Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Finding the Right Fit During a Teacher Shortage

If you had a chance to read the Hudson Herald last week you probably noticed our school district has been the beneficiary of many new teachers. You can read all about our new teaching staff in the Herald or on the school website. Teacher turnover in Hudson is generally pretty low: between one to three teachers annually. So imagine having this many new teachers join our ranks, it is quite an anomaly! The primary reason for the high turnover was that a large number of faculty took advantage of an early retirement incentive that was offered by the school district last spring. Additionally, we had a couple of faculty members move to Colorado over the summer, and another was offered a position in her hometown.

New teachers meet with teacher leaders during
new teacher luncheon prior to school starting.
When all those teachers retired, resigned, or moved to Colorado, they took a great deal of institutional knowledge with them, especially those who retired. There is no doubt they left a void in the school where their experience will be sorely missed. I expect for the next several months these new teachers will become accustomed to hearing things from their students like, "Mr. (or Mrs.) fill in the blank didn't do it that way!". 

This past spring, building principals began the task of finding replacements for each of these teachers. Along with the numerous qualifications, credentials, and endorsements that we were searching for, we were also looking for teachers that were the right fit in our system. Teachers that parents would trust, and that we wanted in our school system for a very long time. Our hiring plan was to get into the market early so we would be able to maximize the number of applicants and candidates for our open positions. Fortunately we were blessed with an incredibly deep pool of applicants and had numerous choices. Indeed if you have had the chance to meet some of our new faculty or are lucky enough to find one of your children in their classrooms, you hopefully would agree. 

By the time school was dismissed for the summer we had all our hires in place and were looking forward to getting on with all the projects that would consume the heat of the long summer days. But we all know the story doesn't end there, right? At the end of June, our Chemistry teacher was hired to replace her longtime mentor and high school Chemistry teacher. Right on the heals of that, our 7-12 school counselor moved to Colorado.

It was time to ramp up the hiring machinery once again, right in the midst of summer when most 'candidates' are no longer candidates, but employed teachers. 

In the grand scheme we got lucky. We were able to find outstanding educators. As it turns out, our new Chemistry teacher is trained in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. A great find for us; but not so great scenario for Waterloo. They decided they just weren't going to let him go quite so easily. After a few weeks of negotiations, Waterloo agreed to share his services for the year. We would be able to employ him in the morning to teach our Chemistry courses, in the afternoon he will teach in Waterloo's IB program. This left the other half of this position vacant: 8th grade science. Our Chemistry teacher was to teach high school courses in the morning and, you guessed it: 8th grade science in the afternoon! We could have passed on this teacher and tried to hold out for someone who could fill this position full time, but to find an educator of this quality was just not something we could let pass us by. We decided to look at the big picture and the overall future of the district's science program. That leaves us in the very unpleasant situation of filling our half-time science position with a substitute teacher until a suitable replacement can be found.

Yet here is the rub: not only is it difficult to find quality teachers in some disciplines, it is just difficult to find teachers in general this time of year! Unlike some elementary teaching positions where there can literally be hundreds of applicants for one position, many specialized content areas may yield only a handful of applicants. It is made even worse when the position you are searching for is only half-time! After all, who is really looking to be employed half-time? Further, who is looking to be employed half-time in a position that is only going to be available this year

Unfortunately this phenomenon isn't new to Hudson or many schools around the state just like us. Size of student body dictates the number of full time equivalency (FTE) that can be devoted to a particular discipline. We can't very well employ a full time teacher if we only have students to fill up three or four classes. And young people going into the hard sciences, math, music, or a whole plethora of other content area just aren't becoming teachers. Indeed in most cases they can earn more working in industry then they can in education. 

