Friday, September 12, 2014

Take the Seeds Along with the Fruit

A teacher with whom I work shared an article with me today, written by Iowa's former Director of Education, Dr. Jason Glass.  He is now the superintendent of Eagle County Schools in Colorado.  In response to the teacher's curiosity about my thoughts on the article, I wrote the following, and thought you (gentle reader) may enjoy hearing them as well.
At the heart of substantial and lasting improvement (and how, indeed, does one decide whether a school needs improving or not, and who is the one doing the deciding?) for me is in his phrase, "Treat educators as professionals."
This is done in a number of important ways.  The most obvious is the wage of a teacher, but modern research has established that more pay alone will not improve student achievement or teacher retention, nor will the promise of a bonus or threat of a cut increase effort.  Actually, these methods have a detrimental effect on employee work habits.
Then, there's the degree to which a teacher is trusted and empowered to be a leader within the organization.  This has more powerful and longer-lasting benefits than just a wage increase.
Also, how are teachers regarded by society at large?  Why don't we we enjoy the same status as doctors or other 'professionals'?  Is it because it is so easy to gain entry into our profession, with far lower standards of base-level quality than many other professions? 
Regarding evaluations as a means to improvement, no, I don't believe a system is improved by quantification alone.  You can't fatten a calf by weighing it.  But, if we're talking professional-quality standards, then physicians, CEOs, and specialists of all types must certainly meet clearly defined quantifiable expectations to remain employed, or even licensed.  So as part of a comprehensive "we ought to be treated like professionals" package, we need to be willing to take the seeds along with the fruit.
The quality of my work as a principal should be judged by our drop out rate, AND our graduation rate, AND our post-secondary success rate, AND the retention rate of employees new to my building, etc...and if those indicators are satisfactory to those who hold me accountable, then pay me a competitive wage and ask me to keep coming back to deliver more of the same.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Students' Reaction to N-K's WIN Intervention Period?

From students at N-K, in a Write-To-Learn assignment for math class, in which they were asked what they thought about our new building-wide intervention period which we call WIN (What I Need) Time:

"I think that WIN time is one the best things that has happened to Northwood-Kensett. It was a great decision. One thing I like about it is that if yourself and a partner have an assignment to do together, WIN time is the perfect opportunity for that. I have nothing bad to say about it. An extra study hall everyday is great. I feel like the desired effect of it is working because of students grades doing better due to more time to get things done. The only thing that could be improved is more WIN time! ;)"

"I believe that WIN time is a good time. It gives me time to work extra homework, or study for a quiz or test. Yes, I believe it is helping, I notice almost everyone in my class working on extra homework. I think it could be improved by putting certain students together, such as those of us in algebra so we can work on harder homework and understand it better."

"I believe that win time will help a lot of the students to do better in school. I have liked win time very much. I think that this time is good because students who are struggling in class can take that time to get the help that they need. I also think it is better for teachers because they get some time to work some one on one with some students."

Friday, September 5, 2014

ACT Scores at N-K Highest in Five Years

Every year, the ACT organization shares the results of our students’ tests with us, compared to state averages.  These tests are designed to measure the skills needed for success in first year college coursework.  This year, as the chart below shows, I’m proud to announce that our students’ scores were not only the highest they’d been in the last five years, but exceeded the state average in every category.

Grad Year

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.