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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Get ready for January: Advocacy!

Seeing how the snow is coming in bigger bunches this year, we may need to be discussing weather when we talk about getting ready for January.  However, my focus, today is the convening of the Iowa Legislature on January 11.  (Seems like that's about all I talk about, maybe I need to get a life!)

I have received the Rural Student Advocates of Iowa (RSAI) pre-session legislative update, which you can access on the RSAI legislative priorities web page here.  As alway it's about the money.  Aside from the timely notification of our FY17 allowable growth rate, the biggest issues that I feel we can have a real impact on are the issues surrounding student equity.  Specifically, the issues of inequitable funding of Iowa students in the 40-year-old school funding formula, and the loss of opportunity our rural students face due to the costs of transportation as compared to state averages.

The District Cost Per Pupil (DCPP) varies by up to $175 per pupil in districts across the state.  This is due to the compromises that were made when the funding formula was originally developed in 1972.  It is ridiculous that a formula designed to maximize equity in state funding allows for that much difference per pupil.  One of the proposals is titled SSB 1254 or HSB 240;  it allows districts with low DCPP to tax their patrons through Cash Reserve levies that can make up that difference.  This is not creating equity, it simply creates an inequitable tax structure that funds these students.  There are better solutions, such as this RSAI and UEN (Urban Education Network) proposal:
"Increases the cost per pupil by $15 million a year, which would eliminate the disparity in an estimated 5-6 years, This proposal increases those districts on the lower end while holding those districts at the higher end harmless (actually providing property tax relief on the high end if funded completely with state dollars.) This proposal was presented to the Interim inequities study committee by UEN. "
The transportation issue is far more complicated.  There are several solutions proposed, all involve either a supplementary weighting (state aid) or a local levy (property taxes) to offset higher than average portion of the transportation costs for those districts affected:
HF 84 Transportation Equity Levy, property tax or income surtax, local voter approval for 10 years for transportation costs above the state average. RSAI Pre-Legislative Update Dec. 23, 2015 
HF 250 Transportation State Aid, reimbursement for costs above the state average per pupil enrolled transportation cost, paid by the state 
HF 320 Transportation Supplementary Weighting, provided through the foundation formula 
HF 359 Transportation Levy: voters may approve levy for any transportation costs minus reimbursement for transporting nonpublic students 
HF 431 Transportation Supplemental Weighting, graduated based on incremental expenditures above the state average transportation cost per pupil 
HF 432 Transportation Aid per pupil, allocates $15 million to districts with costs above the state average transportation cost per pupil 
I would prefer a balanced approach to this issue, which would be a combined property tax and state aid solution.   Those are the ones like HF 320 and HF431 which assigns a  supplementary weighting to each student in their district's formula.

What I do know is any funds dedicated to these equity solutions will probably reduce the overall cost per pupil approved.  This is the travesty of thinking found on the hill these days, it used to be that education, being the largest and most important responsibility of the states, was due a priority in funding that assured adequate funding.  Now, we take a back seat to property and sales tax reductions in an era of state general fund surpluses.  Also, be wary of any proposals to increase "choice" as the home-school and private school lobbies will be making a play for surplus funds to support their education options.  That is not what's best for Iowa students in general, as those opportunities are not possible for many Iowa families.

Any inequity funding proposals will benefit both Valley and North Fayette, so they are worth supporting.  I hope I can count on our great patrons to help get the word out and make the needs of NFV heard with our local representatives.  For further discussion of the upcoming session see the RSAI newsletter here

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Look at the "Second Gun" Theory

I’ve been spending some time looking at op-eds, Twitter posts and Facebook rants going both left and right on this gun issue and school shootings.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume we follow the two gun theory and approve guns in school.  What if we arm the teachers.  How would that look?

As a superintendent, I oversee roughly 100 teachers.  Of that 100, I cannot imagine more than, say 25% to have shot a gun enough to be proficient.   Considering that only 22% of these teachers are male and that a few of the women probably have gun enthusiasts in the family, or hunt themselves, and that some of the men probably do not, I’m guessing this is a good estimate.