Our search for an 8th grade science teacher will continue. We have sent out hundreds of email messages to candidates. We have also interviewed candidates, candidates who are qualified and endorsed for the position. Yet at the end of the day they either turn us down, or it just isn't the right fit for our school.  Within my administrative team we have discussed extensively our options: should we just hire someone that has the right endorsement in order to 'check the box' or do we continue to seek out the right person? For now, we keep looking. We owe that to our students.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Be Exceptional: Words of Encouragement to Faculty and Staff on the Eve of 2016-2017

We have had one crazy summer around here! We have been delayed by rain, asbestos removal, leaking roofs...had I mentioned the rain yet? All of these roadblocks caused delays, but never once did the team get discouraged. We were behind, and although a few items remain on our punch list, I have every confidence that come Monday night’s open house our facilities are going to look great! I also want to thank each teacher who has shown patience and grace the last several days while waiting to get into classrooms so Sandy could finish waxing the floors. They look great by the way, don’t they? So please, take a few minutes when you see the custodians to thank them for all their efforts!

This summer we have replaced almost all the carpet in the elementary and finished remodeling the restrooms on the first floor. We are currently in the planning stages of an elementary renovation project that, when completed will consist of an investment in excess of $1 Million. It is our intention to have the first phase of this project ready for bidding in January.

Sandy working hard to get the building ready for students.
Additionally we have improved our performance venues, by sanding and refinishing the competition gym floor, and replacing the carpet and painting in the high school auditorium. We now have a great opportunity to redefine instruction with the addition of our new inquiry space, an experiential based room where students and teachers can collaborate and learn together using the latest and most cutting edge technologies available in K-12 learning.

I recently shared with our new faculty that they represent the future of the educational landscape at Hudson. At the same time, we honor the skill, experience, and commitment our veteran staff bring to our schools. Indeed, each of our employees; no matter if in the first year of their career or thirtieth, bring a special talent and skill to our district. We wouldn’t be who we are without them. They all, are exceptional!

Nevertheless as we look around our schools today it is abundantly clear that we are facing change. And it is an exciting kind of change for sure! As we embrace this rapid pace of change, not only in our school district but all throughout Iowa, take comfort in the work that we have accomplished, and the path that we have blazed serves as a guidepost for many around the state.

High School faculty exploring the Inquiry Space.
We continue to lead the way in the development of a comprehensive teacher leadership system in Iowa. While this year the remainder of Iowa schools will embrace teacher leadership, one fact will always remain true: Hudson was among the first. Those schools will continue to look to us for guidance and leadership. We begin this third year of teacher leadership light years ahead of where we were at the beginning of this journey. Teachers took the time, while encouraging me to be patient as the system developed. They were thoughtful in approach and worked hard to ensure our leadership roles were well defined and meaningful. I am happy to announce that this year all our teacher leadership roles are filled. Our challenge now is to put these teacher leaders to work! They are here to serve by being a teacher centered resource designed to strengthen the instruction delivered in classrooms through embedded professional development. Our faculty is poised to take advantage of what they have to offer—from learning labs in classrooms to Wednesday afternoon ‘tech labs’—they are only here to help improve instruction! All of this is done for the benefit of the students served daily; and the proof is in the results.

Consider this: In mathematics, where we have been intently focused the last three years, our results are quite telling! When considering ALL student cohort groups, 7 out of 8 met targeted growth. And the one that didn’t? It missed meeting targeted growth by one half point! If that didn’t impress you, perhaps this will: In 5 out of the 8 cohort groups, the average students’ percentile ranking is at the 75th percentile, which is one standard deviation higher than the average pupil! Not impressed yet? How about this: students from 5th grade to 6th grade were expected to show growth of 14 points. They gained 24! Students from 9th grade to 10th grade were expected to grow 10.5. They grew 17! As I stated in this column last week, Hudson students in these cohort groups are anything but average—in fact these students on average—are above average! Our students are exceptional because our faculty and staff are exceptional!

First Grade students arrive for the first day of school.
Yet much work remains. While scores in reading and science can stand on their own, we are committed to our efforts of ensuring all our students are reading at grade level by the time they finish 3rd grade. Indeed we are on our way: In reading, students from grade 3 to grade 4 were expected to grow 16 points, and instead showed 27 points of growth. In science our attention is beginning to shift to the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards. I am pleased with the path that has been charted by our teacher leaders to ensure this implementation is carried out with fidelity—and there is much to be proud of there as well. For example students from grade 7 to grade 8 were expected to show 13 points of growth, but instead grew 20 points.

