Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Traditional Grading Is Objective, and Other Myths

Tim Westerberg, as heard at the School Administrators of Iowa Conference August 2014

Only 31% of 2011 ACT tested students meet all four benchmarks of success in college.

89% of high school instructors claim their students are college-ready; 26% of college instructors claim their students arrived in a state of college-readiness.

Highly questionable grading practices:
  1. The practice of giving zeroes (in the 100 point system) for work not turned in. (At N-K, we are implementing W.I.N. time as one method to ensure students complete and submit all assigned work; we are also implementing a re-do/re-take policy that allows students to re-assess for a better grade.)
  2. The practice of giving extra credit.
    1. This is typically used to mitigate the negative effect of incomplete work or low grades on regularly assigned work.
  3. The practice of combining academic understanding with citizenship and work habits.
    1. Doing so destroys the validity of the assessments/assignments
  4. The practice of averaging.
    1. By definition, this means the combining of unlike elements.  In N-K's new system that eliminates the averaging of two quarter grades and a semester test grade, if a teacher continues averaging grades at the classroom level this produces equally inaccurate measures of learning and mastery.
  5. The "Semester Killer".
  6. Homework policies that discourage the completion of late/missing work.
    1. This happens when a student earns a zero for late/missing work, and life moves on.
    2. Instead, if all work that teachers assign was important enough to assign, then it's important for all students to do it.  Therefore, when a student does NOT turn in work, there must be an immediate response (which is one of the main goals of N-K's W.I.N. time)
Our current system of grading is definitely NOT objective, due to the varying practices from teacher to teacher.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Sometimes It's Easier Just to Make a List

At the start of each school year, I make it a point to share with stakeholders a list of the district's improvements.  First, it's important to keep people informed of how their tax dollars are being invested, and it also illustrates the fact that--in very tangible ways--we are always moving forward and seeking to do our work in the best way possible.

This school year we have MANY changes to share and be proud of, and sometimes it's easier just to make a list, then explain the highlights later when time and blog space permit!

That being said, as far as infrastructure goes:
  1. New scoreboards at the ball diamonds and in the HS gym
  2. Automated field irrigation at the football practice field and both ball diamonds
  3. Re-poured the cement pad under the home football bleachers to ensure proper drainage
  4. Re-poured many cement entryways to the building to eliminate irregularities
  5. Magnetic hold-open devices installed on classroom doors to support fire safety
  6. New heating/cooling systems in the weight room and wrestling room
  7. Improved and more efficient gym lighting, and new sound systems in both gyms
  8. A new phone, bells, and intercom system 
  9. New MacBook Air laptops for all of our students

For staff, I am proud to introduce:

  1. Miss Ross, our new Family and Consumer Sciences teacher
  2. Mr. Rabinovich, our new physics, chemistry, and junior high science teacher
  3. Mr. Barnes, our new band instructor

Most importantly, I believe, are the changes to the day-to-day instructional program:

  1. The establishment of a building-wide intervention period, called W.I.N. (What I Need) Time.  During this 25 minute daily block, students with incomplete work, struggling grades, or in need of other supports will work in small groups with their teachers to be more successful in the classroom.
  2. Credit recovery in the summer--if a student fails a class, or is unable to meet all the course requirements by the end of the school year, they have the option to attend summer school to earn those academic credits.   This helps to keep a student on track for graduation, rather than falling behind.
  3. Students who show that they can "do better" on a test, quiz, or other assessment will be allowed to re-do or re-take the assessment (in a different form).  If a student wants to put forth extra effort to earn a better grade, how can we say "no" to that?
  4. The establishment of an alternative program, for students who struggle with a chronic lack of achievement.

I'll be sharing more information about the last four items as the year progresses, but for now wanted to communicate to you that Northwood-Kensett is poised for another successful year of student achievement and improvement, and I am excited to be a part of it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

How to Save Money on Your Child's Post-Secondary Education

Last month we talked about the importance of planning for life after high school starting as early as 8th grade, and how you--the parent--are a critical factor in influencing your child to choose courses that are challenging and will help them with their goals for the future.
This month we'll talk about how to pay for a post-secondary education.  Not only do I have the privilege of speaking from my experience as an educator, but as the parent of a college student myself.

Step 1:
Go on college visits, starting in your child's junior year
Doing so not only helps you and your child decide on what they're looking for in a college experience, but also gets you asking informed questions about what it really costs to attend college.

Step 2:
Ask questions about what it really costs to attend college
Seek out friends and co-workers who have sent kids to college.  Talk with them.  Ask our counselor, or ask me, what we know about tuition rates, financial aid, savings plans.  Best of all, ask the colleges themselves.  A couple of calls to their financial aid office will yield a wealth of information that you can use as you make a plan.

Step 3:
Make a plan, with your child, about how their education will be paid for
First of all, there are many options from which to choose, right?  Community college, four-year university, public or private, military first...Those college visits you took in Step 1 will help with this! 
How much of their education will you pay out of your own pocket?  How much do you expect them to pay for themselves, and will they earn that money primarily in the summers, or will they work and go to school at the same time?  I worked full time while attending my last three years of college--it was not much fun, but it sure cut down on the amount of debt I burdened myself with.