That 25% can’t possibly cover and protect four different school buildings and teach at the same time!  So if we are to really protect all of our students, we’ll need administrators, custodians and any willing employee to have a gun and ammunition in their classroom/office.  But to take care of recesses, lunch hours, PE classes and the like, we’ll also need holstered guns for people in these positions.

I just estimated that about 75% of our people are not proficient gun handlers.  We learned in A.L.I.C.E training that even highly trained police officers in stressful conditions hit a moving target only 20% of the time.  We’ll have to train all those armed volunteers, which will mean PD time set aside for gun range work.  Police officers train about twice a year, 8 hrs each time.  (policeone.com) I'm confident their hours in practice are significantly more, but at a minimum we'll need 2 days per year of PD time on the range, after initial training.  So, do we teach new reading strategies or technology tools, or spend that time on gun skills?  Certainly legislators will appropriate money for this and to buy the guns and ammo necessary.

What about activities?  Ball games, concerts, plays and art shows.  After all, emotions can get pretty raw at some ball games; the thought of a fully armed, zealous crowd on both sides makes me pretty nervous.  Perhaps we just count on armed police presence at all events.  There are six school districts in Fayette County and only a couple of the communities have a police department.  Sheriff deputies will be stretched pretty thin on Friday nights.

So I ask, what is our tolerance level for this risk of bringing guns into schools?  What is our financial commitment to school children’s safety when it comes to training and arming teachers?  Will we tolerate accidental shootings from those 80% of shots that don’t find their target? Will our law enforcement organizations be able to provide adequate police presence at all events?  

Any gun scenario will start with someone firing first.  Unless an intruder is walking up to the building brandishing his guns, it wouldn’t be a school weapon fired first.  Chances are one of those 25% will also not be in the immediate area, so lives will be lost before a second gun can have an impact.  More guns are not the answer.  I don’t have an answer. I do have much more confidence in the responses we’ve learned through A.L.I.C.E. than I do armed teachers.   And wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some restrictions on who can buy a gun.  Wouldn’t that reduce the chances of all this being necessary?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Getting back at it!

Monday we start orientation for our new staff.  Wednesday is our general meetings for all staff and then two work days for everyone to get ready for the new school year.  Its a busy time and exciting.  2015-16 will be a transformative year in which we begin a teacher leadership program that will change how we professionally develop our staff.  It is hoped that this program will energize our efforts at continuous improvement and help us develop our growth mindset.

Individuals with a growth mindset believe that "that success is based on learning, persistence and hard work."while others with a fixed mindset believe "that success (and failure) is due to innate ability, (or lack thereof)."   (Keith Heggart, Edutopia)  We need to believe in a growth mindset for our students,  pigeon-holing them into skill groups and limiting their learning based on a fixed intelligence model would be the greatest mistake an educator can make.  Likewise for the skill sets of educators.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians, cooks, drivers;  all of us have the ability to grow and learn.  Thats the mission of teacher leadership positions, to collaborate and help EVERYONE grow in their knowledge and skills so that we can help our students grow to their highest potential.

North Fayette has been and Valley will soon be serving a population where 50% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.  This threshold means most of our families are just getting by financially, they are struggling to make ends meet and to have hope for a better future.  We are the gatekeepers of that better future.  Opportunities for learning with a growth mindset can increase student achievement and thus enhance future success.  We all need to have this growth mindset.

Teacher Leadership is for everyone.  The most important goal is for greater student achievement.  I like the way Leanna Harris (@leannaharris22) of our most recent teacher leadership training put it:
"Coaching lives in the gap between where kids are now and where they need to be."
The vision of our teacher leadership program is Making best practices our common practices” through having highly effective teachers in front of every student every day.  We have highly effective teachers. Are they highly effective, using best practices, every day? Probably not, and its not wholly their burden. As W. Edwards Deming synthesized from his work on improving the operations of huge corporations, "95% of all problems are the system not the people." The teacher leadership program, is designed to be a system that supports teacher collaboration in order to "Make best practices our common practices."