While it would be inappropriate to measure the success of our efforts with the rise and fall of our test scores, it is undeniable that we are on the right track. We are on the right track because of our faculty and staff's commitment to exceptionalism. We know and understand the challenges that face us, and with our teacher leaders have laid the groundwork and know what we need to do.

So then, this year marks a new beginning! No longer will schools shoulder the burden of the failed federal accountability law, ‘No Child Left Behind’. Instead we look forward with eager anticipation as we transition to the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’. Yes, this will come with new challenges, but we have the resources and personnel to meet these opportunities head on and take our students to the next level. I continue to be humbled that you are the ones to do this very important work.

The beginning of a school year is always an exciting time. New teachers nervous with the excitement that will come the first time they stand in front of a group of students alone—and without a net. Veteran teachers looking forward to a fresh start with a new group of students eager to learn and take the next step on their educational journey. Students looking forward to returning to the routine of school—seeing friends they may not have seen since May. And for some of these students, returning to the only ‘normal’ and safe thing in their lives.

Have a great start to the school year and continue to be exceptional. And always remember, It’s great to be a Pirate!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Need a Dishwasher? Buy a Couch Instead

In the past three weeks we have identified priorities the board has established and targeted for advocacy efforts in the upcoming legislative session. I will continue to remind you of the importance of these issues for not only Hudson schools, but schools all across the state as we approach election day. On November 8th we will go to the ballot boxes and cast our votes, and I want you to understand the issues that are important to your local community and school district. Hopefully my commentary will enable you to ask candidates where they stand on specific issues, enabling you to make an informed decision. Unfortunately there is not a candidate or party out there that completely aligns with everything you or I value. Believe me, there are plenty of times legislators from both parties take a stance on issues that I disagree with! 

To remind you, the issues that we have taken a position on include: adequate, predictable and timely school aid, the preservation and extension of the statewide penny for school infrastructure, and the opposition to unfunded mandates on schools. Today in the final article of this series, I will outline the last advocacy issue identified by the board: flexibility in special levy funds.

Like the issues identified above, this is not a new subject of conversation. Indeed school budgets are incredibly complex and the rules governing how and what funding is spent on creates inefficiencies in how we do business. Our school budget consists of several different funds, and within some of those funds are sub-funds. The idea is to create silos of money to be utilized for specific purposes, and thus to specifically prohibit the use of funds for some purposes. Some of this makes a ton of sense and I am totally in agreement. Other prohibitions and rules; well there is room for improvement. Let's first discuss some of the good in these rules and prohibitions.

The statewide penny or SAVE Fund (Secure an Advance Vision for Education) is a good place to start. Like the PPEL fund (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy), this funding source can only be used for capital improvement projects, the purchase or procurement of computers, or the purchase of vehicles. Now I am generalizing a bit here, there are certainly other appropriate expenditures but what is most important is what is not permitted: salaries and instructional material. This we agree with. Indeed it is important to ensure these funds are protected for the intended purpose. In this case, the rigidness of the guidelines for this fund is about right. 

However, that isn't to say that flexibility shouldn't be permitted in others cases or funds. We have made some progress in this regard. It is now permissible for school districts to use the management fund to pay for costs associated with mediation and arbitration proceedings as a result of disagreements with local education associations in matters of contract negotiations and other labor relations issues. This can be viewed as a good thing as well. Prior to this change, those type of expenses had to be paid out of the general fund, and attorney fees for these issues can get to be quite expensive.

Where real flexibility is needed though is in many of sub-funds that are included as categorical money. Now, I believe it is okay in principle to earmark and designate funding for a specific purpose. But what happens once the need is met and money remains? In Iowa schools, it remains there in perpetuity. In some cases, school districts may end up spending it on allowable purchases that they really don't need.