Step 4:
When making your plan for funding this investment, come at it from the perspective of, "How can we do this with as little debt as possible?"
Don't let your child make this mistake:  "Well when I graduate I'm going to be a doctor/lawyer/movie star, and I'll be able to easily pay off any loans."  That is just plain wrong thinking.
Instead of focusing on ways to pay for an education, think about ways to reduce the cost up front.  Encourage your child to test out of lower level college classes before they take them--boom, there's hundreds of dollars savings.  Encourage your child to take carefully selected PSEO courses in high school--hundreds more dollars saved.  Perhaps living at home and attending a local community college works well at first--thousands of dollars in savings. 

Step 5:
Meet or beat all deadlines. 
First of all, unless you're going to write a single check to pay for a full year of tuition, meals, and lodging, you must complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  The earliest you can complete it is January 1 of the year in which your child starts (or continues) their education. 
My advice from personal experience?  Set an alarm for January 1 and complete it that day!  You'll only be able to use financial estimates because your taxes won't be done yet, but getting the first draft of that FAFSA completed early puts your son or daughter in line for financial aid.  The later you complete the form, the farther back in line you go.
Hopefully you and your child will be actively scrounging the internet for scholarship opportunities--those all have deadlines, too.  My son missed out on a potential scholarship from ISU because we started looking in March, but that particular scholarship had a February deadline.

Step 6 (the most important, and it starts TODAY, no matter how young the child is)
Your child should always take challenging courses, work hard, keep their nose clean, and pursue a variety of experiences as a high school student.
This develops habits of a strong work ethic, the ability to interact successfully with a variety of people, effective time management, and decision-making skills.  All of these increase scholarship eligibility, and are qualities that support a successful entry into life after high school.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Failure to Prepare Is Preparation for Failure

It isn't a surprise to any of us adults that young people are being asked to start thinking about life after high school at an earlier age than we were, is it?  I sure didn't do any career planning in 8th grade back in 1984.  I was probably too busy enjoying my newest Men at Work record or learning how to roll my jeans.

But, now things are different. Our counselors start conversations with our students in upper elementary about planning for the future and setting goals, and they really start digging into post-high school thinking in 8th grade.  

The state of Iowa requires that all students have a four year plan on file, refresh it at least annually, and that parents approve of this plan.  Here at N-K we began this work well before the state made it a requirement, and our students certainly benefit from this pre-planning.

As a small school, we face a challenge--how do we offer the education each of our student's need, when their needs can be so different?  We have met this challenge head on, and offer a full and varied curriculum.  From vocational coursework in FCS, Ag, Business, or Industrial Tech to the fine arts to multiple levels of course offerings in the core areas, Northwood-Kensett provides an education I'd stack up against a bigger school any day.

And in those areas where our older students need even more courses than we can provide on site, our instructional technology provides instant access to numerous college courses.  Or, students can spend half their day at NIACC earning a degree in the automotive industry along with a high school diploma, for example.

With all of these opportunities available throughout high school, you can see why careful planning starting in 8th grade becomes important.  And because our goals change as we get older, we re-visit those plans at least once a year with students.  I remember when I was once a biology major in college, before changing my goal to instead become an English teacher.  I'm sure you've experienced similar changes in your adult life.

During registration season at N-K, which occurs right now, start a conversation with your student about the courses they plan on pursuing, and ask them, "Why?"  Learn more about their goals, help shape and guide them through your influence as an important adult in their life.  These are important decisions.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Policy Changes Coming to N-K HS

At this month's board meeting, I'll be sharing some plans with the school
board about some changes we'll be making at the secondary building
with respect to our grading policies and practices, and about providing a
significant intervention resource for students.

First, the adjustments we plan on making to our grading policies and
practices. At a recent student council meeting, the council members
endorsed the change in our grading scale this year, saying they thought it
had worked well. We had raised the bar for what it takes to earn an A, a
B, a C, etcetera and their opinion was that students rose to meet this

I'll be proposing a policy change in our handbook that increases the
emphasis on the learning that occurs when a student does an assignment,
and focuses less on the common practice of having only one chance to
demonstrate learning. In this new policy, students can work with their
teachers to re-do assignments or re-take tests if they want to earn a better

Second, if a teacher assigns work for students to complete for class, they
assign it because it's important. If it's important, then every student must
complete it. But not every student completes every assignment,
correct? So, which approach better supports student achievement: A)
giving the student a zero and moving on, or B) requiring the student to
complete that assignment right away?

The correct answer is B, of course. To make sure this happens, we are
building a two-part system into our day next year. Part One is to provide
an additional period during the day in which all teachers are available to
help students who need it, and to supervise this time so that all students
have at least 25 minutes to do school work. Part Two is to create a
system that alerts teachers to students who have not completed their work
and require those students to be in a structured study hall where their
only task is to finish what's been assigned to them.