When we do that, PLC teams become more meaningful, student data is used more effectively, students are more engaged, and the gap between where students are and where they need to be is closed. I can't wait to get started on this new journey for NFV!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

An illogical argument for a Veto

Many posts and summaries of Governor Brandstad's Veto of $56 Million in one time money for Iowa schools have been published.  I'd like to say he surprised me with this veto, but most of us in education could see it coming.  My only statement on the issue is of two points that I find defy's logic and counters his stated goal of "eliminating uncertainty" in funding for Iowa Schools.

First of all, the legislature adjourned on June 5, a month before his veto. He has said that the legislature knew he would veto a bill that contained one time money.  He claims his veto was to ensure certainty of funding for Iowa school districts. Never mind that the legislature was 5 months late in passing a spending bill,  he waited another 27 days to veto it.  Leaving us with uncertainty into the current fiscal year.  If he was so sure he would veto it, why not do it June 8, when it hit the desk. Instead he left us to think it would be signed until the afternoon before a holiday weekend.


Secondly, the bill contained earmarks for where we are required to spend the money:



(1) Textbooks, as defined in section 301.1.
(2) Library books.
(3) Other instructional materials and equipment used directly by students.
(4) Transportation costs of the school district.
(5) Educational initiatives proven to increase student achievement in mathematics, literacy, or science in prekindergarten through grade twelve.

None of these are recurring expenses.  Given this list of allowed expenses I began to make plans for NFV.  Our allocation of that money was $134,720 (allocations are based on enrollment).  I had set some goals for this money:
  • 10 - 20% ($27,000) to increased discretionary spending (instructional supplies and equipment)
  • $50,000 to Teacher Quality spending;  i.e. curriculum development days.   (@$25,000 of salaries for each day)
  • $50,000 for professional development opportunities (Professional Learning Communities conference attedance) 
Teacher Quality days are paid as a per diem and not added to contracts.  PLC conferences are lauded as the best PD teachers have experienced by those who have already attended.  Any money left over can used to stockpile supplies or update more texts and technology.  Do things we desperately need. Powerful stuff.  Now it is lost to a veto.  

As an Iowa Superintendent, the concept of one time money is well understood.  For our Governor to think that I needed his help to avoid a fiscal cliff in my district is insulting.  These are legitimate uses for one time funds.  All he's done is withhold opportunities from our teachers and thus our students.  

NFV will carry on.  We are entering our first year of TLC implementation.  Our excitement for this work is high.  Local support for our schools is high.  The 2015-16 school year is right around the corner and I have faith that our staff will again provide a great year for NFV students.  They will just have to do it without the support of our Governor.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Early Learning research

Lets talk about student learning.  Here is some research articles that identify the positive influence of adults talking to their kids.  The first, for language acquisition in toddlers is pretty straightforward.
The FPG researchers said that many early child care educators can do more to actively engage children and facilitate the development of language and communication. “More high-quality language interactions between children and adults will provide children with the kinds of experiences that can foster their growth,” said Gardner-Neblett.  
In other words talk to your toddlers, don't just repeat their grunts and early sound vocalizations. Use sentences, be expressive, enrich vocabulary.  All of it helps them be more successful in school.

The Second, get fathers involved!  I haven't read it all and this is just an abstract, but for some reason;

. . . revealed that mothers' mean length of utterance predicted children's applied problems scores. More importantly, fathers' mean length of utterance predicted children's vocabulary and applied problems scores above and beyond mothers' language.
 What it is about fathers I don't know, but again, the length of utterances and the richness of the vocabulary that you use with your preschoolers helps prepare them for success in school.  Sounds like the easiest and most affordable way everyone can help their kids be prepared for a successful school career.  Have a conversation with your kids!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Childish arguments or special interests?

