue to include variables in grading mechanisms that have little to do with whether or not the student has actually learned anything in their respective classes. 

Consider the value of participation points, student behavior, meeting deadlines, etc. Certainly these are important characteristics that should be measured! If for no other reason, they speak to employability, citizenship, and a whole host of attributes that are necessary for our young people to be successful in life. However, embedding them within the context of curricular content might not be the best option.

Again, I must re-emphasize: meeting deadlines is critically important and unruly students are the bane of any orderly classroom! But do either of these things have anything to do with whether or not a student grasps a particular concept? No, they really don't. Instead, they tend to inflate grades and give an unrealistic picture of what a student knows and is able to do. Sometimes parents will wonder why scores on a standardize test are 'so low', because their child is getting all 'A's in class. Or how about the student who consistently isn't turning in homework, yet aces every test that is given? 

Consider the fictional student, Jim in the example below. What conclusions can you draw about him? 
Well, he is failing this class for starters. But take a deeper look. His scores suggest to me that he knows the content for chapter one. On both the quiz and test he scored 100%. However, his homework leaves a lot to be desired. On the three assignments he had, he only scored 50%. I wonder what the reason that is? Certainly it could be a lot of things, but from the scores present here it doesn't seem to suggest a skill deficit.

How about the other students in this class? Do you think these grades reflect what they actually have learned, or do they instead reflect something else?

In Hudson we are rather fortunate to have our Homework Policy, which in many ways mitigates the variances that can occur when youngsters don't turn in homework. To remind everyone, homework isn't optional at Hudson. If a student doesn't complete their work, they stay after school and finish it. Nevertheless, this policy isn't a silver bullet!

As we prepare to begin a new school year in a few weeks, I encourage you to have a discussion with your child's teachers regarding their grading practices. Ask them how the homework policy applies in their room. Remember, the homework policy doesn't become effective until students reach the fifth grade.

Until then, enjoy the rest of your summer!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

What We Now Know After Two Years of Teacher Leadership at Hudson

As part of the Iowa Department of Education's measurement on the effectiveness of teacher leadership systems, Hudson schools participated in a research and support survey conducted by the American Institute for Research (AIR). All Hudson faculty and administration were encouraged to participate in the study and with an 80.4% response rate, our results are statistically significant. With this being the first year of the survey, the results after next year will be even more important for comparability purposes. 

If you are interested in reading the entire report, it can be accessed right here. For the purposes of today's article, I am just going to highlight and discuss a few of the findings. Of those completing the survey, 97.5% indicated that they participated in the district's professional development offerings this school year. 

Perhaps most encouraging was that 77.8% of teachers either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement 'professional development enhanced my ability to improve student learning'. On the other hand, 69.4% of respondents agreed that professional development enhanced instructional practice. What becomes interesting is taking that professional development and putting it into practice. 71.9% of respondents indicated that instructional practices have improved, 72.7% state they think they are a better teacher, and 69.3% believe student achievement has improved at our school.

What this snapshot suggests is that the majority of our teaching staff believes in and can see the value in our teacher leadership system. What it also tells us is that we still have our work cut out for us! For example, 37.1% of respondents indicated that professional development experiences were not useful and consistent this year. 

However, there must be no doubt that professional development has become much more rigorous, scripted, and regimented with the advent of our teacher leadership system. This last year our elementary teachers were engaged in professional development that focused on research based instructional strategies useful for teaching fractions and strategies using 'number talks' for problem solving. We have empirical data that does indeed show improvement in these areas. We also began to bring clarity to the implementation of our literacy program 'Wonders' by using the book 'Super Core' in a book study with elementary faculty. Both of these efforts were led by our teacher leaders. Collaboration, critique, and peer feedback among teachers in grades 7-12 improved to a whole new level this year when Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) became a mainstay model of instructional improvement. With this work, we see teachers coming together to improve upon each other's instruction in ways that have never been done before. And of course we all know that technology has been an anchor in our district the last several years as we work hard to embed 21st century learning into our students' educational experience.

In spite of this rich and diverse menu of professional development offerings, it is clear that there is room for improvement. While 70-80% is respectable, wouldn't it be wonderful if 100% of our teachers responded in the affirmative to this inquiry? Perhaps that is Utopian thinking, yet I still think achievable! 

Beginning in 2016-2017, Hudson will be entering its third year implementing teacher leadership. Indeed, each year our system grows and becomes better. For the first time this year our system will have all teacher leadership positions filled, meaning that almost 35% of teachers in our district will have a teacher leadership role with real responsibilities. To put that number in perspective, 25% of teachers were involved in teacher leadership during this last year. We are also planning to increase three-fold the number of coaching lab opportunities that our teachers can participate in this year. You might remember that coaching labs were first introduced into our system before spring break, and are a great way for model teachers to demonstrate promising new instructional strategies for practitioners and help scale them up throughout the attendance center. 

As we prepare to begin our third year of teacher leadership at Hudson schools I am excited about the future! While we have room for improvement, there is no doubt that what we are doing is working! With our system at full strength and a commitment to our district initiatives and collaboration, it seems that nothing is impossible!