What will this look like in real life? Well, if I'm a student with decent
grades and my work is all turned in, then I spend those 25 minutes with
my classmates in the lunchroom or the library, for example. We might
be doing homework in small groups, visiting with one another, or
catching up on e-mails.

If I'm a student with D's and F's or my work is not turned in, then I'm in a
very small, structured study hall where my only job is to complete the
work I don't have finished.

This resource time is becoming a more common element in schools
across the state, and across the nation, as some students become busier in
their after school activities and need more time to keep up with their
studies, while other students fall further and further behind due to factors
such as uninvolved parents and a lack of motivation.

Please let me know your thoughts on these ideas. I would love to hear them
and talk through our students' learning together.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Coke Guy Test

There is a test that I know all schools endure, day in and day out.  A test that all conscientious principals not only want to pass, but ace.  I call it the Coke Guy Test.

I used to call it the Pepsi Guy Test, but then we switched soft drink providers.  Here's how the test works: 
  1. The Coke Guy shows up to stock the pop machines, check the money boxes, and leave a supply of pop for the Booster Club's concession stand. 
  2. He does this at lunch time, when the lunch room is filled with talkative, active, at-their-most-relaxed-and-natural-state teenagers.
  3. This means he inevitably has to move through small pockets of students with his cart, has to leave the money bag lying on the floor while he fumbles with his large key ring, has to find a way to keep the main door propped open while he trucks in dozens of pop bottles.
The test is this:  What does the Coke Guy say about your students when he leaves the invoice in the office on his way out?

Will he drop off the invoice, mutter a brief "thanks" and scuttle out the door, as if he's trying to get out before anything worse happens?  Or, will he take a minute to let the secretary know how friendly the kids were, and how they visited with him while he was in the lunch room and offered to hold the door for him? 

I thought about this test recently, sitting with a team of teachers who were helping interview candidates for a teaching vacancy at our school.  Toward the end of the interview, one candidate began asking questions of the teachers, questions like, "What do you want students to have learned when they graduate?" and, "What do you enjoy most about working at N-K?"

This was it:  a variation on the Coke Guy Test.  What would my teachers say to this person about our school?  Would they be honest, while I was in the same room with them?  Should I leave so they could fully disclose their true feelings? 

When someone from the outside world experiences what life is like in our school, it gives principals a chance to see--through a fresh set of eyes--how things are going.  Are our kids as friendly as I think they are?  Are our staff as helpful and cooperative as they seem to me?  Does our school shine with as much optimism and achievement as I think it does? 

And then it came.  The teachers answered, truthfully.  "We're blessed with good kids.  The parents in the community, and the community as a whole, support our school.  They want to help.  Most of our staff have been here a long time--they raise their families here.  We support and look out for one another, and want what's best for our students.  We are encouraged to try new things, to take risks if it helps learning."

It was affirming when I heard what they had to say.  No day is perfect, but most of them come pretty close, if one maintains the right attitude.  Cooperatively, daily, we are working together to get the highest grade possible on The Test, because doing so means that we are successfully maintaining an environment in which good character and right treatment of one another is the norm.

So when I heard what these teachers had to say, I smiled.  Isn't that what everyone does when they look at the test they just got back and see an "A" at the top?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

It Only Makes Sense--Re-dos and Re-takes

“What do you mean, you can’t cross the white line of a crosswalk at a stop sign?!”

I couldn’t believe it.  I’d waited for years (it seemed), taken boring driver’s ed classes, crashed my way through the driving simulation videos, and finally the day of the test to earn my driver’s license had arrived.

I paid my dues.  I did my time.  And then, sadly, during the driving portion of my test for my license I crossed the white crosswalk line as I pulled up to a stop at an intersection.  That cost me three more points from my score, which dropped me below the “passing” mark by one point.

No license for me.

Yet, those of you who know me have seen me drive that ugly brown pickup of mine around town--how can this be?  I failed my driver’s test!  Why am I driving today?

Because every day, in the real world, we have the opportunity to take tests over again until we get it right.  I went back two weeks later, passed the test the second time around, and now have my driver’s license.

A similar scenario could play out in the classroom:  the chapter test is on Friday.  I take the test, and when I get back to school on Monday I learn that I failed the test.  I got an F.  Traditionally, that is the grade that would be recorded in my teacher’s grade book.

But, what if I told the teacher that I’d like a second crack at that test, and that this time I would prepare for it differently?  If you were that teacher, what would you say?

Thankfully, modern educational thought supports my request to take the test again (a different version, of course), for a number of reasons:

  • I want to improve my results, which means I’ll need to do an even better job of learning the material.  That’s a good thing, right?
  • It will take hard work on my part, since I’ll be preparing for the test again AND keeping up on the work that’s already occurring.  Working hard is good, too, isn’t it?
  • I’m focused on what’s most important:  learning and improvement.  That’s much better than having to live with an F and trying to raise my grade with subsequent assignments.

Just like when I re-took my driving test to eventually earn my license, more and more teachers are providing the opportunity for re-dos and re-takes for their students.  It only makes sense.