In my monthly newsletter a couple weeks ago I used some disparaging language to vent my frustration towards the stalemate in our legislature, to quote:
 Our dysfunctional Iowa legislature is apparently incapable of forming compromises.  Iowa law requires them to set education funding levels 18 months before the affected school year starts.   . . . .  However any inadequate funding this year cost us programs or positions in the near future.  Please encourage any lawmaker you know to settle this childish argument.
I know that these terms  are not respectful and for that I apologize.  Many very dedicated and well intentioned Iowans are serving in our representative government.  I appreciate all of their hard work on behalf of our state.  However, the stalemate does remind me of a dysfunctional family, incapable of coming to a sound conclusion, or even an unsavory compromise.  Its like two toddlers fighting over a toy.

The difference is this is not a toy, its our children's future and to a more extended view, our states livelihood.  Kansas made some similar tax cut decisions lately, and Governor Brownback is recklessly charging forward with tax cuts even after the District Court found the Sunflower State to be in violation of its constitutional responsibility towards education.

Governor Brandstad is apparently a follower of the same principal.  Take a look at the State School Aid % of General Fund spending Iowa has dedicated to education over the last 4 years as provided by Legislative Services Agency to IASB:

Admittedly this does not include TLC funding, but $50 million in 2015 would only increase the share by .7%, and 1.3% in 2016.  And why are we being held responsible for the property tax cuts?  That is spending towards Iowa Businesses, not education!  When you claim to hold education harmless by backfilling our budgets for the property tax reduction, then you shouldn't be assigning the expense to our budget share!  When we remove that $31.1 million in 2016, we actually drop even more.

"But we have fewer schools due to declining enrollment!" you say.  To the contrary, since 2010 Iowa student enrollment has increased 12,565 students, or 2.68%  (Iowa Department of Education enrollment figures for past 5 years).  And their needs are getting greater;
  • Special Education: deficits have exceeded $30 million in each of the last four years. 
  • Poverty: More Iowa students are living in poverty. 
    • Average % of Iowa students eligible for free and reduced lunch was about 27% ten years ago, now nearing 40% in FY 2011. 
    • District with the highest % of students eligible for FRL is nearing 80% of enrollment in FY 2011. • 
    • The range or gap between the lowest and the highest percentages has also increased over the same period. 
  • ELL: The growth in number of English Language Learners in Iowa is also significant.
So in retrospect, this argument may not be childish, but it still smells of special interests.  In a time of economic expansion, to unequivocally reject an offer of compromise on a school funding value appears to be right out of the ALEC playbook.  That's a dangerous group who's philosophy does not support public education.  Our Governor was a founding member back in 1973.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What is School For

Seth Godin posses this question in his 16 minute TED talk and runs us through that horrific story of the invention of high school.  It was the Industrial Revolution,  newly born factories needed workers who were compliant, trained to do a task repeatedly and be productive.  That school created 100 years ago was invented to create those citizens.  Is that what we need of school today?  Mr. Godin's compelling argument says absolutely not and he spells out why with three observations.  In todays world:
  • If it’s perceived as work, people will try to figure out how to do less of it. If it’s perceived as art, people will try to figure out how to do more of it.
  • We are really good at measuring how many dots our kids collect, but we teach nothing about how to connect these dots.
  • If you care enough about your work to be willing to be criticized for it, then you have done a good day’s work.
If you don't have 16 minutes to watch this, use the summary by blogger Jeff Zoul that reflects his reasoning.  The dots are the bits of information we expect kids to "learn."  These dots have historically been collected and recorded as grades.   Some of those dots are behavioral, compliance and memorization.  What should we be doing?  Connecting the dots;  ". . . fostering individual exploration, passion, critical thinking, questioning and building interesting things."  Godin predicts 8 things that will be happening in our schools when we teach to make connections, not just to learn.  It would be a chilling vision for a traditional educator.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hiring Season

At NFV this year we have 11 teacher positions to fill.  Due to the TLC creating 4 new positions for Teacher Leadership Roles (TLC), retirements and resignations, we got involved in hiring early, and I am glad we did.  The quality of applicants we found and have been able to interview thus far has been phenomenal.