Imagine this for example. You set aside $5,000 for furniture in your family room. Once you purchase all the furniture you need, you still have $1,000 left. Good for you! You have purchased wisely and come in under budget. Now, a month later the dishwasher and stove break down. Lucky for you, you still have $1,000 in savings from that furniture allocation that came in under budget. But wait....that money was designated for furniture. You can't possibly use it for the new dishwasher and stove. So instead you purchase another couch that you really don't need. The dishwasher and stove, well I am not sure where you will find the money for that. 

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Well, that is how categorical funding sometimes ties our hands in schools. For that reason, the board supports increased flexibility in the use of special levy funds.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mowing the Lawn With A Weed Trimmer

On Monday we had our first School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) of the year. Indeed another sign the beginning of the school year is upon us! A primary topic of discussion for our SIAC during the August meeting is student achievement data and how our students performed on academic achievement goals. This data can be sliced and diced multiple ways, and the metrics that can be analyzed at times seem infinite. Yet as we have often discussed, the data does not provide a very accurate depiction of student learning in Iowa schools. We'll be talking more about student achievement in a future article or possible web post, but in an effort to whet your appetite here are a few interesting metrics from the Iowa Assessment our students took this past school year. 

Each of these charts depict average (expected and met) growth of students from one grade level to the next. For example, in order for students to meet 'targeted growth' from 3rd grade to 4th grade in math, a growth of 19 points is expected. In our case, students grew 21 points so targeted growth was met. In the column at far right, you should notice a label titled PR, which stands for percentile rank. In most cases we should measure the growth factor based on the 50th percentile, which represents the average student. However, in many cases, Hudson students are anything but average! You should notice that some of these 'cells' are highlighted in yellow with a 75. This simply means that students in that particular grade level, on average, are above average! 

Now then, as the percentile rank increases, it becomes statistically more difficult for those students with a higher percentile rank to meet targeted growth. When analyzing this data set then, there are two important variables to consider. What is the expected targeted growth, and second, from which percentile rank are we measuring? The good news in this data set is that across the spectrum, in all cases save one, students have shown growth. (See 10th grade  to 11th grade reading.) Those cells shaded in green are areas where grade levels exceeded targeted growth, whereas those shaded in red depict an area where students did not meet targeted growth. Yet there is still a silver lining here! In every case where targeted growth was missed, the average percentile rank is 75% or above. That may not seem like a lot, but statistically it is one standard deviation greater than the median!

That is a very brief snapshot of what the Iowa Assessment tells us about our student learning profile, and it barely scratches the surface in terms of data that is readily available! The trouble is, this data isn't really all that helpful. Even though I can create colored tables and charts galore that are quite impressive to look at, if the data isn't valid, who really cares?

Barring any changes from the legislature, this will be the last year we use the Iowa Assessment as our statewide test. This should be viewed as a good thing, because we have long known that what the Iowa Assessment measures isn't what is taught in Iowa schools. This mis-alignment has been known and studied extensively with research studies commissioned by several statewide organizations. The data, albeit statistically sound, does very little to tell us how our students are performing on the actual 'enacted' curriculum in our schools.

But change to the new Smarter Balance test has become a political football that has created some unusual bi-partisan alliances. Efforts to stop implementation of the Smarter Balance exam were fast and furious during the last legislative session. In the end a session delay was achieved, but efforts to scrap the exam and start all over ended up falling short with a veto by the governor. For that veto, we are thankful. Planning for the implementation of the new statewide assessment is moving forward, and undoubtedly will be a topic of intense negotiations and scrutiny once the legislators assemble in January.

My hypothesis is that the battle lines will be drawn around funding for this test. The cost of administration for Smarter Balance is significantly more than administration of the Iowa Assessment. I suppose one could argue that the least expensive test should be utilized because, after all, it makes sense to save money and use cost control measures wherever we can. But, why use a tool that doesn't answer the question that you are trying to answer? Wouldn't that be kind of like using a weed trimmer to mow the lawn? It works......sorta?

A possible resolution to this dilemma may come in the form of funding. What I fear could happen is the legislature allows the Smarter Balance test to go into effect, but fail to adequately fund it. Or worse yet, not fund it at all and mandate that it become (or replace) our current assessment protocol. This would make it an 'unfunded mandate'. 