All of these bright young (or experienced) minds challenge us to think deeply about 3 questions; Why we do what we do,  what skills do we really want from a new employee, and who is most likely to fill our specific expectations?   When we get 2, 3 or 4 excellent educators who want to work at NFV I am thrilled that we have to make a very tough decision.  So lets consider my three questions:

Why do we do what we do?  It personal, its local to NFV and our schools' direction and Core Values.  These values are considered for all of our decisions.  When it comes to hiring they lay the foundation for the characteristics we want from our future employees.  We are hiring assuming someone will be here for the duration and so we consider it a potential 30 year decision.

What do we really want from a new employee?  This is job specific, its a definition of  of what job we need filled, which credentials, experiences and skills are necessary to do this job well?  Credentials are the easy part, screen for the licenses and endorsements required for the position and consider additional credentials
that may add value to our district in the future.

Who is most likely to to fill our specific expectations?  This

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Personalizing Learning

Personalized Learning is becoming an ubiquitous focus in our education settings.  After all we are entering into an era of personalized consumption.  We can shop at thousands of stores through our keyboard, scan and compare 13 versions of that next new thing, be it a cell phone, shoes, golf clubs or even journalists.  I can sit here are read the New York Times as easily as I can the Des Moines Register or the Union.

We have lots of choices in our lives that allow us to buy and consume exactly what we want.  We can all be unique, just like everyone else.  (At one point early in my administrative career that's how a MS principal defined what teenagers want to be.)  But what does it mean to have Personalized Learning?   In an EdWeek article they determine some characteristics of personalization, and its defined best by Susan D. Patrick of iNACOL
Personalized learning in today's schools essentially amounts to the "differentiation" of lessons for students of different skill levels, or efforts to help students move at their own pace. . . and that  personalized learning must also promote "student agency"—basically, giving students more power through either digital tools or other means, accounting for how they learn best, what motivates them, and their academic goals.
 With all the online resources available today, students have a myriad of learning resources to help them navigate their desired path.  As NFV is preparing for a new school year,

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Transportation costs and school funding

A letter to our legislators:

Rural Iowa is on a slippery slope.  The fine folks who live and work in our small communities contribute mightily to the Iowa economic landscape through agricultural production and exports of food and fuel.  Yet, these people are losing influence and relevance in our statehouse every decade.  Our rural population continues to dwindle as young people move to urban areas or other states searching for good paying jobs.  As a result we have fewer and fewer representatives supporting us at every reapportionment.   Please consider yourselves representatives of ALL of Iowa as you consider education funding for our future.

I am very excited to see serious discussion on a form of transportation support for Iowa school districts.  As a shared superintendent, I serve two rural districts who have entered into a whole grade sharing agreement just a year ago.  We are providing education to 1200 rural PK-12 students who populate 300 square miles in 8 different communities of  NE Iowa.   In this sharing agreement we are achieving an economy of scale and improving the opportunities for our students.  But we have also increased our transportation costs by 20% and 45% in these two districts.

North Fayette now spends

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

School Choice Week and Allowable Growth

Its somewhat ironic to me that the Iowa legislature is debating the insultingly low allowable growth rate proposed by Governor Branstad during School Choice Week.  If you read this article, pointedly against the School Choice movement, there is one undeniable fact included.  It is, as Valerie Strauss is quoted, that high achieving education systems of other countries have a distinct advantage;
“It bears mentioning that nations with high-performing school systems—whether Korea, Singapore, Finland, or Japan—have succeeded not by privatizing their schools or closing those with low scores, but by strengthening the education profession. They also have less poverty than we do.”
The irony is in a Marc Jacobs editorial in the Des Moines Register on Sunday.  Jacobs, a former Texan and  Iowa Senate candidate lauds the successes of charter schools, a dubious and often discredited claim.  And in the article he recognizes that Iowa demographics are changing:
Iowa's demographics are also changing. A greater percentage of our students come from low-income households, and we have a growing population of minorities. On average, children in low-income neighborhoods are 2 to 2 ½ grade levels behind their peers in higher-income areas by the time they get to eighth grade.
As a matter of fact he even recognizes that Iowa students aren't doing worse, they are just being outpaced by other states:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Free/Reduced lunch rates in rural Iowa

In this screen capture from the ISFIS mapping tool,  you can watch the growth of free and reduced lunch rates from 2002 - 2014.   Dark blue represents districts with greater than 41% free and reduced.  As you watch these rates grow, you can pick out the suburban and bedroom communities around urban centers by the lack of change.

This is one indicator of poverty rates, which are known to be reflected in student achievement as these students do not get the educational opportunities from home that others might.  How our legislature addresses funding for schools could support schools with high F/R rates, but 1.25% allowable growth will do nothing to support these rural schools, who more often than not are losing money with declining enrollment.


Thanks to Larry Sigel and ISFIS for this great mapping tool.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Iowa Common Core and Statewide Assessments

As I watch the beginnings of the legislative session, its interesting what pops up from time to time.  I am still amazed at the home schooling bills that went through two years ago, virtually eliminating any oversight by school districts.  Hopefully they will see the errors of their ways sometime on that one.

The bill I am concerned with today is Senate File 16 (SF16) which removes requirements that the soon to be chosen statewide assessment program align with Iowa Core standards and key concepts.  I hope that legislators stay committed to the Common Core and an assessment aligned with those standards.  Iowa Common Core elevates rigor and holds teachers accountable.  Its a roadmap to success for students.


I know there are people with misgivings about how Common Core came to be.  The issue, though is if it is good for Iowa Students and teachers.  We see that it is.  When the legislature considers adopting a statewide assessment, I hope that they stick with the Smarter Balanced Assessment that has been recommended by their task force.  It keeps us all on task with Common Core implementation and assessment.  


For resources for parents and teachers about Iowa Common Core, click here.
Staying with a good program is vital to education improvement.  If you get a chance to visit with lawmakers, please support the Iowa Core along with you message for adequate and on-time funding for Iowa schools.  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Iowa legislature Convenes next week

Its that time of year again when our elected officials return to Des Moines for 100 days of legislating.  I had a great conversation with our local Senators and Representatives on Friday at a legislative forum in West Union.  Senators Brian Shoenjahn, Mary Jo Wilhelm, and Micheal Breitbach, along with Representatives Bruce Bearinger, Patti Ruff, and Darrel Branhagen were present.

Of course one of my biggest issues is our Allowable Growth rate, which they now refer to as Supplemental State Aid.  By law the new rate for the 2015-16 school year should have been set last January.  I need to start negotiating with our staffs, making a plan for staffing our schools next year, and certify a budget in the next 90 days.  I hope they act fast on both the FY16 and FY17 growth rate so we don't have to go through this again next year.

More importantly than acting fast though is to provide adequate funding to meet Governor Branstad's goal of returning Iowa to #1 in education. We have fallen behind in student achievement in correlation with our level of per pupil funding compared to other states.


As you can see, Iowa's contribution per pupil has fallen to $1600 less than the national average.  I do not understand how we can set a goal of making Iowa #1 in education when we are approximately #37 in funding.  Yes, the state is making a good contribution to our Teacher Leadership and Compensation plan, but that is categorical funding, inflationary costs in goods and services continue to rise and we need to close this gap in order to avoid cutting staff.



On this next chart you see the correlation.   The Iowa drop in NAEP achievement is actually faster than the drop in per pupil spending.  It also is impacted by our poverty rates.  In 2001 Iowa had 28% of families qualifying for free and reduced lunches.  In 2013, that moves up to 41%.  Its not that these families of Low Socio-economic Status (SES) homes are at fault, but it is a fact that they cannot afford the educational opportunities for their children that everyone else can. Research shows this vocabulary gap impacts rates of learning.  Consider;

  • First-grade children from higher SES groups know about twice as many words as lower SES children (Graves, Brunetti, & Slater, 1982; Graves & Slater, 1987).
These kids need more resources to help them achieve in school.  Our funding gap exacerbates that issue.  Please advocate for a Supplemental State Aid growth that can help us help all students be more successful.  If Iowa is going to compete to be the best they need to level the financial  playing field.