Schools are often asked to provide new programs, implement new laws, hire people for special jobs, or use a specific protocol to complete a task on a regular basis by decree of the legislature. The trouble with all these requests (or mandates), is it a rarity that funding is provided to achieve these goals. For these reasons the board opposes as one of it's legislative priorities "any new mandate that does not provide sufficient and sustainable funding for successful implementation."

It is my hope that Smarter Balance not only become the new statewide assessment, but that the legislator provides the necessary funds to ensure it's success. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Not Once, But Twice

High school auditorium carpet and painting funded
through SAVE. Completed summer of 2016.
Well, its August. This time of summer we really begin to see the pace of operations pick up, and the signs that school will be starting soon begin to emerge. This is evident in the traffic in and out of the central office, where we have families stop to register. It is during many of those visits when people will ask about the status of our projects, and say something like, 'It sure looks nice around here'. Or, 'We are really glad you did X! It's such an improvement!'. Now in terms of our progress, it's kind of a mixed bag report. Some of our projects are finished, and others; well we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! Nevertheless, it is great to see this work being done and the vast majority of people have had nice things to say about what we are currently doing-and what we have done in the past. I have long believed that we should have projects on the docket every summer that improve the look and feel of our facilities. Not only does it improve the climate of the buildings, but these regular upgrades and updates improve the life of our facilities and make people feel good about their school district. From what I have heard, most folks agree. Now if you didn't know this, our school board has been (and continues to be) very strategic about the development and financing of these projects. We have a master plan titled, 'Hudson 2020' that guides our project development and it has served us well the last several years. You should also know that these projects are funded through the SAVE fund or by using PPEL dollars. We are in the initial planning of the next phase of Hudson 2020, which will include a pretty substantial investment in the elementary school and will commit significant SAVE capital over the course of the next 3 years. However, I am a little bit concerned that the revenue might not be able to meet our expectations. The result of this could cause us to delay or scrap some of these plans. Here is why.

When the General Assembly convened last January, the governor proposed in his Condition of the State address to use a portion of the growth of the SAVE fund to improve water quality in our state. This proposal was partially in response to a lawsuit the Des Moines waterworks filed against 3 north Iowa counties they allege have contributed to high nitrate levels in drinking water. In addition to this, improved water quality is expected to reduce the 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico. Water quality became part of our collective conversation during the last legislative session and had many different groups weighing in on the subject. In fact, our own FFA outlined the issue in competition this last spring with a great deal of success. Everyone wants clean water! But in spite of that, the governor's proposal was not well received by Republicans or Democrats in either chamber of the legislature. 

This opposition comes because the proposal re-purposes revenue that has been dedicated to school infrastructure, and schools all around the state, including Hudson, rely on that revenue to pay for many of the projects that have been completed in our school to date, and will be completed in the future. Our legislators (from both parties) are not keen on the idea of changing the purpose of revenue that was voted on and approved by a referendum of voters. Keep that in mind, the SAVE fund was established by a vote of the people in a county by county referendum. You, the voters have a say in how this penny was (and is) being spent. It is all laid out for you in our Revenue Purposes Statement. Any proposal that would shift funds from the SAVE, any portion thereof, no matter how small or large would go against the wishes and the will of the voters.

This is not the first time that voters have had an opportunity to weigh in on matters of taxation in Iowa. You may recall in 2010 Iowans voted to set up a constitutionally protected trust fund for the purposes of protecting and enhancing water quality. That's right, water quality was an issue brought before the voters. The trust is to be funded by 3/8 of one penny the next time sales tax is increased. One could implicitly argue that voters agreed at that time to raise the sales tax. The trouble is, the trust has never been funded.

So, it would appear that we have two issues of taxation where voters weighed in: water quality and how SAVE is to be allocated. And in both instances, action is being taken or proposed that seems to be contrary to the wishes of the voters.

That is the reason why our board has identified the preservation and protection of the statewide penny for school infrastructure and further supports the repeal of the 2029 sunset of this penny. Because without this funding stream, many of the projects, upgrades, and renovations that we have completed now and in the future would not be possible.

Don't forget to vote November 8!